Winter Backpacking Skills

These techniques I've tested on real hikes. Some of them were learned the hard way, with frozen fingers and frustration along with the adventure. I hope this page can help you enjoy your next winter outing.

I usually pack up pretty quickly on cold mornings, knowing that movement and hiking will warm me up. Keeping gear simple and systems in good working order facilitates this. Be sure any hiking partners are well prepared. Their headaches usually become yours as well.

While snow is more likely in winter, freezing rain is a possibility as well. Bring four layers, the outer layer being water proof, and large enough to fit over the other three layers combined. You don't need a special puff jacket for camp. You will be cooking while sitting in your sleeping bag on a sleeping pad, comfortably out of the wind.
This outer layer should have a hood. Jackets without hoods leave a gap between the collar and hat, where warm air can escape.
The other three layers are up to you, the first one near the skin is a wicking layer. Its usually not very thick and can be worn with one or more layers as needed.
The next layer should be an insulating layer, not too heavy. This is the layer I generally save for sleeping in, and don't wear on the trail unless it gets abominably cold. A wonderful pair of fleece socks just for sleeping in is a must. They need to be dry, so don't wear these hiking.
Fleece is my third layer, jacket with a hood and fleece pants. The fourth layer is the waterproof with hood layer.
Because you're layering, you can remove layers as needed. Keep an eye on this comfort level. You don't want to sweat, ever.

I recommend a tent, even if its a single wall, 1.3 silnylon manufacture. It will condense and freeze on the inside, however, so be prepared to shake out the frost when packing up in the morning. A double wall tent will not have as much frost, and the layers will also insulate. The larger the tent, the more room your body will have to heat,so less is more.
Tarps let in a cold draft at ground level and can be quite cold, unless you fold under one side of the tarp to form an L shape, as shown on my  videos.

I have used a variety of stakes for winter camping. Be advised that the ground will freeze around them, making removal difficult. If you use gutter nails, bring at least one hook-shape stake, and remove gutter nails with it, like you would use a can opener on a beer bottle. Do not pull the stake up by the loops on the tent.

Depending on type of gloves you have, prevent your hands from getting wet while shaking out the frost and packing up. Use a separate pair if needed, and switch before heading out on the trail. Use an over size stuff sack to facilitate packing up. Nearly everything expands when its cold, and you don't want to be fighting with it.

Sleeping Gear
Always use a full length sleeping pad. An extra pad is always welcome. Don't think your backpack will insulate your feet. Been there, done that. I usually have all my clothes on, my ultralight pack is used for my pillow.

You can use a 30 degree bag, and a quilt sleeping bag or 40 degree bag for cold weather. No need to buy a winter weight bag. My 30 degree Marmot down bag (24 ounces)is topped with my 40 degree quilt (16 ounces). Total weight of both bags is 2.5 pounds. Very warm and light weight.

Use fleece sleepwear to boost the ratings. Run in place and get warmed up before climbing in your bag. This way the body heat you've generated will warm the bag up quickly.

Having plenty of calories in fat and protein will keep you going and help you sleep warm. It will take longer to cook things, so you'll want simple food with plenty of fuel. Bring nuts for bedtime and midnight snacks. Chocolate and raisins are the foods of adventurers, but if you're not sure of your digestion issues, play it safe. There's few things as aggravating as leaving a warm sleeping bag in order to dig a cat hole in snow banks or frozen turf.

I learned this the hard way. Before bed, fill the cook pot with water, which will freeze solid. Drink as much water to be hydrated, leaving a cup in the water bottle. Dump the rest. I have heard too many reports of Nalgenes busting inside sleeping bags, water hoses being open but the bladders being frozen solid to adopt any other plan. Never sleep with your water. An accident means you're sleeping gear is wet, which can be devastating.
Camp near enough to a running river spring to get water within an hour of packing up.
During the night, if you wake up, shake the water bottle to keep the ice crystals small.
In the morning, you'll thaw the pot of water, drinking some, cooking with the rest.
Pack up and hike to the nearest running water, and you'll be back in business.

Medical Risk
Hypothermia is a very real risk for backpackers. If you are hiking alone, be aware of your comfort level. Before you get exhausted, frozen, or frustrated, stop, eat, hydrate. Keep mentally alert to prevent falls and injuries. If you start shivering, take immediate action.

Bring the murphy kit as well. Tape, bandages, pain reliever, cell phone if you might get coverage.


Remember the mountains can make their own weather, and you may be hiking in snow any month of the year if you're above 8,000 feet. July is the safest month to avoid this, but not guaranteed.
Winter views are spectacular, and serene. Very few people will be crowding the trails.

There is a lot of darkness in winter, and unless you night hike, will be spending almost 14 hours inside your sleeping bag. If you can have a camp fire, bring a fire starter, and keep it far enough from the tent to prevent sparks from blowing onto the canopy.

Chose your camping locations thoughtfully. Find a sheltered spot, with morning sun if possible.

Don't forget the sunglasses and sunscreen. Glare from snow or barren rock faces can be devastating if not uncomfortable.
I always use the wrap around glasses for maximum protection.

This video shows how to use two fires in a winter camping survival situation. More information at
January 10, 2011.