Stay warm in Southern Utah: How to Pack for a Winter Trip

The arid, high elevation climate of Utah's Colorado Plateau means long stretches of brilliant sun with only sporadic bouts of dramatic weather. Come winter, things can get chilly, especially at night. For most travelers, Southern Utah winters prevent comfortable camping, and occasional snowfall can make outdoor adventure a little more challenging. With a little extra planning, good layers, and the right equipment, however, you can enjoy Utah's national parks in the solitude of winter.

Note: Southeastern Utah tends to be a little cooler during the winter months than southwestern Utah (which shares some climate patterns with the warmer Mojave Desert) but both areas require some attention to staying warm and dry. Keep this list in mind as you set off for your Southern Utah winter ramble.

A down jacket keeps you warm when it's cold and dry.
A down jacket keeps you warm when it's cold and dry.

Clothing

• Base layers
Wicking fabrics, generally a polyester blend of some sort, are a required. They’ll keep the moisture away from your skin as you sweat on a strenuous hike. After you stop moving you’ll cool down quickly and want to keep yourself as dry as possible.

• Outer shell
A breathable, waterproof or highly water-resistant jacket is a must. Gore-tex is the gold standard in this department but most outdoor clothing brands have some version of the breathable waterproof fabric. Think lighter here — something you can stuff into your day pack. Your perfect jacket will also have venting zippers in the armpits that you can open when you heat up.

• Rain pants
Pack a thin breathable layer you can pull on and off if you’re caught on the trail in snowy or rainy weather.  

• Hats and gloves
Your extremities get hold and you lose most of your heat out of the top of your head. A nice pair of running gloves will do the trick for your hands and a fleece beanie that can easily be stashed in a outside pocket as well as a rain hat will keep you toasty.

• Hiking boots
This is one area not to skimp. Those light-trail hikers or running shoes you use for summer rambles won’t work. You’ll need a good boot, ideally breathable and waterproof with a grippy sole. Slickrock, turns out, is actually slick when it gets wet.

Be prepared for the elusive winter storm. Photo: NPS
Be prepared for the elusive winter storm. Photo: NPS

Gear

• Day pack
This needs to be a large enough pack that you can stash those warmer layers you put on before you warmed up.

• Yaktrax
These are basically “chains” for your boots that will help you on snowy trails and dangle nicely from your day pack if conditions are mellow.

• Trekking Poles
Clawing your way up snowy and, at times, icy trails and across wet slick rock can be tricky. Some nice sturdy, collapsible poles with a rubber tip will give you an extra place to put weight down while on slippery descents.

• Emergency Kit (Driving)
Pack extra layers, blankets, emergency food supplies, water, jumper cables and a first aid kit. The roads are generally clear but on remote highways you may be out there before the plows are and you may also well be out of cell phone range. It’s best to be prepared.   

Pleasant winter camping temperatures down south. Photo: Scott Markewitz
Pleasant winter camping temperatures down south. Photo: Scott Markewitz

Get rugged

Camping in Southern Utah wilderness

Although a warm room at the end of day traipsing around the wintery red rock desert is a thing of beauty, it is entirely possible to camp your way across the land. Campsites on public lands and within the national parks are easily found during the winter season.

You’ll need: a good all-season tent, a low-temperature sleeping bag and plenty of materials to make a roaring fire.

Note, however, that developed campgrounds in the higher elevations of the national forest are seasonal, typically open May through October.

Jeremy Pugh

Jeremy Pugh is a writer living in Salt Lake City who, in one way or another, has been writing about culture, history, and the outdoors in Salt Lake City for more than a decade. Formerly the editor of Salt Lake magazine, Pugh is a freelancer and consultant writing for SKI, Sunset, and Salt Lake magazines and the author of the book 100 Things to Do in SLC Before You Die. A lifelong Utahn, Jeremy travels widely but always loves returning home to the mountains where he bikes, hikes, and skis as much as possible.

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