Q&A – Thru Hiking The SHT in Winter (with a hammock)
The Superior Hiking Trail, or SHT, is a foot trail—listed as more than 290 miles long—located in Northeastern Minnesota that skirts the northern shore of Lake Superior. The SHT’s popularity is due in part to its numerous access points (one every 5-10 miles), but hikers more often rave about the breathtaking scenery, roaring waterfalls, and abundant wildlife.
A friend of mine, Trevor Rasmussen, recently completed a snow shoe thru hike on the SHT in the winter using a hammock, which is arguably the first attempt recorded. I finally caught up with Trevor to ask him about this epic undertaking.
ABOUT THE SHT
Trevor, first off, this isn’t your first hike on the Superior Hiking Trail. What drew you to this trail? What other adventures have you ad on the SHT?
When I was in Alaska, I really enjoyed hiking and wanted to get back into it when I moved here to Montana. After searching the internet, I discovered “Shug Emery’s” videos about his adventures on the SHT and it inspired me to have some of my own.
What inspired you to attempt the SHT, of all things, in the winter?
I really wanted to do a trip that was out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. I had researched winter backpacking a lot and every article I read stated a similar obstacle… the quiet solitude. To try and fix that issue, I got my Siberian Husky “Tala” to keep me company.
ABOUT LONG-DISTANCE HIKING
How many miles did you complete and how long did it take you?
The first 40 miles of the SHT doesn’t allow camping and is strictly for day hiking. So, I started in Duluth and ended up on the Canadian border for a total of 245 miles.
What did you do to prepare for hiking and camping in sub-freezing temperatures day after day?
My dog “Tala” and I go on day hikes every morning to prepare physically. We will always hike off trail to get the practice in breaking snow and we also will find any elevation and continuously hike up and down for more training.
To prepare for the deep cold nights, we would do a lot of local hangs to give us proper practice close to home.
What would you recommend to others attempting a thru in the winter?
Backpacking in winter is much different than in the 3 other seasons. You have to be on your “A” game all the time or the results can be terrible. Everything you do is work and more difficult in winter and you should practice skills before going out there for a long period of time. Things like getting water, building a fire and controlling your sweat output to name a few.
Also, prepare yourself mentally for the solitude, quiet and difficulty while out in the snow as it’s harder than you may think. The 14-hour nights and hiking day after day without seeing anyone can be really tough. Take it one day at a time.
I’ve always been interested in doing a long-distance hike and I’m curious about the day-to-day details. What is your typical morning routine? Do you stop for breaks? What about the evening routines?
Tala wakes me up every morning and I start my day when she’s ready to go. Whether it’s 4 AM or 7 AM, she’s the boss. I eat breakfast while breaking down camp, which is usually a bar type (protein/granola bar) meal I’ve kept warm in my jacket pocket at night and feed Tala a peanut butter dog treat. Once we hit the trail we will hike all day taking a 30 minute break to relax and check our feet. I set an alarm for 5 PM which reminds me at that moment I need to start looking for a place to make camp. I would then make a campfire to dry my gear, melt snow and it also gave me a “backwoods TV” during those long 14-hour nights.
How did you work out food and water?
Food wasn’t too much different than 3-season hiking as I just had to be careful that I didn’t bring anything that freezes. For example, the caramel in Snickers and Twix makes the candy rock hard and difficult to eat. Staying hydrated in winter is more difficult than 3-season because you don’t feel the affects of dehydration as easily in winter. For water, I would use my campfire at night to melt snow and drink 1.5 liters of warm water before bed. I would then fill up my Nalgene with hot water and sleep with it. Not only does that help me stay warm at night, but it also helps prevent it from freezing. Before I head out for the trail in the morning, I will drink as much water as possible, melt more snow with my stove and then head out for the trail. Doing this method helped me conserve on fuel to where I would only use an average of 3oz of white gas per day.
ALL ABOUT GEAR
We passed ideas back and forth prior to your hike about vapor barriers (VB). Did you end up using a VB? What did you use? How did it work?
Yes, I was really happy with the results of my RBH designs vapor barrier clothing and I believe using them really helped to manage moisture in sub-freezing temperatures. Having the ability to prevent moisture from permitting through my clothes and control my sweat output is ideal for backpacking in winter.
Winter camping typically requires extra gear for insulation, cooking, food, etc., but you went lightweight. What was your typical pack weight? What were you carrying?
All of my gear not including consumables came out to a little under 23 lbs and practicing beforehand really helped me with lowering my pack weight. For example, having proper fire skills made it so I didn’t need as much fuel to melt snow and using vapor barrier liners amplified my insulation.
My clothing consisted of a 3 part top and bottom system.
- Base layers (long underwear, merino wool long sleeve shirt, and compression shorts),
- Vapor barriers (pants, jacket, and socks)
- Down insulation (jacket and pants)
For a stove I used a MSR international with white gas for fuel.
I’m sure a lot of people aren’t going to like this, but I chose not to bring a knife for this trip and instead brought a 7oz folding saw. I was really happy with this decision because it made making fires much easier and also cutting up the pine boughs for Tala’s bed.
Your videos are a blast to watch, especially from the comfort of home. What equipment do you use to capture your photos and videos?
Haha Thanks for watching. I use 3 pieces of gear while out on the trail. My camera which is a Canon 960is, my ultrapod and a stick pic. I find that I can get most shots with those items and still keep it light.
You were your own video crew. How did you plan and set up the shots?
The filming part for me is the most fun. I don’t really plan anything before hand and usually come up with ideas while I hike. One thing in particular that I like to include in my videos is my emotions. If I see a nice view or something interesting happened I will film it immediately to capture how I’m feeling at the time. Along with the “highs” of a trip, I always try to include the lows.” Like when I lost my cousin in the woods and had to search for hours at night for him or when I’m just so sick of the cold and snow and want to get home.
Let’s talk hammocks. A lot of people would consider it crazy to sleep in a tent in the winter, let alone a hammock. Why did you choose a hammock as your primary shelter?
I wanted to show people that a hammock can be used not only in winter, but as a light weight shelter for backpacking. Hammock insulation has come a long way in recent years and I was always toasty warm at night.
Tell me more about the hammock gear you brought with you. What did you bring and why?
Before this trip I went through many different types of gear and there was a lot of trial error. Because I was backpacking, weight was a concern so using things like a hammock sock would have been impractical for the trail.
My hammock was the easy part. It was a simple D.I.Y. hammock that I made with 1.1 ripstop.
For insulation, I ended up going with a top quilt and full length under quilt from Hammockgear.com. They both were made with a light weight wind resistant fabric called M50 on the outside and 10d on the inside. Using those fabrics helped prevent the cold winds from sucking the warmth out of my insulation and helped keep the weight down on my quilts.
I decided to go with a custom cuben tarp again from Hammockgear.com It had a 12′ ridgeline and doors on one side. The reason for the doors only on one side is that it gave an opening for my dog to walk out of and then she wouldn’t pull the guylines.
Did you have any problems finding a suitable camping spot for your hammock?
Finding a campsite in Minnesota is pretty easy as there is always a suitable amount of trees and the only factors to consider is my dog is a ground sleeper. But, over all I usually found one within 15 minutes.
ABOUT WINTER TREKKING
As your hike progressed, you faced colder temperatures, blizzards, and heavy snowfalls that impacted your ability to progress. How did you deal with the changing environment? How did it impact Tala’s hiking?
Fortunately the cold wasn’t that much of an issue as my gear and training before hand really helped out with that. The deep snow on the other hand, was really tough at times. When the snow got beyond 2.5′ deep, I had to put Tala behind me which made it very hard to hike. She would walk so close to me that she would step on my snow shoes and in order to prevent that, I had to hold one of my trekking poles behind me so she would keep her distance. It was like hiking with a handicap.
How did you regulate your body temperature while hiking? Was sweat a problem?
Regulated sweat output took a lot of practice before starting this trip. The trick was to make sure I was always a little bit cold while I was moving to make sure I wasn’t sweating. I was never uncomfortable, but I would have that tingly feeling that comes with being chilly.
My vapor barrier clothing had a series of zippers on them that helped me vent when needed and I would use those to regulate my body temperature. Also, changing my excursion levels helped a lot as well and hiking really hard or slowing things down did the trick great.
You trekked primarily in snowshoes. Would cross country skis be possible? Why or why not?
Unfortunately cross country skis wouldn’t work on the SHT. There are too many downed trees and tight turns to make them effective which is why I went with the traditional “Slow”shoe method.
Did you use any personal beacon on your trek? How effective was it and do you recommend it?
I carried a SPOT tracker with me for the first few days, but ended up sending it home because it became unreliable. I would recommend it for 3 season hiking, but for winter it just wasn’t worth carrying on my pack.
ALL ABOUT TALA
Besides your Husky, did you have any support along the trail?
I did meet some great folks in town and having a conversation was simply amazing after not seeing anyone for a few days.
My girlfriend is always incredibly supportive and is a big reason why this trip was a success. Also, I would read posts and e-mails from people when I had the chance and the positive things they said were great motivation to keep going.
Speaking of your dog Tala, will you tell us about the situation that pulled you unexpectedly off the trail.
At the start of our walk we kept coming across deer carcasses on the trail. I didn’t think too much of it because we were out in the woods after all.
While we were hiking I started noticing blood in Tala’s urine and her gait was a little off. Later, she stopped, sat down and when she turned and looked at me she just fainted. It was a horrible feeling. We quickly got off the trail and I got her to the vet. The vet said that she had minor anti-freeze poisoning and it could of been from hunters/poachers who put it on deer carcasses to catch wolves/coyotes. We’re not sure if that is exactly how it happened, but I’m just glad she was ok. Fortunately she made a full recovery and was reading to continue the journey.
What do you recommend for anyone else attempting to bring a dog along the SHT in the winter?
Keep an eye on your pup and learn to read their body language and needs. Having booties or musher’s wax can prevent them from getting snow balls between their toes and making a bed for them at night can prevent arthritis in the future. I don’t think there is a better companion for the trail than a dog and I really hope people bring their dogs out there with them.
This was a crazy, historic trek and you should be proud of your accomplishment. Looking back, what are your reflections? What would you do differently, if anything? Would you do this winter hike again?
Thank you Derek.
It really does feel good to be finished and looking back I am glad I did it because I think I proved what I set out to do.
I was really happy that all my gear worked perfect and I would pretty much keep everything the same besides a few tweaks.
I probably wouldn’t do this trip again. Things are different in winter and after being out there for so long I realized that things were harder than I thought they would be. I was so concerned about the cold and snow that I didn’t take into account the mental challenges. The long nights especially were really hard to get through and not seeing anyone on the trail was a bit different than I’m used to.
Adventurer Andrew Skurka has a great way of putting a trip like this. It’s “Type 2 fun – Which is not fun to do, but fun to talk about later.” Winter is really hard and you have to take it one day at a time because it is work to be out there. Everything from getting water to climbing over a steep mountain is very difficult and can get frustrating. But, you’ll have these moments out there where your sitting on top of a ridge with your best friend next to you and you just sit and enjoy the view. That is why we do it.