Why go backpacking in the winter in the first place?
Sure, it’s likely cold and wet, but winter is a special time to be outdoors. Not only is the backcountry much emptier (you might even have it all to yourself!), but a blanket of snow can make your favorite backpacking destinations even more magical.
Best of all, with the right winter backpacking gear and adequate preparation, backpacking in the winter doesn’t have to be a freezing cold experience!
Here is everything you need to know to plan an enjoyable winter backpacking trip.
Essential Winter Backpacking Gear
Bringing the right gear and equipment will make or break your winter backpacking trip – in fact, your life depends on it!
Here’s a quick rundown of the most important winter backpacking gear for your trip:
The key to dressing for winter backpacking is to wear multiple layers.
You’ll need extra layers for warmth at night, while cooking, and at camp. But you don’t want to be dressed too warmly during the day while hiking, especially since you’ll be carrying more equipment than during the summer and likely trekking over more difficult terrain.
We discuss layering in more detail below.
Make sure that your winter backpacking boots are lightweight, warm, and waterproof. They must also provide good traction in snow and wet terrain. A model with a removable liner, like our top-rated Baffin Borealis, allow you to sleep with the liners on for extra warmth while simultaneously letting the boots themselves dry out at night.
* Our winter hiking boots buying guide provides even more pointers and a few of our top picks.
Hats and Gloves
Accessories like a warm fleece hat and gloves help you stay warm. Look for a breathable pair of gloves so your hands don’t sweat too much. It’s smart to pack an extra hat and pair of gloves for long trips so you don’t ever have to wear wet gear.
Goggles or Sunglasses
Glare protection is an important, yet sometimes overlooked, piece of gear. Sunglasses or goggles designed for use in the snow are your best bet. The sun is uncomfortable, often dangerously, bright when reflected off the snow. And that’s not to mention the possibility of bitter winds while backpacking in the winter.
Winter Backpacking Tent
A winter backpacking tent must be able to keep you warm and dry even in freezing cold, bitter wind, and heavy snow. It must also be lightweight enough to carry on long trips.
* Our winter tent buying guide will help you break down the options.
Winter Sleeping Bag
A waterproof, winter-rated sleeping bag is your primary layer of defense against the cold. Pick a model that’s at least 10°F lower (if not more) than the coldest temperatures you expect to encounter. Most backpackers prefer a mummy-shaped sleeping bag for their additional insulation and weight saving benefits.
* Our winter sleeping bag buying guide will help point you in the right direction.
A sleeping pad not only makes sleeping more comfortable, but it also adds an important layer of insulation between you and the cold ground. Although inflatable air pads are most common for three-season backpacking, I prefer a closed-cell foam pad for winter backpacking. If you prefer an air pad, look for an insulated model. Or consider using an inflatable pad on top of a closed-cell foam pad for a one-two punch of insulating goodness.
* Our sleeping pad buying guide lists a few of the best models for backpacking in the winter.
You need a high-volume backpack to hold all your gear. Winter backpacking gear is often bulkier than its three-season equivalents. Your backpack should also be waterproof and have plenty of exterior attachment points for gear and equipment such as snowshoes.
Depending on the conditions you expect to encounter, your normal backpacking stove might not cut it on your winter trip. Most important is a windproof stove. The MSR WindBurner is almost completely windproof which is ideal for backcountry cooking in winter. In very cold winter weather (or at high altitudes), a liquid fuel stove like the MSR WhisperLite is likely the most efficient option.
* Our backpacking stove buying guide breaks down the options in more detail.
The Ten Essentials
No list of the best backpacking gear is complete without a mention of the ten essentials. This classic list of outdoor safety/emergency gear was created to be lightweight and portable but still capable of helping you spend an unplanned night outdoors and respond to any emergency situations that come up.
Additional Winter Backpacking Gear
Gaiters, snowshoes, trekking poles, camping lanterns, snow shovels, camping knives, GPS units, multi-tools, water storage, first-aid kits, and cooking pots are just a few additional pieces of winter backpacking gear you need for your trip.
Check out REI’s comprehensive winter camping checklist for more information and ideas.
Layering Clothing for Winter Backpacking
The right winter clothing is only the tip of the iceberg to staying warm and dry. Just as important is properly layering your clothing for cold temperatures.
Although you should adjust your clothing to the exact conditions you expect to encounter, use the following three layers as a basic guide:
Your base layer acts as your second skin. This is the bottom layer that actually touches your skin so the goal is to regulate your body temperature while simultaneously wicking moisture away from your skin.
A good base layer for winter backpacking is made from natural fabrics. Merino wool is one of the best as its warm yet breathable. It wicks moisture away to keep you dry. A snug fit is ideal for both your top and bottom winter base layer.
The middle layer’s job is to keep you warm by retaining heat. Look for clothing with great insulation to trap your body heat close to your body.
Once again, Merino wool reigns supreme as one of the best materials for your winter backpacking middle layer. It has great insulating properties while remaining breathable. It’s also lightweight. A fleece jacket is one of your best options for your middle layer top.
Your outer layer is your first line of defense from the elements. It must be windproof and waterproof to keep you warm and dry in wind, rain, snow, and cold.
At the same time, you don’t want your outer layer to make you sweat. So, look for outer layer pants and jackets with proper ventilation. Both hardshell and softshell jackets work well depending on the conditions.
Remember that this layer is mainly to protect you from the elements – not necessarily to keep you warm. Your middle and base layer should keep you properly warm so refrain from selecting an overly bulky outer layer.
Boots & Accessories
Waterproof hiking boots, warm socks (consider layering thick socks with liner socks), winter gloves, and a knit hat are also essential to staying warm while backpacking in the winter.
Food, Water, and Cooking
Backpacking always takes a lot of energy, no matter the time of year. But winter backpacking sucks it out of you even more.
To deal with the colder temperatures and additional obstacles winter will throw your way, it’s even more important than normal to pack healthy, high-calorie meals to stay properly fueled.
Here are some winter backpacking meal ideas and how to keep drinking water from feezing:
Winter Backpacking Meal Ideas
Simple meals that are easy to cook and full of calories and nutrition are ideal for backpacking in the winter.
I eat many of the same meals that I do during the other seasons, but I make sure they are all compatible with my MSR WindBurner Stove System (my favorite backpacking stove for winter thanks to its windproof design).
My go-to meals include no-cook oatmeal for breakfast, plenty of snacks (salami, fruit leather, energy bars, trail mix, hard cheese, and peanut butter packets) for lunch, and a quick, no-clean-up, high-calorie meal like pasta, rice, or mashed potatoes for dinner.
Backpacking always requires eating more calories than normal – during the winter this is even more true. You’ll want to plan on eating 5,000 to 6,000 calories per day at the minimum. This will require a lot of discipline as you often won’t feel like eating (but you need to anyway!).
Take care to plan meals that require minimal water and a short cook time. Your stove will likely work harder than normal due to the weather, so quick-boil meals are ideal.
* Use our best backpacking meals guide for more delicious and lightweight meal ideas.
Drinking Water for Winter Backpacking
Staying hydrated while backpacking in the winter is essential yet surprisingly easy to forget to do.
Because of the cold, you often won’t feel thirsty until you’re seriously dehydrated. Make sure to drink water on a regular basis even if you don’t feel thirsty. Drink as often as you can and pay attention for signs of dehydration (especially headache and blurry vision).
Another problem is that normal water bottles and reservoirs are apt to freeze. And a thermos is too heavy to carry. That’s why you need a wide mouth water bottle with an insulated (foam or neoprene) cover. Boil water in the morning so that it doesn’t freeze during the day. If you run out of water, it’s generally considered safe to boil clean snow, although you should exercise caution while doing this.
Planning Your Winter Backpacking Trip
Proper planning is essential for any backpacking trip – but doubly so in the winter. There’s no room for error when you hit the backcountry in the winter, so proper preparation is key.
Here’s our top planning tips to ensure the success of your winter backpacking trip:
Planning Your Route
Plan you backpacking route well ahead of time but check the trail and weather conditions regularly to note any major changes.
The best winter backpacking trips follow routes that are relatively well-traveled in winter. This ensures the route is actually viable and increases the likelihood that you’ll come across other backpackers if an emergency arises.
If you’re new to winter backpacking, select a short, easy route for your first trip. Come up with several alternatives from multiple points along the route in case a portion is impassable. Plan to take more time than you would during the other seasons on an equal distance trip.
Navigation and Transportation
Don’t head out on your winter backpacking trip before you familiarize yourself with how to navigate in the snow.
Bring a map and compass (and know how to use them!) as backup navigation tools. These are especially useful if you encounter heavy snow and/or limited visibility. A waterproof handheld GPS unit makes navigating even easier (although don’t replace your map/compass with one).
Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and splitboarding are all different modes of transportation that can make getting from campsite to campsite easier in heavy snow.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast in the days leading up to your trip. Check the forecast right before you leave for your trip. Pay attention to the weather during the length of your trip to predict when conditions are about to change before they do. If you’re traveling in avalanche country, make sure to check the avalanche forecast and educate yourself on backcountry avalanche safety.
What to Do at Your Campsite
A solid game plan is just part of the equation. Once you actually reach your campsite, it’s important that you know how to pick a campsite, how to set up your tent for winter, and how to stay warm all through the night.
Remember the following tips to stay safe, warm, and dry in your tent at night:
How to Pick a Campsite
Plan out where you will camp each night before embarking.
It’s equally important to arrive at each campsite early (at least before dark) to scope out an ideal place to set up camp.
For winter camping, natural wind protection (such as trees) is ideal. Make sure there are no overhead branches in danger of falling (widow makers) and that there is no nearby avalanche danger.
How to Set Up Your Tent
A winter backpacking tent is specifically designed to shed snow, fight off wind, and stay warm and dry during the night.
Set up your tent in a flat area that’s protected from the wind. I prefer to either select an area that’s bare of snow or pack down the snow before pitching my tent to create a hard platform for it to sit on.
Guy lines and tent stakes are essential during windy weather. If it’s snowing, check on your tent during the night to ensure that snow isn’t piling up too high around the tent.
How to Stay Warm
The right winter backpacking equipment is a huge element of staying warm at night.
Your winter tent, cold-weather sleeping bag, and sleeping pad are your first lines of defense. A breathable and well-insulated base layer is next. I sometimes prefer to pack a second base layer specifically for use at night, especially on long winter expeditions. This ensures that I go to bed completely dry (very important) and gives my hiking base layer a chance to air out.
Beyond this, make sure to take care of any business (how to go to the bathroom while camping) before you head into bed. Once in bed, you won’t want to get out again. You might even consider using a “pee bottle” at night. Ladies might find a female urination device (FUD) helpful in this regard.
Stay Safe While Winter Backpacking
Backpacking is dangerous enough as it is – but heading out for a winter backcountry adventure has its own set of risks and hazards.
Follow these winter backpacking safety tips to stay safe in the cold:
Tell a Friend
Always let someone know where you’re going, your planned route, and what campsites you’ll stay at – whether you’re backpacking in the winter or another season.
Don’t Go Alone
Heading out into the backcountry for a solo backpacking trip is a lifechanging experience – but for winter backpacking, you won’t want to go alone. It’s more important than ever to go with a friend or group of friends as weather conditions can shift rapidly and emergency situations are more likely to occur.
Proper Planning is Key
Don’t go winter backpacking on a whim. Make sure to plan out every aspect of the trip, especially regarding the route. I even go as far as to plan several alternate routes, starting at various points along my planned route, in case there’s an on-trail issue.
Keep an Eye on the Weather
Check the weather forecast right before your trip. If the conditions look too severe, reschedule for another time. You should also keep an eye on the weather during your trip. Make level-headed judgement calls about whether you should continue forward or turn back if the weather changes.
Know Avalanche Safety
Backpacking in avalanche country requires keen avalanche awareness. Make sure to read up on avalanche safety, bring the right avalanche safety gear (and know how to use it), and check the avalanche forecast before heading out. Consider taking an avalanche safety course. All of this is essential to staying alive in avalanche terrain.
Learn How to Navigate in Snow
Knowing how to navigate in the snow is key to winter survival. Knowing the local terrain is of utmost importance as is knowing how to use a map and compass (and actually packing your map and compass!). Consider very short legs in between notable landmarks even if it requires zigzagging more than necessary, especially if you expect fresh snow, to lower the risk of getting lost.
Consider an Emergency Beacon
An emergency beacon, or personal locator beacon (PLB), is a handheld device that sends out an SOS signal with your exact locations to first responders if you’re lost or otherwise in trouble in the backcountry. Another option, with slightly more features, is a satellite messenger which accomplishes the same thing but also includes GPS features and even two-way texting.
What to Do in an Emergency
Chances are you won’t find yourself in an emergency situation if you bring the right gear, select the right route, and follow the tips in our guide. But if an emergency does happen, being prepared to deal with the worst might just save your life.
Here’s what to do in common winter emergency situations in the backcountry:
If You’re Lost
“STOP” stands for stop, think, observe, and plan. In other words, stay calm and try not to panic, think about how you got where you are, observe surrounding landmarks, observe your map and use your compass, and think through each possible plan before acting.
If you are on a marked trail or are fairly confident you can find your way back to one, self-rescue is an option. Otherwise, setting up camp, starting a fire, and waiting for rescue is best. It’s especially important to stay in place if you’re injured.
How to Start a Fire
Start a campfire in snow by building a small platform out of rocks and sticks in a location protected from the wind. Place tinder and kindling (UST WetFire Tinder is useful) in a small pile and light with your waterproof matches. Add fuel wood to keep your fire going. Knowing how to start a backcountry fire is an incredibly useful skill if you ever find yourself lost or otherwise in danger while backpacking.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Frostbite and hypothermia are two serious hazards of backpacking in winter. The key to avoiding them is prevention. Wear the right clothing (breathable, moisture-wicking wool base layers are a must) and dress in layers. Bring a change of socks and dry out your boots each night. Ensure that you stay as dry as possible at all times, especially your feet and hands. Turn back if you notice signs of frostbite or hypothermia. If you’re getting too wet and cold, call it a day and set up camp even if you’re behind your planned schedule.
We hope this guide has helped you plan your next winter backpacking trip.
For more information on backpacking and winter camping, check out our following posts:
- How to Plan a Backpacking Trip
- Backpacking with Dogs
- Winter Camping Guide
- Guide to Winter Camping Gear
- Winter Hiking Boots Buyer’s Guide
- Best Sleeping Pads
- Best 4-Season Sleeping Bags
- Best Tents for Winter Camping
- Best Tent Heaters for Winter Camping
- Hammock Camping in the Winter
- Best Backpacking Meals
- Best Backpacking Stoves
And, please feel free to reach out to us if you have any more questions about backpacking in the winter!