Most of the gear I took on my Presidential Range winter backpacking trip last week performed splendidly with a few exceptions. Here’s a quick blow-by-blow account of the highs and lows, and a link to the the gear list I brought on that hike for your reference.
Cold Cold World Chaos Backpack: This is the 4th year I’ve used the Chaos for winter backpacking trips and I still think it’s an awesome alpine-style pack that’s perfectly sized for winter trips up to 4 nights in duration. Though smaller than my campanions’ packs in volume and probably half as heavy (at 3 pounds 8 ounces), I can still get a lot of food and clothing into it. I do this by packing most of my gear loose in a trash compactor bag instead of stuff sacks so it fills the entire available volume and doesn’t waste any space.
The Chaos also has abundant external attachment points including a crampon pocket, floating lid, gear loops and daisy chains, making it easy for me to carry a large portion of gear on the outside of the pack where I can access it more easily when needed. For instance, I carried my tent, snowshoes, crampons, ice axe, an avalanche shovel, hard shell jacket, mid-layer sweater, sun screen, one water bottle, and snacks on the outside of my pack for the entire trip, making for noticeably faster gear and layer transitions than my companions.
Black Diamond FirstLight Tent: Weighing 2 pounds 11 ounces, the FirstLight is lightweight enough to bring as a single person tent on a mountaineering trip even though it could fit two people in a pinch (without their gear). As usual, it set up quickly each night and was very easy to pack in the morning. It’s also freestanding, so I can set it up without waiting for deadmen (snowstakes) to set before pitching it.
4 x MSR Blizzard Stakes + Cordage: I brought snow stakes to anchor my tent in case we experienced high winds, but didn’t end up using them. Instead, I anchored one corner of my tent with my ice axe and two other corners with my hiking poles. From now on I’m just going to leave the snow stakes at home. I also carried small plastic shopping bags which can be used as snow anchors but didn’t use them either. I will probably still bring a smaller number of them in the future, as they are a lot lighter weight and can also be used to collect snow for melting or packing out trash and human poop.
Western Mountaineering Puma -25 Down Sleeping Bag: This sleeping bag is amazingly comfortable but I probably could have gotten by with a lighterweight 0 degree sleeping bag on this trip. Problem is, I don’t own one. Regardless, the Puma was quite comfortable and spacious, even when shared with damp mountaineering boot liners, wet gloves, and wet socks at night.
Therm-a-Rest Zlite and Therm-a-Rest All Season Neoair Sleeping Pads: I’ve found it best to use a closed cell foam pad like the Zlite in winter under an inflatable pad like the NeoAir All Season to reduce the amount of body heat that is lost to the snow underneath the tent. I don’t trust inflatable pads enough to use them without a backup closed cell foam pad that I can fold up a few times to provide the necessary R-value insulation if my inflatable pad fails. The inflatable pad is less bulky to pack and carry than a second foam pad. I also use the foam pad to sit on when melting snow and making dinner.
Helly Hansen DRY Stripe Crew (LIFA): Great baselayer shirt which refuses to hold perspiration and wicks it to the mid-layer where it can dry without chilling me. Best for the warmer temperatures we experienced on this hike.
Helly Hansen Odin Guide Light Pants (Softshell): Wind and water resistant softshell pants that keep me warm down to about 10 degrees. I’ve worn these pants all winter and think they’re great.
Patagonia R1 Fleece Pullover: Technical fleece that is good for evaporating base layer sweat, but isn’t that warm. I’ve been wearing it since 2010 and use it on most winter hikes.
Under Armor Heat Gear Compression Shorts: I swear by these and wear them year round. Eliminates thigh chafing.
Patagonia Capilene 1 Long Underwear Bottoms: Worn in sleeping bag at night so the inside of my bag doesn’t get gunked up with body funk.
Montbell Tachyon Windshirt: Great wind shell and super lightweight (2.6 oz). Kept the wind chill off of me. Stuffs into one of the external pockets on my pack for easy access.
Marmot Precip Full Zip Wind/Rain Pants: Not worn, but a garment I’d need if the wind got up, which it does above treeline in the Presidential Range, averaging 40 mph all winter.
Montbell Thermawrap Insulated Jacket: Not worn. Used as my pillow. I’ve been struggling to find a warmer mid-layer to wear on cold days under a hard shell. I’m not convinced that this is the right jacket for this purpose because it wets out quickly.
Golite Roan Plateau 800 Down Parka: Worn during rest stops and at night while melting snow and cooking dinner. An essential piece of gear. Super warm and compresses extremely well.
Montbell Thermawrap Insulated Pants: Worn at at breakfast and dinner while melting snow and cooking meals. It was cold enough to need them when sitting around.
Outdoor Research Foray Jacket (XL): Great hard shell with excellent venting options. Worn during day time.
Boots, Socks, and Gaiters
Scarpa Omega Mountaineering Boots: Worn these a few years now. Lightweight, well insulated mountaineering boots rated to 30 below zero. They were a little warm on this trip except after the sun went down and then I was glad I’d worn them. Three of the four hikers on our trip also wore them!
Stephenson’s Warmlite VBL Socks, REI Synthetic Liner and Medium Wool Hiking Socks: The VBL socks were a bit warm during the day but they kept the amount of perspiration buildup in my socks down to where I could dry them overnight in my sleeping bag. That’s good because I forgot to pack extra socks on this hike.
Mountain Hardware Ascent Stretch Gaiters: New this year. They vent perspiration very well through a stretchy back panel. An excellent find.
Chilis OTG Sunglasses: I needed sunglasses that fit over my regular glasses on this trip due to very bright sunshine. These work great. REI used to sell them but I don’t know where they’re available anymore.
Dermatone Z-Coat Sun Block: Worn to prevent sunburn on my face.
SPOT II GPS Satellite Messenger: Personal locator beacon mainly used to send ok messages twice a day to our spouses letting them know we were ok.
16 oz Nalgene Snack Bottle: I started using a snack bottle to hold homemade GORP this winter so I can easily reach food and keep eating to stay warm in winter conditions. I clip it onto my sternum strap or my hip belt for easy access. It’s a great thing and keeps me fueled between meals.
MSR Evo Ascent 22 Snowshoes: Used most of the hike. Bomber snowshoes for New England hiking with televator lifts.
CAMP Nanotech XLC Crampons: Worn on our final descent over packed snow, but good to have along on any above treeline winter hike in the Presidential Range. These crampons are a step-in model that mates with my mountaineering boots. They’re made out of aluminum with steel front points and therefore very lightweight. They’re so lightweight, that I don’t bother bringing microspikes along in addition to crampons on trips where I wear mountaineering boots, thereby saving a bit more weight.
MSR Reactor Stove: Brought this canister stove system which is known for fast snow melting. It worked great the first night of our trip when it was 20 degrees outside at sundown, but failed to generate enough heat the next morning to boil water although the canister had been pre-warmed in my down jacket and the morning temperature was 20 degrees again (or so I thought based on the mini thermometer I keep attached to my pack).
My guess is that the propane in the isobutane canister mix burned off the night before because it can vaporize in colder temperatures, leaving behind the less volatile isobutane. (I brought MSR IsoPro Cannisters that are 20% propoane and 80% isobutane) That still doesn’t explain why the isobune wouldn’t vaporize because it’s supposed to work down to 11 degees, but perhaps my thermometer is less accurate than I thought.
We had liquid fuel stoves with us, so I let a friend melt snow/boil water for me during the remainder of the trip. On hindsight, it was optimistic to expect the MSR Reactor to work realiably in what were probably borderline temperatures. It’s too bad because the Reactor is an awesomely engineered stove that packs well and doesn’t require a separate wind screen to operate. But from now on, I’ll probably go back to bringing white gas stoves on all of my winter trips.
Gloves and Hats
EMS Ascent Windstopper Fleeces Gloves: Good dexterity and wind resistence, but they proved hard to dry.
Outdoor Research Versaliner Gloves: Fantastic dexterity and breathability. I brought the outer shells but didn’t use them.
Outdoor Research Alti Gloves: Decent dexterity for a heavy mountaineering glove. I wore these at night over dinner and bring them on trips because I can carry an ice axe in the ready position while wearing them, unlike mittens.
Outdoor Research Cornice Mittens and Dachstein Mitts: Brought them but didn’t need them. When paired together they are an extremely warm glove combination good for above treeline conditions in high wind or extreme cold. On hindsight, they might have been overkill for this trip, but I’m wary of the Presidential Range. It has a bad reputation in winter for a reason.
Mountain Hardwear Windstopper Fleece Hat: This is a reversible fleece bucket hat with a windstopper liner that has been sitting in my dresser drawer for a few years. Turns out to be an awesome hat because you can turn the wet site out and let it dry while wearing the dry side against your head. I have to get more of these since I wet out hats quickly.
Looking over this list, there are clearly a few items that I didn’t need on this trip that I still carried. I don’t think that’s a good reason not to bring them on a winter backpacking trip. What you bring on a trip should be based on the environmental conditions you reasonably expect to encounter, not the overall weight of your pack or some other tom-foolery.
I’m not saying that gear weight is unimportant, but your life and limbs take precedence in winter, especially for high exposure trips like this 2 night traverse of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. The weather in these mountains is very hard to predict and has killed a lot of unprepared people over the years. We were lucky that we had such great weather that weekend, but I’ve been on this ridge when the weather is really bad and it’s so picnic.
Your needs might be different in winter, so be safe and make sure you don’t underpack for difficult weather conditions. Hike with other people and build some redundancy into your gear, food, stoves and fuel. Be prepared to bail out early if the trip does not go as planned. Whatever your goal, it will be there there the next time you try to attain it.