American Long Distance Hiking Association - West

Why Winter Backpacking

09 Feb 2017 10:12 AM | Kate Hoch (Administrator)

by Paul Magnanti

Many experienced three-season backpackers tend to hibernate in the winter. They’ll buy new gear, tweak their Excel spreadsheet, discuss which backpacking stove or wind shirt is the best, and upload to Instagram all the photos from earlier outings. But there is something better than buying gear and talking about it.

The something better? Getting out into the backcountry and embracing the fourth season. Go winter backpacking. Hike those paths. Snowshoe among the trees, and glide through a blanket of snow while on skis. Winter is not a time to stay inside and talk about things you have done. Winter is a time to have new backcountry experiences. Going out into the backcountry, seeing the mountains covered in snow and feeling the cold, bracing air is sublime. Get out there. And enjoy.

Why Winter Backpack? 

Besides the beauty that is found in winter, there are many reasons to backpack in the fourth season.

Fewer people.
No insects.
Food does not go bad.
The everyday trail you’ve hiked many times becomes magical and new.
It will keep you in shape for three-season backpacking.
Because life is too short to give up a quarter or more of the calendar year

Gear for winter backpacking

It is a bit of a misnomer that specialized gear and clothing are needed for winter backpacking, at least for initial forays. Stay below tree-line in lower elevation areas with a lesser amount of snow for your first outings.

Some of your three-season gear that can do double duty in winter:

Those old leather boots you may only use for trail work now? Treat with SnoSeal or similar, wear with some wool socks, bread bags, and liner socks, and you have some surprisingly effective winter footwear for an overnight trip.

Couple a twenty-degree quilt with your forty-degree summer quilt and combine a NeoAir or similar with a closed cell foam such as a RidgeRest and you have a sleeping system that can go down to zero degrees or so Fahrenheit.

A shelter with steeper walls can shed light snow. Save the four season shelters for higher elevation jaunts or more inclement weather when you gain some experience.

A simple balaclava and a fleece beanie covers a wide range of cold weather conditions

Thermals, wind pants, and a wind shirt do very well in cold weather when moving. A rain jacket is fine for when a hardshell is needed.

An alcohol stove works well enough for a quick overnighter when there is no snowmelt needed. Keep the fuel warm in your sleeping bag. Mushers use alcohol stoves on the Iditarod after all.

Don’t have a true winter down coat (five ounces or more of down fill)? Your three-season puffy with a 200 and 100 weight fleece will be a little heavier and bulky, but you will be able to get out there and stay warm!

As you start to enjoy more winter backpacking, you can purchase more winter specific gear such as a four-season tent, a winter weight down parka, skis or snowshoes, a white gas stove, etc.

Want to learn more? I have a more thorough primer on winter backpacking at my website.

The main point is to get out there first and enjoy, however. Much how you probably started backpacking in the first place!

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