Update: This article was originally published in January 2004, and was updated in December 2014. This update reflects changes that I’ve made since the original gear list was published, based on changes in my personal preferences and/or significant evolutions of material technology or design.
These changes have resulted in impactive benefits for me:
- A simpler kit that requires less fiddling to use;
- A warmer kit for less weight that reflects changes in choice and performance of materials in clothing and sleep systems;
- A lighter pack – in fact, a pack that is about five pounds lighter today than it was ten years ago.
Of course, more experience gives me more confidence to use lighter gear. That realization shouldn’t be overlooked when analyzing your own progress as a lightweight backpacker over a period of years.
Seasons: Winter, Early Spring
Length of Trip: 3-Day Weekend
- Several feet of unconsolidated snowcover on the ground;
- Overnight low temperatures of zero to fifteen degrees;
- Daytime highs not above freezing;
- Relatively flat terrain free of avalanche risk.
Inside a makeshift winter snowcave built adjacent to a forest of shallow snow (snowpack is only about 5 feet deep). First, a trench is built, then a lattice of dead wood is laid in an arch fashion over the trench. The final step: pile a layer of snow across the lattice several inches (at least 8-12″) thick. The result: a warm, insulating shelter that is easy and quick to build.
This list focuses on camping inside a snow cave. With enough snow cover, snow caves are the fastest, warmest types of snow shelters available. Properly built, a snow cave gives you the flexibility to use three-season gear to remain warm, which can save a tremendous amount of weight. However, this approach requires an exceptional level of skill in locating a site for, and properly building, a snow cave. In addition, snow caves can be wet enough to warrant the use of a highly water-resistant sleeping bag shell or bivy sack if you are using a down sleeping bag. Finally, digging a snow cave is wet business: waterproof raingear, or all-synthetic insulating clothing, may be warranted. An important disclaimer: if you are caught with an equipment kit like this and are unable to build a snow cave, or you build one improperly, you will subject yourself to severe risk of hypothermia if conditions are extremely cold. In context, it is important to note what constitutes an improperly built snow cave. Primarily, a properly built snow cave is one that is just large enough for the number of occupants (less volume to maintain a thermal mini-climate), has thick enough walls for proper insulation (generally, considered to be two feet), has a properly located entrance (below the level of the ground surface so warmed air doesn’t escape), and proper blocking of the entrance (with packs, a hung jacket, etc. to minimize cold air exchange).
In a snow cave, conditions are very damp. They tend to be quite humid, gear has no ability to dry, and dripping walls tend to get sleeping gear wet.
In 2004, when this list was originally published, I wrote:
Consequently, I have selected synthetic insulation in my clothing and sleeping bag, and have added a water resistant bivy sack to shed some of the external moisture. I have specified an insulated clothing and sleep system that will allow me to survive a night outside the snow cave, if a cave cannot be built. This system has been used to comfortably sleep at winter temperatures down to minus 10 degrees F outside of a tent. If the risk of spending a night in the open is very small, and you are a competent snow cave builder, I recommend that you save further weight with a lighter sleeping bag. I have spent nights down to zero degrees using the clothing specified in this list in combination with a two-pound synthetic bag rated to 40 degrees F (Integral Designs Andromeda Strain).
With advances in the moisture resistance of down, and the increase in breathability of water-resistant fabrics, I’m more inclined to go with a down bag with a highly water-resistant shell on it, and to skip the bivy sack (unless I know there is a very high likelihood of being caught in the open outside the shelter of a snow cave in stormy conditions).
In addition, the 2004 list included a white gas stove, as originally written:
I have elected to bring a white gas stove over a canister or alcohol stove, for its improved efficiency in melting snow. Snow cave environments are usually warm enough such that both white gas and alcohol stoves work well; however, a white gas stove has the power to melt several liters of snow quickly, and if I need to melt snow while still traveling at midday, and conditions are cold, I appreciate the power of a white gas system.
Significant advances in both inverted canister (i.e., liquid-feed) and integrated canister stoves have been made since then, and they now occupy standard spots on my winter gear list. In particular, my favorite solo winter stove is the MSR WindBoiler – a tiny little thing that has enough juice to rapidly deliver hot water from snow for a hot drink or meal in an emergency. Because it boils a small volume so rapidly, it’s a successful stove for a solo traveler, even in very cold conditions. In the warmth of a snow cave, or even an 18-inch deep “snow pit” out in the open, the warmth of the stove maintains plenty of thermal feedback to keep the canister from freezing and slowing down the boil.
Other important changes since 2004 (strike-outs indicate what was originally written):
I have selected wide mouth water bottles for their ability to resist freezing in the opening, and the wide mouth caps are easy to handle with gloves or mittens.I’ve seen (and experienced) enough failures of Nalgene Cantenes in the field that I am hard pressed to recommend them. However, aside from using hard-sided bottles, they still seem to be the “best of what’s available” for soft-sided wide-mouth bottles, and have enough durability to at least last for short trips… I’ve chosen a hybrid LED headlamp with a high-power (1-watt) LED to give me the flexibility of navigating after dark, not an uncommon occurrence in the winter.There are so many good LED headlamp options that I can’t cover them all here, but the age of hybrids is over. I’ve simply selected a high-performing, bright, 1-LED lamp that can be fueled by lithium batteries for cold weather performance.
- The clothing system has been simplified to three layers for the torso and two layers for the legs. This assumes two states of being in cold, foul weather: moving hard (traveling) or being still (camping). If your level of fitness is below that which might be required to stay warm on the move by moving fast, an extra traveling layer should be considered.
Some examples of brands and models/styles are listed below for reference only. They neither represent an endorsement of that particular product nor a suggestion that the product listed is the best choice in the context of any particular situation.
Changes from 2004 to 2014 are indicated by
strike (2004) and bold (2014).
|thin hat||thermal headwear for active conditions||thin PowerStretch balaclava||1.5 oz|
|active shirt||bicomponent |
|underwear||trim-fitting support shorts, boxer-style||Nike Spandex Running Short Tights||3.0 oz|
|active pants||soft shell stretchwoven long pants|
|snow socks||ultralight thin, ski-style sock||Smartwool Ultralight Ski Socks||4.0 oz|
|boots||insulated snow boots|
Other Items Worn / Carried
|snowshoes||large deck model for deep snow||Northern Lites Backcountry 30″||43.0 oz|
|whistle||pealess whistle on Spectra cord||Fox 40 Mini Whistle, AirCore Plus lanyard||1.0 oz|
|watch||compass / altimeter watch|
|insulating pants||synthetic high loft insulating pants with side-zips|
|warm hat||wool beanie cap||PossumDown Beanie||1.5 oz|
|warm mitts||5.0 oz|
|snow shovel||suitable for digging a snow cave||SnowClaw Backcountry Snow Shovel||5.4 oz|
|sleeping bag||23.0 oz|
|sleeping pad||full length ||Cascade Designs |
|backpack||backpack with 30-lb carry capacity|
Cooking and Water
|fuel container||3.5 oz|
|lighting||matches & 2 lighters||Bic lighters (2) & storm matches in 4″ x 7″ Aloksak||1.5 oz|
|water bottles||1.5L soft bottles with wide mouth lids||Two 48-oz Nalgene Cantenes||5.0 oz|
|food storage||waterproof bag||12″ x 15″ Aloksak||2.0 oz|
|maps||custom printed on waterproof paper||National Geographic Topo!||2.0 oz|
|light||LED headlamp, suitable for nightime navigation|
|first aid||minor wound care & meds||assorted wound & blister care and medicines||2.0 oz|
|firestarting||emergency firestarting – waterproof||Sparklite & firestarter in 4″x7″ Aloksak||1.0 oz|
|sunglasses||100% UV blocking, plastic lenses/frames|
|goggles||lightweight ski goggles for blizzard travel||Bolle Zoopla||3.0 oz|
|anti-fog||for glasses & goggle care||anti-fog balm, cleaning cloth||1.0 oz|
|sunscreen||100% UV blocking, waterproof, paste||Dermatone||1.0 oz|
|personal hygiene||assorted toiletries||toothbrush, soap, toilet paper, non-alcohol hand gel, in 4″ x 7″ Aloksak||2.0 oz|
|food||2.5 days||32 oz / day||80 oz|
|water||average carried||1.5 quarts||48 oz|
|(1)||Total Weight Worn or Carried|
|(2)||Total Base Weight in Pack|
|(3)||Total Weight of Consumables|
|(4)||Total Initial Pack Weight (2) + (3)|
|(5)||Full Skin Out Weight (1) + (2) + (3)|