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How to Plan a Winter Backpacking Trip

A few important things to prep, pack, and prepare for. 

By Trent Jonas

How to Plan a Winter Backpacking Trip

A backpacking trip takes a little more planning during the winter. Colder weather calls for more specialized gear (gloves, ice axe, etc.) as well as extra layers in preparation for potentially extreme variations in temperatures and conditions. On top of that, your base weight is going to be considerably heavier than it would be on a summer adventure, so you'll have to prep your pack accordingly. Here are a few tips on how to plan a winter backpacking trip that will get you started off on the right foot.  

Check the Conditions Before You Go

No matter the time of year, you should always check the weather conditions and forecast before you head out on a backpacking trip. This is especially important during winter months, as snowfall can make an otherwise moderate hike into a treacherous ordeal and extreme cold temperatures can be deadly. So, always check the forecast temperatures and conditions, as well as the snow cover in the area in which you plan to travel.

Start with Shelter

When backpacking during winter months, there are several things you must do differently from backpacking in milder weather, and carrying a heavier shelter is definitely one of them. You’ll want a four-season tent with a bathtub floor and a full fly, and in most cases, such a tent will weigh about twice as much as a typical backpacking tent. If you look, you can find lighter-weight four-season tents—the Black Diamond Firstlight is a good example—but with the weight savings, you’re giving up weather resistance and ruggedness. This type of tent may work well in milder winter climates, but if you’re heading for the mountains or into the north woods, you’ll need something burlier, like the Trango from Mountain Hardwear. At almost eight and a half pounds, the two-person Trango is a bombproof shelter that represents the upper end of the weight limit of such tents. But it will keep you dry and protected from the elements—and if you backpack with a companion, you can split up the components to share the weight, as well as each other’s warmth.

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How Will You Travel?

Before you go, make sure you get an idea of the snow conditions and the terrain you’ll be traversing. If there is little to no snow cover, you’ll probably be fine with a decent pair of waterproof hiking boots or shoes and warm socks—and always bring plenty of extra socks, in case your feet get wet. It may also be a good plan to bring along a pair of mini crampons, like Kahtoola's Micro Spikes or YakTrax, in case you encounter a slippery trail or icy conditions.

On the other hand, if you’re going someplace where there is a lot of snow on the ground, you may want to consider snowshoes. They will prevent your feet from sinking too deeply into the snow and make the going easier. If the terrain you’re crossing is relatively level or not very rugged, you could also consider cross country skis as an option.

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Heat and Cooking

In winter months, gas backpacking stoves don’t perform as well, so you’ll probably want to bring a stove that can run on liquid fuel. While alcohol stoves, like Toaks’ ultralight Titanium Siphon Alcohol Stove, are very reliable in cold weather, they are not as efficient as a white gas stove. A good option is something like the MSR Whisperlite Universal Camp Stove, which is a multifuel stove that you can use year-round. Regardless of the type of stove you bring, always bring a backup and plenty of fuel—you’ll need it to boil water as well as cook.   

In terms of lighting your stove—or campfire, if you’re in a place that allows them—bring good old-fashioned kitchen matches in a waterproof container. Like the stoves, lighters that run on gas just don’t perform that well in winter. You may also want to consider an electric plasma lighter, like the Sparkr Mini from Power Practical. It’s convenient, windproof and waterproof. However, you will also have to bring along a way to charge it, as the battery may not hold a charge as long in cold weather. 

Consider Communication

Again, regardless of the time of year, you should always let somebody know where you’re going, you’re planned route, and when you expect to return. In winter, a little extra peace of mind in terms of a personal emergency device makes a lot of sense. A standalone satellite tracking device, like the Spot Trace, is the most barebones way to go. Or, if you prefer, you can bring along something with additional functionality, like the inReach Mini from Garmin, which also acts as a GPS navigation device. 

Due to the escalation of the coronavirus outbreak, local destinations for outdoor recreation may be closed. Please visit official websites for more information.

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