Winter backpacking and gear advice from VPO Red Deer Owner Darren Schaedeli.
Don’t be scared off by -25C temperatures. Do your homework, be prepared, and enjoy the bug free, people free, solitude that winter camping has to offer. The correct gear and the knowledge on how to use it, makes all the difference between an enjoyable experience and a potentially dangerous one.
First thing you need is a great attitude and basic skills. Expect things to take longer than in the summer. For the first trip out, you don’t need to snowshoe for hours; 1 or 2 km out is fine. Close enough to pull the pin if needed.
Gear is a hard list to come up with, as everyone has certain things they like or dislike, and some things are dependent on the activity, but a few of the basics are as follows.
Clothing – How to dress for Winter Backpacking
Go with layers. Wool base, wool or fleece mid, and a waterproof breathable shell. When stopped pull out a down puffy to put on over the other layers. Don’t wait until you are cold to do this. It is important to stay dry. If you’re sweating remove a layer or slow down, but stay dry!
Boots for Winter Hiking
Depending on the trip Mukluks, mountaineering boots or a pack boot. Make sure they have enough room for extra merino wool socks if needed without being too tight. Some like to bring an extra liner to switch out and always have a dry pair. In addition, wearing boot gaiters add an extra layer of protection from the elements.
Headwear – Winter Hat, Beanie or Toque?
It is important to have a toque, balaclava and sun glasses for the head as we lose a lot of heat very quickly with out these on. A quality pair of sun glasses with good coverage around the eyes will prevent very sore eyes. The glare from sun on the snow can be very intense.
Warm Gloves are Essential for Winter Hiking
Hands get cold quickly so it is important to have gloves that have good dexterity. This way you can perform many camp chores with gloves on. Bring a heavy pair of mitts as well. Mitts are always warmer than gloves.
A Good 4 Season Tent
For back country use in winter, a 4 season tent is best. You can use a 3 season tent but they will most likely collapse if it is snowing and the tent is unattended. 4 season tents typically have more poles and steeper ridge line so they do not hold much snow. A 4 season tent may be a little warmer as they have very little mesh in the tent body. MSR Tents are a light and sturdy all season tent.
Cooking while Winter Camping
There are lots of stoves that work great in summer, but not so many that work great in the winter. A white gas stove is the first choice for most winter campers. Canister stoves for the most part do not work well for winter camping. MSR Reactor works to about -15C- -20C and the MSR WindBurner Duo System to about -10C; both are canister stoves. Don’t forget that you will use 2 to 3 times more fuel in the winter, and more than that if you have to melt snow for water. Consider making camp near a water source.
Meals take time and planning. I prefer to use dehydrated meals they are fast, nutritious and have next to no clean up after eating. Good to Go is my go-to meal.
Light the way with a good headlamp
The sun comes up later and sets earlier in the winter. Headlamps are essential to winter trips. I use a Petzl or Black Diamond and bring a spare set of batteries as well as a back-up headlamp. A lot more time is spent in the tent compared to summer trips. A good light makes everything easier and safer.
A Reliable (and pack-able) Shovel
The shovel is another necessity used for many chores around camp, and setting up camp.
Stay in touch with a GPS device
2Way Sat communication Device: I always carry the Inreach but have never needed to use it. This is one of those things you want to have but never need to use.
Sleeping Warm with a -20 sleeping bag
A quality Down sleeping bag is hard to beat but synthetic works as well. The important thing here is the loft the bag has. The thicker the better. If you expect temperatures to be -20C go with a bag comfort rated to -30C. Rab Andes 1000 is very roomy and rated to -27C. The sleeping mat is as important as the sleeping bag. This is what insulates your body from the ground. I like Exped Down mat 7, rated to -24C, then I add a closed cell foam mat under that. Start warm and stay warm. I mean don’t go to sleep cold. Before you jump in the bag make sure you have eaten a good meal, drank some warm fluids, done some jumping jacks and last thing, have a pee! Trust me 3 hours after jumping in and getting cozy, you don’t want to go outside to pee.
It is very important that you have warm dry clothing on for sleeping. A toque is a must.
How do I carry everything?
Yes, winter backpacking is heavier and bulkier than summer backpacking. You can use your summer pack for the lighter items and load the rest on a pulk / sled that you pull behind you. If you don’t like the idea of pulling a sled, you can get an 80 L bag or bigger and cram everything into that.
Winter Backpacking Odds and Ends
A few things that make life easier in the winter: A foam sit pad, small metal base for cooking stove, a pot cozy to keep food bag warmer when re-hydrating, and a CLEARLY marked pee bottle for in the tent.
Hydration is often over looked when adventuring in the winter. It is just as important as in the summer, drink water before you are thirsty.
Know the signs and symptoms of hypothermia; slurred speech, shivering or loss of dexterity in hands are some common signs that it is time to stop and warm up. Don’t wait! Get out of the wind and get warm.
Winter trips can be an absolute magical time spent with friends and family or solo. What are you waiting for? Get out and enjoy the winter wonderland, then share your story or tell us about some of your favorite winter outdoor gear by leaving a comment in the form below!