Loren Sztajer
Photo by Loren Sztajer Flickr.com

For those willing to brave cold temperatures, don multiple layers and take a few extra precautions, winter camping can be an incredible way to enjoy the peace and beauty of a snow-covered wilderness – sans crowds. Whether you head into the winter wilderness on foot, snowshoes, skis or a split-board, following these pre-trip tips on planning and packing for winter backpacking will set up you for success.


Photo by MIKI Yoshihito Flickr.com
Photo by MIKI Yoshihito Flickr.com

Prep Work

Winter outings have a unique set of challenges – from shorter days to severe weather – and require careful planning to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip.

  1. Know where you’re going, how long it will take you to get there and when you plan to return. Whether you’re going solo or with a group, let someone back home know the details of your plans.
  2. Check road conditions and the weather forecast for possible storms and weather warnings. Be prepared for changing conditions.
  3. Avoid avalanche areas. Even if you’re trained to respond to an avalanche, check the local avalanche forecast, and don’t go out if avalanche danger is high. Keep in mind that avalanche forecasts may be general and not accurate for specific areas. If you are on or near any slope greater than 20°, your group should have formal avalanche training. The Northwest Avalanche Center is a great source for condition reports if you’re going into avalanche territory in the PNW.
  4. Be prepared for the unexpected. Take extra food and clothing in case of a change in plans. This will keep the unexpected from turning into an emergency.
  5. Test your gear. If you’ve been storing gear since last winter or are using gear for the first time, make sure it works. Test it and get familiar with it before you’re on the trail.


Dress for Success

The key to enjoying an outdoor winter excursion is to stay dry. Being dry is being warm. Choose materials that wick moisture, dry quickly, insulate and are waterproof. Wear layers that are easy to add or remove. If you have extra space in your pack, take extras of the items most likely to get wet like socks and gloves.

  1. Stay away from cotton base layers. For the layers touching your skin, stick with merino wool or a synthetic like polyester that will soak sweat and moisture off of your body.
  2. Keep body heat in by insulating. Fleece pants and jackets are great choices designed to keep you warm. Keep in mind that these layers are not wind or water proof and should be covered by a third layer when needed.
  3. To keep your midlayer dry while keeping wind out, you’ll need an outer shell. Choose waterproof over water-resistant and look for breathability. Zipper vents are a plus. Even in winter temps, you can overheat if you’re working hard and heat can’t escape. The outer layer, or shell, is your waterproof/windproof/breathable layer. If you’re outer layer has a hood and high-zipping collar, you’ll have added protection from the elements.
  4. Having proper footwear is the number one way to stay safe while trekking through winter wonderlands. Proper waterproof mountaineering boots will keep your feet warm and dry, prevent frostbite and general misery, as well as give you sure footing on icy or wet trails. Test your boots with the socks you plan on wearing to avoid blisters and ill-fitting boots. Pack extra socks in case one pair gets wet or just too smelly. If you’ll be moving through deep snow, gaiters will keep snow out of your boots.
  5. Wearing a hat will keep your whole body warm. Use waterproof gloves or mittens with a fleece liner to keep your hands and fingers protected from cold temperatures, snow and wind. Frostbite is not something you want to invite along on your trip.


Photo by Perfect Zero Flickr.com
Photo by Perfect Zero Flickr.com

The Essentials

Your pack may be feeling loaded down from all the extra winter layers you’ve packed, but don’t skip out on including these essentials. It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. Most likely, you’ll need these five items.

  1. Sun protection is often over looked on winter expeditions. But the sun is extremely powerful even in winter months, especially when reflected by the snow. Wear sunglasses or goggles (which provide wind protection as well) and keep up with sunscreen and SPF lip balm.
  2. Hopefully, you’ll stay safe and healthy on your expedition, but having a first-aid kit with you is extremely important. You can buy readymade kits, or assemble your own – just make sure you include supplies to treat blisters, bandages, gauze pads, medical tape, antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen and antidiarrheal meds.
  3. Hydration is equally important during winter camping as it is under the hot summer sun. Carrying at least 1 full water bottle and a container that can be filled from a water source or snowmelt later is essential. Keep in mind: rivers and lakes may be frozen, preventing access to running water. You will need a water purifier like a filter or iodine tablets. You can also use a pot to boil water (or melt snow).
  4. You’re going to get hungry – that’s what happens in the woods. The good news is, everything tastes better in the backcountry, and, because you’re using extra energy, you get to eat extra food! Make sure you plan for ample calorie intake, lots of protein and ample energy-giving snacks. Pack an emergency stash, just in case.
  5. There is less daylight in the winter, so you’ll be relying on your headlamp and flashlight more often than usual. Cold temperatures can also zap batteries, so make sure to bring extra. Keep the extra batters somewhere warm so they don’t drain before you use them.


Photo by Alex Indigo Flickr.com
Photo by Alex Indigo Flickr.com

Gear Up

Winter camping requires season-specific gear along with a unique skill set. Having the right equipment to protect yourself from the elements is key to enjoying the trip rather than just enduring it.

  1. You’re going to need a durable, sturdy and comfortable backpack for lugging your gear – and since you’ll have extra gear during winter camping, you may need a higher volume pack than usual. If you are carrying skis, snowshoes or a split board, make sure you can safely secure them to your pack. A waterproof cover is also a good idea, in case of wet snowfall.
  2. On longer winter trips, pulling a sled is a good way to carry more gear (not on your back) and get a bonus extra workout. A sled will only be viable if the trail has a solid snowpack and no dry patches. If you haven’t pulled a camping sled before, make sure you talk to an experienced guide beforehand.
  3. Use a sleeping bag that’s rated at least 10 degrees lower than the coldest temperatures you plan to be exposed to. If the weather is supposed to stay around 30°F, you’re best bet is to have a sleeping bag rated for 20°F. Down filling is the most popular choice, just make sure it doesn’t get wet.

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