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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 Winter Backpacking

Even if you are an experienced 3-season backpacker, realize that the winter adds unique risks, and 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.

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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 while snowshoeing or hanging around your camp in the snow.

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Booties Safety Tips Sock liners Winter backpacking Winter Boots Wool insoles

How to Keep Your Feet Warm in Winter

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.

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Backpacking gear for snow Snowshoeing Snowshoes

Snowshoe tips

Use the right snowshoes for the terrain.

There are snowshoes for flat terrain, rolling terrain, and mountain terrain. Most of our trips here in the Pacific Northwest are in Alpine terrain or terrain with steep slopes. For this, snowshoes designed for mountain terrain provide the greatest safety and comfort.

How are mountain terrain snowshoes different?

The main purpose of snowshoes is to keep you from sinking into the snow. The deeper your feet sink, the more difficult it is to more. The more you can float on the snow the better. Flat terrain snowshoes serve that purpose but provide little traction on the underside to prevent slipping and sliding on slopes. This lack of traction allows you to go faster on flat terrain but it also means flat terrain snowshoes can perform like a high-speed sled on mountain slopes. Rolling terrain snowshoes have more traction, but only mountain terrain snowshoes have this added traction plus pop-up heel lifts that give your calves a break on steep terrain.

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Backpacking Bear-proof canister Snow camping Ultra-light gear Winter backpacking Winter camping

Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions

Some Exceptions…

Most of my gear falls in the light to the ultra-light category. This is important especially in the winter because sleeping gear and warm clothes add to your pack weight. But I have a few not-so-ultra-light exceptions, some of which I’m going to discuss in this post. Foremost among them is my extra sleeping pad and some form of food protection, such as a bear canister or metal lunchbox.