Going hiking or camping in the backcountry is an exhilarating experience for some while it’s dreadful for others. The excitement of getting away from daily schedules can get your blood pumped up. At the same time, the risks and inconvenience of being away in the wilderness can be daunting too. This means you have to get ready by teaching yourself a few things and making preparations for the trip.
All these aspects of backpacking become even more imposing if you plan to go during wintertime. Winter backpacking brings a whole new set of anticipation as well as challenges to hiking and camping.
For first-timers, winter backpacking may not seem so appealing, because, well, it’s winter! As harrowing as it may seem, you’ll be surprised to find that it gives a different satisfaction and experience.
And just to prove the naysayers out there, here are a few of those great elements:
These are just a glimpse of the many advantages you get for backpacking during the winter. If there’s still a trace of doubt among the cynics out there, you’re in luck! This article will take you through a comprehensive backpacking guide focusing on winter camping. The guide will not only refine your skills as a backpacker but will reveal to you the different aspects of planned and prepared backpacking.
The most crucial part of backpacking in the winter is to know what to expect and how to prepare. For beginners, this can seem demanding because even seasoned backpackers may miss out on essential aspects. However, with the relevant awareness and the right understanding, you’ll be able to cover all the necessary bits in time.
To go backpacking in the winter, you need to consider elements that go beyond your gear and apparel. You have to prepare for the right diet, first-aid, emergency plans, camping techniques, etc. Although these factors may seem a little overwhelming at first, we’ll ensure that you get a comprehensive understanding of every component.
We’ve arranged this comprehensive backpacking guide in a way that should be easy-to-learn and even easier to implement. The most crucial goal here is to keep your trip as enjoyable and hassle-free as possible. To this end, we’ve stuck to practical, doable, cost-efficient, and labor-saving measures.
To make your chilly-camping as wholesome as possible, here’s a comprehensive run-through of all the things you’ll need to have and prepare for before heading out.
First off, you have to choose a winter backpacking trail that suits your preference and camping skills. Regardless of your experience so far, here are some factors that any winter backpacker needs to consider.
- The Right Distance – If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start out with shorter hiking trails. Trekking and hiking in the winter can take a lot of energy. As someone just starting out, the ideal path would be one that takes less time and energy to reach. A more experienced hiker can opt for longer tracks if he/she can meet the challenge.
- The Right Campsite – As we shall see below, pitching your tent in the right location is crucial to an enjoyable camping experience. Look for a site that is welcomed by the morning sun the next day. Avoid sites that are at the bottom of depressions or lower landscapes.
- Resources – Look for a destination that can give you access to essential resources. Having downed and dry wood nearby can help you indulge in more campfires. This is a significant benefit because fires are central to cooking and keeping you warm. Also, look for a site that has running water nearby.
- The Terrain – Try to avoid hiking trails that involve a lot of river crossings or frozen lakes. These are dangerous terrain elements that are best left to professional adventurers. Check out if your destination is prone to incessant rains or floods. A little research can save you a world of trouble in the winter wilderness.
Get yourself a map of the backpacking trail you have chosen. Make sure you spend adequate time studying the information and routes to ensure that you’ll be familiar with the area.
The first thing to do here is to plan out an itinerary for the hiking and backpacking. This includes the route, pit-stops, camping site, views, landmarks, etc. This will give you a mental picture of what to expect and how to progress. Going into the winter backcountry without preparation can lead you to multiple troubles and inconveniences.
Once your itinerary is ready, you can determine the speed and rate at which you want to go through the trails. Having a daily target mileage will allow you to keep track of your progress. This way, you don’t spend unnecessary nights at a single site when you can move on to a better location.
Finally, get any required permits and passes that your Trail may need. These permits are usually handed out by local ranger stations before you venture into the wilderness.
When you’re out trekking in the backcountry, there’s no guarantee to the things you may see or experience. The best way to be ready for unexpected situations is to be prepared with the right mindset, gear, and training. However, on the off chance that you might face a real emergency, you have to prepare ahead.
- Quick Exits from the Trail – As you study your trail map and plan out your route, make a note of the fastest ways of exiting your Trail if the situation requires. This may include settlements, ranger stations, outposts, etc.
- Emergency services – Before you start off on your Trail, ask the local rangers for any emergency response numbers for that area. Regular 911 services do not usually operate in these locations, so you need to have contact numbers of any similar services that work there.
- Share with a friend – Share your route and schedule with a family member or friend who can keep track of where you might be. This way, if you do not give timely updates, this person can get in touch with the rangers.
- First-Aid – Take a first-aid crash course or training before you set out camping. With the right training and kit, you can prevent injuries and catastrophes from small cuts and bruises.
The primary purpose of choosing the right clothing is to keep you warm and dry. Choose a fabric that’s waterproof, breathable, and wicks moisture. We suggest going for three layers for maximum warmth and protection.
- Inner/Base Layer – This is the layer that is closest and in most contact with your skin. Go for an inner layer of either merino wool or synthetic fabrics that repel moisture. Merino wool is like nature’s very own miracle fabric that wicks moisture, doesn’t build odor, and is itch-free. Natural materials that are comfortable and soft can do wonders for you in the cold. Whatever your brand of choice, do not go for cotton or polyester materials. Polyesters and cotton clothing will retain sweat and moisture, making it harder for your body to stay warm.
- Mid Layer – A middle layer for insulation and heat retention. Expedition fleece or gooses-down jackets are good options here. Merino wool is also suitable for insulation because it’s breathable and retains body heat. The main factor here is to go for lightweight insulators. Bulky clothing will compromise your mobility in the snow, and this can be dangerous later. Again, refrain from choosing cotton or polyester materials that do more harm than good in the cold.
- Outer/External Layer – And finally, an outer layer that repels both wind and water. The outer layer’s purpose is to reinforce and enhance the two layers underneath. Here too, merino-lined insulators are a great choice because they can protect you from the elements while still keeping you warm. Make sure your outer attire has a healthy ventilation provision. It has to allow your perspiration to evaporate without condensing within your clothing naturally.
- Socks – It is important to pack well-insulated, moisture-wicking socks for your trip. A good pair of socks might just save your life. Or at least your enjoyment of your trip. If you need some recommendations on cold-weather or waterproof socks, check out our list of the Best Cold-Weather Hiking Socks.
Without the right gear, no amount of clothing and hiking-knowledge will be of help. To keep this backpacking guide manageable and straightforward, we’ve stuck to the basics. If you’d like a more complete buying guide, check out our Ultimate Hiking Buying Guide.
- Backpack – This one is obvious. It’s called winter backpacking for a reason. Here, it makes sense to invest in a hiking backpack that has volume. A measly 20-liter may be cheaper, but you’ll have to sacrifice on space. Go for a backpack that has additional loops and provision for strapping tools and accessories. Get a waterproof backpack or at least one that has a rain cover. Here is an article if you’d like to learn more about the best waterproof backpacks.
- Sleeping Bag and Pad – Go for a sleeping bag that ensures 8-10 degrees below the expected temperature. If you can accommodate a sleeping pad in your budget, it will give you additional comfort and warmth. Finding a good sleeping bag for the cold weather can be tough. If you need help, check out our cold-weather sleeping bag buying guide!
- Snowshoes and Crampons – Buy snow boots that are both waterproof and have insulation features. Crampons improve your mobility, and you save energy on the effort it takes to move around. Gaiters can be an excellent addition to keeping your feet and pants dry in deep snow terrain. If you don’t yet have any, you can check out our Crampon Buying Guide.
- Shovel/Ice pick – A small and compact shovel is a great addition to your gear. It can easily hang on one side of your backpack and does not need protection from rain/snow. An ice-pick can be a useful tool in some situations but isn’t mandatory if you want less weight. If you don’t yet have a snow shovel, you can check out this list of the best avalanche shovels. If you need an ice pick too, this Demon Escape Ally snow shovel / ice pick review should help.
- Tent – This one seems obvious, but If you’re going to be in the backcountry for more than a day, you’ll need a good tent. It’s important that the tent be both well insulated and waterproof. If you have a tent already that you like you can check out this article on how to waterproof your tent. Otherwise, finding a good tent is crucial to your enjoyment of your trip.
- Overall – An essential element of cooking in the snow is to find the right shelter. Once you do, you can fashion out a little kitchen in the snow. Whether you make a trench, wall, table, etc. the snow is your best friend in this situation. The ditch or wall will protect your stove from gusts of wind that may blow out the flames. It will also provide an enclosure where fire and heat are easier to generate.
- Stove – Go for a compact stove that can withstand lower temperatures. It should be easy to carry and still be able to cook in ice-cold surroundings. White gas stoves are a great choice because they can give extra heat, withstand cold, and consume less energy. You should not operate your stove inside your tent if possible. Both fire and fumes pose great risks. If you have no other choice, make sure there are adequate ventilation and air-flow, and make sure you have a quick way of stopping a fire.
- Calories and food intake – Keep carbohydrate content to at least 50% of your food stock. They are easier to digest, and they give more energy. The other 50% should be divided on a 30-20 basis between fats and protein, respectively. Fats provide you with energy for extended periods, and protein can help rebuild your body after strenuous treks.
Drinking water is arguably the most crucial dietary component of winter backpacking. Dehydration can especially be dangerous during winter hiking because the effects are much more subtle and harder to notice. Some common signs of dehydration are:
- Less urinating – You’ll find that you’re urinating less frequently if your body is dehydrated. This difference is easier to notice when there’s a marked variation between camping and trekking. With regular water intake, your peeing habits should be constant while under shelter. But while hiking, your body can be dehydrated without you even noticing the difference.
- Less Sweating – When you’re trekking snowy slopes, your body is bound to release some perspiration in the process. If you notice that you seem to be sweating much less than usual, it’s a good idea to take a gulp of that water bottle.
- Blurred vision and Headaches – A common effect of dehydration can be pains in your head and around the eyes. This strains your vision and reduces your ability to see clearly. If you spot any of these signs, it means your body may be low on water.
Your tent is where you’re going to be getting all the rest and shelter during your backpacking trip. So, it’s crucial to have the right warmth and insulation.
- The Right Spot – When it comes to insulation, finding the right location to set up your tent is half the work done. Look for a site that has a natural shelter or barrier, like boulders, trees, shrubs, etc. It’s hard enough to construct barriers on your own while having to insulate your tent. Pitch your tent on high ground so that rain or snow naturally settles away from your tent.
- Wind wall and barrier – In addition to natural shelter, you can boost the insulation in your tent by constructing your own barriers. A good way to do this in winter is to build a snow wall beside your tent. Alternatively, you can also dig a layer before pitching your tent so that the surroundings are elevated. If you’re carrying around tarp in your backpack, you can hang it on a line and nail it to the ground.
- Interior insulation – Ground tarps and floor blankets are a great way to cozy up the interior of your tent. They prevent excess moisture or snow from entering your tent. They also give you an additional layer of comfort while sleeping.
- Layer up and take out wet gear – The trick to staying warm in the winter snow is wearing layers of warm clothing. Layering up an hour before sleeping can help you generate and retain body heat so that you don’t go freezing to your pad. Make sure that all your wet equipment is kept outside the tent.
Winter backpacking is such a unique experience that there’s no single rule that works in every terrain and for every camper. But certain techniques have proved to be generally useful to winter campers everywhere. Some of these tips may require more spending, training, preparation, or effort.
However, each trick is a great way to enhance and strengthen your winter backpacking experience in a fresh way.
Your water bottle is valuable because you get to carry around and drink water at will while hiking. But come bedtime, it can also double as a warmer you can snuggle up to. Fill the bottle with hot water and ensure that the lid is tightly held in place. Put the bottle in the desired position in your sleeping bag, and you’re set for the night.
We like to call this one the ‘induced insulation’ trick, and here’s why: Perform a few stretches and warm-up exercises before bed. This will get your heart rate up, and your body heats up. With the generated body heat, you can calmly get to your sleeping bag and relax.
IMP: Make sure you don’t work up a sweat before bedtime. The sweat may condense in your clothing and make you colder later in the night.
Trekking in the winter can be physically tough and demanding. When you’re tired and wading about in the snow, it’s easy to lose smaller extensions of your clothing. It’s common for winter backpackers to lose their gloves or hats in the snow because these are easy to come off. Having an extra pair will ensure that you don’t freeze off just because of a misplaced item.
Yes, we know pee-ing into a bottle or canister isn’t exactly a memory worth holding on to. But there in the freezing cold, it will make a world of difference. Just make sure your pee-bottle is clearly marked so that you don’t confuse it with other utensils.
Lithium batteries work way better than regular alkaline ones while winter camping. They’ll give you more extended performance and are lighter to carry around too. Lithium cells are also known to work in colder temperatures much better than regular batteries.
Winter backpacking can be a fantastic experience. And those who have tried it know the difference it makes over regular camping. However, with the difference in weather, climate, and terrain, it can also come with a fair share of dangers and challenges. But with the right knowledge and insights, you can bring out the best from this potent and awesome experience. To sum up, remember to:
- Choose a trail that suits you and your trekking ability.
- Carve out a route with schedules and anticipated progress.
- Create a contingency plan for emergencies
- Clothe yourself with the right fabric, layers, gear, and equipment.
- Keep up proper nutrition and hydration
- Make practical enhancements to your tent for extra warmth
Anyone can huddle up in a blanket in a warm home when it’s freezing outdoors. It takes a strong spirit to truly prepare yourself for a trip to the wilderness in the winter. Yes, there are considerations to make and preparations to handle. But if you diligently cover all the elements in this guide, you’ll be ready to experience the best winter backpacking experience.