Getting outdoors in cold weather can be invigorating, exciting, and a great place to find solace. The haze of warmer weather falls away leading to crisp mountain views, and you can experience moments of breathtaking silence.
But, it can also be cold. Really, really cold. And you need to be prepared or things can go sideways.
Before we go further, just a note on what I mean by cold versus “winter” backpacking.
This article is for more temperate climates like the mountains of the southeast. Now it does get cold here, but I avoid taking groups out if the temperatures are slated for lower than 10 degrees. If it does go below 10, we just wait it out. It will eventually “warm-up” a bit. I also avoid anything more than a foot of snow.
If you need tips for exploring areas where avalanches are a possibility and you can dig out a snow bench to sit on, there are many excellent resources available. These are advanced conditions that require special gear and experience.
Those of you ready to explore cold weather camping in the mountains of the southeast, well – this is my area so read on!
Be Honest with your Abilities and Preferences
Before you head out, you need to be 100% honest with yourself about your abilities. Everything needs to be planned around what you CAN do and not what you WANT to do.
You’re working with limited daylight in the winter months, and you will likely hike more slowly than usual.
On top of that, it’s also going to take longer to set up and break down camp since your fingers won’t work well and your brain may be a bit foggy. If you ordinarily take 30 minutes to break down camp and pack, assume at least an hour in the cold.
This means planning shorter mileage during the day, setting up camp earlier than usual, and hitting the trail quickly in the morning.
Mornings, in particular, will be difficult for some backpackers. It’s cold and there’s not a lot of time to sit around and enjoy that coffee. You’ll need to get packing and hit the trail.
Backpacking in cold weather requires a lot of mind over matter and pushing through.
So if you’re “not a morning person”, or don’t like being cold, or are relying on a fire every night, then really think about whether or not you will enjoy the experience.
If you’re not sure, plan a shorter trip for your first cold weather adventure, like an overnighter, and see how it goes.
Planning Your Trip
Choose a Location
When planning your first cold weather trip, go somewhere familiar and plan on fewer miles than usual. You’ll likely move slower and you’ll have less daylight to work with.
If you can find a location that allows you to push if you’re doing well but has a safety net if you need more time, that would be perfect.
Plan your water sources. Even if you’re familiar with the area, you need to think differently. Do you usually get water from a little creek that doesn’t move much? If yes, is there a chance it will be frozen? What’s your backup plan in this situation?
Pay Attention to the Weather
Pay attention to the weather and continue to monitor until the night before the trip. Weather can change frequently and you’ll want to stay on top of any last minute updates.
There won’t always be snow on the ground, but that doesn’t mean the conditions won’t be difficult. Pay attention to winds as much as temperature. Wind gusts of even 20 mph in winter can be uncomfortable and slow you down.
Have Systems for Packing and Setting Up/Breaking Down Camp
Have a system for setting up and breaking down camp. This includes packing.
I can’t emphasize this enough.
Everything you pack should have its own location in a bag and in your pack. Everything goes in the same place every time. You need to be able to pack quickly and without thinking.
You also need to set up and break down camp the same way every time. Tent goes up, sleeping pad inflated, et cetera.
In the cold, your hands will become numb quickly and your brain can be foggy. Muscle memory and speed will become important.
Go with someone on your first trip. While the solace of solo backpacking is great, on your first cold weather trip, it’s helpful to have another person and their gear. Redundancies are built-in with two people so you’re covered if something doesn’t work.
Make sure someone at home knows your plan. They should know where you’re going, what time you’re expected back and the route you are taking. Check in with them when you have a signal on the way home.
Gear for Cold Weather Backpacking
You don’t need a lot of special gear, but you do need to think through what you’re bringing.
Cold Weather Backpacking Means Packing Redundancies
When you’re getting ready for a winter backpacking trip, your packing list will be a bit different. Get ready for extra weight.
You’ll need additional clothing layers and warmer clothing. This will add some weight.
And then there are the things that don’t like cold.
- Fingers won’t always work lighters in the morning so matches are a great backup option
- Stoves have a tendency to fail in cold weather
- Water filters can freeze and thus become useless
- Batteries will die quickly
- Phones will lose their charge quickly
You get the idea.
Shelter and Sleeping System
Your general 3-season tent will work fine in the conditions mentioned. A 4-season tent is only necessary in high winds and excessive snow.
Make sure you have an insulated sleeping pad. You’ll want an R-value of at least 4 to be comfortable (in my humble opinion).
Forget what you’ve heard about R-values not being standardized and every brand doing their own thing. That all changed in 2020 when new ASTM R-value testing standards were developed and launched.
All brands, starting with 2020 models, should be using the new standard which will allow consumers to more easily compare products. While some older models may still be on the shelves, they’ll begin to phase out.
R-values are additive so you can stack 2 pads. An accordion pad like the Thermarest Z-Lite SOL or Nemo Switchback can be laid underneath for extra insulation and you can put your rain gear between the 2 pads.
When choosing your sleeping bag, plan for 10 degrees below the lowest temperature in the forecast. This will cover you in case the weather changes last minute, or you’re in a windy area, or a sheltered area with minimal sun exposure.
If the lowest overnight temperature is forecast for 20 degrees Fahrenheit, assume 10 degrees.
The air inside your tent will be a little warmer than the outside temperature, but that doesn’t mean you can push the envelope. At the very least, you’ll have a miserable night.
Sleeping Bag Ratings
How do you choose a sleeping bag? Sleeping bag ratings are complicated and I could write an entire post on them.
Here’s the TL:DR:
Sleeping bags have 3 ratings. You may need to look on the manufacturer’s website, but you should see either EN numbers or ISO numbers. (They’ll have the preface EN or ISO). It doesn’t matter which is used, you can equate the 2 different systems.
You can read the details on the ISO Standard here.
There’s a “comfort” rating, which is where a cold sleeper will be comfortable, a “lower limit” rating, which is where a warm sleeper will be comfortable, and an “extreme” limit which is where a cold sleeper could survive for 6 hours. (You don’t want to be anywhere near that limit and they’re usually pretty far from the comfort level).
The manufacturer can choose which one to put on the label and they can also round. While they usually use the “Comfort” rating for women’s bags, it’s always best to check the website and validate the actual numbers.
You’ll still have to make a bit of a stab in the dark because of the multitude of factors that make everyone unique, you can at least use the values to equate bag to bag.
So if you’re comfortable in a 20-degree sleeping bag in temperatures 20 to 30 degrees, then you’ll want a 10-degree bag if you’re heading into 10 to 20-degree overnights. (Yes, you’d be fine at 20, but remember the subtract 10 rule from above).
Bags for children, military, and extreme conditions (below -4 degrees F) are not subject to rating. Also, keep in mind that this is a huge oversimplification of the sleeping bag rating system.
Food and Kitchen
Bring Extra Food and Think Spicy
You’re going to burn a lot more calories than usual so pack extra food, especially snacks. Keep them readily available so you can eat as you walk. Stopping isn’t a great idea in the cold. You want to keep moving.
This is also a great time to bring out the spicier food you’ve been saving and some of those soups and stews for dinner.
Breakfast should be warm too. Even something simple like hot oatmeal will give you that extra push in the morning.
Don’t Cut it Close with the Fuel
Canister fuel will work fine down to about 20 degrees F (and a little lower). You can keep it in the tent with you.
I wrap it in a sock and put it into the sleeping bag to keep it warm. It can also be wrapped and kept in your pack as long as the pack is in the tent with you.
Liquid fuel will work in just about any temperature but DO NOT SLEEP WITH IT. Liquid fuel can become extremely cold and you can get frostbite by coming in contact with the canister.
Wrap the bottle with duct tape for insulation and protection, wrap it in a sock and keep it in your pack or inside the tent but not in the sleeping bag.
Also, make sure you have more fuel than usual. For a weekend trip, a full 8 oz canister is fine, but if you have one that’s about 1/3 full, you may want an extra. You’ll use a lot more fuel than you’re used to.
Stoves Can Fail
Most stoves will be fine, but in the cold, they’re slower to light and if there’s dirt they could clog. If you’re with a group, you’ll have redundant stoves so this is a lower risk. By yourself, have a second option.
If the filter freezes, it’s dead. Period. While I normally carry my filter in the brain of my pack, in cold weather it goes in a Ziploc bag inside the pack for more insulation while I’m hiking.
At night, shake all the water out of it, put it in a Ziploc, and bring it in the tent with you. Honestly, you can bring it into the sleeping bag as long as it’s sealed and there’s no risk of getting water in the bag with you.
Have Plenty of Water to Drink
You will need more water than usual but likely won’t feel as thirsty. It’s important to remember to drink. You’re expelling a lot of water by breathing and just trying to stay warm.
Prevent Water from Freezing
I use a bladder and I love it. A lot of people will tell you that water freezes in the tubing and to use bottles. But honestly, I have a habit of not drinking unless that hose is right there reminding me. So I picked up a trick from mountain bikers.
When you’re done drinking, blow the water back into the reservoir. It’s really easy and works perfectly. Just clench the bite valve with your teeth per usual and blow the water instead of drinking it.
Bladder pouches, whether internal or external, are usually against the back of the pack so your body heat is right there keeping it warm. I’ve never had an issue. You can purchase the insulating wrap for the tube, but that really doesn’t work well in my opinion.
At night, I keep my bladder in the tent with me. Make 100% sure to lock the bite valve and seal the top. If you’re worried about it leaking, you can also put it in a plastic bag or dry bag.
With water bottles, seal them tightly and store them upside down. Water freezes from the top down so this will prevent the water from freezing at the top of the bottle.
Winter Traction Devices
If there is snow on the ground, there’s also likely ice. It doesn’t hurt to bring some winter traction devices like Yaktraks or NANOspikes. You’ll find it a lot easier, especially on some of the downhills.
Replace all Batteries with Lithium Versions
Change out every battery you have for lithium. They are more likely to work in colder weather. And pack extras.
Hand and Toe Warmers
These can be a lifesaver in the evenings as you’re winding down or mornings when you’re having trouble packing.
Clothing to Wear and Pack for Cold Weather Backpacking
You’re not just packing for cold, you’re packing for wet. Rain, snow, and just plain sweating can soak your clothing. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from outside or inside, wet is wet and it’s something you don’t want.
Check out our article on What to wear backpacking for in-depth information on layers and fabrics.
Your baselayers, the layers touching your skin, must be a wicking material. Under absolutely no circumstances should you ever wear cotton when backpacking in cold weather. This includes socks and underwear.
You’ll want to have layers because you may get warmer as you hike and sun exposure can also create warmth.
What to Wear While Hiking
Bottom baselayers (these are optional, but I’d bring a pair of 150 weight wool or the light Capilene just in case). Most people are fine without down to about 15-20 degrees.
Sockliners (optional, depending on preference).
Waterproof shoes/boots. A lot of people love wearing trail runners, but they’re not waterproof and in the winter not only do you need to worry about your feet getting wet from snow, but they also lack insulation. Waterproof boots have extra insulation to help keep the toes warm.
If you’re hell bent on not wearing “heavy” waterproof boots, you can wrap your feet in plastic bags like the oven bags, or bread bags. Rubber bands around your ankles usually keep them in place. These will remove any breathability you had, so your feet can become red, and swollen, but it can help prevent frostbite.
A short-sleeve base layer (I like a 150 weight wool shirt).
A long-sleeve insulating layer (I like a 150 or 250 weight wool shirt – depending on how cold it gets).
A technical shit (wind breaker or light fleece).
Rain gloves or over mitts to keep your hands dry. Another option is to wear nitrile gloves under your regular gloves. Keep in mind, this removes most breathability and your hands will stew in the sweat which can cause irritated skin.
Warm hat that covers ears or a hood on one of your shirts. A hat or hood is one of the easiest ways to help regulate body temperature. If you become hot, you can remove it and quickly tuck it in a pocket while moving.
Lunch Break and Camp
You can pull on a light fleece and your rain jacket, or have a lightweight coat like a down jacket (puff) handy. You’ll want to layer when you stop, but then remove those layers before heading out.
Always start a little cold. You’ll warm up quite a bit in the first 5 minutes of hiking and you want to try to minimize the number of times you stop and start.
Remember, you won’t be comfortable 100% of the time. The goal is to be efficient and safe.
Clothes for Sleeping
Always have clothing that is just for sleeping. This is a safety measure.
If you’re freezing in camp, or you’ve gotten wet, you can count on these items to be something dry to change into, then you can get in your sleeping bag and start to warm up.
I pack a 250 weight wool long sleeve top and bottoms.
Always, always, always, have clean, dry socks for sleeping. You can wear these on your last day of hiking to save some weight.
Down booties are great to add extra warmth to your toes.
Extra Clothing In Your Pack
This is the one time I have an extra base layer top on hand, and extra base layer bottoms. I usually count on my sleep clothes to double as emergency wear, but when backpacking in the cold, I pack extra base layers.
I also pack socks for every day if it’s just a weekend trip. Wear a pair on Friday, have a fresh pair for Saturday, and have another pair for sleeping that you hike in on Sunday.
What to do When You Arrive at Camp
Set Up Camp
Once you get to camp, keep moving.
You’ll want to find a spot for your tent that’s level, but also that will be in the sun in the morning. This will help you get up since it will be a bit warmer, and it will also help melt any ice on your poles as well as dry any condensation.
If there’s snow on the ground, stomp down the snow to create a pad for your tent. You don’t want to pitch on loose snow.
Set up your tent, get everything unpacked and ready. Blow up your sleeping pad quickly, before you get too cold.
You’ll feel your fingers and toes start to chill quickly so you want to get things requiring fine motor skills done fast.
Have a system. Sound familiar? I’m going to keep talking about this because it’s important.
You need to have a system worked out before you head out on your trip. This comes with experience in warmer weather.
Items are grouped and packed. Each item, every bag, has a specific place in your pack. You put it all in the pack the exact same way every time. When you pack and unpack, you have an order to things.
Set up the tent, blow up the sleeping pad, blow up pillow, unpack the sleeping bag, pull out food and cooking, place water in a specific location, put clothing in its place in the tent, et cetera.
Same for when you pack. You need to be working on muscle memory.
Try to Get a Fire Going and Stay Warm
Once you’re set with shelter, head out for wood and try to get a fire going. It may be difficult to find dry wood, so don’t count on a fire every night, but at least try. Just heading out to gather wood is activity and will help keep you warm.
You can try using the hand and feet warmers. Keep in mind, they’re designed to help prevent fingers and toes from becoming numb or painful. They don’t work as well reversing the situation.
If you’re going to use the warmers, activate them right when you get to camp and follow the instructions.
You can also do some jumping jacks or jog in place to get the blood flowing.
Have a hot meal with warm liquid like tea which will brighten your spirits and help heat you up. If you’ve got a fire going – enjoy.
With no fire, you may have to retire to the tents early and just enjoy some time alone with a podcast, book, or maybe do a little writing. Don’t worry though, you’ll be getting up early.
The sleeping bag is designed to keep warmth in so it will work best if you’re warm when you get into it. Do some brisk jumping jacks or run in place for 30 seconds to a minute to get your blood flowing and heat up.
Inside the tent, if you feel yourself getting cold, do a few pushups or, if you can manage it, some mountain climbers. Even crunches will work. Anything to help raise your body temperature.
Pull your electronics into the sleeping bag with you so they keep working. It will help preserve the battery life on your chargers and phone.
Breaking down camp
In the morning, pull your clothes into the sleeping bag with you for 15 to 20 minutes. They’ll be cold at first, but then warm up. It’s a lot more pleasant getting dressed when your clothes are warm.
Pack up what you can before exiting the tent.
Deflate the sleeping pad and put it in its sack, pack the sleeping bag, et cetera. Get everything in its storage sack, and pack what you can in the backpack. Then have a warm breakfast.
You don’t want to dilly-dally over breakfast. As soon as your done, get your food and kitchen items packed and, while your fingers are still warm, start finishing your packing.
Your tent poles may be stuck with ice so you’ll need to breathe on them and work them a bit. This is part of why it takes so long to break camp.
If you find yourself getting cold, take a minute or so to get the blood flowing with more movement like jogging in place.
Get packed and head out as soon as you can.
Summary: Things to think about in cold weather
For those of you that skipped to the end, here’s a quick rundown of the main things to think about when backpacking in cold weather.
Plan on moving slower than usual so lower your mileage until you know your winter pace.
Try to arrive at camp no later than 3 pm. Sunset will be earlier and it will get progressively colder as dusk settles in.
Think about your water sources carefully. If you always count on a small stream, will it be frozen? Stop and get water in areas with stronger flow if you’re worried about a usual source.
Things will take a lot longer than usual. Filtering water will be difficult, cooking will take more fuel, gather wood and starting a fire will be slower, setting up and breaking down camp will take a lot longer than usual.
Electronics don’t like cold. Have lithium batteries, but also sleep with your phone, charger, and any other items of concern in the sleeping bag.
Be more careful with your clothing than usual. Always have clean, dry clothes for sleeping. Pack an extra emergency shirt and bottom base layer. You can wear the bottom base layers with your rain pants in an emergency.
Try not to layer up at night. Sleeping bags are designed to capture your body heat. If you wear too many layers or have unbreathable layers like rain gear on, they can’t do their job.
Use rain gear under your sleeping pad if you need additional warmth.
On your first cold weather trip, go for fewer miles and try a short, overnight trip to test your gear and the experience. You can easily ramp up or keep going if you are having fun.
What a Weekend Backpacking in Cold Weather Looks Like
- Heading Out
I would plan to reach the trailhead and be on the trail by 12 pm with the intent to reach campsite one before 3 pm
To provide a buffer in case the campsite is crowded and you need to hike further, or are running late arriving at the trailhead, I would assume no more than 6 miles
- Arrive at First Campsite and Set Up Camp
Locate a spot for your tent
Tamp down snow if there is any on the ground
Set up tent
Blow up sleeping pad
Get sleeping bag/quilt out and starting to decompress
Separate out food and cooking items
Unpack anything else that’s staying in the tent
Put toe warmers on
Set up a bear hang
Get wood for the fire
Try to get a fire going
- Enjoy Dinner and the Evening By the Fire
Cook and eat
Enjoy tea by the fire
Pack up food and cookware, brush teeth and hang everything
Douse fire when ready for bed
- Get Ready for Bed
Move around to get body temperature up (jumping jacks, run in place)
Get in the tent
Make sure water is in the tent and sealed so it won’t leak. Water bottles are upside down
Wrap fuel canister in a sock and put in pack to stay warm
Change into sleep clothes
Keep day clothes next to your sleeping pad
Place electronics (charger, headlamp, extra batteries, cell phone, et cetera) in the sleeping bag with you
- Get Up and Get Ready in the Morning
Set alarm to wake 20 minutes before sunrise
Pull clothes into the sleeping bag to warm for 15 minutes
Pack quilt, deflate sleeping pad and pack, pack clothing, put away all electronics, pack everything that can go in backpack and get it ready
- Enjoy Breakfast and Finish Packing
Head to breakfast and eat, have some coffee
Pack kitchenware and food
Break down tent
Finish putting everything in your backpack
- Reach Second Campsite by 3 pm
The Most Important Part of Any Cold Weather Backpacking Trip – Have Fun
Don’t get so bogged down in the details you forget to enjoy the trip. The cold offers a unique experience to see your favorite places in new light.
Animals are quieter, the views are more pristine, and everything feels more relaxed.
As long as you’re prepared for the experience, you can sit back and enjoy.