Winter Backpacking Checklist

Man oh man, this winter has been a strange one! Well it depends on your locale of course, but here in California we had some nice early snow, then nothing… not a drop for months. We did see some unusually cold temperatures which sort of made us cringe and not want to go outside. In other parts of the US, blizzard conditions were going off but still Cali is left high and dry. Finding ourselves in the middle of a severe drought, we finally got that much needed precip. Let the snow trips commence!! What follows on this post is my winter backpacking gear list and some musings on getting outside in the fourth season.

Beautiful Winter Morning

Beautiful Winter Morning

Well, maybe it is stupid, but it’s also dumb!

…said Patrick from SpongeBob. If winter backpacking and snow camping seems like a stupid, crazy, or absurd activity, then maybe it’s not for you. Personally I love it because snow transforms familiar landscapes – not just how they appear but how we travel across them. The snow hushes voices and other sounds that usually travel much further, and shows the traces of every animal that wanders among it. It’s a different experience all together. I don’t believe that winter hiking and camping are inherently more dangerous than in summertime (mountaineering exempted), in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if heat-related injuries and dehydration in the other seasons are more common than hypothermia on winter backpacking trips. I could be wrong, I’m not a statistician or whoever is unfortunate enough to crunch such sets of data. Yes, it’s colder in the winter and being wet and/or having wet gear can get you into serious trouble, but that holds true all year round. It doesn’t take sub freezing weather to die. 50º Farenheit is in the hypothermia range. I could have eliminated this paragraph by having just said: bring the gear that’s adequate for the conditions. Do that, and use the common sense that you practice on all of your outings and winter backpacking is just like any other. Well, almost.

Clothing for Winter Backpacking

Without question, the toughest gear to figure for snow travel (or winter travel in general) will be your clothes. Layers are a must. Warmth and dryness are a priority and usually one follows the other. Staying dry is really the issue here. We go spend a lot of money to keep the rain and snow out, then we end up trapping body moisture (sweat) inside. This applies to pretty much all clothing including footwear.

This is how I justify owning some of that pricey waterproof breathable (WPB) gear made of eVent, Entrant, Pertex Shield etc… The goal is to transport as much of that body moisture out of our gear as possible, while still keeping rain, sleet, and snow from getting us wet. I will just say now, that it’s not a perfect science and there’s always some tradeoff in finding a balance. You’ll note in my gear list that I only own an eVent jacket (not pants). Money is also a consideration of course; I deal with the same constraints that a lot of people do.

So, I’ll do a “quick” (ha! it turned out to not be so short) rundown on why I carry what I do after the gear list which is coming up next…

Winter Backpacking Checklist

This is not necessarily a recommended gear list, it’s simply my gear list. I don’t really care for labels like “UltraLight” (“UL”) and all the similar acronyms that act as descriptors for pack loadouts however, if someone forced me to, I’d say this is an ultralight loadout. The spirit of ultralight is to scrutinize and refine our gear to carry the lightest items that still fill their roles. For overnight hikes in winter/snow there’s simply a need to carry more/heavier insulation as well as things that are otherwise not needed on a typical 3-season trip. So, I don’t mind the semantic gap. Let the people on the forums argue about it. Here’s what I bring…

Backpack:

  • ZPacks Arc Blast 60L

Shelter:

  • Locus Gear Khufu
  • Borah Gear Cuben/M90 bivy
  • Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles (pair)
UL in the winter

UL in the winter…. Lightweight Shelter, Lightweight Snowshoes, Lightweight Shovel.

Sleeping:

  • Western Mountaineering Alpinlight (20º) – combined with…
  • Jacks R Better Sierra Stealth Quilt (45º) – together rate to about 5ºF
  • Kookabay down air mattress ~R8 (now discontinued)
  • Exped inflatable pillow

Cooking:

  • MSR WindPro canister stove
  • MSR Titan 2L titanium pot
  • MSR LiteLifter (pot grabber)
  • Sea to Summit long handle spoon
  • REI plastic double wall mug with lid
  • Widemouth Nalgene for storing melt water
  • Small DIY pine plank to act as a stove base
Snow Melting Setup

Snow Melting Setup

Water Filtration:

  • None. Rely on melting snow
  • Aquamira as backup (in FAK)

Snow-Specific Items

  • Northern Lites Backcountry Snowshoes
  • Kahtoola Microspikes
  • SMC Snow Stakes (9 of em)
  • Voile Mini Avalanche Shovel

Clothing

  1. Shoes: Gore Tex cross trainers
  2. Socks: Smartwool heavy weight hikers
  3. Undies: Ex-Officio boxer briefs
  4. Active Base Layer: 2XU thermal compression tights
  5. Pants: REI Ultralight rain pants
  6. Gaiters: Outdoor Research Mountain low gaiters
  7. Active Base Layer: Brooks long sleeve running shirt
  8. Jacket: REI Kimtah eVent rain jacket
  9. Camp/Sleep Socks: Smartwool heavy weight hikers
  10. Insulation: Goosefeet down socks (booties)
  11. Camp/Sleep Base Layer: Ice Breaker 200 bottoms
  12. Insulation: Western Mountaineering Flight pants
  13. Camp/Sleep Base Layer: Ice Breaker 200 bottoms
  14. Insulation: First Ascent Downlight hooded jacket
  15. Camp/Sleep Base Layer: Ninja mask (Smartwool balaclava)
  16. Hat: Mountaingoat Hats alpaca beanie
  17. Camp/Sleep Base Layer: Smartwool Liner gloves
Hiking Clothes

Hiking Clothes

Camp Clothes

Camp Clothes

Misc

  • ZPacks Cuben Fiber stuff sacks
  • OR Dry bags (a couple of different sizes)
  • Bosavi rechargeable headlamp
  • Solio Bolt solar charger
  • Gossamer Gear sit light pad
  • Instaflator
  • FAK

This isn’t a spreadsheet so I’m not going into fine detail on many of the small or miscellaneous items; generally the rest is whatever I carry other times of the year too.

Rationale

I’ll start with the clothing and footwear since that’s where I left off. I carry 2 sets of base layers which allows me to hike in one and not worry about sweat or about getting wet from rain, snow, squirrel pee (a.k.a. diamonds in the sky), etc. For my shoes I’ve just switched from Northface Hedgehog GTX’s to a pair of Keen Marshall WP’s. The former is Gore Tex, the new ones are proprietary membrane called “Keen Dry”. Not enough data for me to comment yet, but let’s talk about shoes for a second…

Andrew Skurka has given his perspective on winter footwear and the futile attempt to keep one’s feet dry in the winter. This wouldn’t be a bad time to check out his article. He’s a hell of a source for information, so who would I be to disagree? That said, there is always more than one way.

I’ve seen people doing all kind of things in the winter and it comes down to the application and personal preference. A popular trend with a few guys I know is snowshoeing in a waterproof overboot. Again, this is not going to keep your feet dry despite the waterproof, non-breathable material… read on. The scheme goes like this: thin sock on the foot, plastic bag over that, heavier sock over the bag, then running shoe or light hiker, followed by Forty Below Light Energy overboot, and finally a snowshoe. There’s probably no reason that most of it couldn’t be replaced by a single VBL sock, other than comfort. My friend Marc let me use a couple of his photos from trips that we did together. He rolls in style with the electric blue Usain Bolt kicks (and matching bags!)…

Marc's Forty Below System

Marc’s Forty Below System

The idea with this setup is to accept that one’s foot is going to be wet, so keep the shoe and heavier sock dry by using the plastic bag as a vapor barrier. The thin sock is just for comfort. My friend Adam uses a similar setup with the addition of Toasty Feet inserts in his shoes. Here’s Adam with the other guys. On this trip we experienced negative temps and they all seemed pretty comfy down to around 5 degrees. Note that all three purchased the overboot with integrated gaiter. Post holing in depths over the gaiter is inviting water to make its way in (eventually) but otherwise eliminates the need to carry separate gaiters.

Warm Feet

Rick, Marc, and Adam… happy with warm feet.

The sweat marinade is going to be the case with any waterproof shoe or overboot, to a lesser extent if the shoe is “waterproof breathable”. I keep putting these things into quotes because a waterproof shoe is not really 100% waterproof, nor 100% breathable. For me, a WPB shoe with a medium-heavy wool sock is a good middle ground. What it lacks is the added warmth of the above setup. I can appreciate that last part though as I sometimes need to use a plastic bag over my dry “camp socks” if the inside of my shoe is damp/wet when I break camp. To keep warm I generally try to stay busy and get a hot beverage going quickly. Maybe I’ll break down and try some variation of the Forty Below setup one of these days…

Speaking of camp and dry clothes, after getting my shelter set up, the active base layers come off and the dry ones go on. I hike in my rain jacket and rain pants and these go back on, over the fresh base layers, followed by down insulation. Of course heavy snow or rain means retreat to shelter, but otherwise this works great and mostly keeps the down from picking up body moisture. The provides (to an extent) a VBL effect, which Skurka has also written about and is worth reading. Also worth checking out is this excellent winter layering guide written by Hendrik Morkel.

My shelter is fairly minimal. I’ve learned a lesson or two and yet I still try to push it just a little. First, don’t be stoopid. Ultralight shelters are fine in any temperature, pitched on snow (or not) IF the weather is favorable otherwise. I’ve slept in -5º F while it was snowing with only my Khufu to protect me. No problem. Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing. I’ve done that too, unfortunately. What a nightmare; even though I had dug in and done my best to mitigate spindrift it just kept covering me all night, two nights in a row no less! Lesson learned. Either take a solid-wall 4-season shelter, or a double wall mostly-solid shelter, or a bivy under a shelter which is what I now do. I also learned not to dink around with regular tent stakes in the snow… use proper snow stakes less you like walking around outside in snow storms at 0300 recovering gear.

When it comes to cooking, my WindPro can handle the task, running inverted fuel canisters if necessary. One thing I’ll say about stoves is, if you’re camping with a buddy, coordinate taking stoves that share the same fuel if possible. In case of a stove failure this provides some important redundancy. Nice to have that. Also nice to have – a large~ish pot for melting snow, and on the plus side I don’t need a filter. Keeping a wide mouth nalgene handy provides a way to make a hot water bottle for the feet at night, and no frozen water in the morning! I put mine inside a dry bag… call me paranoid if you want but one time it did stop a leak from ruining the night.

At bedtime my layering system allows me to come down to just my base layers + rain gear if necessary. I really like keeping the rain gear on so my sleeping bag(s) don’t pick up too much body moisture that way. With a balaclava, beanie, and down hood (plus sleeping bag hood) I can layer all the way up to my noggin for ultra plush comfort. I generally experience temps in the single digits to low 20′s and thus I will almost always bring my quilt to supplement my bag. Even with the insulated clothing I have, I’ve never regretted carrying a little extra insulation.

The winter loadout is a little heavier than summer. It’s nice to have a pack with some sort of rigid frame, or at least some stays. It’s not going to the be the same light load of the summer months. The extra insulation eats up volume like crazy too, so there’s that. I was previously using my Lowe Alpine Zepton 50L (just barely enough room for my gear) but switched to a ZPacks Arc Blast 60L this season. My next snow trip is coming right up and I’ll be sure to report how I like it!

Wow… the wall of text is indicative of the thought that I’ve put into my setup. It also evolves with experience, and that process is ongoing. I considered adding more but I think I’ve gone on too long so I’ll wrap this up.

So is this Really an Ultralight Loadout?

I’d call it an ultralight kit regardless of whatever the scale says. You carry what the conditions require and nothing more.

In most areas I’m using the lightest options that fit the bill (backpack, shelter, insulation, snowshoes, stove). There are a few areas that would be obvious targets for weight reduction, but I choose not to for various reasons. For instance my trekking poles are consistently reliable and that’s the most important factor when getting my shelter pitched depends on them. My rain gear could also be lightened. Something like the Cuben Fiber raingear that ZPacks offers would be a noteworthy weight reduction, however I have concerns about its lack of abrasion resistance even more so than regular Cuben. Post holing through snow with hidden rocks, submerged tree branches, etc… don’t bode well for sensitive materials. I’m sure there are other places I could shave an ounce or two. Weight is always a consideration, but expectations should be kept reasonable for snow travel.

If I was ever to consider a longer snow trek I’d probably look to a full VBL setup and follow a lot of what Andrew Skurka does, at least that’s where I’d start. For a few days or a week out, this has kept me happy so far and always ready for the next snow trip. Hike It. Like It.


7 comments to Winter Backpacking Checklist

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  • Vio

    I’ve seen people light up a candle under the alcohol stove in winter and it works! it just complicates things and I wouldn’t use it inside a tent.

    • Hi Vio. I’ve never seen that trick! Sounds like it would work great, but as you said, it does add some complication to the overall setup with two flames to keep lit.

      Cooking inside a tent with alcohol isn’t very safe no matter the setup.

  • Your 2nd paragraph perfectly described why it is wonderful to go out on winter trips. The stillness is unmatched.

    Thanks for sharing the gear list. I can’t believe that footwear system works. It seems that it would lead to a slushy foot. I don’t think I have the guts to try it.

    Also appreciate the stove setup. I was out with some guys two weeks ago high in the Cascades for just an overnight. I brought my alcohol stove thinking I could save weight, but knowing perfectly well they don’t perform in the cold. My partners melted snow for me as my stove couldn’t stay lit.

    • The Forty Below footwear has been pretty popular among people in the BPL crowd and elsewhere. There are variations of it. I think a lot of people see this version as being slightly more comfortable than simply wearing VBL socks. Naturally I’m always asking these guys questions about it… how’s it going?, still comfortable?, how are your feet?, etc… My friend Marc commented that after a few days his feet were beginning to show signs of pruning. So drying them out whenever the opportunity presents and using something like Hydropel are probably smart things to do. Though that could hold true regardless of winter footwear choices… wet on the outside, hot and sweaty on the inside :)

      Also worth noting at this point, I’ve got a follow up post in the works specifically about comfort and safety in the winter. I realize that our winter here in California is pretty mild compared to places like Minnesota or North Dakota, but none the less it’s important to understand some of the risks. For folks who are interested in “deep winter” experiences in really harsh conditions, the forums over at Kifaru are a good source of info!

    • Side note on the alcohol stove: With the right stove it’s possible to prove the point that it can be done, but otherwise it’s just a bad idea. I’ve done it a couple of times, mainly just to show off to friends; I used a Whitebox stove and kept the fuel in my pocket for a few mins to warm it up. This was at 7000 ft and -5º F. It’s horribly inefficient for melting snow of course. It did cause much wow.

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