Depending on where you live, and how you approach the season, winter can mean many things to endurance athletes. For some, trails remain open and accessible, for others, deep snow and deeper freezes change everything. This article will explore a few of the techniques and special pieces of equipment that can help make winter adventures safer and more fun.
I can’t stand the treadmill. Sorry, I just can’t do it. And the thought of being sequestered to road running for six or more months of a Laramie, Wyoming winter is equally maddening. I need to get out there, into the woods, even when it’s brutal. The problem is that the snow can get deep, the temperatures can plummet, winds howl, and empty spaces of Wyoming are even emptier. Last weekend a buddy and I completed a three-hour run through areas that had knee-deep snow. It was an incredible workout and a great adventure, but something we both kept in mind was the possibility of injury. Out here, hours from the car, injury could rapidly lead to an emergency situation. Hypothermia and frostbite are real dangers, unless you take care of yourself and have the proper equipment. So what did I carry on this three-hour outing? Let’s take a look at what I and some others do in the winter.
The basic idea is to run cold and keep sweat to a minimum. For me, that is easier said than done. Whatever layering system I end up using for the day, I always bring a wind jacket and pants, warm hat, gloves, wind mitts, and a fleece neck gaiter. While training for the Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultra I learned that in very cold conditions, any sweat will flash freeze when you stop, so some form of insulated jacket has become an important part of my winter pack. Mont-Bell and other companies make ultra-lightweight synthetic filled coats that compress into a very small package. A duffel bag in the car contains a complete set of dry clothing that I can change into when done with my adventure.
For most of my winter outings, regular running shoes work for me, with the addition of neoprene socks and trail gaiters. The neoprene socks are a key component to keeping my feet dry and relatively warm. The gaiters keep snow out of my shoes and add a bit of insulation. In the winter I prefer gaiters that have the cord that slips under the foot. If running or trudging in deep powder, the velcro-tab style running gaiters don’t create a good enough seal to keep snow out. In really cold conditions I have added an outer neoprene cover to the shoe, like the Crescent Moon Booties. If the trail is slick packed snow and ice, I’ll add traction devices, like Kahtoola MicroSpikes, which easily stretch over the rest of my system.
OK, so I admit that I carry a substantial amount of gear compared to many other runners, but I feel that any less would be unsafe. I emptied my pack after that three-hour snow run and it contained: extra calories that I keep in reserve, a mylar bivy sack, a small survival kit with chemical hand-warmers, a whistle, a small fire-making kit, duct tape, basic first-aid and blister supplies, a bit of toilet paper, a folding knife (a real one, not a toy), a headlamp (because the sun sets so quickly in the winter), and lip balm. On longer outings I’ll carry more. Sometimes much more, like a stove and a sleeping bag pulled in a pulk sled behind me, but that is for really long stuff! Speaking of really long stuff, Ray Zahab explained that “During our 33+ day trek to the South Pole and our 13 day run across Lake Baikal in Siberia, Kevin Vallely and I were completely unsupported, meaning we had to bring everything with us. We bring many items to help us – including obvious items such as warm clothing/sleeping gear, high calorie foods and a reliable tent. I would have to say the most important gear we bring is a “second” stove. You don’t want to be left in the cold without a stove for days on end!” I also asked Pierre Ostor, a veteran ultra-endurance runner and cyclist in Alaska and former race director of the Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultra, what specialty items he carries in winter. He replied “A distress flair, a 10 inch knife and a photo of my wife just in case things don’t work out on the trail.” Now that’s planning!
When the temperatures plummet, keeping your water from freezing becomes difficult and can lead to a life or death situation. When your water supply freezes, you stop drinking, become dehydrated and then hypothermia starts it’s slow and potentially deadly crawl into your body. I know this from experience. So what can you do to help prevent your water from freezing? It greatly depends on how cold it is and how long you’ll be out. If you are using a waist belt with bottles, fill them with warm water, make sure they don’t leak, and then keep them nozzle down. Wear the pack under your coat. In a reservoir-based system, water is especially susceptible to freezing in the mouthpiece and tube. When I winterize my pack, I start by adding the CamelBak Thermal Kit, which includes a thin neoprene tube-cover and a heavy insulator for the mouthpiece. Then I add a homemade cordura/thinsulate tube insulator over the top. Once the temperatures get into the single digits I’ll tuck the mouthpiece into my coat, against my warm chest. If it gets colder, I’ll wear the entire contraption under my coat. As long as I drink often, to keep the water moving, this setup has worked well in temperatures to minus 30 (f). Pierre reports that he has tried insulated CamelBak and bottle options but has opted to go with a heavier Thermos. “I never even had slush in them, liquids stay hot for 8 hours, warm for another 5 hours.” Ray mentioned that “on my long training runs I use Gatorade with a customized higher sodium content. Mixed with hot water to start, it lasts longer. Last year when Kevin and I were on expedition in Siberia it was so cold that even a Thermos would freeze solid after several hours. So drink plenty before heading out!” Being hydrated BEFORE you start a winter training run is a great idea.
You don’t have to be running the Arrowhead, adventuring in Alaska, or on an expedition through Siberia to experience the thrill and chill of winter. You can find yourself in trouble right here in your own backyard. The list of what you carry should grow from this simple question: If I was injured anywhere along my planned running route and had to walk slowly back to the car, or had to sit and wait for help to arrive, would I be able to keep from succumbing to hypothermia or frostbite?