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Winter Backpacking on a Budget: Gear Up without Breaking the Bank

Winter camping in a four season tent.
Winter camping in a four season tent.

Winter backpacking and mountaineering are great sports. But the cost of winter gear is very expensive, upward of $2500 or more. In my experience, it’s best to acquire winter backpacking gear over a period of 2-3 years, so you can spread out the capital expenditure required, while using some of your existing three season gear for camping and backpacking in less extreme winter conditions.

If after a few years you decide you want to undertake a multi-day winter backpacking trip or an expedition mountaineering trip, you’ll be better informed about the type of gear required, how to use it, and how much money it’s going to take to acquire it. While you can always dive in feet first and buy all your gear in one year, it’s better to take things a little slower. Experience can save you a lot of money.

A Phased Approach to Winter Backpacking

In the sections below, I outline a three-year timeline of skill acquisition and corresponding gear purchases. I include expected price ranges for each recommended gear item so you can estimate what your capital outlay will be.

  1. Year One: Focus on acquiring the insulated footwear and clothing required for winter day hiking. This includes winter traction aids, such as microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons and developing a 4-layer winter clothing layering system that includes a base layer, mid-layer, wind/rain protection, and a very warm outer layer.
  2. Year Two: Gear up for 1-night winter backpacking trips in temperatures that are 10 degrees or warmer at night. You’ll want to assemble additional gear for setting up a winter camp site including a winter sleeping pad, liquid fuel stove, winter cookware, and insulated pants, while using as much of your three season gear as possible, such as your tent, backpack and sleeping bag if they’re suitable for moderate winter use (explained further below.)
  3. Year Three: If after a few winter backpacks, you decide you want to go for longer or colder winter backpacking trips or take it up a notch and go on a mountaineering expedition, this is the time to invest in an expensive cold weather bag ($800 or more), an expedition-sized backpack, tent, and mountaineering boots. You can also rent a lot of this gear if you go with a guide as a way to keep your gear costs down.
A Winter Backpacking Trip in the White Mountains
A Winter Backpacking Trip in the White Mountains

Year One: Footwear, Traction Aids, Insulated Outer Layer, Basic Accessories.

Your focus is to build a solid foundation for winter day hiking, starting with boots, traction aids, and a layered clothing system.

  • Start by buying a pair of insulated winter hiking boots like the Salomon Toundra or Keen Summit County boots. These are rated down to 40 below zero and provide the warmth and support needed to use traction aids like microspikes and crampons. See The Insulated Winter Boot FAQ for expert advice about how to select winter and mountaineering boots. Price range: $150-450.
  • For traction on slippery ground, you want to buy a pair of Kahtoola Microspikes. You’ll probably use these more than any other form of winter traction. Price range: $45-75.
  • Depending on where you hike, you may also need crampons. If this is your first pair, I would suggest buying strap-on crampons because they are compatible with any kind of boot, including mountaineering boots. Black Diamond’s Neve Strap Crampons are an excellent choice. Price range: $100-200.
  • Get yourself a pair of snowshoes with a rear heel wire if you need to climb uphill. Check out the MSR Snowshoe Selection Guide which explains what to look for in a snowshoe for different conditions and how to size them. It’s a good read even if you don’t end up buying MSR snowshoes. Price range: $175-250.
  • Buy high gaiters to keep your calves warm and protect your lower legs from sharp crampon spikes. OR Crocodiles are what most people use. They are bomber tough and last forever. Price range: $75-125.
  • You need to carry hot water bottles wrapped in insulated covers in winter to prevent them from freezing. A small company named 40 Below makes excellent neoprene bottle insulators, which you can use with a wide mouth Nalgene bottle or Hunersdorf Bottles which are more easily opened when wearing gloves. Price range: $30-$75.
  • Winter clothing layers: You probably own a three season rain jacket, rain pants, long underwear, a mid-layer fleece, hiking socks and assorted hats and gloves already. You can use all of them for winter hiking. I would recommend investing in a hooded down parka however, mainly for use when you’ve stopped for breaks during hikes. You’ll also use this same parka for sitting outside to cook and melt snow for drinking water if you start winter backpacking, so get the warmest and lightest weight jacket you can afford. The Feathered Friends Frontpoint Jacket and The North Face Immaculator Down Parka are good options. Price range: $400-500
Red hot glow of a MSR Whisperlite Stove melting snow on full power
Red hot glow of a MSR Whisperlite Stove melting snow on full power

Year 2: Winter camping gear and insulated clothing

The next step is to acquire the gear necessary to camp out in winter in temperatures down to 10 degrees fahrenheit, while leveraging your existing three season gear as much as possible to save money. Check the weather forecast before you go to avoid cold temperatures below your sleeping bag rating.

  • You’ll need a warmer sleeping pad for sleeping on snow. I recommend getting a Thermarest XTherm Insulated Sleeping Pad, which is lightweight and packs up small. You can also carry a foam pad like the Thermarest Zlite (which also makes a good insulated camp seat) to augment a 3-season sleeping pad. Your goal should be to have one or two sleeping pads, that when combined, have an R-value of 5-6. See Sleeping Bag R-Values for a complete list of sleeping pad R-values for dozens of sleeping pads. Price range: $40-250.
  • If you already own a 20 degree sleeping bag, you should be able to extend its temperature range by 10-15 degrees with a sleeping bag liner, like the Sea-to-Summit Reactor Plus, in order to avoid having to buy a 0 degree or -20 degree sleeping bag. If not, I’d recommend buying a buying a 0-degree sleeping bag, like the NEMO Sonic 0 instead of a -20 or -40 below zero sleeping bag. There’s a much bigger selection available and prices are far more reasonable. You can also extend the temperature range of a 0 degree bag with an insulated sleeping bag liner if you decide you want to camp in colder temperatures at a future date. Price range: $50-$650.
  • If you already own a double-walled three season tents it can be used for winter camping as long as the fly comes down to the ground to block the wind and you avoid heavy snowfall, which can collapse the tent. You’ll want to get snow stakes to pitch the tent on snow, although plastic shopping bags can also be used – just bury them – and secure your guylines to the handles.
  • Liquid fuel stoves that burn white gas are recommended for cold weather operation and melting snow to make drinking water under 20 degrees fahrenheit. I recommend the MSR Whisperlite Universal Stove because it can be used to burn liquid fuel or canister fuel the rest of the year. Price range: $100-200.
  • Get a large cook pot, 2-3 liters in size for melting snow in winter. Light weight is important, so consider investing in titanium cookware like the 1.9 liter Evernew Titanium cook pot. Price range: $50-100.
  • Buy insulated winter pants, either synthetic or down filled. For example: Mountain Hardwear Compressor Pants. You’ll wear them when sitting outside and melting snow. They can also be worn inside your sleeping bag if you are cold. Price range: $150-250.
  •  When you go camping you’ll want to bring a metal avalanche shovel to dig out snow structures like a kitchen, wind walls, or slit trenches for blocking the wind. Buy one like the Backcountry Access B-1 that is light weight and that you can take apart for ease of packing. Price range: $50-125.
  • One of the biggest challenges faced by winter backpackers is how to prevent your boots from freezing solid at night. While you can buy mountaineering boots with removable liners and sleep with them in your sleeping bag, there’s nothing to stop you from doing the same thing with a regular insulated single-layer winter hiking boot in order to save money.
Philip's tent below Mt Washington
Philip’s tent below Mt Washington

Year 3: Multi-day Winter Backpacks and Expedition Mountaineering

If you decide after year 2 that you want to take multi-day winter backpacking trips into colder, harsher temperatures and terrain, things can get really expensive.

  • You will eventually want a lightweight 4 season tent for winter camping like the Black Diamond Firstlight tent (shown above). But if you can find someone who already owns a 4 season tent and does not snore at night, share it with them. Price range: $200-$500.
  • You need to carry a larger backpack in the 65-85 liter size range in winter, especially if you’re doing longer day trips or overnight camping. See the Best Winter Backpack FAQ for advice about the best models to buy. Price range: $200-500.
  • If you plan on hiking multi-day route, I’d advise getting a pair of hiking boots with removable liners that you can sleep with at night in your sleeping bag. Unpleasant as it sounds, this is the best way to keep your boots from freezing at night. See the Insulated Winter Boot FAQ for advice on what to look for in mountaineering boots. Price range: $300-600.

Conclusion

Phasing your gear purchases over a multi-year period is just one strategy for gradually accumulating the gear you need for winter backpacking. As you can see, things really get expensive in Year 3 if you decide you want to backpack in subzero conditions. My advice: take your time in deciding what kind of winter hiking and backpacking you want to do. While backpacking in very cold weather is an adventure, it’s far less comfortable and fun than backpacking in slightly warmer temperatures. Take the time to figure out what you like and let that be your guide in what gear to buy.

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21 comments

  1. Good article that breaks down the costs. My only two suggestions to save money would be finding a cheaper on sale Michelin man down jacket (EMS used to make one, even if hoodless). You could always purchase a down hat/hood/balaclava to supplement in the $20-80 range. Also, Montbell offers some nice parkas at more reasonable prices than the mentioned options.

    Finally, in my opinion, most of us don’t get out enough and/or in the conditions to justify a winter sleeping bag. If we spend two to five nights below zero each winter, the cost and closet space could be better spent. I have slept very toasty in baselayers at zero degrees with my 15 degree bag and my oversized EE 40 quilt draped over, effectively covering all four seasons with the two bags. I sized up the quilt when purchasing in both length and width to accommodate this winter option. With more layers or adding a bivy or both, I am certain I could go significantly lower if needed.

    Finally, if one can sew or knows somebody, the $20 Costco blankets (70″x60″) could open some additional options…

    • I’ve been comfortable at -15 F with a 20° bag, themarest tech blanket quilt and my puffy jacket. I to am surprised this type of approach isn’t more broadly encouraged. I haven’t taken out my expedition winter down bag for years because I like my layering bag system so much.

      Love your clarity of priorities and how to get started Phil. Great, encouraging approach.

      • A lot of people learn about winter backpacking through outdoor education programs like the MIT Outdoor Club, the AMC Boston Winter School, and the Adirondack Mountain Club Winter School and the people who teach those programs don’t have a FORMULA that they can give anyone for how to combine multiple sleeping bags/blankets/or quilts in order to arrive at a temperature rating, so it’s expedient to recommend a cold weather sleeping bag instead. The problem is that they tend to recommend a -20 bag, which can be too cold and expensive.

        After years of winter backpacking in NH White Mountains, I concluded that my -20 degree bag was overkill and sold it last year. The truth is, we would regularly cancel any trips where the forecast was -20 since it’s so unpleasant to be outside in those temps. I like social winter backpacks where we sit outside and cook, and talk, and melt water for hours. ZERO degrees is plenty cold for me. Save money and go on “warmer” weather winter trips.

      • Enlightened Equipment has a guide to quilt layering that has combined temperature ratings when layering two quilts. This could probably be used to estimate temperature ratings when combining a bag with quilt or blanket.

      • Correction. They used to have such a page. It’s gone. I don’t think basing such a metric on the advice of a Quilt maker is all that useful though to be honest. It’s a data point. The best advice is to test these things out yourself in a safe place with the components you have. Everybody has different gear and a different metabolism…I’d be real cautious about jumping to any general conclusions.

    • The EE chart is still available here:

      support.enlightenedequipment.com/hc/en-us/articles/218158868-Quilt-Layering

      But yeah I completely agree. Everyone is different and testing on a 1 nighter when you can easily bail out is a good precaution.

      • I’d feel a lot better about this chart if EE did some cold room testing to validate it. They list -20,-30, and -40 temperature combinations but I can’t imagine that they’ve actually tested it. I have to believe you’d want to specify different amounts of head insulation in those temps, long underwear, need for a draft collar etc and those details are missing. Still it would be great if a vendor would publish a chart like this where they explain their testing methodology more. This just looks very anecdotal.

      • Have to agree with Philip. Those spreadsheet numbers look extrapolated, not tested in reality. I’d be leery of the lack of detail around head insulation at -20, -30, and -40 below using a Quilt. Using a Quilt as the inner layer just sounds dumb.

  2. Excellent article! Thank you

  3. A+ article and so timely. As a 1st year hiker, I was just trying to catch my breath, and start learning and gearing up for some winter hiking.
    Thanks for all the great information. Last year at this time I could barely move due to a back injury. 2 weeks ago I did the Franconia loop. The back never felt better.

  4. While I think these gear picks are excellent, there is a disconnect between the headline “Winter Backpacking on a Budget: Gear Up without Breaking the Bank” and reading recommendations for titanium pots and pricey NF and FF down gear.
    If someone wants to try winter camping before committing significant funds to it, which is a good idea, as it’s not for everyone, I don’t think their safety would be compromised if they went out with a puffy from Old Navy, an aluminum pot from the kitchen, and a Coleman Peak 1 stove from Craigslist (just to cite a couple of examples of economizing). When I was a starving student getting started in winter camping, that’s how we did it.

  5. Don’t forget the gear rental option too! MEC (yes, north of the border) tents winter sleeping bags, tents, snowshoes, etc – really all the gear you’d want or need. It’s a fantastic way to try before you buy.

    We’re trying to line up dates for our annual winter trip down to the ‘Dacks – can’t wait!

    Oh, the only other nugget I’ll note is that, depending entirely upon where you are camping and your other gear, you might just pass on the tent and go tarp instead. That’s my preference, but we only camp in sheltered areas.

    Phil – I do like the look of that Reactor put on your Whisperlite. Any mods necessary? Someday, perhaps for my Dragonfly…
    Cheers!

  6. I was able to assemble a budget winter kit through a combination of buying discontinued gear, making some simple items myself and choosing gear that could be used year round. For example, I got a Patagonia Fitz Roy down parka for less than $200 during the off season at a local gear shop. Similar deals can be found on websites like Sierra Trading Post and REI garage. I made hot water bottles by making cylinders to fit my nalgene bottles out of a cheap closed cell foam sleeping pad and I made a synthetic quilt to layer with my 3 season sleeping bag at a cost of less than $100. When i bought my first lightweight shelter, I went with a Mountain Laurel Designs pyramid tent. These are plenty strong enough for serious winds and snow loading and can be combined with an inner net tent to make a good lightweight shelter for 3 season use at a reasonable cost.

  7. Excellent article. Very concise and to the point as well as answering a lot of questions regarding what you need and when to get it.
    Great Job!

  8. Philip, thanks for the priorities! You’re right that full winter gear should take a while to accumulate, and it helps to articulate what comes first. Intuitive order after it’s already laid out – how can you go out overnight if you can’t go out during the day? But sometimes we need to be hit over the head with the “duh” things.

    One question – any issues with having “overwarm” boots? I’m in the mid-Atlantic, so will have to travel to get below 10F.

  9. Thanks a lot for this article. Very timely :)

    I’ve always suffered from being too cold when stopped. Need to invest in a warm parka/insulated pants, I think.

  10. Another important source of warmth in a sleeping system is the ground insulation underneath the bag/quilt. No matter how warm the bag is, you will be cold if you don’t have good insulation underneath. I have found my Neoair Trekker pad (only an R3) is even warmer when I add a thin closed-cell foam pad over it.

  11. Thanks Philip, great Article!
    Question: how much warmth would an insulated pant, such as the WM Flash pant, add to a three season quilt on a wintermat (xTherm)?

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