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DC UL Backpacking Message Board UL Backpacking Basics and Beyond › Winter Backpacking, Part 1

Winter Backpacking, Part 1

Michael M.
Alexandria, VA
Post #: 26
Two weekends ago, it was autumn around Roanoke, but in the Shenandoah Saturday, all the leaves were off the trees and there was a foot of snow in spots. We’ll definitely have winter conditions for some upcoming trips.

Since people are asking questions about winter backpacking, I thought I’d just throw out some of my thoughts. I’m sure lots of people have as much, or more, fourth season experience than I do (I am a Texan, after all, and I am really not the most cold resistant person!), so please chime in!

Winter camping is not for everyone, but if it’s your thing we’ll definitely be doing a number of trips.

Comfort while walking

Some of our lightweight gear is not really suitable for walking in the snow, in my opinion (I am sure some will agree and others will disagree). I switch back to boots for the winter, and I wear some that have some insulation built into them. Heavier socks are a must. I may even put gaiters on.

Trekking poles are pretty awesome in all seasons, but they are even more necessary in winter.

As for layering, you need to have the layers on that you need to remain warm enough while walking, but not to sweat through them. A good base-layer, like Merino wool or Capilene 3, is a must. You want layers that insulate even when wet.

If the snow gets deep, it will slow us down. At a certain point, backpacking becomes pretty much impossible and we enter the realm of snow-shoeing or skiing. We’ll have to tackle those topics if we start seeing that much snow this winter. I was eying the snow shoes at REI Sunday.

Comfort while stopped

Basically, you’ll want to be ready to seriously ramp up your insulation any time you stop. Something like a down parka or jacket, extra gloves, an extra warm hat, or a balaclava are pretty darned important. Keeping your neck warm is a trick, so the balaclava is very handy.

You want to have enough insulation so that you can be warm sitting around waiting for the fire to get started at camp. This isn’t easy and is one of the critical skills you need to learn for winter camping.

I also plan to have plenty of warming soups and drinks with me, and the fuel I need to heat them. Few things can make a cold camp more bearable. Heating a Nalgene full of hot water and putting it in your sleeping bag with you is also a nice trick.


Dealing with water in sub-freezing temperatures is the topic of a treatise in its own right, as of course water, unless it’s insulated, will freeze. Getting it unfrozen is well nigh impossible. And if you can’t drink, you have a problem.

First, leave the bladders at home. Their tubes have a tendency to freeze quickly, which makes them impractical for winter. Once they’re frozen, you’re just carrying around a big chunk of ice (I know, I’ve done that).

In my opinion, you really need wide-mouth bottles like the Nalgenes we all stopped carrying most of the time due to their weight. You could probably get away with a lighter weight bottle, but I’d definitely go with one that’s hard plastic. You’ll be keeping your bottles on you, or deep in your pack at all times to prevent them from freezing, and you’ll also be carrying them into your bag with you when you go to bed. Your bottle is your buddy.

Water treatment is also an extra hassle during winter. Mechanical pumps are bad because they will crack as the water inside them freezes. I’ve had my steri-pen fail on me in low temperatures. So, I’m sticking with a chemical treatment (bleach), but it has to be kept near your body, too, or it will freeze. So many things to keep in your pockets.

On DC UL winter trips, we are unlikely to go if it is so cold for so long that there is no running water. If we do, though, we’ll have to make provisions for melting snow, which means a more powerful stove and a lot of fuel. I’m not sure we’ve ever done that as a group, though we did have to melt snow for drinking water in Iceland.


Obviously, fingers and toes start to get cold before anything else, so ensuring that they stay warm enough is very important. Frostbite can become an issue if the temperatures get quite cold. We have had an incident or two …

For your feet, many people like to bring down booties and wear them around camp. Personally, I tend to keep my boots on, but I bring a really thick pair of sleeping socks.

For your hands, good gloves are an absolute must. I usually feel okay just using a pair of fleece gloves while walking, but I have an upgrade available for camp. My upgrade of choice is a pair of heavy, cumbersome mittens. Carrying an extra pair of dry gloves (or liners) is a very good idea, as is bringing some of those handy dandy chemical warmers.

One of the difficulties of winter camping is that you’re always having to do little chores that require dexterity and are not really compatible with wearing heavy gloves. You need to make sure that you can warm those fingers up after they get cold.

Michael M.
Alexandria, VA
Post #: 27
Part 2:


For what we’ll do in the Mid-Atlantic, a 3-season tent or even a tarp is adequate to our needs—you do not need to go out and buy a 4-season tent to do our winter trips. They are expensive and intended for really extreme environments. They are also not light.

One of the main differences between 4-season shelter and a 3-season one is that the 4-season shelter really cuts off the wind. In contrast, a 3-season shelter will get drafty in windy conditions, as it’s usually made of a mesh inner and an outer that won’t reach the ground. On a February trip last year, temperatures fell to the teens and the wind was gusting—that was pushing the limits of what the Big Agnes tent I took with me could do, as I could feel the drafts through my bag. I put on my wind clothes inside the bag and was fine.

A good, fairly inexpensive way to extend the range of your 3-season shelter is to add a bivvy sack for your bag. That’ll keep the wind off.

If it looks like we’re going to be camping on snow pack, it’s not a bad idea to invest in some snow stakes or even a light-weight shovel. The shovel is more of a group tool, but they are handy for moving snow about.

Sleep System

Obviously, as temperatures drop below freezing, the importance of your sleep system goes up. I have slept on snow pack in my 20 degree bag and a ¾ length mat, mainly by compensating with lots of clothes and shoving my pack under my legs, but I don’t recommend this. You want to know that you’re going to be warm when you climb in your bag. Being chilled while trying to sleep sucks.

So, I’d recommend getting something along the lines of a zero degree bag and making sure you have a full-length pad. While I suspect that many of the pads people are using with an R-value of 4 or 5 are adequate for most Mid-Atlantic winter conditions, you can also get an insulated pad like the Exped models (some with R-values in the 8 or 9 range!). I can assure you that you’ll sleep really warm on these!

If you’re worried that your pad isn’t up to snuff, and yet don’t have the cash for a winter pad, grab the old foam pad out of your gear closet and bring it in addition to your other pad. That’s a cheap way to solve this problem.

Similarly, if you can’t afford a dedicated winter bag just yet, consider adding a liner to your three season bag or just bringing more clothes.

When buying a winter bag, consider that you end up sleeping with extra gear to keep it warm, such as water bottles. A little extra room is a great idea.


You’re probably thinking that all this extra stuff doesn’t sound that light. It’s not: winter loads are heavier. The fourth-season is not a good time to be trying to reach some imaginary line on a spreadsheet somewhere. You need the appropriate weight of gear for the weather, the environment, and the circumstances. Make your ultra-light push for a nice spring weekend.

And now a quick plug for AMC and a book on winter backpacking:­

A former member
Post #: 19
Just some of my thoughts in response to Michael’s post…

Ultralight footwear: I think trail runners work fine during the cold and snow. Being able to wear extra thick socks is a good idea, and I’ve also added Gore-Tex socks for warmth +snow/water resistance. Gaiters become important in the cold regardless of footwear because they not only keep snow from going down your shoe, but also help retain more warmth. I’ve used this combo below freezing during the daytime.

Regardless of your style of footwear choice, it is VERY important to ensure that your toes and feet have adequate space… Cramming a big thick sock into your summer boot could be a very bad idea if it is a tight fit. This restricts circulation—this is how frostbite happens. Trail runners are at least more pliable than boots and more forgiving in this respect.

Furthermore—your footwear is probably going to freeze up and be a pain in the butt to put on the next morning. Some strategies are to put your footwear in a bag and toss it at the bottom of your sleeping bag. You can also fill your hard bottle with boiling water in the morning, place it into your shoe to soften it up, and then stash the bottle in your pack.

On Layers: I find that merino wool is much more comfortable as a base layer. It feels less clammy against the skin and is also warmer than synthetics when wet. In cold conditions, I usually like to pair it with a light fleece of some sort—like the Patagonia R1 or NW Alpine Spider Light Hoody. It is a nice feature to have a built in hood, in my opinion, as you can more easily regulate your temperature while moving.

I’ve become a big fan of thin windshirts (ie less than 4 or 5 oz)… These are super breathable and will slough off snow, while at the same time the dramatically boost the comfort range of your base layer. This is especially important in cold/chilly/windy environments.

I also really like the versatility of the Buff—you can wear it as a hat, put it over your nose/mouth, wear it around your neck, etc.

For an insulation boost during quick stops, you might consider a light synthetic jacket like a Nano Puff or similar. It’s quite warm and won’t be compromised by snow or wetness. Also makes a great mid layer below your big puffy at the end of the day.

On food: as Michael mentioned, having some instant soups and hot drinks are awesome. I like to take an instant Miso soup along during the cold weather. I will rehydrate my freeze dried meal, and then place this inside my big puffy—you help keep the meal hotter and help it rehydrate, while also getting the warmth boost from the meal inside your jacket. Then you make the soup and drink that while you wait for your meal to rehydrate. Adding an ounce of olive oil boosts the calories by 250, and the fat content purportedly helps keep you warmer while sleeping. Tea or cocoa is a nice thing just before bed as well.

Water: I concur on the water bladders… mostly useless. If you elect to bring them, be sure to blow the water out of the hose after each use. They sell insulating tubes… I like to bring ONE wide mouth hardshell bottle (nalgene’s work, but Hunnersdorf bottles are lighter and are easier to use with gloves). Get an insulating holder for your one accessible bottle—I use a 40 Below insulator. I use soft shell wide mouth Nalgene’s to carry any additional water, and keep these inside my pack. They shouldn’t freeze, unless it is crazy cold. This is not ultralight by any means, but I have brought along a vacuum sealed steel bottle like the Hydroflask (one of those that purports to keep hots hot for 12hrs and colds cold for 24 hours). It’s awesome to put hot water in it and sip on throughout the day. It will stay warm, and it will not freeze. As for treatment, I’ve continued to use the Steripen, but I’m not 100% sold. Definitely keep it in your pocket if you do though.

Sleeping: a four-season tent is overkill here. Four season essentially means designed for above treeline activities, ie high snowfall or high wind. You are not likely to encounter that here (or you need to do a better job picking your camp site). FYI, when you reduce breathability/air circulation, you also increase condensation that forms inside and then freezes on your tent/sleeping bag. Your warmth is going to come from your sleeping bag and pad… Most people aren’t going to want to spend $400+ for a zero degree bag that they will only use once or twice a year—so I’d encourage you to look at ways to boost your comfort level by other means. IE a better pad, or better down layers. I’ve taken my 15 degree bag down to single digits by adding warm long johns (Cap 3 tops and bottoms), fleece layers, and down pants and down booties. Your mileage may vary.

Just my thoughts!
Michael M.
Alexandria, VA
Post #: 28
Thanks, Ryan.

I was unaware of the 40 Below Gear--I'm definitely going to order one of their bottles and insulators for this season.

It's amazing what I learn from the people in the meet up!

The Traders Joe Instant Miso Soup is really great for cool weather. They're more or less perfect for backpacking.

A former member
Post #: 20
I should also add that winter traction is something that is a nice thing to have, even if you don't end up using it on the trail. Yaktrax, microspikes, etc... Helps you move more quickly and confidently over icy terrain or hard snowpack. It has definitely been nice to have on a couple trips. Yaktrax are cheap and light. However, be sure that your traction device does not significantly restrict your foot--could pose danger for frostbite.

Feathered Friends down booties are one of the best things since sliced bread, I think. The real benefit is the down sock and removable shell--you can wear the booties outside, then just slip off the shell and hop into your sleeping bag--no more cold feet!
Michael M.
Alexandria, VA
Post #: 29
I may relent and try a pair of FF booties. The ones I bought at REI I don't much like, honestly, as they lack the detachable shell.

Does anyone have any data about the temperature below which the alcohol stoves become difficult to use? I know we've had that discussion before, but I wasn't an alcohol stove user at the time.

I suppose I'm wondering if I just need to plan to bring another stove for winter purposes. I've used my alcohol stove down to freezing, but not much below it.

Joffrey P.
Lebanon, NH
Post #: 11
I'm not sure about alcohol stove temps, but white gas seems to be the norm for cold weather and high altitude, except where specially rigged gas canisters can be warm enough to work. Pure ethanol freezes around -114C, but I suspect it freezes at a much elevated temperature when mixed with water (4% or so for distilled ethanol).

As for footwear - trailrunners might have been fine all of last winter in the mid-Atlantic, but last weekend, I was hip-deep in snow with snow shoes on in WV. I was very happy to have my completely waterproof hard plastics, which were certainly overkill, but fit nicely in my snowshoes and stay warm pretty much no matter what idiotic thing I decide to do. Ultralight seems to be right out in the winter, but thoughtful (and experienced) layering can pare down the gear needed considerably.
Michael M.
Alexandria, VA
Post #: 30
I was hoping you'd reply Joffrey, as I know you have a lot of cold weather experience!

Yes, you know, Saturday I had my trailrunners on in the Shenandoah with just running socks. They were fine with 3-4" of snow, but when I had to go help rescue a beginning dayhiker, I had to head down Hannah Run with a foot or more of snow and a rocky descent. I was post-holing to my knee or a little above. For me, that was about the limit of where I'm taking my trailrunners. (Similarly, in Iceland, the trailrunners were fine ... until we went over Askia in snow that was sometimes drifted up several feet. They really didn't excel there. The snow plus lava field combination was pretty awful (though, truthfully, it would have been awful no matter what).)

Also, boots are just going to work better if you want to add snowshoes or crampons.

But I have come to acknowledge that nothing is more personal than footwear. And, of course, it all depends on the weather.

A former member
Post #: 22
Here are some comments on alcohol stove myths: http://www.thesodacan...­

Gas canisters work at altitude and elevation. The team that climbed Gasherbrum II in the winter (Cold:­) used Jetboils.

I've used trailrunners postholing in knee deep snow... There are other options for trailrunners if you are using snowshoes or traction devices, such as overboots:­

You should absolutely be careful when it comes to paring down your pack during the winter, but it is feasible to get things in the mid-20 to below 30lb range for winter here. I mean, your weekend backpacking weight shouldn't really weigh more than people doing technical ascents on major peaks in the Alaska range or elsewhere, right? :) I think the mantra of speed is safety still holds true for winter backpacking--if you are lighter, you can move faster and can more efficiently regulate your temperature. Weight begets more weight... You carry more weight, you move more slowly and thus need more to keep you warm.
Michael M.
Alexandria, VA
Post #: 31
Oh yes, I didn't mean to imply that one couldn't be light in the winter.

I *think* my base winter weight last year was under 20lbs--though it was a mild winter, I did sleep out some of the worst nights. It will be interesting to re-pack and re-weigh this winter, as I've had lots of new (and lighter) gear purchases in the intervening year, and I have a lot more experience with some of my lighter pieces of gear.

From my perspective, I just don't want to encourage new ultra-lighters to cut down too much for winter trips until they have some experience with the gear and the season. In the other seasons, if you go too far, well, you get a little wet or something. In winter, the consequences are more serious. So, I'd rather people err on the side of safety.


PS My usual 3-season base weight is just over 8lbs now, so at a base weight just under 20lbs, I was adding a lot of stuff. Again, it will be interesting to see how all that goes this winter.
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