Trail Dust: Use Your Winter Wisely
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Winter. What does the word mean to you? Do you see mountains of white or feel the bone-numbing cold of the Arctic? We have four distinct seasons here in our corner of the world, but does that really have to mean that when winter comes, we pull on our sweaters and cuddle up by the woodstove until warm weather hits? Perception is a tricky friend. I'm here to tell you that instead of worrying about staying warm and working on your sudoku, it's time to start a whole new season of your desert adventures. Whether you are a hiker, off-roader, rock hound, or general desert rat, this is one of the most opportune seasons. For many, it’s time to rest, maybe recover from an injury, but it’s also time to dream, research, plan, work on gear, and get out! That's right—getting out in the winter is possible! Many say that the desert shows her beauty in the spring; while that may be true, I would venture to add that in the winter, she gives up her secrets.
Here we are in mid-December, stressing over holiday gifts, meals, and schedules. Take a deep breath; the desert is calling. When the inversions hit, the fog settles in, and the daylight lessens, there is help. The Owyhee is a wonderful and much-needed remedy—homeopathy at its root—with clear air and quiet space waiting for us all.
But what about that word “winter”? I'm going to start sharing some secrets of the desert with you. After more than four decades of wandering around the Owyhee, I have developed some opinions and observations that have helped me with my adventures, and I feel that sharing some of these might help others with theirs. Spoiler alert: I don't have any silver bullets, and most of these “secrets” are going to be mighty long on common sense. But the Owyhee is a fickle friend—Murphy's Law reigns supreme out here. My friends and I call it “Owyhee karma”. Trust me, you want to stay on her good side!
So what's in store for you? What's the plan? Maybe by beginning at the end, we can forge our new season’s start.
Consider these questions:
How did your season end?
Were you excited and satisfied, or was it less than expected?
Did your results and expectations land in different zip codes?
Let's use my season as an example. My season started out really well. In early March, my hiking partner Arbor and I were out over 10 days that month, and we continued our streak through late April, hitting almost 17 days out. It was about then when life interrupted our miles and excursions; it wasn't until August and September that we were back on track with close to 20 days out in the Stanley Basin. Just when I thought it was going to get better, both weather and life took the reins again. Sigh! Now, I'm reminiscing, chasing names and places that I just have to visit next season.
Any of this sound familiar? Completely understandable. But remember: you have the means to change your season’s results. Here's how you do it.
1. First and foremost, write it down!
If it's not on paper, it's not going to happen. So, grab your pen and your calendar, and start confirming when you are going to get out.
2. Start a list of what you hope to do in the upcoming season by using your last season’s info.
Go big! The resource is close, so take advantage of that perk. With the finite amount of time on the calendar, it's important to choose your battles accordingly.
3. Tackle the nitty-gritty of the logistics.
Now with a general plan in place, we can begin to fill in the blanks to make it happen. Everything from transportation to our hiking shoes is under scrutiny. What worked for you last season? What broke or failed? What was a waste of time, money, and effort? Questions like these will help you become more efficient and effective at achieving your goals.
4. Embrace the process; it will deliver big rewards!
With your calendar started, now you can begin to whittle away at the items to make it happen. These habits will become more and more natural as you work with them. So don't wait—get it going and let's make this season one of your best so far!
For me, getting out locally means exploring the Owyhee Front Range. The Front Range is a wonderful microclimate that, for the vast majority of the winter, is completely accessible and just waiting for you to enjoy. The Owyhee Range has a huge weather effect on the Boise valley called the “rain shadow”. As our local storms come through, their effect will be diminished as the storm loses its intensity after the higher elevations take the moisture. As the storm moves on, the temperature rises and the moisture dries out, and we often feel that the storm never happened! This is a common occurrence in the Owyhee Range, and one of the most often overlooked weather patterns.
In a nutshell, this means that along the Front Range, temperatures will be very moderate during the winter, and it could mean very dry conditions. That means that you can often venture into areas that otherwise you would not be willing to check out. Remember all those small slot canyons and creek washes that usually are filled with poison oak, snakes, bugs, and all manner of critters during the spring and summer? Well, those places now are typically safe and accessible, due to leaves falling, animal hibernation, and frozen water! Poking around these amazing places will always be an adventure well worth checking out! Main trail systems like Wilson Creek are also fantastic spots to hike during the winter season.
A word of advice: take the weather report with a grain of salt!
Often, the weather in Boise or to our “east” will be 180 degrees off from what we are actually experiencing. I can't tell you how many times I've been out in great conditions while friends to the east are staying home because it’s “storming” there! There is an old climbing saying: “stick your nose in it”. That means you just don’t know what the weather will be like until you go out there and see what it really is. In my experience, I am pleasantly surprised probably 80% of the time.
In the coming weeks, I'd like to introduce a couple of very special items that will hopefully spark even more interest and excitement about our wonderful Owyhee. First off will be the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT). This trail is not very well known yet has caused quite a stir in the hiking world! The ODT starts in Bend and follows a large circling path for over 700 miles, finally ending at Lake Owyhee State Park. This is an amazing and spectacular hike right here in our backyard. We will be looking at this trail soon, and where it goes here locally.
I'm also really excited and proud to let you know that I will be part of a team that will be leading a class in Modern Backpacking. This will be a great and fun opportunity for beginner hikers to learn a solid and safe process for hiking and packing into the wilderness in comfort and safety. With over 3,000 miles of hiking and 40 years of technical hiking and climbing under my belt, I feel that I have developed a simple and solid method for anyone to enjoy the trails and our incredible backcountry! I can't thank all the folks at Friends of the Owyhee enough for this opportunity.
So stay tuned for more info… This is going to be a great season.
Until next time, I hope you get sand in your shoes!
After starting technical climbing at age 12 and backpacking at 14, Steve Silva has been an avid outdoor adventurer his whole life. His constant chasing of bigger and bigger climbs has led him all over North America, from the gargantuan walls of his home in Yosemite to high-altitude volcanoes in Mexico to chilly peaks in Canada. Steve's love for backpacking adventures has taken him throughout most of Idaho, along the John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Route, and a large section of the Hayduke Trail. He's been a long-time fan of the Owyhee desert, having boated through most of the main canyons and tributaries of the Owyhee River. Steve's passion for this landscape inspired him to write a guidebook titled Get Lost!: Adventure Tours in the Owyhee Desert. Now an expert in off-trail hiking, planning, and logistics, he loves teaching more people how to hike easily and more comfortably than they've ever known.