This winter backpacking gear list is designed for use in temperatures down to 10 below zero (fahrenheit) and for camping below treeline, out of high wind. At just under 28 pounds, without food, fuel, or water, it’s a good example of a lightweight winter backpacking load 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 sections so I can explain it in more detail for hikers interested in winter backpacking. 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.
- clothing for camp
- clothing for hiking
- clothing for layering
If you have questions, ask them in the comments. I’m happy to respond.
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.
|Glasses hard case||Protect glasses when sleeping||4|
|Puffy hooded insulation||18.7|
|Really warm hat||2.1|
|Personal Effects||Wallet, keys, money, etc.||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.
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.
|Lightweight double Insulated Boot||48|
|Light enough for exertion||0.8|
|Rab Polartec 100 Fleece 1/2 zip Pullover||Thin, easy to vent, warm when wet||9.9|
|High breathable gaiters||4.3|
|Non-chafing, some insulation||3.2|
It’s not unusual for me to backpack stripped down to my midlayer fleece pullover or 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.
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.
| in winter which won’t crack if frozen and are easy to open while wearing mittens.|
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 and to reboil it in the morning so it doesn’t freeze during the next day,
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 -40 fahrenheit. While you can use a canister stove in winter, it becomes increasingly difficult to use under 20 degrees fahrenheit. 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.
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 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 much more difficult to find in winter when they’re covered in snow, the horizon is fogged in, and 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, which is a lot more like off-trail navigation, than it is three-season navigation.
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.
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.
It’s 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.
I like to bring a high-powered headlamp on winter trips because we often hike at night, what with the shortened daylight in winter. I also find shadows very distracting when I hike on snow at night and a bright headlamp helps chase them away.
My Black Diamond Icon headlamp (320 lumens) is powered by 4 AA batteries that last a long time, usually all winter. It also has a lock mode which I view as essential, so it won’t turn on accidentally and lose power. I also carry a very small Petzl e+lite headlamp, also with a lock mode, mainly for use in my tent, which is easy to stow in my sleeping bag for easy access at night.
I always bring a pocket camera because I take a lot of photos, as well as a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger. The SPOT 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.
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.
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.
My winter backpack is a 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.
While cuben fiber fabric is waterproof, cuben fiber backpacks are not 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, a shovel for digging out camp kitchen or vestibule trenches in deep snow, and wood preparation tools for when we want to make campfires.
The shovel, saw, and knife are best thought of as group gear and we distribute them around so one person doesn’t have to carry all of them. 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.
My 28 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. While I could still “spend” its weight down more by swapping out my freestanding tent for a tarp shelter and other ultralight substitutions, I’m not really inclined to race to the bottom like that any more. I have used floorless cuben fiber shelters in winter and not found them to be particularly comfortable. It also takes a while to freeze in deadman stakes so you can stake them out, time I’d rather be spending out of the wind and changing into dry clothes inside the freestanding tent I carry instead.
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. Reducing your gear weight for winter backpacking is a worthwhile goal and does pay dividends, but it takes some time to accomplish it, so keep at it.
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