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Winter Sleeping Bags

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag for Pacific Northwest Winter Backpacking

If you are use to camping in summer and the shoulder seasons and are wondering what type of sleeping bag you’ll need for winter use in the Cascade Mountains here in Washington State, here are some basic points to consider.

Picking the Temperature Rating

The first thing you need to do is to determine the temperature rating you need. Winters in the Pacific Northwest are mild compared to other regions this far north. One way to determine likely temperatures is to study the average temperatures at different elevations on major peaks throughout the Cascade range. For me, the best potential campsites will start around 3000 ft, but in most instances, I end up camping around 4500–7500ft. I’ve only camped twice at higher elevations (Camp Muir at 10,000ft and Mount Adams at 12,ooo ft). Here in Washington State, if you look at temperatures on peaks North and South, West and East, you find that temperatures tend to be colder on the Eastside, as well as further North.

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Stoves Water Bottles Winter water management

How to Keep Your Water from Freezing

Stoves and Water Management

Recommended winter gear for melting snow and carrying water:

  • Stove (liquid fuel recommended for below 15º F)
  • Firestarter (flint and/or lighter and matches)
  • Nalgene bottle (32 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
  • Small Nalgene bottle (Optional, 16 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
  • Thermos/metal flask (18 fl. oz., weighs 11.1 oz)
  • Pot large enough for melting snow (I use the Snow Peak Trek 1400 Titanium Cookset, 7.4 oz)
  • Mug (titanium option is 2.4 options)
  • Stove repair kit (if you use liquid fuel stove)
  • Fuel (11 fluid oz. is usually sufficient for a weekend and 20 oz. for 3 days trips)

NOTE: The methods I’m going to explain in this post are for trips in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. This is important because you may be hiking somewhere that has colder temperatures. Here in Washington, I’m usually hiking between 2000–8000ft and camping between 3500–7500ft. What I consider “deep cold” is typically 5º F–15º F, which is when the methods described here really matter. Otherwise, expect temps to be on average between 15º–35º F here in the winter. These are thermometer temps, not wind chill. In the photo above, I’m camping on a solidly frozen alpine lake at about 5500ft. The nighttime low was 6º F.

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3-Season Tents 4-Season Tents Backpacking Backpacking Tents Expedition Tents Hammocks Tent Stakes Ultra-Light Tents Wind Protection Gear Winter Backpacking Gear Winter camping Winter Tents Winter Tents X-frame design

3-Season vs. 4-Season Tents

Will a 3-season Tent Work in Pacific Northwest Winters?

The short answer is yes. I’m not going to do a detailed review of particular tents, but I want to mention a few models that I see often on our trips. I’ll also discuss a few pros and cons of using 3-season tents in the Pacific Northwest winter conditions and some of the best 4-season options available. In context, I’ll be referring to small and light tents for backpacking rather than tents that are used for basecamps and long stays in one location.

3-Season Tent Examples

Here are three of the better examples, used by winter backpackers in our group:

3-season tents snow camping
3-season tents by REI Half Dome (left), North Face Stormbreak 1 (middle) and Big Agnes Fly Creek (right) that have withstood 20–25mph winds and snow on our trips.

These tents are lightweight and packable. They shed snow and withstand wind well.

The wind is an important consideration because stronger winds are more frequent in winter. The wind passes through 3-season tents more easily than 4-season tents making the tents colder inside. Sometimes drifting snow will pass through the mosquito-netting too. These problems make 3-season tents less comfortable. Otherwise, in calm weather, the experience of being in one is similar to being in a 4-season tent.

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Backpacking Booties Canister and Liquid Fuel Stoves Glacier Glasses Health Hazards Hypothermia prevention Leave No Trace Rain Pants Sleeping bags Sleeping pads Stoves Winter Backpacking Gear Winter Backpacking Safety Winter Planning

Before You Go…

If you are an experienced 3-season backpacker, realize that what you know about common gear, such as stoves, hydration systems, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and tents, will be different from what you need to know for winter conditions.

Know the Risks

Whenever you hike into the backcountry you expose yourself to dangers and risks, such as avalanches caused by snow, mud, or rock slides. There are hunters, falling rocks, falling trees, tree wells, and the risk of slipping off ledges, falling through snow or ice, suffering from hypothermia, snow blindness, frostbite, severe sunburns, stove accidents, etc.

Know the risks when you decide to go winter backpacking. Be prepared and bring what you need. Basic tips for staying warm and knowing what gear to bring are explained below. This is not a comprehensive discussion of winter backpacking or backcountry safety, but it does contain important things that you MUST know before going.

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Backpacking Leave No Trace Wag Bags

Rethinking Leave No Trace

Low-impact snow camping
Camping on deep snow is a low-impact way to experience popular hiking destinations.

LNT 2.0?

In the PNW most people hike July-September and this concentrated use can put considerable strain on the trails. To control the adverse impact, Oregon is now expanding permit areas to limit the number of hikers and the same is likely to happen in Washington state in the years to come. The popular area known as the Enchantments, had over 17,000 visitors in 2017 with 3000 overnight permits issued (over 20,000 people applied). These permits are just for six months—May 15 through October 31. July and August probably get the highest number of visitors.

In the hiking community, everyone is expected to follow voluntary leave-no-trace (LNT) practices. However, if even 1% of 10,000 visitors per season on a 20 mile trail don’t know or don’t care about LNT practices and leave garbage or human excrement along the trail, that’s 100 incidents of the environment being trashed each year.

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Food storage Sleeping systems Snow camping Tent setup Winter camping

Tips for a Better Winter Campsite

1. Camp on snow

Be equipped to camp on the snow. Once you learn how to do it and how comfortable it is, you may never want to camp on the ground again. To do this, you need a sleeping system with sufficient R-value (5+) under your sleeping bag. The standard practice for snow camping in the Pacific Northwest is two mattresses, either one solid core and one air or two solid ones.

Snow is soft and clean, usually free of sticks and rocks. It makes the most comfortable surface and often requires no preparation. Sometimes you might need to stomp it down a bit with snowshoes or level it with a snow shovel. It is easy to level a spot even on slopes. Pitching a tent on the snow is the lowest impact (leave no trace) way to camp. It also increases your campsite options (unless you are in an area where designated campsites are the only permissible locations). And, it is often the only option if you want to camp in the winter season. So be prepared!

For more on sleeping warm, see winter sleeping bags.

Winter sleeping system
My main sleeping system consists of a roll-out solid core foam mattress, an air mattress, and a sleeping bag. The solid core foam mattress has an R-value of 2.8 (about $30) and two of these will do the job. Or one 2.8 foam pad coupled with an air mattress with at least 2.5 R-value and you’ll be comfortable. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad which has 5.7 R-value ($150–225). The patches on my sleeping bag are the result of some small critter eating through the bag to gather down stuffing.

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Preparing for Winter Winds

Pacific Northwest winter weather is mild with temperatures usually between 20 to 35ºF for most backpacking trips between 3,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation. However, during the winter months, wind speeds increase significantly and trip planning needs to include clothing for wind protection to prevent discomfort, hypothermia, and even frostbite.

There is a thin line of protection between being a happy winter camper and being miserable and at risk. Always plan your kit so that you are fully protected and never cold for any significant length of time.

winter winds average speeds in Washington State
If you are use to three-season backpacking, you may be unfamiliar with the increased wind speeds of winter. Planning for the cold is not enough. You need to factor in wind as well to be safe.

Wind Forecasts

When planning a trip, bear in mind that a forecast of 10–25mph wind can fail to represent wind speed in specific terrain conditions, such as the crest of ridges or narrow saddles and valleys, where the wind can increase significantly. The Mountain Forecast website provides wind speed data for select elevations.

intense mountain winds
The forecast (February 9, 2019) included 10–25mph winds, but on this ridge we had trouble walking, indicating that the wind speed was around 40mph. The temperatures were 7–10ºF at 5000ft, making the wind chill probably –15ºF. Without the right clothing, this would place us close to the edge of frostbite danger.

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Snow stake cords Tent setup Tent Stakes

How to stake a tent in snow without tying knots

This is just a quick tip to help you stake out your tent on snow. You may already be familiar with snow stakes and the deadman strategy for securing the stakes in soft snow. What I want to explain here is a method of setting up your stake cords so that you don’t have to tie any knots when you set up your tent. That is, the only tieing involved is done at home before you head out to the wilderness. Technically, you do need to tie one “knot,” a “girth hitch” to attach the cord to the stake, but this isn’t the kind of knot that requires much finger dexterity or time in cold conditions.

When you get ready to set up camp, you may be tied, it may be getting dark, and the weather may be cold and windy. You’ll want to set up your tent as quickly as possible. Tying knots with gloves on is not easy, so if you can avoid it, why not?

To eliminate this hassle, you can use the 2mm utility cord to prepare

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Gear Buying Tips Gloves Sleeping bags Snowshoes Ultra-light gear Wag Bags Winter Backpacking Gear Winter Boots

Winter Backpacking Gear Buying Tips

With the right winter backpacking gear, you can be warm, dry, and comfortable snowshoeing or hanging around your camp in the snow.

These tips just concern winter gear basics and are not a full gear list for winter backpacking.

Boots

In the early winter season (fall) when rain is freezing and icing the trail and in late season (spring) especially, when the snow is packed down on the trail, micro-spikes add valuable traction.

Keeping your feet warm in PNW winter doesn’t require heavy Mukluks. Your 3-season boots might even work, but only if they are loose enough to allow for warmer socks and still have plenty of circulation. I usually use thin liner socks with heavy outer wool socks. If your socks create a tight boot fit, then your feet will be cold and you are better off getting another pair of boots for winter use. Circulation is the key to warmth. If you buy boots for winter, be sure to try them on wearing liner socks and thick wool outer socks (the thicker the better). Even with both pairs of socks on, the boots should not be tight. Look for boots that are waterproof, but breathe, and sturdy enough to use with snowshoes.

If you want to use your summer boots, but the fit is tight, try relacing them, starting about half way up. How you lace your boots is very important for correct winter fit. Even with boots made for wide feet you may need to skip the first bottom eye-rings to get the perfect loose winter fit. More here: https://winterbackpacking.com/how-to-keep-your-feet-warm/

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Booties Safety Tips Sock liners Winter backpacking Winter Boots Wool insoles

How to keep your feet warm

 

winter booties
Some gear to keep your feet warm. No matter how wet or cold your boots may get during the hike, you want warm dry foot wear while in camp, at night, and during emergencies. In this photo (left to right): Thin smart-wool sock liners, thick wool socks, wool insoles for the booties, and down booties.

Truth 1: Circulation equals warmth.

Make sure your boots fit correctly. Not too loose or too tight. If your boots are too tight, blood circulation will be reduced causing your feet to become cold, especially when you are not moving. This often happens when hikers use their three-season hiking boots with thicker wool socks or layer socks with sock liners.

When you select hiking boots, the boots need to be slightly loose. Here are some tips for getting the right fitting winter boots: