While others may turn on the heat and bundle up with a cup of hot cocoa come winter in Colorado, Eric Larsen is bound for the frigid wilds.
Actually, he does this year-round — leaving his Crested Butte home in the summer for the coldest, harshest environments offered by the opposite hemisphere.
You could say he is this state’s Mr. Winter.
“You could say I’m like this super-specific species of bird that lives in some super-specific part of the forest,” he says.
Larsen is one of the West’s boldest adventure athletes, specializing in long sufferfests atop some of the world’s most exotic ice sheets. He’s known for record expeditions across Antarctica.
He’s known also for teaching the basics of winter camping. No, Larsen tells his pupils: you don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth to find the joy he has found in the snow under a sparkling night sky.
For any Coloradan looking to brave the elements, we asked the expert for tips:
No need to travel far at all, Larsen says. He recommends starting out your back door.
“Just try it,” he says. “What intimidates people is being really cold, and sleeping in the cold is super intimidating. So when you’re able to go spend a night and test your systems and your equipment in a safe place where, if you get nervous or uncomfortable, you can just go back inside, that little step really helps out.”
Mindset is important, he says. “If you think you’re gonna be cold, you’re gonna be cold.”
You don’t need the latest and greatest sleeping bag, Larsen says. A bunch of blankets will do. Do have a couple of pads, ideally foam — “you really want to make sure you’re insulated from the snow,” he says.
Before venturing farther afield, you should be comfortable in your snowshoes or skis. And along with a sturdy vehicle and tires to navigate fast-changing conditions, have the basics packed, including food, water, a shovel and first-aid kit.
“Depending on the temperatures, a liquid gas stove is a little bit more functional than propane or butane,” Larsen says.
Know your body
“I often say there’s no such thing as cold weather, just not enough layers,” Larsen says. They should be sweat-wicking. In case of wind, you won’t regret resistant shells for your upper and lower body. Larsen also recommends a down jacket.
But, he notes, there is such a thing as too many layers. This is a factor of the “chess game” he loves to play with winter as he’s trekking long miles. Hypothermia is checkmate.
“The main concern is getting too hot,” Larsen says. “You don’t want to sweat.”
Pay attention, he says. “When you’re moving, really minimize the peaks and troughs of your body temperature so that you’re not getting too hot or too cold. I call it the polar strip tease. You’re always making some micro adjustments so that you’re not getting too hot or too cold.”
Larsen adds: “The other thing we deal with in Colorado is a lot of wet snow. Not getting wet from the outside as well is really important.”
And in the cold, it could be easy to forget your calories quickly burning. That’s the case in winter on typically more demanding terrain; snowy paths tend to consume more of you than dry paths.
“Hydration is really important,” Larsen says. “I try to travel on a pretty rigorous time schedule, so that we’re taking snack and water breaks every hour or so.”
Know the terrain
Before you embark, go to avalanche.state.co.us to check avalanche danger. “Obviously, staying out of any of those areas is a huge No. 1 priority,” Larsen says.
Look for flat, wind-protected spots as you would in the summer, but pay attention to snow load on trees overhead. With snowshoes or a shovel, stomp down the powder. “Wait about 45 minutes until that snow recrystallizes and becomes hard, then set up the tent,” Larsen says.