Overnight Winter Backpacking Trip Prep Tips and Gear List

Making dinner and coffee in camp.
Also wearing everything I brought! (L. Bender)
Winter backpacking is awesome. Bugs are nowhere to be found, the woods are profoundly peaceful, and trails are abnormally deserted, likely because only a few of us are crazy enough to sleep outside in the cold.

Crazy or not, I enjoy putting myself in situations that can be uncomfortable; it's how we learn and grow. Being cold for a number of days is uncomfortable, but dealing with that adversity and learning from it is one of the most satisfying things in life.

As fun as being outside in the cold can be, winter backpacking comes with its own specific sets of risks. If you're prepared, you can mitigate those risks and still enjoy yourself. After a successful (read: really fun) backpacking trip in Vermont over the New Year holiday, I realized that the majority of our success was due to good planning. The process started long before we left and continued through the morning of our departure.

Know Before You Go

Prior to leaving for your trip, make sure you have maps and guidebooks, and make sure you know them well. Know all of the bailout points on the trail, and have contingency plans for adverse conditions. Call local authorities to check on trail conditions and ask every question you can think of. Talk to anyone you can about the trails; the internet is a great source for trip reports. Check weather trends. If you're traveling in avalanche country, know how to recognize and avoid avalanche areas, and check avalanche conditions in advance.

I grabbed copies of Hiking the Green Mountains and the Green Mountain National Forest South map long before we left. I knew our route well, but my trip planning partner, for all intents and purposes, had the maps memorized and had at least four options in mind depending on conditions. Another member of our group called the Green Mountain National Forest ranger station to inquire about trail conditions while a few of us looked for places to rent snowshoes and other gear. We kept close tabs on the weather the week prior to ensure we were as prepared as possible with gear. We knew we'd have limited daylight, given the season, and planned our route accordingly.

We all reacted a bit differently to the cold. Some of us stayed layered up the entire time while others stripped down as soon as we got moving. Sweating in cold weather is a recipe for disaster, as is getting too chilly.

 Gear Preparation at Home

The ultimate goal in winter is to stay dry and warm. Remember you're going to carry everything you bring. Extra items are okay, but they'll add weight to your pack. Create layering systems that will prevent you from sweating. Everything you bring to wear should be synthetic or wool. All cotton stays home. Think about what you'll wear when you stop moving; you're going to be cold. Apparel with zippers will help you regulate your body temperature. Double check to make sure your boots are waterproof, and embrace the fact that you might need to sleep with them.

Bring items that will insulate you from the ground when you're sleeping or sitting. Pack at least one full length insulated sleeping pad so you don't lose heat to the ground. Check the weather and take a sleeping bag rated at or 10ºF below the temperature you'll be sleeping in. Our trip didn't require avalanche safety gear, but if yours does, bring it with you!

In an effort to make sure we didn't miss anything, my trip planning partner and I pretended none of us had ever been winter backpacking, or backpacking at all, when we created the gear list. The weather forecast called for temperatures in the 15-25ºF range during the day and close to 0ºF at night, and we planned accordingly. I pulled the list below directly out of email correspondence among my group and noted the pieces I brought for our overnight trip.

Our first day on the trail. (L. Bender)

Clothing and Apparel (for 0º-25ºF)

Other Recommendations

  • Extra layers; it's better to have them and not need them.
  • Neck gaiter or wool scarf, balaclava, ski mask.
  • Leg gaiters (Outdoor Research Crocodile) to keep snow out of your boots.
  • Emergency kit (matches, lighter, toilet paper, shovel, first aid supplies, hand warmers, water purification tablets, hand sanitizer, fire starters...basically all of the Ten Essentials with a bit extra.
  • Cash, insurance card, emergency contacts, and an ID in a ziploc bag, just in case.

The Night Before

Heading back on our second day.
If it's a new-to-you destination, make time to do some scouting when you arrive. Find good parking locations. Leave your itinerary with local authorities and with someone at home. 

Take care of any last minute gear needs. Distribute group gear, if applicable, and make sure everyone in your group understands the plan and has the same goals. Double check the weather.

When we arrived in Vermont for our trip, after we dropped our gear, one of the first things we did was to take a drive to the trailhead. We made sure there was enough space to park two cars, and made sure conditions were as such that we could access the parking spots at all.

Next came a visit to EMS for last minute supplies and chats with locals who could give us an update on trail conditions. We unpacked our gear, sorted through food, and repacked our packs the night before with group gear distributed. We went over the plan as a group, discussed turnaround times and backup plans, and make sure everyone was on the same page.

Overall, the overnight backpacking trip in the Green Mountain National Forest that inspired this post was a huge success for a variety of reasons, but I think a significant part of it was good planning across the group. What other trip prep tips do you have, or gear you won't go winter camping without? This post is by no means exhaustive; we'd love to hear from you!