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Winter backpacking Winter Backpacking Gear Winter camping Winter Planning

What’s in My Winter Backpack

From late October to March a typical cold-weather backpacking trip in the Cascade Mountains can involve preparation for snow camping in temperatures ranging from 10 to 35º F with 5–25 mph winds. The gear shown here is for such a trip.

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Hot water bottles Mummy bags vs quilts Sleeping pads Sleeping systems

Tips for Sleeping Warm

Here are 12 basic tips for having a warm night’s sleeping while sleeping out on the snow or ice.

1. Pick a sheltered campsite. Camp on the leeward side of ridges and mountains or near large boulders that break the wind. Avoid camping near water or in drainage areas where cold air collects. For me, views take priority, so generally, I don’t always pick the most sheltered site. To stay warm, I rely on other strategies (listed below). 

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Dedicated base layers Down insulation Hot water bottles Male vs female sleeping bags Maximizing warm Mummy bags vs quilts Sleeping bag storage Sleeping bags Sleeping pads Sleeping systems Synthetic insulation Tips for staying warm Winter Backpacking Gear

Winter Sleeping Bags

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag for Pacific Northwest Winter Backpacking

If you are used 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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Canister and Liquid Fuel Stoves Canister Stoves Fire starters Flasks Flints Lighters Liquid Fuel Stoves Nalgene bottles Stove Repair kits Stoves Water Bottles Winter water management

How to Keep Your Water from Freezing

If you want to really enjoy winter backpacking, one of the first skills you need to master is your water management. This is both about staying hydrated and staying warm. It may seem like a minor thing to have your water freeze in a plastic bottle, but if you allow this to happen, it is one of those small things that can spiral into big problems. You don’t want this to happen. So let’s start with the basic gear necessary for managing your water.

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

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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…

Even 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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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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Balaclava Beaufort Wind Force Scale Frostbite prevention Gloves Goggles Health Hazards Hypothermia prevention PNW Weather wind chill wind preparation Wind Protection Gear Winter Planning Winter Weather Winter winds

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.

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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

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.

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Booties Safety Tips Sock liners Winter backpacking Winter Boots Wool insoles

How to keep your feet warm

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. Overly-tight boots often occur when hikers use their three-season hiking boots with thicker wool socks or layer socks with sock liners.