February of last year, Oregon was hit with a freak warm front that brought over a week of 50º weather and sunshine to the area. I took that opportunity to round up a backpacking trip of me and my friends, branding it "MANPING" to make light of the fact we were casually backpacking in winter, none of us with real four-season camping experience. The trip was a great success, staying at low elevations in the Mount Hood National Forest to avoid snow, we had a really enjoyable night in the wilderness, replete with a roaring fire and whiskey.
Naturally, I wanted to try to recreate such a fun trip this year. I set up a Facebook event and invited friends to come out for the second annual MANPING trip. I was particularly excited because I'd just upgraded a few bits of gear, notably a new ultralight backpack, tarp, and insulation layer. This year however, the weather didn't work out in our favor.
As the date got closer, the forecasted weather deteriorated from sunny skies and 45º to a 70% chance of rain and a high of 40º. Friends dropped like flies in the face of the unfriendly weather conditions. The count was down to just two of us—my friend Kevin and I. We tried to make the most of it now that it was just a duo; knowing we both had Friday off, we extended our trip to two nights, planning a loop in the Columbia River Gorge.
It was a beautiful day in Portland; but, it was steadily raining by the time we got to the trailhead 40 minutes away. We had roughly 5.5 miles of ground to cover and 3700' of vertical, and it never stopped raining. We stopped twice, and then only briefly, to grab water or a snack, before continuing on through the rain to Dublin Lake, our first night's camp.
When we finally arrived, the lake was encircled in snow and frozen over. Two campsites were mostly bare, though the top layer of soil was frozen, leaving water to stand on top of the duff. Kevin and I were both soaked through; no amount of Gore-tex was capable of keeping someone dry for that amount of sustained weather. A large rock was required to smash through the inch-thick ice on the lake to obtain water. We found the best spot we could, pitched the tarp, and huddled underneath. It was 5 o'clock and still very much light out.
I, naturally being an idiot, didn't bring an extra shirt, just my down jacket as extra clothing. After putting it on over my soaked Patagonia R1 fleece, the whole jacket collapsed, rendering it worthless. So too did parts of my down sleeping bag, the moisture introduced from my soaking wet underwear and fleece creating high amounts of humidity in the bag. For a couple hours while cooking and eating dinner, I was rather nervous about the night, having only deflated down insulation under an open-air tarp for the night, surrounded by snow and camped on frozen earth, rather chilled already.
After those couple hours—and multiple times venting the inside of my sleeping bag to let out the steam room microclimate I was creating inside my bivy—the down started to dry out, I started warming up, and I could relax into the evening and joke around with Kevin about how we actually elected to be stuck in the cold rain under a tarp in February. We also decided to head back to the car the next day, as it'd be foolhardy to continue on so wet. Needless to say, it was a cold night as much moisture lingered in my insulation, robbing me of precious loft while the rain continued to fall hard against the tarp above us.
We woke in the morning around 7, and by the time coffee was prepared and hard-boiled eggs consumed, the rain finally stopped. No longer oppressed by the sky, we sprang from our shelter to don our wet clothes, pack our bags, and head back to the Wahclella Falls trailhead. I couldn't find the willpower to put my pants back on, still dripping with rainwater, so I hiked out in my long johns and gaiters. Without the rain, it was a beautiful hike through dripping, foggy woods.
This year's MANPING was definitely more manly than last. It was also a good gear shakedown, to better understand what I'm capable of handling in likely the worst conditions I'll find myself in. I can't say I'm ever going to willingly go backpacking again through sustained rain in the winter (especially with so little rain gear and no spare clothes), but I'm now much more confident that I can still safely get by with minimal amounts of gear.
It just may not be comfortable.
For the gear whores among us, my base weight was roughly 12lbs and total pack weight of roughly 15