Cold weather gear advice for Alaska (really…)

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    Ryan C
    BPL Member


    Locale: United States

    Lots of fun things to do here on the Kenai Peninsula that I have never done: XC Skiing, snowshoeing, and going up mountain trails in winter above treeline. My cold weather outdoors experience has been limited to temps above 0*F. Initially I plan on going with some people or learning from the locals before venturing out myself into the wilds of northern winter inexperienced. I have a InReach SE and PLB but they are no substitute for under preparedness.

    Most of all I am interested in knowing what other lightweight backpackers in Alaska use in their kit for various winter activities.

    What I have or am considering to supplement my current gear:

    Sleeping gear:
    Hesitant to invest $$$ in a -25*F WM or FF sleeping bag that may not see much use.
    WM 15*F with foam pad combined with my Synmat UL7. I don't plan on camping much though.

    1. Shelter:
    Tarptent Notch. Considering a Black Diamond Firstlight if I end up camping much in the snow.

    2. Stove: Jetboil Sol Ti (also have an old heavy Whisperlite International).

    3. Pack:
    What I currently have for now, Exos 46 for day trips. Am really eyeballing the Seek Outside Unaweep 3900 as a replacement to my 5lb 70L pack.

    4. My current Clothing sytem:
    Base – Icebreaker wool t-shirt, 150 or 200wt merino leggings
    Midlayer – Patagonia R1 pullover, nylon hiking pants
    Shell – Arcteryx Beta AR, eVent rain pants
    Insulation: 100g synthetic jacket, Atom LT Hoody, Alpine Light jacket for now.
    Boots: Sorel Conquest (Mountaineering style winter boot rated to -40)
    Head: R1 Balaclava and Thinsulate head cap
    Hands: Heavy winter gloves, lightweight fleece liners.
    Belay Parka: Considering my options.

    Most of the locals I know use winter for snowmachining and ice fishing over backpacking and daytrips in the mountains. Gotta ask these questions somewhere.

    Thanks in advance

    (Edited for brevity so people may actually respond…)

    Tjaard Breeuwer
    BPL Member


    Locale: Minnesota, USA

    I'd say that mostly sounds good
    Re: specific questions:
    -sleeping bag: I use a 15f bag just fine down to a bit below zero by wearing insulated parka and pants. But mine is a true 15f bag, ie I am comfortable in just a baselayer in I it at 15f. Lots of bags SAY 15f in them but aren't warm enough.

    -Crampons: no sense buying them until you are signed up for a course that teaches you have to use them and the associated ice axe/ice tools, snow anchors, ice anchors etc.

    – yeah, I'd want a warmer parka than what you have, the neutrino is good, but so are many others. Check the reviews here on the site.

    -you have gaiters right?

    -and a balaclava?

    – sleeping mats: yeah from a cost and safety standpoint adding a foam pad to your summer mat is the way to go. Get it wide and long enough, you don't want any part of your sleeping bag touching the snow.

    -stove: you're going to have a hard time trying to use the Jetboil at 0f. If you plan on using the whisper lite, clean it and test it.

    -she'll jacket: assuming that arcteryx jacket is forested, I'd want to add a windshirt or softshell. Condensation is a huge issue in cold weather, and therefore a forested jacket is only appropriate in very windy or very wet weather.

    Ryan C
    BPL Member


    Locale: United States

    Thanks for the insight Tjaard.

    It is not bitter cold up here yet and I have held off on getting a winter parka suitable for town and outdoors use. Leaning more towards something like the fully baffled Montbell Permafrost over the Rab Neutrino. The Gore Windstopper fabric would be more durable for every day use as well.

    Sleeping bag is a 15*F Western Mountaineering. Honestly don't plan on doing many overnight trips until spring so probably won't worry about it for now. Just too much $$$ for little or no use.

    Have gaiters and balaclava.

    Got some crampons and have used them already (with caution). Made a big difference above treeline on icy sections, especially on descent. Holding off on an ice axe until there is more snow for me to learn self-arrest techniques in a safe environment.

    Shell jacket: not sure what you mean by forested. I have a softshell and windshirt but don't use them much; I don't sweat much and just take the hardshell and open pit zips.

    Justin Baker
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Rosa, CA

    Ryan, gore windstopper is goretex. A more breathable version of goretex, but it's pretty much waterproof. Maybe not so good for multiple days in sub zero weather.

    Bob Moulder
    BPL Member


    Locale: Westchester County, NY

    Justin is right – Avoid Gore windstopper for very cold weather! It wets out quickly from the inside and outside and freezes into a useless sheet of ice that is practically impossible to dry out.

    IMO this stuff leads the hit parade of useless materials for winter… right up there with cotton, maybe worse because it has such serious pretentions.

    Ryan C
    BPL Member


    Locale: United States

    I thought the whole point of winter layering was to wear just enough to be slightly cool and avoid sweating and that parkas only go on when stationary at stops, not moving.

    Given this, what would you recommend for a multi-purpose winter parka for temps between -20 and +20 F?

    I'm only going to get one (if any) and want it to be versatile. Montbell Mirage seems awesome but fragile and not warm enough. Rab Neutrino is sewn through. The new Goosefeet parka looks great but beyond my price point.

    Justin Baker
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Rosa, CA

    Ryan, you sweat no matter what you are doing at any activity level. You even sweat when you are cold.

    There were arctic explorers who had their animal furs blankets/sleeping bags accumulate many pounds of ice from their perspiration because they had no way to dry things out.

    I have no experience in that kind of weather. This is just what I've researched and read about.

    Stuart .
    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado

    The Neutrino Endurance is sewn through, but the Neutrino Plus is box wall construction.

    +20 to -20 is a massive temperature range. I'd suggest layering two insulation pieces to get the maximum versatility out of your gear. Buy the outer layer one size larger to avoid compressing the down in the inner layer. I have the Mirage in L and the Neutrino Plus in XL.

    Ryan C
    BPL Member


    Locale: United States

    Justin you are correct and I agree that we are always perspiring, either heavily or lightly (as I seem to be). I understand that those vapors need to escape (hence breathable cotton canvas style anoraks popular with some people). Gore Windstopper would be similar to my non-breathable fabric tent with condensation froze on the inside and frost on the outside.

    No intentions on being an arctic explorer but point taken. I don't plan on being gone outside long enough in frigid temperatures to experience all my insulation gear turning into ice cubes. Doing so would be no fun and would defeat the purpose of enjoying the outdoors.

    Stuart I agree that layering key pieces would be needed for being the most versatile over a wide temp range. Right now I have down/synthetic mid-layers that I combine with the ~100g cheap outer synthetic puffy. Works for now but not negative temps.

    Curious, what is the coldest you have taken your Mirage and Neutrino combo down to?

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    >"+20 to -20 is a massive temperature range. "


    We've had a dozen au pairs and exchange students stay with us and when they come from the tropics (Peru, Thailand) or even Spain or Florida, we do this full-disclosure thing. "You know what 21C / 70F is like?" Yeah. "And the ice cream in the freezer, at 20F / -7C?" Yeah. "Well, -30F is as much colder AS THAT ICE CREAM as THAT ICE CREAM IS COLDER THAN YOUR HOUSE." And it will get down to -25 to -30F this winter and you will have to start the car, walk to the store, and walk the dog in that temperature that is that much colder than where you store the ice cream.

    I've found the bottom of my personal fun meter is about -15F. I can handle -20 and -25F. I can survive colder. But I'm not having fun, in part because of the "what ifs" in my head if I get lost, twist an ankle, or fall through the ice – suddenly it is a survival situation.

    OP: If you have a trip coming up and you don't want to drop the $$$ on a -20F bag, you can borrow one of mine (I live in Kenai, am often in Soldotna and sometimes in Homer). It isn't SUL for that rating, but it isn't great-white-hunter trad stuff either. Carrying a standard weight bag your first few trips in colder temps could confirm that you want to keep doing those kind of trips, without being on the cutting edge you first times out. PM me, if you want.

    Ryan C
    BPL Member


    Locale: United States

    Thanks for the nice offer David, I appreciate it and will keep that in mind.

    You are right, it will get colder here than I have ever experienced yet and I'm sure it will be a learning experience! That's part of the reason I chose to work the winter up here. Looking forward to it in a weird kinda way.

    Travis B.


    Hey Ryan,

    We've had a pretty mild winter here in the Yukon so far too. But don't worry, there's a LOT of winter still left.

    I'd check out gear lists from the Iditarod Invitational and the Yukon Arctic Ultra to get a few more ideas on how people are dealing with extreme cold in the lighest manner possible.

    I've found due to the short days and extreme cold that Dec, Jan, and Feb are great for day trips and for testing out your winter systems. March and April are the golden months for getting up to the summits and more comfortable camping.

    I recommend getting out as often as you can in the cold and testing out your gear with particular attention paid to moisture management. Day trips can be deceptive if you are getting into your car and warming up right after a hike. Several times last year I thought I did a great job of staying dry and layering well on hikes but after a few minutes of inactivity was shivering cold. It would take a few hours in front of a woodstove to start feeling warm again. If that happens on an overnighter you can be in for a long, and potentially dangerous night.

    Camping in Dec, Jan, and Feb is great practice too as long as you have a bail-out plan. Everything is harder when it's -30. Learning how to keep your water liquid longer, tying knots with gloves on, and simple camp tasks can be difficult, but practicing will increase your confidence and skills.

    I suspect once the first cold snap hits you'll be much more convinced for the need for a big belay puffy. And even on day trips taking along spare gloves, socks, and balaclava is a good idea.

    Winter is the best time of year as far as I'm concerned. Enjoy…

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    I'd written, "it isn't great-white-hunter trad stuff" and then, this morning, in the driveway, the Peninsula Clarion had an ad for Sportsman's Warehouse in Soldotna with a Browning (yeah, the gun manufacturer) "McKinley Sleeping Bag" on sale for $79.99 from $139.99. Oversized 36" x 90" (some hunters are big). "160 oz of TechLoft plus insulation temperature rating of -30F"

    10 pounds of fill! Plus shell, zipper, stuff sack, etc. So maybe 13-14 pounds, total.

    Andy F


    Locale: Midwest/Midatlantic

    I'm assuming you're planning for a low of -40 F/C. My experience is limited to -15F, but I too am planning for lower.

    Sleeping pad:
    I think you'd want a thick foam pad like the Ridgerest SOLAR with the Synmat UL7. At -15F on 6 inches of snow, a plain Ridgreset (R=2.2) on a Downmat 7 (R=5.9) seemed about right. Something may be up with my Downmat though–doesn't seem as warm as it used to.

    Sleeping bag:
    With an AMK SOL bivy bag used as a VBL inside my 0F bag and a 30F synthetic quilt, I can be warm to -20F, possibly -30F. For -40F, I'll throw in my 21 oz, 32F-rated summer down bag. All of these have to be kept in place of course.

    Get one which uses white gas. My plan is to use fire though, along with a medium-sized axe and saw.

    None. All of my gear would be on a sled because I wouldn't want to carry all of that on my back, especially since I'll probably want both skis and snowshoes and will have to carry at least one of those.

    You'll want to use VB socks to keep your boot liners dry, unless maybe drying them over a fire every night.

    Add some fleece jackets or vests for hiking as the temps decrease, along with warmer baselayer pants. If not using a fire, you'll probably want insulated pants in camp. (But if using a fire, you'll probably want wool or cotton outer layers so that you're not constantly patching melted holes in nylon. :)

    Once things get below 0F, I experience a definite advantage when using heavy wool pants and a cotton anorak as a shell layer.

    Add a warmer hat for hiking, face mask, ski goggles (for severe wind/windchill/blowing snow), and mitten shells.

    BPL Member


    Locale: North East

    Hey Stuart,
    Interesting combo with the Mirage / Nuetrino Plus. I have both and was going to try to use that rather than a true deep winter parks that wouldn't get much use. More versatile I would think. How cold have you been out with that combo?

    John Smith
    BPL Member


    Locale: East of Cascades

    +1 on the sled. Make a pulk and enjoy your trips so much more

    Get a bivy for your sleeping bag and use it in the tent. Also get a vapor barrier liner for your sleeping bag. You will get virtually no moisture transfer from your body to the bag and then in the morning you can turn it inside out and knock the frost off after the moisture freezes.

    Try wearing vapor barrier pants and jacket while day hiking etc… once again you will significantly reduce the moisture transfer from your body to the clothes you wear. You will still get some from your breath but overall your clothes will stay way drier.

    Obviously when you are highly aerobic you likely will not wear them but as you reduce your exertion and need to start layering up you should consider doing this.

    Andrew Skurka had a nice article on vapor barriers in Minnesota winters. More daylight but still some brutal temperatures.

    Most people do not use vapor barriers beyond their feet because they do not like the clammy feel but with practice and knowing your body you can reduce that nicely.

    Practice in day hikes using this gear and perhaps sleeping in your backyard while you learn the limits of your gear.

    Finally, a nice shovel is very handy in making snow shelters (quinzies, slit-trenches or full on snow caves) and if you go for those a 10'x10' silnylon tarp will be your best friend for staying dry.

    Have fun, winter can be the most amazing time of year to spend outdoors but it is also far less forgiving than all the rest of the year combined.

    David Gardner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    At those temperatures, +1 for vapor barrier everything you can get – sleeping bag liner, socks, pants, shirt, maybe even gloves.

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