In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. – William Blake
Spring arrives and the typical backpacker becomes excited.
Wildflowers start blooming, the hills are starting to green and the birds are singing their songs.
Summer? The days are long, the weather is often mild and the high country is free of much, or all, the snow.
And fall is often Nature’s three-season grand finale before winter arrives. The leaves are blazing with color and a crisp feel is in the air.
Winter seems to be the forgotten backpacking season for many.
The cold and the snow means the gear is put away. A person is more likely to binge-watch Edgy Ironic Cool Show on Netflix than to go outside.
Which is a shame.
Winter is not a time to slumber.
It is a time to see the natural world in a different way, embrace new challenges and explore a new type of beauty.
It is a time to embrace the wonder of winter.
What is meant by winter backpacking?
The word “winter” covers a wide breadth of different experiences.
The weather during a Honolulu January is often around 80F and sunny.
For this type of winter backpacking, a light sleeping bag, a pair of comfortable shorts and some bug netting would be desirable.
But not quite what is meant by winter backpacking in this article.
For the purpose of this article, winter is best described as temperatures consistently 32F or below during the day. Snow does not need to be on the ground necessarily but can be expected especially in higher elevation areas.
Also, this article will not be discussing mountaineering. Above-treeline exposure, possibly going into avalanche terrain and needing such technical equipment as crampons, an ice axe and possibly ropes are outside the scope of this article.
This article will focus on non-technical winter backpacking instead.
Why winter backpack?
There are many reasons why winter backpacking should be considered by the person properly prepared for these conditions.
There are no insects. Crowds are usually less further into the backcountry compared to three-season conditions.
And, for a person who loves to be outside, giving up three months or more of precious outdoor time is too much.
Winter really does make the familiar seem different. A pleasant, if somewhat boring, stroll in summer becomes a striking landscape in winter when the trees are covered with snow and the mountains in the background are strikingly white.
Most of all, winter is beautiful. Sites to see and experience as good as any of the other seasons.
And not to be missed.
Mode of travel
The first question of winter backpacking is usually what is the best way to travel through the winter landscape? Snowshoes, skis, winter hiking boots or even trail runners are all forms of winter travel many people will use for one reason or another.
Depending on the amount of snow, conditions encountered and preferences, one mode of travel may be more desirable than another.
Some popular modes of winter travel are:
- Trail runners
The three-season choice for many experienced three-season backpackers can work well for icier and mildly snowy conditions. Conditions such as encountered in the lower foothills of the Rockies or even the southeast Appalachians at times. As long as there is not excessive snow, perhaps a few inches at most, this form of footwear may work well. For sustained icier conditions, some sort of traction device such as Kahtoola microspikes work well and are suggested.
- Insulated hiking boots
For moderate snow conditions where there is no excessive post-holing (sinking into the snow well up to your legs) and cold conditions, insulated hiking boots are a very good footwear choice. . As with their three-season cousins, winter hiking boots go up to the ankle, or sometimes higher, are stiffer than trailrunners to help facilitate digging into the snow a bit and have aggressive tread. Being insulated, these boots help keep the feet warm. Note, on overnight trips, a Vapor Barrier Liner sock (see description further below) should be worn so excess moisture does not get into the boot’s insulation or your socks.
- Pac boots
Very warm and with removable liners, these boots were a long time winter backpacking favorite. Typical examples of this boot are the classic Sorel Caribous of the L.L. Bean duck boots. However, these boots are heavy, bulky and not comfortable for extended hiking. Work best for trips with very short hikes but much camp time.
If the snow is deep, or not consolidated, snowshoes are a popular method of traveling in winter. Wide enough to disperse the weight of the person and their gear, snowshoes are necessary when there is too much snow to successfully hike through. The learning curve for snowshoeing is easy: If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Depending on a person’s total weight with gear or snow conditions, a larger snowshoe will be needed. Snowshoes work well for steeper terrain and/or if a person is not confident in their skiing abilities. Likewise for heavily wooded terrain. Snowshoes are less efficient than skis but can be less expensive overall and, again, are easier to use. Snowshoes are often paired with pac or insulated hiking boots.
- Backcountry skis
More efficient than snowshoes, but also more of a learning curve, skis are a wonderful way to get deep into the backcountry. Please see the Backcountry Nordic Skiing article from TrailGroove issue #20 for more information on this great, but more involved, backcountry activity.
Whichever mode of travel is used, gaiters should be bought as well. The gaiters should be large enough to go over the footwear being used and long enough to keep snow out of the footwear, too.
In very cold temperatures, and where moisture in your socks and footwear can be an issue, Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL) socks are very useful. VBL socks keep the heat and moisture in rather than saturate your insulative socks and footwear. A traditional way of wearing VBLs are to wear a liner sock, place the VBL over the liner and then to wear a thicker wool or similar sock over the VBL. A popular trick is to use bread or oven bags as a cheaper, but effective, alternative.
Clothing for winter must be warm but also provide adequate ventilation. If a person excessively sweats, the base layers will become damp. A person will be chilled when they stop and will cool down rapidly.
Much like backpacking in three-season conditions, effective managing of the the layers is the key to staying warm and having dry base layers when stopped. Generally, while moving, it is better to be on the cooler side rather than warm.
If you regularly backpack, you probably already have the basic clothing you need for winter backpacking and may just need a few additional items.
The basic layers suggested are:
- A wicking inner base layer. If especially cold temperatures are encountered, a mid-weight layer is suggested.
- Middle layer to retain heat. In cold and dry conditions, a softshell type layer works well for the pants. I prefer a simple 100 weight fleece pullover as my active layer. A light fleece breathes well, dries quickly, is durable and not expensive.
- An outer layer shell pants and jacket to keep out the wind and the snow especially is very useful. Many experienced winter backpackers will take a windshell for when moving since they breathe well. However, they will often pack a traditional hardshell for in camp or for particularly weather intensive conditions.
- An insulative layer for in camp or on extended breaks. Colloquially known as a “puffy layer”. A hooded down or synthetic jacket rated for winter use is strongly suggested. The popular “down sweaters” used for three-season backpacking will be inadequate for deep winter use. I prefer hooded jackets for deep winter conditions. Additionally, some “puffy pants” are very useful especially on group trips with time spent socializing in camp or even extending the temperature range of a quilt system. Down pants work well, if expensive. Military surplus liner pants are a little heavier and bulkier but are very inexpensive and effective.
To go with these basic core layers, other pieces of basic clothing suggested are as follows.
Adequate management of the headwear is very important. Too thick a layer and you may sweat. Too little, and you can be chilled.
The basic components that I find useful for head gear are:
- A thin wool or fleece hat for active conditions.
- A light weight, but not silkweight, balaclava is a very versatile layer that may act as neck gaiter, cover a good portion of the face or even a light hat in warmer conditions.
- An additional thicker wool or fleece balaclava for at night for for every cold conditions. The light wool or fleece hat may be wet from snow. A dry hat is very valuable for those reasons.
- A hooded down or synthetic coat will added some needed warmth as well for the head.
Depending on the shoe type, one type of sock system may be better than another. For trail runners, I find a thin merino wool sock to work well. With my ski touring boots, a ragg wool sock with a liner works well. Sometimes worn with a VBL.
- Hand wear
As a rule, gloves allow more dexterity but mittens are warmer. Much as with other layers, proper management of the hand layers is the key to staying warm and dry in the winter.
Glove Liners: A thin liner glove is very versatile. When moving, I find this layer to be warm enough in many conditions. A glove liner allows you to take photos, eat food, drink water and the other myriad backpacking chores without getting your hands excessively cold.
Shell Mittens: Shell mittens will keep the snow and the wind off your liners. I find a shell and liner combo to be very warm, and rarely need a middle layer. Size the shell large enough for your liner and middle layer combo.
Middle Layer (thick mittens): I rarely need this layer, but I always have thicker mittens stowed. When the weather is particularly cold, the combination of a liner/thick mittens/shell keeps the hands warm.
Though optional, for any trips involving much camp related activity (typical in group trips), a pair of leather work gloves treated with something similar to SnoSeal is very useful. Wear with liner gloves.
A shelter for winter backpacking does not have to be too fancy. Even a three-season shelter is fine if the location is chosen with care, pitched correctly and has a shape that will not collect excessive snow loads (in other words, steeper walls to shed snow). If someone is sleeping above or near treeline, expecting excessive winds or snow, than a dedicated four season tent will be wanted. Otherwise, a good three-season shelter will work fine for general use with the caveats noted above. Free standing tents are quick to set up when the winter days are short, but should still be staked down with snow stakes, such items as ski poles or making the use of dead-man anchors. Note that a dead man anchor can be fashioned with sticks and slip knots, but does take more time versus other methods. ( Gathering the sticks for example ) .
Types of shelters for winter:
- Tarp or tarp-like shelter
A simple shelter that is light, versatile and roomy. For winter, a tarp or tarp-like shelter such as the Megalight allows much ventilation so as to prevent condensation. Does require more setup time in general. Does not retain heat as well, which can be a plus if condensation is a major concern. Should be pitched well below treeline unless the conditions are calm. Excellent space-to-weight ratio.
- Single wall tent
Retains heat better than a tarp or tarp-like shelter. Condensation may be an issue. Generally quick to set up. Good for traveling all day, making a quick camp and then repeating the process again the next day. The Black Diamond Firstlight is a classic winter tent in this category.
- Double-wall tent
Heavier, but less prone to condensation versus a single wall tent. Gear and clothing tends to stay drier overall. Double-wall tents usually need to be staked out more as well. Perfect for a base camp type situation winter when a few days will be spent exploring from a central location. The Eureka Alpenlite is a more budget minded version of this type of winter tent.
- Snow shelter
Various forms of snow shelters can be fun to construct. Snow is a wonderful insulator and it can be very warm in a snow shelter. I have stayed in snow shelters with a 20F sleeping bag when it has been below 0F outside and have been very comfortable. Shelters can range from a simple snow cave dug out of snow drift to something as complex as an igloo. The major negative for snow shelters is that it can take a while to construct. A very basic survival-type shelter can be constructed in about one hour or so per person. Something roomier and more comfortable for the evening? Plan on more time to construct the shelter. I find this type of shelter works best when it is the objective for the weekend or perhaps more of a base-camp type scenario. The U.S military has an excellent online manual available for constructing various forms of snow shelters.
There are two important components to sleeping warm in the backcountry during winter: The sleeping bag or quilt and the sleeping pad.
- Sleeping bag or quilt
Generally speaking, a 0F rate bag is the minimal temperature rating one should have for a dedicated winter bag. However, especially if a quilt is used, a person may layer with suitable insulating clothing such as a puffy jacket or pants to extend the temperature range. Caveat:A sleeping bag with extra clothing tends to compress the clothing; negating the effectiveness of the extra clothing. Do not wear too much clothing when in a bag. A quilt system works better if using extra clothing as part of the sleeping system.
For sub-zero temperatures, a colder weather rated bag is of course ideal. However, most people can’t justify the expenditure of this very specialized bag for a handful of outings a year
A popular combination is a 20F rated down quilt for lightness with a synthetic 40F quilt. Besides being a versatile combination for all four seasons, the synthetic quilt on the outside will deal with moisture build up in the shelter better than down, while protecting the down layer at the same time. Additionally, this setup results in an effective temperature rating to about -10F. Note a similar setup was used by Shawn Forry and Justin Lichter for their historic Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike during winter.
- Sleepings pads
Sleeping pads are very critical during the winter months. Beyond comfort, the appropriate insulative value (known as “R-value”) is need to protect yourself from losing precious body heat through the cold ground. No matter how warm your sleeping bag may be, if there is inadequate ground insulation you will get cold. An R-value of five is considered the standard for adequate cold weather insulation. While one pad may be used, I prefer the combination of a three-quarter length inflatable pad such as a NeoAir coupled with a foam full length pad such as the RidgeRest. Not only do I have the appropriate R-Value I need, I also have a system that is less failure prone. If I have one pad that leaks during the night, I could be in some trouble. A leaking pad but with a good foam pad? A somewhat uncomfortable night’s sleep but manageable. A foam pad is also useful for group winter backpacking trips for sitting on the snow in group areas when eating dinner, kneeling to start up the stove, etc. A reflective sunshield used for autos is a light, inexpensive and effective way to reflect back body heat as well.
Stoves, cooking and food
- Stoves and cooking
There are a myriad of choices for stoves when winter backpacking.
Besides cooking food and heating water, a stove is often needed to melt snow to provide water. When melting snow for water, be sure to add a little starter water first and then add the snow. Otherwise it is very easy to scorch the snow or even burn a hole in the pot. Snow, again, is a wonderful insulator and that includes any heat applied from a stove.
Types of stoves that may be used in winter include:
- An alcohol stove can boil water in winter if a little slowly. Unless it is a quick trip with little to no snow melting, this type of stove is generally not efficient for winter use.
- Upright canister stoves are generally too inefficient in the cold weather.
- However, an inverted canister stove works very well for winter. These stoves start losing their effectiveness around 0F.
- White gas stoves are still the classic winter stove. These stoves generally support larger pots well and are perfect for melting snow in larger group settings. A white gas stove is heavier than a canister stove, however. Below 0F, a white gas stove is usually the stove of choice.
If using an inverted canister stove or white gas stove, a windscreen and reflective stove base is strongly suggested. A simple piece of a blue foam covered with a foil oven pan liner is very effective in serving both as a stove base and reflecting heat back. The stove use becomes more efficient and fuel is saved this way, too.
A larger pot than normal may be needed for snow melting. For group trips, a four quart pot works very well.
Food is fuel. And lots of calories is needed for winter activities. Snack often throughout the day to keep the energy levels up.
For snacking during the day, I like to have food that is quick to eat, easily fits in ziplock bags that will fit in my clothing’s pockets so the food does not freeze and the food will often be in bite-sized chunks. Food with little water content is best so it does not freeze as easily. Chocolate, small chunks of cheese, salami, nuts, dried fruit and salty crackers all provide good balance of carbs, fats and proteins the body needs to be fueled during the day. The simple carbs give quick energy and the proteins and fats provide some slower burning fuel for during the day.
For breakfast, oatmeal with butter (fresh or powdered), Nido powder, nuts and dried fruit with a hot drink is my usual breakfast of choice. Simple and quick to make and will power me through the first few morning hours.
Dinner? A hearty fat-laden meal with ample butter or olive oil is suggested. I like making my meals soupy so it hydrates me as well.
A warm drink at night is both a psychological boost and hydrating. I enjoy making hot chocolate cheesecake smoothies as a calorie laden dessert for winter backpacking.
At night, have some sugary snacks handy in your bag or quilt for quick warmth if needed.
The entire world is a walk in refrigerator during winter. More than a few ardent winter backpackers will bring fresh mushrooms, steak and similar luxury food for their winter feasts.
On a related note to food, is hydration. Dehydration happens very easy in winter due to both the cold temperatures and cold air. Additionally, people have a natural inclination to not drink during winter activities. As with food, drink early and drink often.
Personally, I find even insulated CamelBaks to be problematic during winter. I prefer a simple water bottle or two as needed. Though a sports drink bottle works well enough, I find Nalgene bottles to be superior for winter use. The wide mouth makes it easier to decant water into them. Unlike sports drink bottles, Nalgene bottles do not warp with very hot water. Keep the bottle in the pack and not in the external holster unless an insulated bottle holder of some sort it used.
As an aside, a hot water bottle in the sleeping bag or quilt, double checked that it is sealed, is good for helping to keep the inside the bag warm, provide water throughout the night and will be there to start breakfast in the morning.
A pack large enough to hold all the gear, has a narrow profile for winter travel, durable enough to lash some of the additional gear such as snowshoes or ski equipment and provides good support is desired.
Thought it is tempting to get an ultralight pack with little support and thin material, a pack that is durable but lighter is probably the desired pack type.
Obviously, the more equipment carried the larger the pack needed. Having said that, a pack of roughly 4000 cubic inches/ 65 liters or so seems to work well for most people.
Other gear considerations
- Besides sleeping with a carefully sealed hot water bottle, put such items as contact solution, toothpaste and sunscreen in a small freezer bag and then that bag into your sleeping bag or quilt at night.
- Burying extra water in the snow helps prevent the water from freezing at night. Useful to use for quick hydration in the morning and getting breakfast and hot drinks going
- An avalanche shovel is very useful in digging out a platform for a tent, setting deadman anchors and making “snow furniture” such as benches and cooking platforms for group winter trips.
- Any headlamps, cameras or other electronics should have lithium batteries. Lithium batteries perform much better in the cold than alkaline or NiMH rechargeable batteries. Besides performing better in cold weather, lithium batteries also are lighter and longer lasting than other batteries.
- A small candle lantern weighs 4 oz with two tea candles, gives about eight hours total of light, helps keep condensation down in the tent, provides a small bit of warmth and provides a warm and soothing glow at night that should not be discounted. Be sure your shelter has adequate ventilation before using a candle lantern. Do not have the candle burning when asleep.
- For snowshoeing or skiing, take a repair kit of some sort. Duct tape, accessory cord, a multi-tool and other items can make the difference between a makeshift repair to get safely back to the car or slogging through snow..and end up with a potentially dangerous situation.
- A gear sled (pulk) may be useful for gentle terrain and certain conditions.
Some final words
Winter is a fantastic time to be outside. Winter travel is invigorating, beautiful, physically challenging and can make the familiar landscape seem to be a wilder experience.
Winter is also a time when it is absolutely important to be safe. Do not overestimate your skills or strength. Do not underestimate the time to travel, set up camp or even perform the basic camp chores such as cooking.
Winter trips take longer and are generally slower especially when learning.
For the first trip or two, perhaps go a mile or so into the backcountry at the most. Go with a friend or two if possible. Attempt the first winter backpacking trips when the winter conditions may be moderately cold but the weather itself will not overly turbulent. Learn the rhythms of winter in a safe and controllable manner.
After a few trips, the wonders of winter will be discovered and enjoyed. Your system will be in place and you will thrive in winter.
The fourth season will no longer be a time to slumber.
But a time to embrace another facet of the outdoors.
A great book not just for backcountry touring but also for winter camping is Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book. Though the title of the book is about backcountry skiing, perhaps 80% of the book is for general backcountry winter skills.
Want to learn more about exploring the backcountry during winter? Read more here!
Note: A version of this article was published in TrailGroove magazine.