When I first started here at EE, I went on my first winter backpacking trip. It was a great experience and since then I have done several other winter trips, and I have discovered a lot. I do my best to have one set of gear for the whole year. I may go with a little heavier gear that would hold up in the winter even though I am using it in the summer, but some gear just has to be seasonal. We’re going to go over some of the gear you need in the winter and see what we can use all year round.
The first thing is something to hold all of your extra gear in. I typically use a 36 liter frameless pack for just about all of my trips. I find I can fit a week to week and a half in this size, though it usually is filled out. However, in the winter, I use a 40 liter framed pack. This size may even be too small and I have been thinking of going a little larger. With the extra clothes and thicker sleep systems, I need more support and room to fit everything in. You can try to keep using your smaller, lighter pack for the winter, but just know you may not be able to go out for as long.
For the summer, I use a 40°F top and under quilt. It is a little on the warm side, but I know if the weather ever dips low I will be covered. In the winter I push the envelope a little and use a 20°F setup. Typically temps can dip below 20°F in the winter, but I choose to wear more layers while I sleep in the summer, which makes up for any temp dips. This isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like wearing extra layers to bed, you will probably need to get a 10°F or even a 0°F sleep system to make sure you stay warm if the temperature dips low.
Some people may even choose a 30°F setup for winter but be careful when choosing this option. You need to really understand your own body, the location you’re going, and the potential lows for the area. You will need to make sure you have enough layers that you know will keep you warm in extreme cold. Most sleep systems have a survival rating; make sure you know what your sleep system is. The survival rating won’t be the most comfortable rating to go by but at least you know you will be able to survive the night if the temps dip low.
Dampness is something else you need to watch out for on your sleep system as well. There have been a lot of improvements in down over the years, and they work really well in most conditions. You may want to look into a synthetic quilt for your winter setup. If you are going to camp in really cold temps, you can layer two quilts and one can be a lighter synthetic option to help keep moisture at bay. Check out the layering sleep systems article for more info.
For people sleeping in tents or on the ground, the right pad(s) is everything. Pads are rated by something called an R-Value which is basically the insulation's resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-Value, the lower temp you can go to. Check out our sleeping pad article for more info. Some people like to layer their pads, using a lower rated air pad that they can use in the summer and a CCF pad they can put underneath it when they go in the winter. There are many variations and options when it comes to pads, so do a little research and go with what works for you.
Water & Filtration
Water can be more of a challenge than you expect in the dead of winter. Most pumps and drinking fountains are shut down for the winter. Streams and rivers may have thick ice over them so you can’t filter water from them. If you do find a stream you can pull from, make sure you bring a plunger to backflush your filter with. You don’t want water freezing inside of your filter rendering it useless. Long story short, you will need to pack in more water than you normally would.
You may think that you can just warm some snow up and use it as water, but you’ll find this harder than you think. You can’t just put snow in your cup and have it melt into water, but instead it will just evaporate off or even burn in your cup and you won’t get anything usable. You can put a little water in a cup and melt snow into the water, but you will have to have water in the cup first. Here are some other methods that can help get you some drinking water.
You could bring a pillow case or something similar that you can pack with snow and hang from a branch near your campfire. You can then put a cup or something similar underneath to catch the water. You could also take a stick and pack snow into a ball around it, then put a cup at the end of the stick near the fire. Water should run down the stick and into your cup. You can pack snow in a water bottle covered in black duct tape and let the sun melt it while you walk, or even use a reflective blanket and a trash bag.
Your water can serve as a way to help keep you warm as well. Heat some water, put it back in the water bottle, and put this in your sleeping bag with you to help keep you warm. You will probably want to store your water in your shelter at the least anyway; you don’t want it to freeze and only have ice for the morning. There are a lot of options so do your research and find a way that will work best for you.
Your shelter may be the one thing you don’t change too much. If you are in a hammock, you won’t need a bug net which is great! But in your tent or on a tarp, it will be about the same. Stakes are the one major thing you may need to change about your shelter setup. Longer, thicker stakes may be needed to get through the frozen ground, if possible. I have found that using the snow and a stick works well in place of the stake. Tie your pullouts to a stick and bury it away from your shelter. Use any knots or adjustments to pull the tie outs tight and then you're all set. The weight of the snow is usually enough to keep your shelter pulled tight throughout the night.
Choosing a good campsite is more important than anything. Making sure you put down enough ground tarp or having a clear area is important. You also will want to choose a campsite that gives you some wind protection. This will help keep you warmer in the long run if you're not constantly get battered by wind.
Food can really make or break a trip. I always try to find the lightest and most delicious food possible. I have found some great recipes and options, but I can’t always bring them in the winter. Because your pack is already heavier, you may want to try to go lighter on some of your food options. Dehydrated food is a great option to help keep your gear light. High protein energy bars and snacks will help refuel your body and keep you warm. This is pretty similarl to summer hiking so you shouldn’t have any issues. I also bring instant tea or coffee with me in the winter, something I wouldn’t do in the summer, for the same reason, to help warm me up and to be comfortable. Keeping your metabolism and heart rate up are important in the winter as it can help keep you warm.
In the summer, I will try and do cold hydrated foods so I can leave the stove behind. This is not the case in the winter. When cold, I need a nice warm meal. The stove is a must, even though I could get away with the cold hydration meals, it is worth it to me to carry the extra weight of the stove. With the stove or fuel system, you may also need a wind break. Now you may need this in the summer as well, but in the winter it is especially crucial and you may need one made of thicker material. If you like to cook over the fire, bring some fire starters as brush and bramble may be hard to come by in the winter. You also may want to bring a lightweight saw of some form, so you can cut branches. In the summer, there are plenty of sticks on the ground, but in the winter, everything is going to be saturated so getting dead branches higher up will help ensure you get dry kindling.
Extra socks and thicker ones, better head protection (like the Hoodlum), warmer base layers and extra sets, more clothes, multiple layers, extra wind protection...clothes can get heavy. I do my best to limit the amount of extra clothes I bring, and many of them I am going to wearing consistently, but you do need to expect more clothes. I typically bring a Minion as a pillow anyway, so in the winter I end up getting a much fuller pillow. In summertime, I only bring the clothes I am wearing, a pair of long base layers to sleep in, and one extra pair of socks. When winter hits, I will bring a pair of warm base layers to wear and to sleep in. The normal clothes I wear, two extra pairs of thick socks, my Hoodlum, Stronghold mittens, a balaclava for wind protection, and a puffy jacket as well. Some may think that this isn’t enough clothing, but that is for each person to decide for themselves. If you have cold feet, I also recommend grabbing a pair of Sidekick sleeping booties to help keep your feet extra warm while you sleep.
There are always some miscellaneous items that don’t go into any category that you may need to add to or change as well. For instance, you may need to put the wider snow guard on your trekking poles for the winter. Your emergency or trauma kit may need more painkillers to help with any frostbite of pain that the cold may cause. Keep stock of the little things, as you may need to change them or add to them to make them fit those colder trips.
There is a lot to consider when going into the backcountry during the winter. With proper planning and the correct gear, you should be able to stay warm and comfortable. Ask your friends and go to forums for other tips as well. There is never one right away, so have fun figuring out what works for you!