Winter camping and backpacking is one of the more challenging trips you can embark on. While most people are familiar with three-season backpacking (spring, summer, and fall), winter backpacking is a whole different ball game. Cold and snowy conditions add a new set of dangers, obstacles, and necessary skills, but it’s an adventure like no other.
For those who can brave the frigid temperatures, backpacking in the wintertime is incredibly memorable and rewarding. However, if you’re unprepared and deep into the trails and outside of cell phone range, a fun backpacking trip can turn dangerous or even deadly. While you can likely make it through a 3-day hike in the summer without a couple of essentials, you may not be so lucky in the snow.
This winter backpacking checklist has everything you need for a safe and thrilling winter adventure, including:
To make it easy, we’ve separated the list into two groups: in the "Gotta Have It" category are things you really can't live without. There may be a few things you won't end up using, but it's all gear you should bring just in case. The "Take It or Leave It" category is full of items that make for a simpler and warmer winter camping trip, but aren't required. Always consider your tastes and needs, but keep in mind that extra items will add weight to your backpack. Finally, we’ve also listed several helpful tips along the way to make your trip better and safer.
Let’s get to it.
Your base layer is crucial to your enjoyment of any cold weather trip. When the winds aren’t blowing, you’ll likely be hiking in just the base layer. Make sure it’s warm and moisture-wicking so you’ll be able to stay dry and comfortable.
Long underwear keeps you warm and prevents snow from getting to your skin when it inevitably creeps in under your outer layer. Don’t forget to pack at least one extra pair.
While you may not want to wear bulky snow pants on a long hike to your campsite, do find a pair of pants that are both waterproof and provide at least some warmth. You might feel warm while hiking in normal pants, but a cold wind can easily cause discomfort even during strenuous hikes. Use your best judgment and find a pair of pants that’ll provide optimal comfort and protection.
Get a thick, waterproof coat with a hood, and make sure you can move around in it. In the most extreme conditions you’ll never take it off. It’s more likely, though, that you’ll be wearing it around camp when your blood won’t be pumping as much and the cold really starts to settle in.
Light Fleece Jacket
While hiking, you may feel too cold with just your base layer and much too warm with your parka on. The same thing can happen in your sleeping bag. Pack a medium-weight pullover or jacket that will keep you nice and cozy, all day and night. These are great for sleeping, too, to give you some extra warmth in your sleeping bag without forcing you to put on a coat.
Wool or Synthetic Socks
Socks can make or break your trip, especially if your boots aren’t fully insulated. It doesn’t take a wild imagination to picture what a weekend in the snow would feel like with thin, wet socks. It’s best to choose thick wool or synthetic socks and pack at least two extra pairs.
Sock liners help keep your feet warm and dry, both inside and out—they keep moisture from getting in while simultaneously wicking away sweat. If you’re venturing out into extreme (below 10 F) temperatures or have feet that always feel cold, you’ll need these.
This goes without saying, but spending a weekend (or even an afternoon) in sub-freezing temperatures while wearing sneakers just won’t work. Look for a pair of boots that are waterproof and, if possible, insulated. It’s also a good idea to choose boots with higher ankles; low-cut boots will let snow in too easily. Your choice of boots is going to be a big factor in your ability to stay warm while on the trail.
Lots of body heat escapes from the head, and you want to trap as much of that heat as you can. Pack a thick knit beanie, trapper hat, or skullcap for your trip, and make sure it’ll cover your ears. The last thing you want is frostbitten ears.
The right pair of gloves can make all the difference. You need them to stay warm, but you also still need the use of your hands as you hike and set up camp. It’s a good idea to layer up your gloves: a thin, tight inner glove or glove liner, followed by a waterproof glove with tons of dexterity. If you’re doing some serious alpine hiking, consider getting a third layer, such as an oversized waterproof mitten. They add that extra protection and heat needed on the craziest winter backpacking trips.
Snow is beautiful, but the sunlight it reflects is blinding—literally. Snow blindness is essentially a sunburn on your eyes, and it’s not something you want to mess with. If you’re hiking above the treeline, you’ll need a very protective pair of sunglasses.
Your winter backpacking checklist needs a 4-season tent, which is made with more poles and thicker fabric to provide shelter against howling winds and heavy snow. If you’re camping in less extreme conditions, you can likely get by with a lightweight backpacking tent. You can always pack snow around the outside of the tent, about a foot high, to further insulate the tent against the wind and blowing snow.
Normal tent stakes won’t be an option for the frozen ground that’s buried beneath the snow. If you don’t have snow stakes, you can fill a stuff sack with snow and bury it; that will keep your tent secure in the ground.
0-Degree Sleeping Bag
Get a 0-degree down-filled sleeping bag or advanced synthetic sleeping bag. The advantage of down and advanced synthetics is that they pack light and tight, giving you more valuable weight and room in your pack for other gear. These sleeping bags are perfect for winter camping; they have a weight of less than a kilogram and keep you toasty warm in just your base layer, down to 0 degrees (-17C).
Backpacking Sleeping Pad
A sleeping pad is essential for all kinds of backpacking, but it’s extra valuable in the winter. You need something separating your sleeping bag and your body from the frozen ground. What’s more, sleeping right on the snow can cause it to melt and create a disaster to wake up to in the morning. Pack a lightweight sleeping pad and catch those Z’s in comfort. An inflatable sleeping pad is very easy to set up and doesn’t add a lot of weight to your backpack.
The name speaks for itself. When matches and lighters fail, a waterproof fire starter is exactly what you need. Always have one with you.
Since all your normal sources of freshwater will likely be frozen, bring a stove (preferably fueled by white gas for quick heating and wind resistance) to melt snow for drinking, cooking, and washing. Melting snow will be a big part of your trip, so a good stove with lots of fuel is essential.
Ultralight Dishes and Utensils
You need something to eat with, but bringing dishes from home adds far too much weight to your pack. Luckily, it’s easy to find ultralight kitchen gear at an outfitter or sporting goods store. At minimum, bring a plate, fork, and bowl or small pot for holding water.
Eating hot food warms the inside of your body, so plan out meals that you can heat up. It will be a source of extreme comfort on a freezing night. You can also buy self-heating military rations (known as MREs) if you don’t want to bring a stove with you. Pack more than you think you’ll need—winter backpacking means you’ll burn more calories just to stay warm, so you’ll need to replace them.
Insulated Water Bottles
It can be pretty tempting to bring your vacuum-sealed bottle with you to keep water from freezing, but they’re very heavy. You’ll be packing about 3 liters of water, so it’s a better idea to get normal plastic bottles and buy “bottle boots”—insulated liners that fit around the outside of the bottle.
Lighter and Waterproof Matches
Even if you have a self-lighting stove, you never want to head out on a trip without both a lighter and also waterproof matches.
If it’s snowing, you don’t want to have a backpack that leaves gaps when using the external attachment system. Find a waterproof backpack that completely closes all of your gear inside—and at least 60L in size. If you don’t want to buy a new backpack, bring along a trash bag to put over your pack when it snows or rains.
These attachments for your boots are essential for traction in the snow and ice, especially on any sort of incline. If you aren’t going up any hills or mountains, you may not need them. However, you should always pack them just in case.
Trekking Poles with Snow Baskets
Trekking poles take the pressure off your legs and give you extra traction when things get slippery. The snow baskets let you use the poles in thick snow, rather than just stabbing into snow banks with no traction.
This is another item that you may not use every time, but is a lifesaver when needed. Ice axes can be used to “self-arrest” on steep, snowy hills and mountains. It’s also helpful for setting up camp, climbing, and dealing with snow or ice in your way as you trek.
Essential for setting up camp, snow shovels can help you clear out the area for your tent, pack snow into seating and platforms for cooking, and so much more.
Rope should be part of your winter camping checklist, no matter what. There are a million little reasons to use rope while backpacking, so it never makes sense to leave it behind. It’s more essential, though, for winter mountaineering, so you can stay tethered to your group in case one of you falls.
First Aid Kit
From bandages to antihistamines, make sure you have all the bare essentials. A good first aid kit makes all the difference when someone is injured or feels sick. No serious backpacker is ever without a first aid kit—especially in winter. Neither should you.
Map and Compass
The well-worn trails you’re used to won’t be visible under the snow, nor will familiar landmarks in places you’ve backpacked before. Get a good compass, a waterproof map, and learn to use them before you embark.
Knife or Hatchet
Bladed tools such as knives and hatchets come in handy on winter backpacking trips, time and time again. Cutting rope, chopping firewood, and even cooking meals gets a lot more difficult without a knife on your belt.
Your phone’s GPS is useful for navigation, but it can also save your life if it has a “search and rescue” button that can notify authorities of your location should you get into trouble.
We finish off our gear checklist for winter backpacking with some easily forgotten essentials that you don’t want to leave home without:
Obviously, not every piece of winter camping gear you'll ever use is on this list. For different groups and individuals, more—or maybe less—gear might be required. However, this winter camping checklist has all the essentials, and more. Stick with this gear list and use your best judgment to round out the rest of your pack. Most of all, use safe and responsible hiking and camping techniques when winter camping. Silly mistakes can cost you when out in the cold.
Are you feeling ready for your first winter backpacking trip? Stoked to get out on those frozen trails? If you have more questions about cold weather camping or want to share your own winter gear suggestions, let us know in the comments section below.
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