What to take winter backpacking
If you’re wondering what to take on winter backpacking trips or how I keep my winter pack weight around 26–30 lbs, use this list (below) for comparison purposes. I will try to improve this list with links and new information as well as new gear choices as gear evolves.
I have received no gear or sponsorship from any gear companies or brands. Whatever I recommend or use is based solely on my own experiences and preferences.
This checklist includes all the gear I use for 2–3 days, over-night snowshoe, and backpacking trips. Some gear choices vary depending on weather and terrain conditions, so not everything on the list is taken on all trips.
Bear in mind that many people hike in winter using different gear. Hikers have different preferences. Most hikers I know use 3-season tents and canister stoves, different packs, and different sleeping bag brands. This is fine.
Decide for yourself what gear you want to use, as there are many good brands making different kinds of gear for similar purposes. The most common gear questions I hear concern stoves, tents, and water storage, so let’s start with those.
What is the right stove for Winter backpacking?
I use a liquid fuel stove (MSR Wisperlite™ International), but in the mild Pacific Northwest weather, canister stoves usually work fine for most trips. Some canister stoves are more likely to fail or underperform than others in more extreme colds and high elevations.
The advantages of the liquid fuel stove are many: The manual pump will maintain pressure in cold conditions, the windscreen protects the flame, the fuel burns hotter, and it is fully serviceable in the field. The fuel bottle is also refillable.
Another important advantage is the more stable low-profile design of liquid fuel stover, such as the MSR Whisperlite. However, if you are going to use a canister stove on snow you can get an MSR Universal Canister Stand (1.2 oz) to add stability.
Even with the advantages of the MSR Whisperlite, most hikers prefer a canister stove. The main advantages of the canister stoves are 1) much easier to light, 2) they have no huge primer flame, which means the stove can be operated in the tent vestibule, provided there is plenty of ventilation, and 3) they are lighter, depending on the type selected.
Bear in mind that it can take a long time to boil water with a canister stove in cold weather and high elevations. You may have to warm the canister against your body first. If you want to use a canister stove, stove systems such as the MSR Reactor will provide valuable wind protection that you will not get from an ultra-light PocketRocket.
I will be gathering more information about canister stoves (makes and models) from hikers I know to add to this page later.
What is the right tent for Winter backpacking?
3-season tents will work on most trips. The main considerations are: will the tent stand up in high winds, is the fly low enough to keep the wind and snow out, and is the design steep enough to shed snow. More about tent designs and examples of 3-season and 4-season tents for winter conditions is available here: 3-Season vs. 4-Season Tents
What is the right water storage for Winter backpacking?
You should avoid pack bladders and water filters in freezing weather. Pack bladders will freeze and you will want a hot water bottle at night anyway, so Nalgene bottles are better. A leaky pack bladder that gets your gear wet in summer is not usually a serious matter, but in winter it can be life-threatening. A wet down sleeping bag will not provide you with the warmth you require in winter. To learn more about water management, read How to Keep Your Water from Freezing.
What to wear when winter backpacking
At the end of the gear list below, I also include a clothing checklist, which includes items I wear while hiking. Typically, I use the same clothes while hiking in winter that I do during the shoulder seasons. Regular summer hiking pants and a t-shirt or fishing shirt (UV shirt with hoodie), a buff, a hat, liner gloves, synthetic underwear (briefs), and two layers of socks (liner socks, plus thick wool socks). When temperatures drop below 25ºF, I may add a synthetic base layer for my legs and my core, and sometimes a fleece pullover. If it is windy, raining, or snowing I may add a rain jacket and sometimes rain pants.
When I’m on an all-day steep ascent, I tend to not wear base layers unless it is very cold (20–15ºF or colder), but sometimes on the next day descent, I’ll wear a base layer. I burn much less energy going down, so I sometimes need more warmth. Taking off and adding lower layers while hiking is difficult. If I think I may need to do that, I bring rain pants that have full leg zips so I can avoid taking off my snowshoes and boots.
A major consideration is wind. Minimal wind protection for all trips is a rain jacket, rain pants, buff or ultra-light balaclava, and mid-weight gloves. If high winds are likely, I add a heavier balaclava, heavyweight gloves, and goggles. It is essential to be able to cover all flesh in high winds if you are in cold weather. For more information about trail clothes, see What’s in My Winter Backpack.
The list below also includes a section for after-the-hike clothes that stay in the car at the trailhead, such as fresh a shirt, socks, and regular shoes. Having a fresh shirt keeps the sweat off the car seats and make stops at restaurants more pleasant.
I try to keep my pack weight below 30 lbs for 2 and 3-day trips. The one factor that tips this scale sometimes causing my pack weight to reach 30, 32, or even 34 lbs is having to attach my snowshoes to my pack before reaching the snow. So be aware that it is often necessary to strap snowshoes to your backpack (adding an additional 4 lbs). This, of course, may mean that you have to carry some extra cord or straps to make this possible.
IMPORTANT: A heavy pack increases the chances of injuries and balance-related accidents on steep terrain making it important to keep weight down as much as possible without sacrificing safety. Use the list below to compare gear weights if you need to find ways to lower your pack weight. My list is a light and ultralight gear list that provides a base weight of around 20–25 lbs. The weight of each item is included in the list.
How to reduce pack weight
Most unnecessary weight can be found in the big three—the pack itself, the tent, and the sleeping bag. Each of these items can be around 3 lbs or less and still be durable enough for winter backpacking. If you have a heavy kit, look first at upgrading the big three. Next, get a small cooking scale and weigh each item in your pack. Record the weights on a list. You will likely only have to do this once. Some people make fun of people who count ounces, but if your pack is needlessly heavy, knowledge is a helpful strategy. Compare your weights with the weights shown on the list below. Doing this may help you find 5–15 pounds of unnecessary weight that can be eliminated. Pack everything in your pack and use a digital hanging scale to weigh your final total. First, weigh your base weight. “Base weight” refers to everything except fuel, water, and food. Then weigh your total weight.
Everyone is different, and some people are willing to carry items that others wouldn’t. Many of the people who hike regularly with me in the winter make very different gear choices. Some hikers carry what seems to me to be huge amounts of water and food and luxuries such as compact chairs, large tents, down pants, etc. It’s fine for people to have different needs and preferences, but if your pack is heavier than you want, use the list below to discover possible weight-saving gear choices.
For more gear loadout images, including images with labels, see my post, “What’s in My Winter Backpack.”
The Gear Checklist
I recommend always laying out your gear and doing a visual check using a written checklist. Missing a critical piece of gear, such as a stove or stove pump, or lighter, can mean being unable to restore your water supply.
The Basics (1 lb, 10.5 oz)
First Aid* 4.00 oz.
- Bandage roll (4.5″ x 4YD)
- ABD pads (2 quan.,5″x9″)
- Triple layer pads (3 quan.,3″x4″)
- Large band-aids (3 quan.,2.5″x3″)
- Band-aids (3 quan., 3 inch)
- Band-aids (2 quan., 2 inch)
- Antiseptic towlettes (2 pks)
- Iodine prep pad (1)
- Alcohol prep pad (1)
- Antibiotic ointment pads (4)
- Burn cream (3 pk)
- Burn jell (1 pk)
- Hydrocortisone cream (1 pk)
- Ibuprofen tablets (4)
- Moleskin (5 pre-cut pieces)
- Leukotape (1 yrd)
*All items packed with labels and expiration dates. Burn cream/jell because of stoves. Moleskin and/or Leukotake because of blisters. ABD pads or large bandages because of potential injuries (esp. ice ax, crampons). I build my own first-aid kit. Small packable sizes can be found online at sites such as Rescue Essentials (https://www.rescue-essentials.com/).
Extra First Aid
- Scissors (0.55 oz.)
- Tweezers (0.30 oz.)
- Duck tape 2×50″ (0.60 oz.)
- Wag bag or Biffy Bag (2.55 oz.)
- Extra toilet paper (0.55 oz.)
- Sanitary wipes (2) (0.45 oz.)
- Latex gloves
- Toothbrush + paste (1.40 oz.)
- Sewing repair kit (0.50 oz.)
- Air Mattress repair kit (1.05 oz.)
- Tent pole repair sleeve
- Stove maintenance kit (partial) (0.55 oz.)
- Snowshoe clevis pin
- Compass (2.55 oz.)
- Map (3.30 oz.)
- Altimeter watch
- Sunglasses (1.15 oz.) or Glacier Glasses
- Sunscreen (1.10 oz. available in 1 oz containers)
- Chap-stick (0.14 oz.)
- Headlamp with batteries 2.55 oz.
Fire-starters (take two types)
- Flint (0.55 oz.)
- Lighter (full .80 oz.)
- 58 liter pack, (48.07 oz.)
- Granite Gear Crown2 60 liter
- Straps for snowshoes (2.00 oz.)
- Water bottle carabiner (1.25 oz.)
- Camera clip
- Whistle (0.50 oz., many packs have built-in whistle)
- Sleeping Bag (rated 10º to 15º for 20–35ºF weather) (42.60 oz.)
- Sleeping Bag (rated 0º to –10º for 10–30ºF weather) (53.00 oz.)
- Sleeping Bag (rated –20º for 0 to –10ºF weather) (58.00 oz.)
- Dry sack or plastic bag to protect sleeping bag (0.40 oz.)
- Stuff sack (0.95 oz. or compression sack or strap for compression)
- Sleeping pad (air) (17.50 oz.)
- Solid core foam pad (13.75 oz.)
- 4-season solo tent (22.15 oz.)
- Tent fly (8.15 oz.)
- Poles with pole sack (14.50 oz.)
- Snow tent stakes (x6) (5.95 oz.)
- Deep snow guylines (x6) (o.70 oz.)
- Stuff sack (0.65 oz)
- Micro-spikes (13.45 oz., shoulder season)
- Crampons (1 lb. 12.5 oz., rarely taken)
- Ice ax with a leash (14.35 oz., rarely taken)
- Mountain-Terrain Snowshoes (64 oz.)
- MSR Evo Ascent Snowshoes (4 lbs)
Wind and rain Protection
- Goggles (5.90 oz.)
- Balaclava (2.65 oz. or ultralight option)
- hardshell/rain jacket (10.65 oz.)
- hardshell/rain pants (7.15 oz.) (or full zip option)
Avalanche Safety Gear (3 lbs .24oz)
- Snow shovel (20.60 oz.)
- Tour Probe (11.14 oz.)
- Avalanche Transceiver (1) (7.05 oz.)
- Climbing helmet (11.6 oz., rarely taken)
- 2-way radio (1, optional) (9.45 oz.)
Packed clothing (3–4 lbs)
- Down jacket (18.55 oz.)
- Shirt (smart wool) (10.10 oz.)
- T-shirt (extra) (4.30 oz.)
- Base-layer underwear—leggings, Capilene (3.60 oz.) or nylon
- Base-layer shirt (Capilene )
- Liner socks (wool 1.60 oz.)
- Socks (thick wool 2.60 oz.)
- Liner gloves (and/or Smartwool, extra) (2.00 oz.)
- Gloves (midweight)
- Gloves (heavyweight, depending on cold and wind conditions)
- Wool beanie
- Waterproof stuff sack (0.40 oz.)
Cooking Supplies (4–5 lbs)
- Bear vault food container (32.00 oz.)
- Spoon (Bamboo) (0.40 oz.)
- Cooking pot (4.40 oz.)
- Pot lid skillet (2.30 oz.)
- Cup (2.10 oz.)
- Sauce container (occasional use)
Stove Kit (29.05 oz.)
- Stove (8.65 oz.)
- Fuel pump (2.35 oz.)
- Windshield & base plate (2.65 oz.)
- Stove kit bag (0.65 oz.)
- Fuel bottle (11 oz capacity) (12.40 oz.)
- Fuel bottle (20 oz capacity) (18.80 oz.)
Water Supply gear
- Nalgene bottle (32 oz. capacity) (6.15 oz.)
- Narrow Nalgene bottle (16 oz. capacity) (3.65 oz.)
- Metal Thermos (for 15ºF weather or below)
- Water filter (shoulder season, above 32ºF weather)
- Camera tripod (9.3 oz.) (choice depends on purpose)
- Thermometer (0.35 oz.)
- Handheld weather meter, Anemometer (2.20 oz.)
Circumstantial / Miscellaneous gear
Many of the items on my gear list above will only be included in my pack depending on weather and terrain conditions. Here are some other contingent items:
- Extra fuel (As a safety measure, I recommend every team member have a stove, extra fire starter, and extra fuel)
- Hydro Flask (full) (29.50 oz. Important. Use for temperatures below 20–15ºF)
- Ice Ax (16.50 oz. Important for some destinations in the shoulder seasons. Not useful in early-season fresh snow.)
- Crampons (28.00 oz. Important for some destinations in the shoulder seasons. Not useful in fresh snow and not recommended for regular hiking boots.)
- Bear resistant food container (32.00 oz. A generally helpful tool that is required in some locations.)
- Seat pad (2.15 oz. Optional. Just use the full-size pad.)
- Water filter (13.75 oz. Good in the shoulder seasons. Problematic and not recommended in freezing weather.)
- Pants (extra) (10.00 oz. Recommended if river forging and/or wet weather is anticipated.)
- Compression bag (3.35 oz. Use for large synthetic or expedition sleeping bags. Be aware that over compressing sleeping bags is not recommended.)
- Snowshoe extensions (13.05 oz.) (Usually not necessary. Recommended for very deep fresh snow, especially for heavier hikers)
- Alkaline batteries (extra, recommended for winter cloudy trips)
- Lithium batteries (0.80 oz.) (Not recommended for avalanche beacons because of sudden battery death without warning.)
- Bear spray (12.30 oz. If you want self-defense, this non-lethal tool is the only method I recommend.)
- Down Booties (3.85 oz. optional)
- Wool insoles for booties (1.40 oz. optional)
- River shoes for river crossings (6.15 oz.)
- Dry sack or plastic bags for boots and camera when crossing rivers. This assumes you already have a dry sack for your sleeping bag and extra clothing.
- Cathole Trowel (2.85 oz. Not necessary in snow conditions. Pack your poop out.)
- Pack cover (3.15 oz. Not necessary in temperatures below freezing.)
- Tent ground cloth (4.45 oz. Not necessary on snow.)
- Vapor Barrier Socks (1.80 oz. Unnecessary unless you are using highly waterproof boots.)
Clothes checklist (wearing)
Rather than search for hiking clothes the morning you will be leaving for the trailhead, use this list or your own list to gather everything you need in one place the day before the event.
- Briefs (2.80 oz.)
- Hiking pants (14.70 oz.)
- T-shirt (4.25 oz.)
- UV shirt with hoody (known as a “fishing shirt” 7.85 oz.)
- Thermal shirt baselayer 3.60 oz.)
- Buff (1.45 oz.)
- Liner socks (wool, 1.60 oz.)
- Socks (wool) (2.60 oz.)
- Belt (2.00 oz.)
- Liner gloves (2.60 oz.)
- Cap (1.75 oz.)
- Gaiters (6.30 oz.)
- Boots (3 lb 2.70 oz.)
- Hiking poles+snow baskets (15.65oz. Attach to your pack to make sure they get to the trailhead the day of the hike.)
- Camera (wearing) (1 lb 12.90 oz.)
- Lens cover & harness (4.06 oz.)
- Extra battery (1.75 oz.)
- Extra Flash card (0.15 oz.)
- Plastic bag for the camera (0.40 oz.)
- Cell phone (4.00 oz.)
- Keys (0.70 oz.)
- Wallet (1.25 oz.)
- Glasses (+ extra 1.60 oz.)
For the car
- After-hike car clothes
- Plastic bag for boots
- Gas money
- Forest/Park/Snow pass
- Cell phone charger cord
- 30″ bow saw (for downed trees)
- Tire chains (+pliers and gloves)
If stuck in storm:
- Run the motor about 10 minutes each hour for heat.
- Open the window enough to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Periodically check the exhaust pipe to be sure it does not become blocked because of snow.
What food to take winter backpacking (examples)
These are just a few examples. I tend to carry small meals in general with the strategy of snacking often. Most hikers just use package food that only requires adding hot water to the package. I prefer dishes with fresh vegetables and sauces on rice noodles, pasta, and bread, homemade muesli, etc. If I am hiking only for 2–3 days, I can manage the extra weight and avoid pre-packaged foods. That said, I will carry a few pre-packaged extra meals for backup purposes.
Cooking fresh meals does require cleaning a pot or fry pan. To wipe clean pots I recommend using a piece of Lavash bread. In some instances, I will just put the dirty cooking pot in my bear vault and clean it when I get home.
If you are into paleo foods, check out Snuffy’s (Shannon’s) website, Must Hike Must Eat. She also has some vegan and vegetarian recipes.
- Nutella/Walnut burrito (3.60 oz.)
- Trail bars—Fruit/nut bars (3) (4.50 oz.)
- Snickers (1.95 oz.)
- Sandwich (peanut butter & jam) (6.60 oz.)
- Lavash or baguette and hummus
- Lavash and Baba ganoush
- Sushi (first day)
- Burrito (first day, walnut + greens)
- Pho (broth, rice noodles, chopped vegetables with peanuts, tahini, chili oil, and soy sauce).
- Tortellini (Spinach) with added sun-dried tomatoes
- Tortillas (Bean or Cheese) (9.35 oz.)
- Bulgur with walnuts, herbs, olive oil
- Couscous with walnuts, herbs, olive oil
- Tea (0.23 oz.)
- Cookies (2.20 oz.)
- Chocolate (2.00 oz.)
Backup meals (pre-packaged)
- Thai noodle soup (2.20 oz.)
- Ramen (2.50 oz.)
- Miso soup (0.45 oz.)
- Muesli (toasted oats with nuts and dried fruit) (11.00 oz.)
- Oatmeal (plain, 2 packs) with added raisins (2.70 oz.)
- Almond milk for Muesli (9.20 oz.)
- Mocha/Coffee/Cocoa (1.15 oz.)
- Sandwich (peanut butter & jam) (6.60 oz.)
- Bagel & Cheese (5.85 oz.)