Welcome to the Winter Backpacking Trailhead

What is winter backpacking?

Winter backpacking is uniquely characterized by cold and snowy conditions. Comfort and safety during the winter depends on managing clothing, sleep, and shelter systems to protect you from cold temperatures, wind, and snow. In addition, winter backpacking often requires traction systems for stability on ice, or flotation in deep snow. Finally, winter backpacking involves different navigation and safety considerations than backpacking in other seasons, including the need to plan for longer days and shorter daylight hours and the increased probability of extreme weather conditions.

About this Trailhead

This article is one of Backpacking Light’s curated gateway pages (a trailhead, so to speak). Here, you’ll find information and resources about winter backpacking philosophy, gear, techniques, and more.

About this Trailhead: Curated and maintained by our staff, this Trailhead page includes an overview of the topic and links to information and resources on the Backpacking Light website. Those resources may consist of gear reviews, technology and testing, research, skills articles, online education (webinars, masterclasses, or other types of online courses), podcast episodes, forum threads, product recommendations, and other discovery tools, including our Gear Finder, Gear Shop, and Site Search engine.

Navigating this Trailhead

What are the benefits of winter backpacking?

There are several benefits to winter backpacking, including:

  1. Solitude: Many popular wilderness areas, national parks, and other hiking areas are less crowded in the winter, providing a quieter and more secluded outdoor experience.
  2. No Permits: Land management agencies that normally require difficult-to-acquire lottery-based or first-come-first-served backcountry permits in other seasons often lift permit requirements in the winter.
  3. Scenery: Winter can offer a unique and beautiful perspective on nature, with snow-covered landscapes, frozen waterfalls, and the perception of less human impact (e.g., trails and established campsites may be covered with snow).
  4. Camp Anywhere: Winter backpacking removes some of the constraints of finding durable surfaces for camping (a Leave No Trace practice) because the landscape is covered with snow.
  5. Challenge: Winter backpacking can be more challenging than backpacking in other seasons, due to the colder temperatures, harsher weather conditions, a higher level of skill requirements, and the increased physical effort required to carry more gear over snowy terrain.
  6. Insects and Bear Activity is Lower: In most locations, biting insects are not active during the winter and bears are hibernating.
Frozen Lake at RMNP.
Winter scenery is unique and beautiful, with frozen, snow-covered landscapes (Rocky Mountain National Park).

What are the challenges of winter backpacking?

There are also several challenges to winter backpacking that must be overcome with different skills and gear strategies:

  1. Cold Temperatures: Lower temperatures require more careful management of clothing layering systems and sleep systems.
  2. Snow and Ice: Snow and ice requires traction or flotation devices in order to move efficiently.
  3. Limited Daylight: Later sunrises and earlier sunsets limit the amount of time you can travel safely, and longer nights place additional demands on sleep systems and clothing insulation.
  4. Heavier Pack Weight: Additional gear and supplies needed to survive in colder temperatures and safely travel across snow and ice add pack weight.
  5. Access to Water: Streams and lakes are often frozen, making access to water difficult.
  6. Avalanche Risk: Mountainous areas receiving heavy snowfall are prone to avalanches.
  7. Extreme Weather: Winter storms bring high winds, heavy snowfall, and low-visibility during blizzards which can make travel dangerous, progress slow, and navigation difficult.
Tent in snow
Ultralight shelters pitched with multiple stake-out points and trekking poles can sometimes take more time and effort to pitch than conventional tents. Consider this when selecting a tent for above-the-treeline camping in winter, especially in windy conditions. Managing an ultralight tent that’s finicky to set up in the summer can be an exercise in frustration during cold temperatures, high winds, and deep snow.

Winter Backpacking Strategy Depends on Snow Conditions

There is a big difference between winter backpacking on highly-trafficked, packed snow trail corridors and winter backpacking in deep powder snow. Each requires a slightly different set of skills and equipment. These two articles highlight the differences in gear lists between the two scenarios:

Not all parts of the world are snowy during the winter months, but still experience very cold temperatures. This requires changes to your shelter, sleep, clothing, water, and cooking systems. This article presents some examples:

Tent in mountain meadow
A fully-enclosed shelter provides more comfort in windy conditions since it prevents the entry of spindrift into your living space. At this mid-winter campsite in Wyoming’s Sherman Range, winds blow so high and so frequent that snow seldom has the chance to settle into deep drifts.

Winter Backpacking Gear


Here are some places to start to get a big picture view of winter gear vs. backpacking gear used the rest of the year:

Dealing with a Heavy Pack in the Winter

Winter backpacking requires more gear, and often heavier gear. For example, on multi-day treks in the Northern Rocky Mountains, nighttime temperatures can fall below zero degrees fahrenheit (-18 °C). This requires shelters that can withstand blizzard conditions in addition t0 other winter gear such as snowshoes or skis (and their repair kits). This makes winter base pack weights ranging from 15 to 25 pounds (7 to 12 kg), as opposed to common summer base pack weights in the same region of 10 to 15 pounds (4 to 7 kg).

As a result of these gear demands, a winter backpack needs a more robust suspension for carrying heavier loads and increased volume for carrying bulkier gear. To get you up to speed on how pack comfort is related to suspension performance, see:

Hiker in blowing snow
Keeping pack weight down is critical to being efficient when traveling over snow, but winter gear adds enough pack weight to warrant a backpack with an internal frame for most hikers.

In addition, on low-angle terrain, pulling a pulk or sled may be easier – and allow you to carry more weight (luxury items!) for long winter nights! Learn more about pulks here:

Skier towing pulk
Towing a pulk – with no pack on your back – can be an enjoyable way to explore low-angle terrain in the winter (Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana).

Layering for Winter Backpacking

Winter backpacking in cold temperatures requires unconventional approaches to layering if you want to save as much weight as possible and still be able to manage moisture and heat while hiking.

Sleep Systems for Winter Backpacking

Some users prefer a full, winter-rated, down mummy sleeping bag for winter camping as opposed to one of the more frequent choices among lightweight backpackers – a quilt. However, there are some compelling reasons to think about a 2-layer quilt/bag system. The inner layer is typically a down bag or quilt, and the outer layer is typically a synthetic quilt or overbag, sized larger. The latter serves the purpose of moving the dew point out of the down bag and trapping condensation into the synthetic fill, where it has less negative impact than if it was trapped inside a down bag. Learn more:

Bivy and snow
A bivy sack-sleeping bag (or quilt) combination can be used both inside and outside a shelter in the winter. It’s difficult (even in a shelter) to keep snow off of your sleeping bag and a bivy sack can provide an extra layer of protection against spindrift and frozen condensation that happens to fall from your tent ceiling.

Shelter Considerations for Winter Backpacking

Typical ultralight shelters (e.g., those supported by trekking poles) are neither comfortable nor safe to use above the treeline in a winter storm. Watch this case study to see what we mean:

Ultralight shelters can, however, be used successfully in snowy but more sheltered locations or in mild weather conditions.

Pyramid shelter in snow
An ultralight shelter can provide an enjoyable and comfortable winter retreat in mild weather. On this trip in Yellowstone National Park, temperatures were cold and the snow was deep, but blue skies and light winds allowed for light packs.

When extending an ultralight shelter into winter conditions, consider these challenges your shelter has to overcome:

  1. Wind-blown spindrift (light snow) entering your shelter through vents and gaps in the canopy.
  2. Snow-loading during blizzards.
  3. More condensation that inevitably accumulates in cold conditions.
  4. Wind and ventilation results in drafty conditions inside the tent.
Tarp in winter
Using a tarp in the winter may require some creativity.
Tent in an intermontane basin
A trekking pole tent can be used successfully in the winter when it can be protected from high winds. This camp in the intermontane Laramie Basin (Wyoming) is protected in a limestone canyon sheltered within the basin. Prevailing winds just 20 feet higher in elevation commonly exceed 70 mph in the late winter and early spring.

Spindrift can be mitigated by using a full-perimeter shelter, such as a pyramid shelter, where the edges come all the way to the ground (and can be sealed with snow), or by using a double-wall shelter with a solid-fabric inner tent (the latter of which also helps with condensation and wind drafts).

Snow loading resistance requires overhead structure, as one might find with a tent with geodesic arches.

Tent covered in snow
In mountain environments during the winter, you may need a tent with enough structure to withstand heavy overnight snowfall. Most low-profile ultralight tents don’t cut it.

Also – consider stakes and guylines in the snow, which requires a different strategy!

A tent with a wood stove is a luxurious home for winter camping:

For more tips on dealing with accumulating condensation in your shelter:

And don’t forget about snow shelters, like igloos, caves, and quinzee huts.

Ryan entering an igloo
A snow trench built with arched dead branches under piled up snow for the roof.

Staying in remote Forest Service cabins means you can lighten your pack and leave a tent at home, and instead enjoy the cozy and comfortable environment with a wood stove!

Tent at treeline in snow
If you’re camping near or above treeline in an environment known for violent winds and storms, you may have to give up your desire for an ultralight shelter and opt for a more stable tent that can keep you safe and comfortable in extreme conditions. Hilleberg Soulo in Wyoming’s Snowy Range.

Footwear and Traction Systems

Winter backpacking creates many challenges for the ultralight hiker – cold and wet feet, flotation, and traction. Learn how to mitigate these challenges and stay comfortable in cold, snowy environments:

Hiker snowshoeing in deep snow
In deep snow, you’ll need the added flotation provided by snowshoes or skis.

Winter Backpacking Stoves

Ultralight stoves using solid fuel and alcohol fuel can be used in the winter, but aren’t powerful enough to withstand blizzard conditions. Consider inverted canister (liquid-feed) stoves, which provide a good balance between power and weight when you need to melt snow for water.

Hiker using stove in snow
In extreme cold (-15 °F / -26 °C at this camp), a stove that boils water as fast as possible may be a higher priority than stove weight (Sherman Range, Wyoming).

Water Treatment and Transport

Narrow-mouth water bottles and hydration bladders tend to freeze in the winter. This can be mitigated a little by making a DIY cozy and/or inverting the water bottle in your pack (since water freezes from the top-down, ice won’t clog up the opening).

In the winter, surface water is not available, so melting snow may be your only option. That will increase your fuel requirements and stove power!

If you’re persistent, you may be able to find water where no snow exists on the ground:

Water filters are generally frowned on as unreliable in the winter because water can turn to ice in the pores. In some cases, that freezing could cause the filter to crack and fail. If you carry a water filter in the winter, keep it warm inside your jacket while hiking and in camp, and in your sleeping bag at night.

Chemical treatment is reliable, but because of cold temperatures, consider doubling the treatment time. Ultraviolet (UV) pens work well, but cold temperatures rapidly drain batteries.

Melting snow and boiling water is still the most common method of water production and treatment in cold and snowy environments.

Hiker using snow in snow (2)
A winter hiker should budget additional time, energy, stove power, and fuel weight for melting snow and boiling water.

More Winter Backpacking Skills

Avalanche Awareness, Safety, Skills & Equipment

Winter hikers should be aware of avalanche risk when venturing into the backcountry. An avalanche is a mass of snow, ice, and debris that can be triggered by natural factors such as heavy snowfall or weak snow layers in the snowpack. Avalanches are often triggered by humans because of the extra weight they place on a weak snowpack. Hikers and backpackers can trigger avalanches even when they aren’t traversing the steepest parts of avalanche-prone slopes. Winter hikers and backpackers who travel in avalanche-prone areas should do so in a group, with all of them armed with current avalanche forecast information, avalanche safety and rescue skills, and the proper gear – including an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe.

Winter Backpacking Food Considerations

During the winter, you have some limitations in what type of food you can bring. Higher water content foods can freeze, and make poor choices for cold snacks because they are difficult to eat. On the other hand, because of low temperatures in the winter, foods that normally spoil in the summer can be safely packed on multi-day winter trips. These include cheeses, pre-made sauces, fresh breads and tortillas, vegetables, and condiments like mayonnaise.

Winter backpacking requires more energy, so you may be packing more food weight to get the extra calories.

In addition, if you’re a cold-soaker in the summers, you may opt for hot food, drinks, and soups in the winter for morale and safety. That requires more fuel weight and a stove system.

Hot soup in spoon.
Plenty of soups and hot drinks are staples in most winter backpacking menus.


Effective thermoregulation is a skill that also requires effective layering systems, sleep systems, and shelter systems. Fitness, nutrition and hydration play a role as well, and the skilled winter hiker must be extraordinarily capable of self-care in the backcountry.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below normal. Hypothermia can be caused by a combination of cold temperatures, wind, and wetness, which can be magnified by hiking with a heavy backpack in winter environments.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace (LNT) is a set of principles for outdoor ethics that aim to minimize the impact of human activities on the environment. During the winter, the backpacker faces unique LNT challenges, including the disposal of human feces (frozen ground makes it difficult to dig a cathole) and winter fire-building (because dismantling and leaving no trace of new firepits is challenging with frozen ground and deep snow). However, winter reveals some opportunities that make it easier to practice LNT, including oversnow travel and camping that isn’t as damaging to the fragile surfaces underneath. Learn more:


Building fires in the winter can be challenging because of wet wood. Finding tinder on the ground is difficult because of deep snow. Learn more about winter fire-building here:

Winter Camp Fire
Fire-building skills in winter conditions can be an important safety tool. Winter campfires can boost morale, provide real warmth when it’s wet and cold, and be a source of fuel (that doesn’t have to be carried) for melting snow and cooking.

More Winter Inspiration: Trips

More Forum Discussions about Winter Backpacking

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Hiker at mountain pass in Winter
Winter backpacking skills can be very useful during those inopportune times when you find yourself in wintry conditions when it’s not winter (Texas Pass, Wind River Range, Wyoming, September).

DISCLOSURE (Updated April 9, 2024)

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