When I started out backpacking as a teenager, my first “stove” was a series of home-made paraffin burners (cardboard rolled into empty food cans and covered in wax). Eventually, I acquired an Optimus Svea stove which I really enjoyed. It sounded like a jet plane, but it worked well and was reliable. The simplicity of the design makes the Svea perhaps the most reliable liquid fuel backpacking stove. I eventually gave it away, but later in life when I returned to backpacking I decided on an MSR Whisperlite International, which is also a liquid fuel stove and the one that I still use.
Many backpackers have been using canister stoves for years with no problems. But once they venture into winter conditions, canister stoves can lose pressure, underperform, and fail. But how cold does it have to get to experience these problems? I’m going to explore that question as well as what to look for in canister stove systems for the best performance in cold weather. For the pros and cons of liquid fuel stoves see Why Use a Liquid Fuel Stove?
The Basic Concept of the Ten Essentials
The “ten essentials” is a common way of referring to items that one should always carry in the wilderness for an emergency. These are items that will help you cope with difficulties that could turn into life-threatening situations. For example, you can carry a compass and map to avoid getting lost, but also a headlamp, so you are able to see the compass and map if you require navigation at night or an altimeter if you are in a whiteout.
This post was updated on January 15, 2021.
You may have heard some controversy about the switch failing on the Pieps DSP Sport Avalanche Transceivers, especially when used incorrectly. There are now many videos showing the issues, such as this one. Pieps is a company owned by Black Diamond. I received a letter from REI (below) and have decided to post it here for anyone who may find it of interest. It includes an important Instagram safety video link (https://www.instagram.com/p/CGT6EzAlgLn/) from Pieps. If you’re using an older Pieps Transceiver, watch this video because it provides important use and inspection information about the devices that every user needs to know.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few things that make winter backpacking dangerous
Snow camping and winter backpacking are great ways to experience the wilderness. In fact, nothing is as beautiful and enchanting as the wilderness in winter. But if you are new to the idea, here are a few reasons you shouldn’t just head out alone or unprepared. Be aware of the risks and take appropriate precautions. Below is a short beginner’s list of basic hazards and concerns that every winter backpacker should know.
- Avalanches. Learn about avalanche dangers and then always check the avalanche forecast in your area before heading out. This is not something that can be fully learned in an afternoon or even in a few days of training.
- Snow conceals lethal dangers such as tree wells, rapidly moving streams, and deep crevasses that you can fall in, as well as heavy cornices that can collapse below you or bury you.
- Winter weather—cold temperatures, reflected UV light, and wind conditions can create special hazards that require specific types of gear. In cold and snowy conditions you are at greater risk of hypothermia, frostbite, snow blindness, and snow immersion suffocation.
- Navigation is more challenging. Trails, trail signs, and familiar landmarks are covered in snow increasing the risks of getting lost. Snow and clouds can create whiteouts obscuring directions.
- Help can be a long time coming. Depending on where you are, there are fewer people in the wilderness to find you or help you if something goes wrong. There is often no phone reception and even if you carry an emergency device a mountain rescue can take anywhere from 6 hours to several days depending on circumstances, location, and weather conditions.
Be sure to read my beginner’s safety tips list too.
Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically.
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A few safety tips
This is a concise list of safety tips for beginners who want to start winter backpacking.
- Avoid traveling alone. Hike in a group when possible and keep in eyesight of each other. If you think you may get separated, consider using walkie-talkies.
- Learn about snow. Start with short snowshoe day-hikes. Learn about the seasonal differences in snow conditions, from deep early season fresh snow to late-season consolidated snow. Learn how snow changes not just over the course of the season but of the day and how these changes affect travel speeds and gear requirements. Get to know which conditions require micro-spikes, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. learn about common dangers, such as avalanches, tree well, cornices, and snow bridges. Learn how to layer clothing and what levels of insulation are needed for different temperature ranges. Being too hot—overheating and sweating—or being too cold can both lead to hypothermia.
- Give greater attention to trail navigation. Know how to orient a map, use a compass, and spot reliable natural markers. Consider bringing a GPS, but don’t be reliant on electronic devices or batteries which may fail, especially in cold weather. Don’t depend on clear visibility, or expect exposed trails, or footprints in the snow for directions. Both wind and fresh snowfall can obscure your tracks quickly. Learn more about trip planning here: Trip Planning.
- Carry appropriate gear suited for the conditions and weather. Make sure you have the appropriate type of snowshoes for the terrain, the necessary sleeping bag and sleeping pad ratings, a tent that sheds snow, etc. Bring essentials such as first aid, headlamp, extra food and water, rain gear, etc. Wear a helmet and carry an ice ax when traveling on steep snow-covered slopes. Have a gear checklist and do a visual inspection before leaving home. Avoid cotton clothing because it doesn’t wick moisture away from your skin making it harder for your body to retain warmth. Always be prepared for conditions colder than anticipated. It is good to have a sleeping bag that is 10–20 degrees warmer than what you expect. If you’re just out for a day hike, carry emergency shelter in your day pack.
- Expect to get wet and be prepared to deal with it if it happens. Even though it is winter, you will likely sweat a lot while hiking. Always be able to change into dry clothing. Snowmelt can cause your boots and gloves to get wet. Wear gaiters to reduce snowmelt getting into your boots. Bring extra socks and gloves to replace wet ones. Carry rain gear even on clear days because the snow melting in the trees above can create rain showers in the forest that quickly soak your pack and clothing. Protect your sleeping bag, base layers, down jackets, and extra clothing with dry sacks inside your backpack.
- Attend avalanche classes. Learn how to identify risks. There are often free classes available, such as those hosted by REI.
- Check weather and avalanche forecasts before leaving. If things look worse than anticipated, know when to turn around.
- Carry avalanche safety gear. Bring a transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel and know how to use this gear when traveling in areas with avalanche risks. Practice beacon recovery with friends.
- Be prepared for wind. Check the wind forecast and carry wind protection, such as rain pants and jacket, goggles, balaclava, and extra gloves. Learn more about winter winds here: Preparing for Winter Winds.
- Bring UV protection. From January to July, UV reflection from the snow intensifies and can cause severe sunburns and snow blindness. Bring category 4 sunglasses (Glacier Glasses) to protect your eyes. Bring sunscreen and be able to cover exposed skin. Even the bottom of your nose and lips can get blistered from UV exposure on the snow.
- Learn how to avoid common snow dangers such as tree wells, snow bridges, cornices, and crevasses.
- Carry a stove and multiple fire-starting devices. Don’t rely on fires for warmth. Collecting wood and starting a fire in deep snow is difficult and often counter-productive because you expend valuable time and energy and often get wet in the process. It is also environmentally unsound in high elevation alpine areas. A stove is a faster and far more reliable way to generate warmth, resupply water, and heat food. Tents, sleeping bags, and jackets don’t create warmth, they preserve it. Your warmth comes from within your own body. The first rule of staying warm is to not lose body heat. While hiking you will wear fewer layers of clothing to avoid sweating, but once you stop moving you must layer up quickly to avoid core heat loss from your body. Once you lose warmth it is hard to recover it. Avoid staying in the wind without wind protection and sufficient layers. Being able to use a stove to create hot water bottles and heat food is important to generating, sustaining, and recovering warmth.