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?
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.