For 3-season backpacking, one of my primary goals is to go as light as possible, and I've gotten pretty good at putting together a backpack with an 8-pound base weight. Living in New England, the 3-seasons in question tend to last for only six or seven months each year. During the winter months, most people choose to either stay indoors with hot cocoa and a mountain of blankets, or get out only on day-hikes, a few of us crazies can't resist the urge. We need to sleep outside in the mountains, no matter the snow depth.

winter hiking

The obstacles in deep winter backpacking are mighty, though. This winter in northern New England, we've already seen many feet of powdery snow, sub-zero temperatures, and destructive winds. To deal with these conditions, hikers may need a lot more equipment than they're used to in 3-season hiking, and that equipment is usually heavier, bulkier, and more expensive. Most importantly, a lack of practice with the skills and gear can quickly lead to serious consequences. But with enough practice, you can reap some pretty amazing rewards.

Here are some major differences between my summer and winter packing strategies. Hopefully they can help you come up with ideas for when you're ready to join the crazies who can't wait until the snow melts.

gossamer gear mariposa

The pack looks pretty huge, but it's still lighter than most winter overnighters

What's in my Backpack

In summer, I go with the smallest pack available, with no frame or hip belt. Most of my pack is filled with food because everything else is so compact. In winter, I go much bigger. I currently use a Gossamer Gear Mariposa which has a huge main compartment, and several large side pockets. The main compartment houses my sleeping gear, kitchen, and food (minus some daytime snacks in the outer pockets). The outer pockets are for my tent (so I can pack everything while inside the tent, and stuff the tent last), stove fuel (just in case of leaks), shovel (too unwieldy for main compartment), snacks and water (for quick access on trail).

Since winter gear is heavier and bulkier than summer gear, a frame and hipbelt are nice to have in the pack. Still, with some practice I can keep my total overnight pack weight for a two or three-day trip below 30 pounds.

winter camping

Heavier than a cat can stove, but it sure performs well

Backcountry Cooking in Cold Weather

Alcohol and canister stoves are great for keeping the weight down in 3-season backpacking, but when the temperature drops near or below 0°F, and the only option for water is melting snow (as it has been on every trip I've taken this winter) there is no substitute for a trusty white gas stove. I use a MSR Whisperlite, which was purchased in 2004 and has been a winter workhorse ever since. It's nowhere near as light as other options, but it's easily repaired in the field, and it burns hot even when air temperatures near -30°F (I've tested this more than once!). There are tricks for making other fuels work in low temperatures, but when it's that cold I'd rather have something that requires minimal fuss.

The rest of my kitchen kit includes a shovel (for building a nice kitchen with counters, seats, and whatever else my cold little heart desires), a two-liter pot for melting snow and boiling water, a bowl and spoon, and a few sheets of Reflectix insulation (for a stove base on top of snow).

winter camping

Melting snow is slow, but sometimes it's the only way to hydrate

Make Sure your Water don't Freeze

Years ago, I sent all of my Nalgenes to Goodwill and replaced them with soda bottles, as most lightweight hikers will do. But the formerly ubiquitous Nalgene really is almost indispensable in deep winter. I carry one 1L and two 0.5L Nalgenes, each with a home-made Reflectix cozy (light, cheap, and stylish!). Filled with boiling water whenever I get a chance, and stored upside down to keep the cap threads from freezing, I can keep the water lukewarm most of the day. Staying hydrated in winter is much harder than in summer, but just as important, so I like to keep my water warm to prevent ice-cream headaches.

winter camping

Fully enclosed shelter was a good choice

Will my Tent Hold Up in Snow?

Picking a winter shelter has been a tough challenge. I've used tarps over dugout pits, I've built quinzees, I've stayed in AT lean-tos, but each option has pros and cons. Currently, I'm using a Black Diamond First Light tent, which fits the bill for quick and easy set-up for a one-person tent. For a winter backpacking trip, the type of shelter you use has a huge impact on how you plan your hike. I chose the tent because I want to spend most of my time hiking and less time in camp, since building a snow shelter can take several hours. But time spent in camp in winter is pretty rewarding if you're doing it right, so making a quinzee or snow shelter is often worth the effort. I'm more likely to spend time building a shelter if I know I'll be staying there for several nights, and using the area as a base camp.

Wear Layers of Clothing

Dressing for the occasion is more important in winter than any other time of year, so this is a category that needs the most refinement and practice to get just right. I prefer to hike with just base layers and thin soft shell, keeping myself warm with the internal furnace. I carry mitten shells, thick mittens, and light liner gloves that get mixed and matched depending on how cold my fingers get. Instead of boots, I use trail runners with 40 Below neoprene overboots. A hat and a fleece Buff round out the possible hiking accessories, although a beard sometimes makes an appearance as well.

There's a lot more clothing that I have as backup, though. An old beater of a rain shell is good when hiking above tree line in high wind, or bushwhacking through snow-covered trees. I go a size large for the shell so I can fit my giant down puffy beneath it in camp. And I have a pair of down pants that go beneath the soft shell pants in camp as well. The goal is to look as fat as possible, because standing around in camp requires a lot of insulation.

mt moriah sunset

Good night from a very cozy and well-insulated sleeping bag

Practice Skills before Going into the Backcountry

The most important things, whatever you're packing, are to practice and stay safe (even at home). It's never easy to start this kind of backpacking, but joining a group that has experience already can be a great start. If you can't find that group, start with day-hikes, then gradually work your way into longer trips and short overnighters. With a little determination, you can join the ranks of crazy winter backpackers. Learn the basics about lightweight backpacking!

This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Ryan "Guthook" Linn and Editor.

February 16, 2015 — Brian Fryer