by Samarth Vasisht
Backpacking in the winter involves much more commitment than traditional three-season backpacking, primarily due to weather conditions and the challenges that come along with them.
Changing your shelter options to handle colder temperatures and, especially, snow is the first issue of winter backpacking. Most retailers will break up their shelters into “three-season” and “four-season” options. A “four-season” shelter really just means that it would primarily be used during the winter. Four-season tents usually come with stronger pole structures, stronger fabric that covers the entire tent (as opposed to mesh), additional guy line points so that the effects of the wind are lessened, and larger vestibules so that gear can be stored and cooking can be done without worrying too much about the elements. Some tents are even double walled in order to provide better cross ventilation and more warmth. Expect to spend more money on a four-season tent as opposed to a more traditional 3-season tent.
A myth about hammocks is that they cannot be used to camp during the winter, but this is absolutely false. By utilizing a four-season backpacking hammock setup you can continue to enjoy your hammock throughout the colder weather. For insulation during the winter months, using an underquilt and a topquilt is the best way to stay warm during below-freezing weather. In addition to this insulation system, a larger more protective tarp is a necessity to keep the winter wind and snow out of your hammock. Using a tarp with doors, such as the HouseFly, allows for protection from the wind and for better ventilation compared to a traditional 4-season tent.
In either tent or hammock camping, remember to choose your campsite carefully and watch for branches above your site that could fall due to snow overload or because a tree is dead. During the winter, it’s harder to determine if a tree is alive or not just based on looks; but a great way to check is to look at the strength of the bark of the tree. If you give the bark a gentle pull and it comes right off, try your best to remain away from that tree. Also try to choose a site that is naturally protected from the wind, as this will alleviate the amount of noise and any stress that your shelter has to take. When guying down a tarp/tent remember the guy lines should face into the direction of the wind and should be properly tension-ed and tied off.
Another consideration for winter backpacking is the size of your backpack. With the additional clothes and larger load that is required in a winter backpacking trip, it’s important to think about getting a pack that is at least ~70 L in size. Although it is definitely possible to go beneath that size, it becomes very difficult to bring everything, especially if you haven’t invested in ultralight equipment.
Planning your clothing is also important when going cold-weather backpacking. Be sure to layer your clothing and try to stick to a 3 layer (base-insulation-shell) system. This enables you to stay warm but also dry and well ventilated. Waterproof boots are a necessity, as any water that gets to your feet could quickly lead to frostbite or mild hypothermia. Also be sure to remember gloves to keep your hands warm and a hat or two to keep your head warm (it’s where you lose the most heat!) For sleep systems, I personally suggest a down sleeping bag because it keeps you warm without having to worry about weight too much. Additionally, be sure to bring a sleeping pad or two to keep you insulated from the cold ground.
Backpacking in the winter can be a fun and rewarding experience as long as you take the necessary precautions and plan properly. It’s a great way to get away from all the heat and insects of summer and gives you the opportunity to enjoy areas that are usually deserted! I would suggest going after at least a couple summer trips because having experience in the backcountry is an important skill to have when venturing out during the winter. Just remember to share your itinerary with at least a couple people and to follow the Leave No Trace Seven Principles!