Hey Outside! I’m doing a three-night hike near Cutthroat Pass in North Cascades National Park. I’m pretty experienced camping in my nearby spots in Virginia (Smokies, Dolly Sods, Blue Ridge, etc.). But this is my first trip to the Cascades and my first backpacking trip out west. It’s going to be late October when I go with friends from Seattle, and I want to stay warm, dry and comfortable the whole time. Please Outfit Me!
-Elissa, 37 [She/Her/Hers], Annandale
At Outside, we’ve spent enough time rambling in the wild Cascades to know you are going to have an incredible time. Probably.
Why ‘probably?’ Because while the North Cascades’ craggy, glaciated peaks make for some of the best backpacking in the world, it’s also prone to some wicked weather. All those glaciers come from somewhere, and the range’s uber-steep peaks and prominent volcanoes can suck in Pacific storms pretty much any time of year. Weather is a bit more predictable July-September, but those squalls will intensify and become constant riiiiiiight about the time you’ll be showing up.
You’ll still have a great time: October is larch-peeping season, when the needles of these rare, high-altitude conifer trees turn a brilliant yellow. Cutthroat Pass is ground zero for finding larch groves, and we’ve had plenty of clear, crisp fall days in October looking for them, so you might luck out. But we’ve also been howled off the mountain by a surprise dump of rain or snow. Ick.
So best to be prepared. You’ve backpacked before, so we’ll skip basics like the 10 essentials and focus on a few pieces of Cascade-proven gear that will make your trip fun and safe—whether the mountains want to cooperate or not. Bonus: We’ll even give you $100 to help you get kitted out.
Water-resistant Sleeping Bag
Don’t expect a balmy eastern-mountain night: A fall night in the Cascades at altitude can range from frosty to bone-chilling—and that’s without moisture in the forecast. Even if you have a bag, now’s the time to upgrade to a truly bulletproof model that will serve you well on chilly adventures yet to come. We’d prescribe either a synthetic or hydrophobic down bag, both of which will keep you warm even when wet. Hydrophobic down gets the edge over synthetic because they’re typically lighter and more compressible. The downside is they’re often too expensive. Not so with Sierra Designs Get Down 20-degree Sleeping Bag: We’ve vetted it in so many cold and wet situations that Backpacker declared it an Editors’ Choice winner.
Rumpl down blanket or a lightweight sleeping bag liner like the Sea To Summit Thermolite Reactor, which can boost your bag’s rating by 15 degrees or more.
Hard Shell Jacket
A hard shell waterproof jacket is a lifesaver when late fall Cascades squalls blow in. But it’s no good to keep rain out only to get swamped out on the inside: You’ll need to balance breathability with protection based on how much you sweat when you hike with a loaded pack. The Norrøna Falketind does both better than almost any other jacket, and features top-shelf details like asymmetrical cuffs that help funnel rain off your arms, a cut that fits over winter layers, and well-placed pockets. Caveat: It’s expensive.
Rab Downpour Alpine Jacket for women, or the men’s equivalent, the Rab Phantom Pull-On. At a gossamer 3.1 oz., it’s the lightest shell on the market. In spite of its minimalist features and design, the Phantom still stood up to driving Pacific Northwest rain and 70-mph wind gusts.
Statistically, it’s likely that at least one of your days will be mostly misty and wet — which means chill time with good company and a hot cup of your favorite bev. The JetBoil Flash cooking system shaves a whole minute off the stove’s already best-in-class boil time so you can cozy up to tea, coffee, or soup in about a minute and a half.
12x12 Mountainsmith Mountain Shade offers shelter for at least three adults and can be rigged as a picnic shade, lean-to, A-frame, and more. Since Cutthroat Pass is near treeline, you’ll need that versatility. And if you aren’t sure how to set up a tarp, here’s four methods every backpacker should know.