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Winter Backpacking Gear List Explained

Winter Backpacking Gear List Explained

Winter backpacking is very different from three season backpacking. It requires more gear, good decision-making, and many new skills. It’s almost like backpacking on a different planet because so many things you take for granted during the rest of the year are different.

For example: you need to melt snow to make drinking water and to keep your boots in your sleeping bag at night so they don’t freeze. You need extra flotation so you don’t sink into the snow and extra traction to avoid sliding on icy surfaces. You have to use special stoves and fuel for cooking that you don’t use the rest of the year, and the list goes on.

One of the best ways to understand the differences between winter and three season backpacking is to look at the differences in the kind of gear you need to carry. I’ve done this in the form of an annotated gear list below, organized around the core activities that make up a winter backpacking trip. There’s a lot of information packed into this post about winter backpacking activities, gear requirements, and alternatives that I think you’ll find useful if this is new to you.

If you have questions, ask them in the comments. I’m happy to respond.

Winter Tent

This winter backpacking gear list is designed for use in temperatures down to -10F for camping in protected camp sites. At just over 27 pounds, without food, fuel, or water, it’s a good example of a lightweight winter backpacking gear list and the tradeoffs that you can make to reduce the weight of your winter gear without skimping on comfort or taking too many risks.

I’ve broken the gear list into the following sections:

  • clothing for camp
  • clothing for hiking
  • clothing for layering
  • hydration
  • cooking
  • navigation
  • electronics
  • first-aid
  • packing
  • shelter
  • sleeping
  • traction

Clothing for Camp

Winter backpacking involves a lot of sitting around in the cold so you can cook and melt snow for drinking water. We do this to be social (because it’s fun) and to avoid dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in our tents or burning them down around us.

namedescriptionweight oz.
Wool socks2.4
Glasses hard caseProtect glasses when sleeping4
Puffy hooded insulation14.4
Montbell Thermawrap PantsInsulated Pants12.4
Really warm hat2.1
Sleeping baselayer5.9
Neck insulation2.8
Sleeping baselayer6.7

When melting snow or cooking dinner, you’re not moving, so you need to pile on the insulated clothing to stay warm. This typically includes a heavy insulated jacket, insulated pants, warm gloves, and head-gear, layered over your day time clothing if it’s dry or your sleeping clothes. You’ll often wear your regular winter boots in camp, but some people bring down booties to keep their feet warm.

Melting Snow - Suited up in Down Parkas and Insulated Pants
Melting Snow – Suited up in Down Parkas and Insulated Pants

Most of these extra “camp” layers are too warm to wear when you’re hiking, but you do need to carry them nonetheless. However, they can be used to augment the warmth of your sleeping bag: I use mine that way so I can take my zero-degree sleeping bag down to -10 degrees. I’m not that interested in camping in anything colder because it’s kind of unpleasant. It took me many years to admit this to myself, but when I did I was able to switch from a -25 degree sleeping bag to a much less expensive and lighter weight, zero degree sleeping bag.

Clothing for Hiking

You don’t want to dress too warmly for winter hiking.  You’ll be carrying a much heavier pack than in summer, wearing heavier boots, and possibly snowshoes or crampons. Sweat is bad because it will accumulate in your clothes and cool you whenever you stop moving. This can snowball in crappy conditions and lead to hypothermia. If you start to sweat, strip off layers or slow down so your body generates less heat.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
Lightweight double Insulated Boot48
Cushioned2.4
Medium weight8.4
Light enough for exertion0.8
Highly breathable1.5
Rab Polartec 100 Fleece 1/2 zip PulloverThin, easy to vent, warm when wet9.9
High breathable gaiters4.3
Breathable, stretchy17.3
Non-chafing, some insulation3.2

It’s not unusual for me to backpack stripped down to my baselayer shirt. I also rarely wear long johns under my soft shell pants because I get too hot. I use them for sleeping instead.

My Baffin Borealis winter backpacking boots require some explanation. Called double insulated boots, they have removable liners. This is desirable in winter so you can sleep with your liners in your sleeping bag and not your entire boots. You do this to prevent the liners from freezing at night using your body heat. These Baffin Borealis boots are a real find because they’re super lightweight and you can walk easily in them. If your winter boots don’t have removable liners, you should be prepared to sleep with them in your sleeping bag. Same goes for your water bottles.

The Baffin Borealis Boot has a translucent TPU shell and separate insulated liner

Clothing for Layering

External temperatures or wind chill can vary widely on a winter backpacking trip, depending on the time of day, your location, and the amount of surrounding vegetation. It’s best to carry additional layers that you hold in reserve so you can layer up or off as conditions change. This is normal on winter hikes and backpacking trips, with people calling for layer breaks all the time.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
in winter, which won’t crack if frozen, and are easy to open while wearing mittens.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
Neoprene insulated covers for 1 liter bottles3.8
Wide mouth bottle4.8
Hunersdorf Bottle (1 liter)Wide mouth bottle4.8
Hunersdorf Bottle (1 liter)Wide mouth bottle4.8

If you can find water in liquid form, you still have to purify it. Boiling is an effective way to do this, since you’ll want to heat it up anyway to keep it from freezing overnight. A Steripen can also be used. Chemical reactions are too slow in the cold and filters break if they freeze.

Red hot glow of a MSR Whisperlite Stove melting snow on full power
Red hot glow of a MSR Whisperlite Stove melting snow on full power

Cooking

All this boiling and melting snow takes a lot of time and stove fuel. I like to use a liquid fuel stove for winter because liquid fuel (white gas) is the highest BTU fuel available and it will burn down to -40F. While you can use a canister stove in winter, it becomes increasingly difficult to use under 20F. You can push that down to about 0 degrees with a special inverted canister stove like the . But liquid fuel is still the best all round solution in my opinion, and makes it easy to share fuel in a group, since so many other people use liquid fuel stoves in winter. That extra redundancy is nice.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
Winter size for melting snow4
Fire starter1
Mesh Stuff SackHolds winter stove kit together0.8
6.3
White Gas Stove w/fuel pump11.4
Accordion, compact4
Food bag, heavy plastic1.3
With cap, liquid measurements4
Tiny little knife with scissors0.7

Packing space is at a real premium in winter, but winter cooking gear can be bulky. With the exception of my fuel bottle and insulated cup, my entire cook system fits in my stove pot, which keeps it nice and compact. At 1.3 liters, the pot is about as small as you can go for melting snow, since you can only melt one bottle’s worth at a time.

Navigation

Navigation needs can vary widely in winter. While a map can suffice if you’re on a well-used trail system and visibility is good, trails become more difficult to find in winter when they’re covered in snow, the horizon is fogged in, or the snow is so deep that the blazes are buried under your feet. I always carry a compass for route finding, but it takes some practice to be able to use it effectively in winter.

I also carry a whistle, something I carry all year, which is good for signaling companions when you can’t see them, like in dense fog or heavy vegetation. A whistle carries farther than the human voice and you can blow on it without becoming exhausted.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
Really loud whistle0.1
Adjustable declination1.5

While I do use an iPhone for GPS navigation during the rest of the year, I switch to a  in winter because it’s waterproof, has a better battery life than a phone, and most importantly, it can be used while wearing heavy gloves. The GPS unit is not part of my base gear list, because it’s often not needed.

The InReach Mini is much smaller than the InReach Explorer+ or SE+

Electronics

I always bring a digital camera because I take a lot of photos, as well as a . The mini lets me send out periodic “OK” messages, which my wife appreciates, and would be useful in an emergency to Search and Rescue if I’m out of cellphone range. I also carry a phone because it’s a better way to search-and-rescue if a cell phone signal is available. I also read books and take notes on it.

It’s also important to use Lithium-Ion Batteries to power electronic devices in winter because they don’t freeze like alkaline batteries, which contain a water-based electrolyte solution.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
micro-USB Rechargeable1.66
micro-USB Rechargeable3.5
Battery Pack and cords6.0

In the past year, I’ve also replaced my headlamp, camera, and satellite messenger with products that are micro-USB or apple lightning compatible so that I don’t have to carry device-specific batteries for them. I now carry a single 8000 mAh battery pack and a few short cords so I can recharge them if needed. Standardizing around USB rechargeable devices has simplified my trip preparation and eliminated the need to throw out partially-used batteries after each trip.

First-Aid

I use the exact self-assembled first-aid kit in the winter that I carry the rest of the year. Nothing special: Benedryl, Aspirin, Advil, ear plugs, Leuoktape for blister prevention. Some other odds and ends. You can find a complete list of my first aid contents here: Homemade Ultralight First Aid Kit. 

namedescriptionweight/oz.
First aid kitSelf assembled6.6
Backpacks have many external attachment straps on their exterior that you can attach gear to.
Backpacks have many external attachment straps on their exterior that you can attach gear to.

Packing

One of the keys to reducing your winter gear weight is to keep the volume of the backpack you need as small as possible. That means carrying highly compressible gear and learning how to attach gear to the outside of your backpack using its external attachment system. The weight of your gear is important of course, but if you can keep the volume of your pack under 60 liters, you’re going to be way ahead of the game. This may require some compromises on your part, for example, not backpacking when temperatures are less than zero degrees, but you can’t have it both ways.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
cuben fiber stuff sack0.5
cuben fiber pack32.4
WP Camera Pocket. Attached in shoulder strap.1.9
Mini-binerAttach swiss army knife to pack0.1

My winter backpack is a dyneema (formerly cuben fiber) Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 (55L) Southwest backpack, the same pack I use for longer multi-day backpacking trips the rest of the year. I can fit all of the gear, food, fuel, and water I need for winter backpacking inside it or attached to the outside of the pack with extra room to spare. I’ve used slightly larger backpacks in the past, but this one weighs significantly less, just over two pounds. It opens from the top with a roll top, which I find useful in winter because I can quickly find the gear I need.

Dyneema backpacks are not waterproof because you need to make holes in the fabric to sew on the shoulder pads and hip belt. I line my pack with a white trash compactor bag to keep its contents dry, and while I use stuff sacks or Ziploc baggies to organize gear, I pack a lot of clothes in my pack loose. I find that this reduces the pack space required by my clothes, eliminating the air gaps between other bulkier items inside my backpack. Experiment with this and see what you prefer.

The Black Diamond Firstlight Tent does not have a vestibule.
The Black Diamond Firstlight Tent does not have a vestibule.

Shelter

My goto shelter in winter is a freestanding Black Diamond Firstlight Tent which I think is the best lightweight all-round winter backpacking tent made. Weighing just 43 ounces, it’s truly freestanding so you can set it up just about anywhere. It has very steep walls that shed snow well, good head room, and has plenty of interior space since it’s designed for two (very friendly) people.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
Freestanding, 4 season tent43

I don’t carry any tent stakes to pitch this tent. If I need anchors, I take apart my poles and use them as stakes (shown) or anchor the other guy out loops with other gear I carry, like snowshoes, crampons, or an ice axe. I rarely even bother to sinter (harden) the snow under the tent and just set it up. Since it’s freestanding, I can pitch it in less than 2 minutes, climb in, and change into dry clothes without standing around and getting cold. Freestanding tents are priceless in winter but few truly freestanding tents are made.

Sleeping

It’s not unusual to sleep for 12 hours on a winter backpacking trip, so you might as well make the most of it and be comfortable and warm. The key to this is bringing a warm sleeping bag and a thick sleeping pad with a high R-value. Many people like to bring two sleeping pads in winter and combine them to get the R-value (which is additive) that they need.

The R-values for sleeping pads aren’t tested uniformly the same way across manufacturers, but they’re the best measure of thermal resistance (insulation) available to consumers, so useful for guidance. I think an R-value of 5 or 6 is ideal for winter camping, so that’s the amount of sleeping pad insulation I shoot for, and experience has proven this out.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
Roomy winter bag42
REI Compression SackFor sleeping bag3
R value=515
Doubles as sit pad8.1

I bring an insulated Therm-a-Rest XTherm inflatable mattress (R-value =5 ) for comfort and a shortened foam Therm-a-Rest Zlite sleeping pad, which serves as my sit pad during dinner, when we sit on snow to cook and melt snow for drinking water. You don’t want to forget a sit pad on a winter backpacking trip or you’ll freeze your ass off!

I put the Zlite under the XTherm at night for additional insulation. Foam pads like this are also preferred for shielding accident victims from hypothermia from the ground, which is why you see so many winter day hikers and backpackers carrying them on the trails. It’s good to have at least one in your group.

As I mentioned previously, I downgraded from a -25 degree sleeping bag to a 0 degree sleeping bag, when I realized that I don’t really enjoy backpacking in sub-zero temperatures. It took me a long time to realize this – nearly a decade. But after I switched to a 0 degree bag, I was able to switch to a smaller volume backpack, and so on, shaving more weight from my gear list. I still carry enough extra insulated clothing that I can take my 0 degree bag down to -10, but I’m also likely to postpone a backpacking trip if the weather forecast is that cold at night.

Kelty Cloud Backpack loaded with Snowshoes
Kelty Cloud Backpack loaded with Snowshoes

Traction

I always bring microspikes, snowshoes, and trekking poles on winter backpacking trips, so they have a permanent spot on my winter gear list. It’s important to replace the summer baskets on your trekking poles with snow baskets for winter travel. They really are an essential flotation aid for winter hiking.

namedescriptionweight/oz.
16.8
Bomber snowshoe64
Carbon fiber w/snow baskets20.8

I use are intended for climbing mountains and have a televator wire that lifts up under the heel to make them easier to climb slopes with. This unibody plastic snowshoe is also much better off-trail than a snowshoe with an attached fabric deck, because branches can’t become caught between the deck and the frame. I do a lot of off-trail hiking in winter and there’s a slight weight penalty (just a few ounces) for using these snowshoes instead of decked ones that are slightly lighter.

Extra Gear – As Needed

When I don’t need this extra gear, I’ll leave it at home. It consists of extra traction, navigation, and a shovel for digging out camp kitchen or vestibule trenches in deep snow.

namedescriptioncategoryweight/oz.
ratchet style crampontraction24.9
UL Ice axetraction10
w/ lithium ion AA batteriesnavigation4.6
for digging snow furnitureshelter29

The decision on whether to bring crampons or a GPS has a lot to do with the terrain where we plan to hike, the weather forecast, and trip reports that document local conditions that are posted by other hikers and backpackers.

Wrap Up

This 27 pound winter backpacking gear list is pretty streamlined and lightweight and should provide you with a good template of the gear required for winter backpacking and camping.  My advice – figure out what is right for you to be safe and comfortable, and suck it up if it weighs a bit more than you’d like. Winter backpacking gear IS heavier than three season hiking gear, but if you can get your full-out pack weight for a two night trip under 40 pounds, including food, water, and fuel, that’s a good target weight to shoot for.

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18 comments

  1. How is the fit of the Baffin boot ? Should I size up for a wide fit ?

    Thanks Thom

  2. Wow. Incredibly thorough. This could be a book in itself. I so appreciate the time spent putting this together.

  3. Those Baffin boots with hard shells and removable liners look really unusual. Like mountaineering boots scaled back for moderate altitude backpacking. Do you wear the liners while sleeping to keep them and your feet warm? Or put them in the bottom of your sleeping bag loose? Do the hard shells help when wearing snowshoes or micro spikes?

    • I just put the inners at the bottom my sleeping bag loose.
      The hardshells are what keeps them waterproof..they’re actually not that hard though.
      My friendlier and a hell of a lot more comfortable on the shins than an old school plastic mountaineering boot.

      • Great article, Philip. I did a quick google search for women’s Baffin Borealis boots and couldn’t find any. The removable liners are very appealing. Is the model for women called something else? Or am I out of luck?

      • I think you’re out of luck. They do go down to men’s 7, if that helps. Otherwise, you might want to baffin.

      • Darn it! I just looked for Women’s Baffin Borealis as well. I really liked that idea, I hate putting my boots in my sleeping bag! I tried it once, took them out and dealt with frozen boots the next morning!

  4. I really appreciate the detail you use in explaining the differences in systems used for different seasons. I work in the outdoor industry and recommend your site often, as you provide concise unbiased information that helps others build skills and make more informed purchase decisions. Thanks for being a steward of outdoor active adventuring.

  5. What’s your preferred stove base when cooking & melting water? I have seen quite a variety used and would appreciate your opinion and expertise. Thanks for such a good winter camping gear overview.

    • Wrong question (sorry). What matters is the external temperature. If I need to melt snow in less that 20F, I generally carry liquid fuel stove, a MSR Whisperlite. White gas will burn down to -40F. An upright canister gas becomes very hard to use below 20F and will crap out entirely at 10-15F unless you place it in a pan of hot water…Liquid gas is the way to go in my opinion. Much less risk.

      • I understood bmcf’s question differently. If by “stove base” he means what you put under the stove, it looks like the picture shows a piece of Reflectix doubled over. I scavenge Reflectix by cutting up car windscreen sun shades, but you can also buy it from hardware stores or online. The picture also does not show the accordion wind screen you use, presumably to get a better view of the stove in action. It might be worth pointing out that white gas stoves can be tricky. It’s worth practicing with one in benign circumstances, before taking it on a challenging trip. I had one fail catastrophically once, but luckily nobody was hurt.

  6. Thank you very much for this concise article. I love I’m the southeast where we get a mix of all precipitation. I often see the tent you are using for alpine conditions. My question is does it handle rain. May sound dumb but a tent such as this might handle snow and rain differently.

    • The manufacturer claims the tent is not waterproof, but I seam sealed mine when I got it, and it’s been through many torrential rain storms for me. I don’t even think twice about it.

      Of course, if you’re some place where it rains a lot in winter, chances are you don’t need a 4 season tent. Just use a three season one.

  7. Thoughts on vapor barrier socks? I seem to remember that they were once part of your kit.

  8. REMOVABLE BOOT LINERS AND CLOSED CELL NEOPRENE VBL SOX

    THE very best VBL sox I have seen and used are 3 mm CLOSED CELL NEOPRENE DIVERS’ SOX.
    I prefer US Divers brand because they are factory seam sealed and have a shaped (and marked) Left and Right foot. The beauty of this is to prevent excess material from bunching up around the toe area.

    DIVERS’ SOX are warm B/C they are closed cell neoprene that does not absorb water (sweat) and they provide warmth, just as they are designed to do when diving in colder waters.
    -> BUT… you need to wear a pair of thin polyester or polypropylene socks inside the divers sox. When doing multi-day trips take one pair of liner sox for each day and have a quart ZipLoc type freezer bag to store the sweaty, stinky liner sox.

    At night remove boots & put insulating liners in the foot of your sleeping bag for warm liners in the morning.
    Remove your VBL divers’ so and turn them inside-out to dry for about 15 – 20 minutes, then put in the foot of your sleeping bag. As mentioned, put sweaty liner socks in a ZipLoc bag & CLOSE TIGHTLY!

    “So what about my nice, thick winter wool socks?” you ask. Well, wear them for sleeping socks B/C they won’t fit into your boots with the VBL divers’ sox. AND alone, with no VBL sox, they are not nearly as warm all day.

    WITH these divers’ sox and knee high GTX gaiters I can hike in my GTX 3 season hiking bots (Merrill MOAB) in snow down to 10 F. if I keep moving. (BTW, high gaiters can add at least 10 F. to your boots’ warmth.)

  9. P.S.
    Philip, I really like ski camping well below zero. I have an LL Bean -20 F. down bag and insulated REI FLASH air mattress.

    MY SOLO TENT is a Tarptent Moment DW and my 2 person is a Tarptent Scarp 2. Both have been “winterized” by me by shortening the optional external crossing poles and running them BENEATH the fly for more stability. The are held in place with double sided Velcro cable ties sewn to the inside of the fly.

    MY BOOTS are either Sorel heavy felt pacs for snowshoeing or Scarpa T3 plastic Tele ski boots, both with removable liners.
    I much prefer skiing to snowshoeing. So much less work.

    MY WINTER STOVES
    1.Trail Designs Sidewinder W/ Inferno woodturner insert (when wood twigs are available) Great for melting snow.
    OR
    2.MSR Whisperlite Universal using white gas

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