Winter Backpacking 101
Gear and Tips to Get Started
Snow capped peaks, frozen lakes, and powder-dusted pine trees are undoubtedly magical. But you might be hesitant to plan a trip out into the backcountry in cold weather. With shorter days, colder nights, and snowy terrain, winter backpacking presents many unique challenges. However, with proper preparation and a solid gear setup, sleeping under the stars can be just as enjoyable as it is in the summer.
Outlined below is a rundown of the basic skills needed to embark on your winter backcountry adventure, from trip planning to how to pitch a tent in the snow.
Planning Your Trip
Winter adventures require decent amounts of research. You’ll want to know what the weather will be like (specifically the lowest temperature you will encounter), what time the sun sets, and how many miles you’ll be able to hike each day given the terrain.
Summer mileage is not an accurate indicator of how far you’ll be able to go each day in the winter, with the shorter days and potentially snowy terrain. Pulling yourself out of your warm sleeping bag before sunrise is downright miserable in the winter, and you’ll also want to be in camp before the daylight fades, making for less time to be between camp spots. Plan a conservative itinerary for your first winter trip. You can expect to hike roughly half the miles you would in the summer. Try going for a day hike in similar conditions to your planned trip, in order to get a feel for how your body handles the snow.
Once you’ve selected a location, there are many ways to find a weather forecast. Be aware that many websites you’d use for front country travel can be less helpful for a backcountry trip. Mountain-forecast.com is a wonderful resource for wind and weather forecasts. This resource is best if you’re planning to tag peaks on your trip. Windy.com also has accurate forecasts, based on exact locations, making it better for trips to remote alpine lakes or valleys.
Once you’ve got your location and itinerary set, double check that you can make it there by car with seasonal road closures and winter conditions. Even when roads are open, often you will be required to have snow tires and/or chains. Many states have websites dedicated to posting road closures and conditions, so check out your state’s Department of Transportation website for more information.
Winterizing Your Gear
Quality gear is undoubtedly a significant investment. But, winter trips require items that are suited for extreme temperatures. This article thoroughly covers proper layering and gear for winter camping. However, there are a few backpacking-specific hacks to cover. These are a few tried and true items to stretch the 3-season gear you already have into the winter.
Sleeping bag liner: Investing in a sleeping bag liner will save your budget and your pack weight. Sea to Summit’s Thermolite Reactor liner adds roughly 25 degrees to the lower end of your bag’s comfort rating. So, a bag with a comfort rating around 30 is instantly transformed into a 5-10 degree bag. Game changer.
Quality Sleeping Pad: Without proper insulation underneath you, the cold ground will creep it’s way onto your backside. You’ll want to pay extra attention to the R value of your pad, which rates its warmth. Anything over 3.5 is high enough for the snow. A wonderful example is the Thermorest Prolite Apex, which has an R-value of 4 and weighs in at under two pounds. You can also double up with a closed cell foam mattress, like this one from Alps Mountaineering. These are also great for sitting around camp.
Traction: If there’s any chance of snow or ice on the trail, bring traction. These ones from Kahtoola are ubiquitous amongst thru-hikers, but if there’s only a bit of snow on the trail you might be able to carry NanoSpikes, which are lighter.
Water filtration: In the winter, you’ll want a hands-free system to keep your digits from freezing. Two great options are this Katadyn Gravity filter, or these MSR purification tablets. Save the squeeze pumps for the summer, when you won’t sacrifice hand warmth.
Down booties and Gore-Tex Mittens: Warm feet and hands while at camp are crucial. Your fingers and toes will thank you at the end of the day for these extra layers.
Tent: You can still use an ultralight backpacking tent in the winter. However, if you’re likely to encounter heavy winds or snowstorms, pack a four-season tent. Though they are substantially heavier, those extra pounds are worth making sure your shelter stays in one piece and you stay plenty warm.
Setting Up Camp
Now we’ve made it to the fun part. It takes time to carve out a tent spot in the snow, thus providing another reason to keep the daily mileage low.
Instead of plopping your pack down and pitching your tent just anywhere, take some time to survey the area. You’ll want to find a sheltered spot with flat ground. Large boulders and trees are both excellent wind breaks, which help you stay warmer and your tent stay up better. Expansive overlooks may be tempting, but opt for the less-scenic option with maximum coverage. The sound of a flapping tent can quickly ruin a night’s sleep.
Once you’ve found a sheltered spot, it’s time to stomp out your campsite. If your area is covered in snow, it’s imperative to pack down the snow where you’ll be sleeping. Otherwise, you run the risk of sinking into powder as your body heats up the ground at night. Strap on your microspikes, and stomp around the surface area of your tent and vestibules. If you have snowshoes or a shovel, this can be much quicker. But, with a normal backpacking setup it takes time to pack down powder. Once you’ve created a bank for your tent, you’ll find a freestanding tent much easier to pitch. This means your tent stands on its own, without required assistance from stakes or trekking poles. Non-freestanding or trekking pole tents require packing down the snow tight enough to secure stakes. Either way, plan on swapping your regular stakes for snow stakes.
Fueling For Winter Trips
Even though you’re hiking less miles throughout a winter day, you will likely be burning more calories. Walking through snow requires extra energy, as does all the extra work at camp. Roughly 3,500 calories per day is a good place to start, give or take a few hundred depending on your personal caloric needs. This is what a sample winter day of food looks like in the backcountry:
Breakfast: You’ll want to start your day with a calorically-dense and warm breakfast, as opposed to a protein bar. Warm coffee and oatmeal also means warm fingers, while fueling the long day ahead. Topped with peanut butter and/or dried fruit, this breakfast is about 600 calories.
Snacks: While hiking, expect to eat every 2-3 hours. This keeps the hanger at bay, and reduces the risk of bonking during a big climb up the trail. Try to incorporate both salty and sweet foods into your snack routine. Try to bring a decent mix of nutritious, filling food like trail mix or cheese sticks, whatever you find fills you up and is appealing mid-hike. Depending on the day’s mileage, you may eat anywhere from 500 to 1,200 calories in snacks.
Lunch: Even when it’s cold, stoveless lunches are much more convenient. Something like tuna packets or turkey summer sausage wrapped in tortillas are great options. Also, with the cold weather, that block of cheese might last you a few more days. For a quick lunch, about 500 calories will refuel you without weighing you down.
Dinner: A warm dinner will not only fuel you to sleep warmer overnight, but also provides something delicious to look forward to as you prepare camp. Backpacker’s Pantry and Good-to-Go are a few fan favorite freeze-dried meals. However, ramen, instant mashed potatoes, and Mac n Cheese are all great options as well. Even if your appetite is suppressed, it will warm you up and help you fall asleep. Double-check the calorie counts on freeze-dried meals: they’re often packaged as two servings, which likely means a meal for one (about 700 calories) on a winter trip.
Dessert: Everything tastes better in the backcountry, and dessert is an absolute essential.
Keep in mind that lightweight canister stoves don’t work as well in the winter with temperature impacting the pressure inside the fuel canister. You can improve things by either bringing the fuel into your sleeping bag overnight, or tucking inside a layer or two as you set up camp. Liquid gas stoves are more reliable for winter camping, but in either case prepare to bring about twice as much fuel as you would on a warm-weather trip. Melting snow for water, colder starting temps, and more hot meals all contribute to an increased fuel consumption Also bring a lighter, in the case of the ignition needing a boost.
Katie Kommer is a freelance writer based in Utah. When she’s not behind her laptop, you can find her guzzling instant coffee in the backcountry or planning her next snow-filled adventure. You can read more of Katie’s work over at The Trek or on her personal blog. Follow her backcountry adventures on Instagram @katelyn_ali.