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February 6, 2016

Winter Backpacking: White River Canyon

For my first winter backpacking trip, two friends with experience at snow camping offered to take me and another friend to give it a try and see if we liked it. We chose a location that would be easy, Mount Hood’s White River SnoPark, and we waited for a weekend with good weather. We wanted a clear night for views of the mountain, warm temps overnight, and no rain. We found the perfect combo in early February and headed out.

winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon

Arriving at the White River SnoPark is always a bit like going to an amusement park. The parking lot is full of families with kids running around with sleds, setting up canopies and chairs for viewing the activities. The first quarter mile of trail is busy, with people in all directions. About a half mile in is a large hill, just large enough to leave behind the people who aren’t used to outdoor exercise, but not so hard to keep throngs of snowshoers, snowboarders, and cross-country skiers from going farther. Views of Mount Hood loom in front of you as you continue on the trail towards Boy Scout Ridge. Now well above the White River, the canyon walls rise gradually until there is a quite a steep distance between the trail and the river, and the terrain is now rolling with an open mixed evergreen forest.

winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon

We snowshoed in about 1-1/4 miles, and chose a campsite in a clearing to the left of and away from the trail. Finding a suitable flat spot in the snow was not easy, especially since off-trail, post-holing up to your knees when you took your snowshoes off made for difficult moving around.

I don’t have a four-season tent, so I’m sharing with a friend who has a Mountain Hardwear Tangent 2.  Once you decide on a spot for your tent, the first step is to mark out the area with snowshoes on, stamping the ground all to make it firmer and flat. Attempt to make the area as level as possible. Lying on a lumpy and sloped surface can greatly compromise how much sleep you’ll get, especially if your head is at the low end of the slope. Having a shovel with a flat edge is helpful for skimming the surface of the snow to make it level. Some people like to dig out a pit next to each tent vestibule so you can sit in the tent with your legs extended to put on you boots and snowshoes. We ended up making the pit too big, coming up under the tent floor. This created a strong “I’m sliding out of the tent” effect… not exactly the desired outcome. The pit was also too slick, causing my feet to slide each time I tried to enter the tent. We ended up starting over in a new spot and didn’t dig vestibule pits.

winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon

One of my friends created a camp kitchen in a small tree well, carving a rounded bench into the snow for us to gather in to cook and eat our meals. Every one of us brought a stove, but they were all different types, so it was interesting to see how each handled the colder conditions. I brought my Jetboil Minimo, which I use as my cookpot and bowl. I’ve heard that in cold weather, Jetboils can’t be relied on, but mine did fine. It lit on the first try with the piezo, and it heated the water fast, just like in summer. When I ran out of water, I filled it with snow and it melted it a lot faster than I was expecting. If I had known that, I might not have carried 3-1/2 liters of water (almost 8 pounds!) with me.

winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon

After we finished setting up camp, we snowshoed to the base of Boy Scout Ridge for views of Mount Hood. There were plenty of people around, but as the sun went down, most of the people left. There were others camping in the area, but we couldn’t see them from our campsite.

winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon

In the morning, I got up early to catch the sunrise colors on the mountain. Overall, this was a great (and easy) first snow camping experience.

winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon winter backpacking at the White River Canyon

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