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Gear Testers Share Their Coolest Winter 2021 Adventure Stories

The best tales from the latest Winter Gear Guide testing cycle

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Testing for Backpacker‘s Winter Gear Guide is a months-long process. Our editors and category managers criss-cross the country’s snowy regions in search of rough weather, epic trips, and insightful product feedback. Along the way, they get into all types of adventures (and, sometimes, predicaments). Here are a few of our favorite anecdotes from this past winter’s testing cycle.

Eli Bernstein, Gear Editor

When I think of memorable winter testing, it usually involves struggling against blowing snow, or gasping for air as I skin uphill, or a combination of the two. But sometimes, it’s just pure fun. On the night of a full moon last winter, I joined a group of fellow backcountry skiers on Teton Pass outside Jackson, Wyoming. The sky was cloudless and bright, and the moon lit up Jackson Hole to the east as we skinned for a few minutes and then skied down a mellow ridge a couple hundred feet. This was the testing part of the trip: The thermometer hovered around 0°F, and I wore some baselayers and a puffy I was taking notes on. (Spoiler: They were slightly inadequate for the cold that night.) Once we got off the ridge, though, the fun started. The leader of this expedition had dug out a fire pit in the snow earlier, and we spent the next three hours impervious to the frigid conditions thanks to a roaring campfire and good company. Once it got late we skied the rest of the way down the pass, with me longing for the warmth of the fire all the while as my face froze and my eyes watered.

Corey Buhay, Packs Category Manager

I spent three days ice climbing in the notoriously wild valley surrounding the North Fork of the Shoshone River in Wyoming. It wasn’t cold or windy, but warm temps left the ice dripping—which meant we were soaked almost as soon as we started climbing. That made for good hardshell testing, and it definitely put our gloves to the test. I must have gone through three pairs a day. 

skiing selfie
Senior Digital Editor Adam Roy, mid-test (Photo: Adam Roy)

Adam Roy, Digital Editor

You wouldn’t normally think of Lincoln, Nebraska as a place of climatic extremes. But when a snowstorm hit the town while I was visiting family, I decided to buckle on my Nordic skis and take a nighttime jaunt around the local trails. Only problem: It was -10°F, not counting the wind chill. Keeping a high tempo took most of the chill off, and a good midlayer (plus some heavy-duty mittens) did the rest. The whispering of the snow underfoot and the full moon casting long shadows made up for the fact that I had to unfreeze my beard from my baselayer in the car.

Steve Johnson, Pants Category Manager

The scene: a frigid mid-January afternoon, snowing heavily, as I hiked along the banks of the Mississippi River near downtown St. Paul, Minneapolis. Just me and my rambunctious Rottweiler, weighing in at around a buck-five. I wore a puffy and a pair of REI winter pants, as well as trusty Sorel boots. My dog walked onto a fringe of ice to investigate something shiny; the ice broke, and he fell in. I immediately ran to help, but the ice broke again and I went into the drink as well. The river was about 15 feet deep and heart-stoppingly cold. I treaded water with my feet while trying to heave my dog’s heft to freedom. It took a long time, but I got him out and managed to scramble my waterlogged self to shore. The pants froze to icicles but kept most of the water from seeping through my long underwear to bare skin. I shook off the outer skein of ice and boot-sloshed back to the car. Killer performance from the pants when it counted the most.

Shannon Davis, Editorial Director

Not all testing stories come from extreme conditions. That’s surely where you learn the most about your gear, but then there are the days that are bluebird, relatively warm, with a fresh foot of snow. You learn a lot on those days, too. 

I really needed one of those after a family Covid scare prevented me from joining our team’s Editors’ Choice trip to Oregon’s Wallowa Range. While my colleagues left the trailhead in northwest Oregon, my buddy Josh and I skinned up Hidden Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park. There was fresh powder underfoot and sparkling flakes hovering in sunbeams. The descent on the Advanced Shelter Splitboard I was testing felt like a day at a resort. Such float! Nice surfy turns! We took three laps on some lesser-known runs in the valley, then got some donuts. That outing was a worthy consolation prize, and my favorite day of testing winter gear this past year. 

Zoe Gates, Skills Editor

I’ve been skiing downhill since I could walk, but skinning uphill is a whole new ballgame for me. During our Editors’ Choice trip to the Wallowas, I practiced my nascent skinning abilities on all sorts of spring conditions, from slick morning crust to knee-deep slush. I spent more time gripped going uphill than skiing down, and had my fair share of spills on the climbs. On the third day, a few of us ascended Burger Butte under a warm afternoon sun. I was terrified as we traversed a steep, slippery slope, struggling to keep my skis from sliding. Just below the summit, our guide executed a tight kick-turn and made the final skin to the top. I froze below the turn: My kick-turns were awkward and often left me tangled in my own skis. But if I took them off and walked to the top, I was worried I’d lose a ski down the steep slope. It felt as if I’d tip backward off the side of the mountain as I swung my first ski around. I took deep breaths as our guides shouted encouragement, gave myself an internal pep talk, and lifted my other ski off the snow. My skis, finally side-by-side and facing the right way, sunk into the snow. It wasn’t graceful, but I hadn’t fallen off the mountain. Burger Butte may not be the most technical peak in the world, but I felt a rush of pride as I joined my companions on the summit.