Winter Backpacking Series: 11 Gear Must Haves

This is part three in a three part series about winter backpacking. Click the links to check out part one and part two.

Winter backpacking can pose a tricky set of problems. It is always ideal to keep your pack light in order to make your trip more enjoyable, but pack too little on a winter trip and you risk serious dangers such as hypothermia or frost bite. You may be wondering why I am posting about this in May. Well guess what, all of that winter gear is on sale now! So stock up now so that you are ready for your winter trip come December. Without further ado, here are the minimum items that I require on a cold weather trip.

  1. Layers

    I cannot stress enough the importance of layers in winter backpacking. When hiking in the cold, it is important to minimize sweating. If you get your clothes wet, it will take a lot of body heat to keep you warm and happy. Wet clothes = cold and unpleasant time. If you are getting warm, remove a layer. You should be cold to start but be able to warm up when moving. Make sure that your layers are breathable so that you are not trapping any sweat. You may be surprised that you are comfortable in just a base layer while hiking in the cold. If you have removed all of your layers but are still too warm, slow your pace. Once you are done hiking for the day, throw all of those layers back on to stay warm. I usually carry a thermal base layer (NO cotton! – it will retain moisture), a fleece, a nano-puff jacket (with hood), and a wind shell. For pants I keep it simple with some thermal leggings and a durable water resistant pant.


    Hiking at Mount Rainier National Park at an elevation of 6,400 feet.

  2. Hat, gloves, scarf

    This kind of goes along with layers, but I really like carrying a fleece hat, fleece buff, and two pairs of gloves (one thick, one thinner). The fleece hat and buff can help regulate your temperature and can add a lot of warmth in a little package. I even wear a fleece hat to bed if I it is very cold out. Two different thicknesses of gloves are also important to me because my hands can get sweaty which then becomes very uncomfortable. While hiking, I will wear a lighter pair of gloves. I also carry trekking poles and I like the extra layer in between the cork and my hand. Once I’m in camp, i’ll throw on my thick mittens. Mittens tend to keep my hands warmer because my fingers can share their warmth with each other!

  3. Waterproof boots

    If you are hiking in the snow, you are going to want waterproof boots. I have two pairs of hiking boots, my minimalist trail runners and waterproof boots (both purchased for great deals at REI garage sales). My trail runners are my go to shoe for anything dry in spring, summer, or fall, but if it is wet or winter, the waterproof boots are the way to go. Wet feet = cold feet which = no fun.

    Snowy backpacking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

    Snowy backpacking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

  4. Good socks (2 pair)

    A good pair of socks is an absolute must for any hiker. Every hiker knows that uncomfortable feet make for a miserable time. I am partial to Darn Tough socks (I am not getting paid to endorse them). They have a lifetime guarantee and I overall have no complaints. Best socks I have ever owned. Two pairs of socks are very important. As much as you can try not to sweat, feet just always sweat. Once you take your boots off at night and get in your sleeping bag, make sure to take off your wet socks and put on a pair of dry socks. It will make your night 100% better. Leave the wet socks in your sleeping bag so that they can dry from your body heat. That way you can wear them again the next day and save your dry socks for bedtime.

  5. Winter Sleep System

    What I mean by a winter sleep system is a good tent, a good sleeping bag rated to lower than the temperatures that you expect to see (the ratings are more like, you will survive if it is 15 degrees out, but you won’t like it), and an inflatable sleeping pad like a Thermarest. Most new campers forgo the sleeping pad but I urge you to reconsider! When you lay in your sleeping bag, any of the filling that you are compressing with your body is not providing warmth. Therefore, if you are sleeping directly on the cold ground, it is going to be a COLD night. By adding a sleeping pad to your sleep system, you put a layer in between you and the ground which is 1.) more comfortable and 2.) way warmer. Each pad has an R-value which is a measure of it’s thermal resistance. The higher the R-value, the warmer it will be. I have the Thermarest Pro-Lite 4 which has an R-value of 3.2. Also, women tend to sleep colder, so I recommend women specific sleeping bags for the ladies out there.

  6. Water Bottle (2)

    Usually when backpacking, I like to fill up my camelbak bladder with 2.5 liters of water. When winter backpacking, I go for 2 water bottles instead because if it is below freezing, the tube on your bladder will freeze, making it useless. I keep the water in my bag so that it doesn’t freeze and I make sure to drink plenty of water because dehydration can hasten the onset of hypothermia. I also keep the bottles in my sleeping bag at night so that they are not frozen in the morning. If you are really cold at night, you can boil some of you water, put it back in your water bottle, and then throw the water bottle in your sleeping bag to warm everything up for when you jump in. It’s the little things.

    Gotta have your hot tea to keep you warm

    Gotta have your hot tea to keep you warm

  7.  Camp Stove + Calorie Rich Foods

    A camp stove such as a Jet Boil is a great addition to your backpack. It allows you to rehydrate meals, cook some ramen, or make some tea. Warm food at the end of a cold day of hiking is seriously priceless. Calorie rich foods are important because you would be surprised how many calories you burn winter backpacking. Your body is working overtime to keep you warm on top of the physical activity that you are doing. Don’t underestimate the calories that you will need. A hungry camper is an unhappy camper.

  8. Headlamp

    Pretty self explanatory. When it gets dark out, you will want to be able to see. Extra batteries are a good idea as well because the cold kills batteries faster. Try to keep your batteries in a pocket to keep them warm.

  9. Firestarter

    This can be as simple as some dryer lint! If you are camping in the snow and all of the wood is wet it can be very tricky to start a fire. Dryer lint weighs next to nothing and is an excellent fire starter so this is a no brainer. You will thank me when you have a roaring fire to keep you warm in the 15 degree weather.

    Ahhhhh, warmth

    Ahhhhh, warmth

  10. Sun protection

    Sun reflecting off snow in the winter can give you a serious burn. Always bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and an SPF lip balm to protect your exposed skin.

  11. Camera

    Last but not least, a camera! You will definitely want to capture that winter wonderland that you are walking through. Just remember to keep those batteries warm.

Some extras that you might want: hand warmers, trekking poles, gaiters

I hope you found my winter backpacking gear must haves useful. Although this is specific to winter, many of these items are what I carry on all of my backpacking trips throughout the year. Let me know your winter backpacking tips and tricks in the comments!

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