We improvised by adding an extra stick of butter to the pancake mix before we poured our first batch onto the wood-burning stovetop, our makeshift griddle for the extended weekend. During the middle of winter, 6 miles into the Colorado backcountry, eating hot pancakes and fried bacon are savory moments.
Two nights ago, our seven-man crew skinned up Jeep roads and singletrack trails to our backcountry shelter, the Hidden Treasure Yurts. Staged in the last vestige of flat earth below the upper slopes of New York Mountain above Eagle, Colorado, our small band of merry adventurers came to carve turns in the pure Colorado powder and to savor its high country solitude.
Winter backcountry travel can seem intimidating for beginners, but you don’t need to be a polar explorer or wilderness survivalist to enjoy an overnight winter trip. Case in point: As we scuffed and mushed on skis, a convoy of giggling grade-schoolers whooshed past us as snowmobile passengers. Their school organized a 20-kid winter sleepover in the neighboring Polar Star Hut. Winter travel didn’t intimidate those youngsters.
Creating an enjoyable and safe winter backcountry trip is all about synchronizing your desired level of adventure with your team’s level of experience. Here are some tips to get you started as you dream up your own winter wonderland exploration.
Choosing Your Shelter
Backcountry winter shelters are like Choose Your Own Adventure books: You’ve got options. Just turn the page to the version of adventure story you want to experience. See “The Luxury Spectrum” at the bottom of this article for a full range, but the most popular are huts and yurts.
In Colorado, huts are permanent structures, but there’s a wide variety. Most are log cabins or homes outfitted with wood-burning stoves, warm beds, kitchens, electricity (often solar) and composting outhouses. Some qualify as backcountry luxurious and feature amenities such as indoor plumbing. But most likely, you’ll need to melt snow for your cooking and drinking water—true of yurts as well.
Front Rangers love the proximity to the 34 dwellings of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association peppered across the center of the state from Winter Park, Breckenridge and Vail to Leadville, Aspen and Crested Butte. Many of the trailheads are within a two- to three-hour drive from the Springs. Most of these huts sleep 16 people; some house up to 20. And it’s common to share larger huts with other group of people.
Pro Note: If you see a log-mahal in your future, plan ahead. Weekends in many 10th Mountain Division huts fill up a year in advance.
Although yurts have been popularized recently by the glamping wave and listings on Airbnb, backcountry yurts aren’t cushy. The giant teepee-like structures are supported by an endoskeleton-like wood frame and wrapped in an exterior protective layer of canvas or plastic. Sleeping in a yurt feels a lot like upgraded tent camping with beds and heat from a wood-burning stove—cozy but not always airtight.
How to Stick to the Green Runs
Most huts and yurts are strategically placed near tree line for sweeping views and nearby access to big skiable bowls. Before making reservations, make sure you understand the terrain and distance requirements for reaching your accommodations. If it’s your first winter backcountry outing, focus on having fun. Pick gentle terrain, and avoid approaches longer than 3 miles from the car. Select a shelter accessible via well-traveled, snow-covered Jeep road instead of steep singletrack trail.
For my first hut trip, we chose the luxe Shrine Mountain Inn, part of the 10th Mountain Division network. It requires a 2.7 mile ski approach from Vail Pass off Interstate 70. In the summertime, you could drive to the front porch, but winter requires a two- to three-hour ski or snowshoe trek.
Even if you’re heading for an easier-to-reach hut or yurt, make sure someone in your group has avalanche awareness training, as well as route-finding and first aid skills. And always pay attention to the conditions and avalanche hazards. Your route to your lodging could cross avalanche-prone terrain.
Want to go with a guide? You’ve got options, but technically, guides must be authorized and permitted by the U.S. Forest Service. Websites such as huts.org list and link authorized outfitters.
Choosing Your Mode of Travel
It’s important to adapt your mode of winter backcountry transportation to accommodate your entire group. We spent five hours skinning up to the Hidden Treasure Yurt. It took our young, hot chocolate-mustachioed, snowmobile friends an hour to cover similar distance. The question is which option best fits your crew and the level of adventure you want? Here are your options:
Snowshoe: If you can walk, you can snowshoe. It’s the especially family-friendly mode of travel. You can rent snowshoes from Pikes Peak Outfitter for $15 first day, $5 following days. pikespeakoutfitter.com
Ski or Splitboard: Gliding on planks is a little more complicated, but even novices can ski to huts. You’ll just need some practice and preparation. Mountain Chalet rents several touring ski packages starting at $25 first day, $15 per following day. mtnchalet.com
Snowmobile: They’re highly discouraged and not allowed at the 10th Mountain Division Huts themselves. But some, such as the Sylvan Lake State Park or the Never Summer Nordic Montgomery Pass Yurts, are open to snowmobiles.
Packing and Prep
Self-reliance is part of the draw of the backcountry. You’ve got to carry your gear, but you can go light since your shelter is provided. Aim to keep your full pack about 20 to 25 pounds. Focus on layers for your clothing system. In winter, you want the flexibility to add or take off layers to regulate your temperature. Waterproof outerwear is a must. Spare dry socks are important, and hut pros bring a pair of comfy slippers or footwear for lounging.
You’ll need other essential gear, of course. I carry a map and compass, fire starter, sunscreen, headlamp, knife and extra batteries. Plan to bring your sleeping bag. Beds are provided, but most huts and yurts don’t include bedding. Your ski or snowshoe setup will help you reach your destination. And safety gear such an avalanche beacon and shovel are necessities any time you head into the winter backcountry.
Plan on bringing your meals too. You can divide the edible supplies among your group to share the weight. Go as creative or fancy as you like. Hut pantries usually have extra and leftover food supplies—why carry out the weight when you can leave it for someone else? In my experience, yurt pantry stocks are pretty sparse. When you make a reservation, you should get all the details about what to expect and plan specifically for your backcountry palace.
Back at the Hidden Treasure Yurt, my burly cohorts and I chase winter through the panoramic powder, skinning up and skiing down New York Mountain’s intermediate bowls. In between, we alternate trading laughs and carrying firewood at our toasty yurt. We savor the opportunity to go full analog: We read, play cards and board games, and swap fireside stories. At night, the sprawling Milky Way lures us out to wonder at infinity. Even a night or two in such a backcountry haven quickly refills my adventure bucket and deposits significantly into my friendships.
As our group stuffs now-lighter packs for the final ski run out, we celebrate the solitude we’ve enjoyed. But we can’t help but ask, Where is everybody? Don’t they know what’s out here?
Now you do.
Rely on Your Resources
Gather details on huts, yurts and backcountry safety at these sites.
10th Mountain Division Hut System: The granddaddy network and info source. huts.org
Colorado Hut & Yurt Alliance: A fairly comprehensive collection of other backcountry options. huts.org/cohutsyurts
Colorado Parks & Wildlife: State park have yurts too. cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/Yurts.aspx
Pikes Peak Alpine School: Get avalanche safety and backcountry training. pikespeakalpineschool.com
Colorado Avalanche Information Center: Know the risks and reports before you go. avalanche.state.co.us
The Luxury Spectrum
Winter backcountry shelters from grit to luxury.
Snow Cave: Plan four or five hours to dig your 32-degree dwelling out of a snowdrift. Earns you Jack London Yukon cred. Don’t forget the whiskey.
Tent: Easy to pitch almost anywhere, but you can count on breezy and cold. Fight the chill by making a hot water bottle to slip into your subzero sleeping bag before bed. Hope for six hours of radiant heat.
Yurt: Canvas tent walls and wood flooring tap into the structure’s nomadic roots. You’re roughing it, but with a wood-burning stove, beds and room to walk around.
Hut: Premier backcountry luxury. Some include indoor plumbing, saunas and propane grills. Let your friends believe you’re Iditarod tough; you know you’re napping by a roaring fire.