Article & Photos by URGGuide Field Editor Ryan Michelle Scavo
Temperatures and weather conditions are wide-ranging on a fall or winter day in Rio Grande country; from 45 degrees and sunny to single digits and snowing, and even to sub-zero temps (and everything in between). While you’re playing and exploring the area, prepare yourself and kids by packing the right gear.
Consider this list of gear to bring along on your winter outings around Rio Grande country:
Base Layers – not all layers are created equal. Starting with a thermal base layer (i.e., long underwear and socks) – the first layer you put on before going outside – is the key to success. When packing a warm base layer, use materials like wool or synthetic polyester. The age old adage “cotton kills” has a cold history. Cotton absorbs and holds moisture like sweat and melted snow. Other natural fibers like wool or synthetic polyester garments (like Patagonia’s Capilene products) draw (wick) moisture away from the skin and allow it to evaporate faster – keeping the wearer drier, longer.
Mid-layer – Layering is a great option for ranging temperatures and weather conditions. After starting with a base layer, consider adding a vest or moisture-wicking shirt. The trick to staying warm and dry outside is two fold. First, wearing moisture-wicking base layers and mid layers will ensure perspiration is pulled from your body to evaporate off the fabric, ultimately keeping you dry from the inside out. Second, adding a mid-layer will help keep provide your body with extra warmth (under an outer layer) or allow it to cool cool (without an outer layer) in various conditions.
Outerwear – Now it’s time to keep the elements out. Outer layers include insulated jackets with natural down or synthetic fill and/or a waterproof shells (jacket and pants). By having a range of options, you will be prepared for varied temperatures (thanks to the down/synthetic layer) and precipitation (with the waterproof jacket and/or pants).
Waterproof Boots/Shoes & Gaiters – Warm feet are critical for having fun on chilly winter days. Make sure to start with a good moisture wicking sock and then look for shoes and boots that have waterproof material (like internal membranes or outer waterproof layer). If hiking in snow, consider adding a gaiter to the mix. Gaiters are worn over shoes and the lower parts of pants to help keep the wearer dry and protect from abrasive surfaces (e.g., bushes, rocks, etc.).
Accessories – Gloves/mittens (waterproof and moisture-wicking), beanies, scarves, and sunglasses/goggles will keep you warm and protected from the wind and persistent Colorado sun. Consider packing extras since accessories like these are easy to misplace! Also remember sunscreen and lip balm – these provide extra protection from sunny, windy, and dry conditions.
Camera – Nowadays, image quality and resolution can be great on a cell phone. However, if you’re a traditionalist, the added weight of a DSLR or mirrorless digital camera can be worth it. For some, documenting a drive to the store via Snapchat and an entire once-in-a-lifetime Colorado high country trip are equally important. Consider bringing along a camera so when the memories fade, you can be reminded of the good times you had over and over again with each swipe!
Backpack/Hip Pack & All the “Essentials” – a sturdy and generous-sized pack (think 10L+ for lumbar and 30L+ for backpack) will carry all the essentials (water, snacks, extra accessories, extra layers, camera) and the best part about it is there are so many Colorado-based companies to choose from. Mountainsmith, Topo Designs, and so many more offer quality gear at reasonable prices, all out of Colorado. Do some online research to find the best pack for you. Outer water bottle holders, map and goggle pockets, and straps for quick access to layers are some of the key features in today’s packs, along with being made of waterproof and abrasion-resistant materials.
Skis & Snowboards – winter in the San Juans means a plethora of skiing and snowboarding opportunities! If these are your activities of choice, you can bring your own or rent downhill skis, cross-country skis, snowboards, boots and helmets for all activities in Alamosa at Kristi Mountain Sports or in South Fork at 8200 Mountain Sports, Rocky Mountain Ski & Raft or on the Rio Grande National Forest/Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Ski Area.
Ski Skins – if you’re planning to work your way upslope with skis, bring along skins. Skins stick to the bottom of cross country and downhill (telemark or AT) skis and provide traction for “skinning” uphill. Upon reaching the top, skiers can then remove skins, and ski downhill, allowing you to cross-country ski or downhill ski fresh lines in the backcountry!
Snowshoes – Snowshoeing is a great winter activity that keeps you active and allows you to hike into snowy places skis can not always access. Manufacturers have a wide-range of snowshoes, from classic wood and leather binding models to ultra-light cross-country running models. Determine your activity (casual hike, trail running, etc.) and do some online research to find the best snowshoe for you.
Poles – Whether you’re skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing, having a rigid or retractable pole provides stability while moving and if you fall, a firm surface to use when trying to pick yourself up from a fall in deep snow (simply criss-cross the poles on top of the snow and push your body back into an upward position).
Snowmobiles – The Rio Grande National Forest offers snowmobiling areas near the towns of Creede, Del Norte, and South Fork, as well near the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass. For those looking to rent sleds, outfitters can be found online. Additionally, for more detials on snowmobiling-friendly trails, visit the RGNF website (https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/riogrande/recreation/wintersports/?recid=28882&actid=92).
Avalanche Gear – If traveling in the backcountry, always bring a buddy (more multiple friends!) and make sure everyone has avalanche equipment and a working knowledge of how to use it in case of an emergency. Shovel, probe, beacon (with extra batteries) are the essential items to have when traveling in avalanche terrain. Additional equipment like an avalung or air bag packs are also available from manufacturers. Do your research and understand the terrain you’re exploring. While avalanches are most common on slopes between 24-45 degrees, they can and have happened in areas outside that range. Read the avy report from Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC – http://avalanche.state.co.us/) before venturing out.
Kids Gear – Thinking about bringing young ones along? Better pack a sled or purchase one locally. And for those of you looking to ski with the little ones, consider a ski-equipped kid carrier, like a Thule Chariot (pictured) or Burley We! Ski. Additionally, several companies make kid-carrier backpacks, like the Deuter Kid Comfort. These packs are built to carry gear and a toddler while exploring the outdoors!
However you spend your days in Rio Grande country and wherever your outdoor activities take you, by packing the right gear and bringing along the right tools for the job, you’re sure to have a good time!