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Winter Backpacking

Winter backpacking is cold, there’s no way around it, but you don’t have to freeze or be uncomfortable. With a little extra planning and equipment it can be an amazing experience.



For our purposes, that is backpacking with AFW, any 3 season tent will do. The reason is, we don’t go if bad weather is predicted. We prefer to stay in the shelters in the winter but carry tents just in case someone else is there. As long as you can stake your tent down securely, or tie it to surrounding trees or rocks, you’ll be fine. Of course, that means bringing a little extra light weight rope, like you would use for your bear bag.


Sleeping Bags

This is where you cannot skimp. For winter backpacking you will need a zero degree or lower bag. However, if you have a 20-30 degree bag you can boost its rating by using a thicker fleece lining (not silk, it doesn’t boost the rating more than 5 degrees). You can also wear all your clothes to bed or even wear rain pants and jacket to maintain your heat. You can also use a lightweight summer bag (50 degrees) coupled with a 20 degree bag. (I have 2 for borrowing.)

I personally like down bags, they’re lighter for the same warmth. But down does have one major drawback for our purposes. If you turn over with your bag you will now have a cold spot where the down has been compressed under you. It will fluff up but until it does you will feel some cold. The answer is to roll in your bag.

Also, bringing the mega hand warmers to place in your bag definitely helps keep you warm. You can also boil water and place the hot water in your Nalgene in your bag.

Sleeping Pads

This is the second thing you cannot skimp on. The cold ground will suck away all your warmth. You will need to bring 2 closed foam pads to sleep on. If you have an inflatable mat you will need your mat plus a closed foam pad. There are some pads with an R rating down to zero and below and they can be used alone.


The only fuel that works really well in the winter is white gas. These stoves have a learning curve and I have never used one. I can tell you that the Esbit stove and alcohol stoves do not work in the cold. I use my Jetboil stove in the winter but keep the fuel canister in an inside pocket in my vest to warm up before using and inside my sleeping bag during the night. But for the most part we try to use wood fires in the shelters for cooking, especially dinner.

Water and Filters

Filters do not work below freezing. Chemicals work but a little slower. Steripens work as long as there is no ice in the water. Most of the time we bring enough water for drinking and boil gathered water for cooking. You can also gather water, warm it a little and then use your filter (if you have kept the filter warm near your body) or chemicals.

The best is if there’s snow on the ground. Gather clean snow, melt and drink. No sterilizing needed. However, this does use a lot of fuel and is slow. It takes a lot of snow to make a little water.

Water Bottles

This is the time of year when you carry the heavier Nalgene bottles because you must keep your water in your sleeping bag at night to keep it from freezing and you DO NOT want it to leak!

Speaking of your sleeping bag again, EVERYTHING goes in your sleeping bag at night. All your clothes, your boots (bring those thin plastic shopping bags), water, fuel, even your baby wipes if you use them. I usually put all my clothes under me, adding to the ground insulation barrier.


Think hot and higher in fat. Digesting fat takes more work for your body thereby generating heat. This is also the only time you’ll hear it’s ok to bring food in your tent. If you get cold a night have an energy bar to eat. It does help.


OK, so there’s nothing worse than having to get up at night, in the cold, to use the facilities. However, you will be cold if you “hold it.” Your body is expending a lot of heat to keep your urine warm. Make a quick run, remembering to keep your bag closed while you’re gone. You’ll be much more comfortable.


By now you’ve all hiked in the winter and know what keeps you warm. However, in camp you will need something extra. Using rain pants and jacket helps to keep the heat in. I have thick fleece sweat pants and a light weight down jacket. Bring extra dry socks and maybe warm booties. Also bring a small piece of closed foam pad to sit on and an extra piece to put under your feet. Remember a hat and gloves. Actually, I bring mittens and glove liners; I also have a pair of mittens that the finger part folds back so your fingers are free. In both the mittens I put hand warmers, which help especially in the morning. If you tend to sweat a lot hiking definitely bring an extra base layer. One thing you DO NOT want to be in the winter is damp.

Night time

Night comes early in the winter. You’re setting up and eating dinner usually before 5. That makes for a long night. Remember to bring your headlamp and a book to read. Also, a little exercise before turning in helps to keep you warm.


This is the only time the cold really bothers me and that’s because you haven’t warmed up your body with exercise. This is when the hand warmers and toe warmers really come in handy. Here again, a little exercise first thing helps to warm you up.

If anyone is interested in winter backpacking please let AFW know, or email Jackie at and we’ll try to put it on the winter schedule.

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