Winter Backpacking on a Budget

Crampons on Welsh Dickey in New Hampshire

Crampons on Welsh Dickey in New Hampshire

Backpacking, day hiking, and mountaineering in winter is great sport. I got completely hooked a few years ago and can’t wait for the winter hiking season to start up again. But winter gear is very expensive and you need to start saving now to build up your winter gear list. A lot of this gear will last for years and years, but the up front cost can be staggering if you are not prepared for it.

While some of your 3 season hiking gear is appropriate for 4 season use, there are some items that you need to acquire that are specifically for winter. These include an ice axe, crampons, snowshoes, a liquid fuel stove, a thick sleeping pad, a winter sleeping bag, and a winter tent. Depending where you hike, you may also need to buy mountaineering boots, a winter pack, an avalanche shovel, a windproof balaclava, 1 or 2 pairs of ski goggles, mountaineering gloves, high gaiters, and a high quality down parka.

When you can rent a lot of this gear from local outfitters and guide services, you’ll eventually want to own your own. If that’s the case, you can expect to spend over $2,500 to get completely outfitted.

Ice Axe75
Snowshoes250
Crampons150
Liquid Fuel Stove80
Winter Sleeping Pad150
Winter Sleeping Bag400
Mountaineering Boots300
Winter Pack250
Avalanche Shovel 50
Windproof Balaclava40
2 pr Goggles120
2 pr Mountaineering Gloves200
High Gaiters80
Down Parka275
Winter Tent350
total2770

Winter Essentials vs. Nice to Haves:

That’s a lot of money, so here are some suggestions to spread out your expenditures over a couple of years:

  • While you can rent snowshoes , they’re worth owning if you plan on using them a lot. The MSR Lightning Ascents  are excellent showshoes, particularly if you plan on hiking up steep slopes.
  • You’re going to want to own your own pair of high gaiters if you own a pair of snowshoes. OR Crocodiles are what most people use.
  • Depending on where you hike, you may also need crampons. If this is your first pair, I would suggest you buy strap-on crampons because they are compatible with regular leather boots and mountaineering boots. Black Diamond’s Contact Strap-on crampons are very popular and durable, but heavy. I prefer lighter weight aluminum ones made by CAMP such as the Universal XLC which are less durable, but require much less energy to hike with.
  • I always hike with other people in winter which makes it possible to share their liquid fuel stove  if you carry your own fuel.
  • If you plan on camping in winter, the most important element of your sleep system is a warm sleeping pad. Whatever you pick, make sure that it is thick. You can have a super warm sleeping bag, but if you have a poorly insulated pad, you will be shivering all night. Many people carry two foam pads such as the Therm-a-Rest Zlite pad which is lightweight and can be easily attached to the outside of a backpack. Another option is to use an inflatable Therm-a-Rest All Season sleeping pad.
  • If you are climbing mountains, you’re likely to carry an ice axe for safety reasons. While inexpensive, they are also rentable. The Black Diamond Raven and lighter weight Raven Pro are very good ice axes for beginners.
Mt Washington in Winter

Mt Washington in Winter

  • Winter rated down sleeping bags are horribly expensive but they will last 10+ years. I own a goose down filled -25 F Puma from Western Mountaineering because it is super warm and highly compressible. While less expensive, synthetic sleeping bags are very bulky and require that you have a larger capacity backpack that weighs and costs more.
  • Mountaineering boots are another expense that you can often defer because you can rent them at local outfitters.  So-called plastic boots are only required for very high or cold mountains where you can’t afford to get wet feet. I own a pair of Scarpa Omega boots which are unusually lightweight for plastics, but can be overkill for winter day hikes.
  • 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. There are often rentable and you should try to defer this purchase until you know how much capacity you really need to hold all of your gear.
Winter Camping on Zealand Mountain

Winter Camping on Zealand Mountain, New Hampshire

  •  Unless you are in avalanche territory, avalanche shovels these can be shared by a group. A ratio of 1 shovel for every 4 people works pretty well. These shovels can also be used to dig kitchens, wind walls, snow caves or slit trenches for emergency shelter.
  • If you plan on climbing high peaks in winter, it’s very useful to bring 2 pairs of ski goggles along with you in case one pair fogs up and freezes. Any brand will do.
  • I carry several pairs of fleece gloves and hats in varying thicknesses when I’m hiking in winter. EMS fleece gloves  are always a real bargain.
  • When you’re standing around camp or take a rest during the day, you need to put on a extra outer layer like a down parka to stay warm or you will chill rapidly. Down parkas with hoods are the best option because they compress very well and retain a lot of heat. I own an 800 down fill Golite Roan Plateau Parka which is exceptionally warm and inexpensive.
  • You will eventually want a lightweight 4 season tent for winter camping like the Black Diamond Firstlight tent. But if you can find someone who already owns a 4 season tent and does not snore at night, share it with them. They can also be rented from most outfitters.

A Sample Winter Gear Budget

If you want to get into winter backpacking or day hiking, but don’t have the money to get fully outfitted, you can get by with renting gear or sharing it with your friends. For example, let’s say you wanted to ease into winter backpacking by trying out snowshoeing and a little winter camping. Here’s a budget that will let you gradually purchase what you need, while renting or sharing gear with your friends.

Ice Axe75Rent
Snowshoes250Buy
Crampons150Rent
Liquid Fuel Stove80Share
Winter Sleeping Pad150Rent
Winter Sleeping Bag400Rent
Mountaineering Boots300Rent
Expedition Pack250Rent
Avalanche Shovel 50Share
Windproof Balaclava40Buy
2 pr Goggles120Buy
2 pr Mountaineering Gloves200Buy
High Gaiters80Buy
Down Parka275Buy
Winter Tent350Share
total965

Conclusion

This is just one strategy for gradually accumulating the gear you need for wintertime, but be forewarned. Winter backpacking is extremely addictive and satisfying, but it can wreak havoc on your budget if you try to buy everything you need in one season.

Originally written: 2009; Revised 2012.

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23 Responses to Winter Backpacking on a Budget

  1. Midlakewinter September 11, 2009 at 4:17 am #

    Thanks for the list. Just got a pair of MSR Denali's for my b-day (thanks padre). Looking forward to gaining a 4th season in outdoor activities.

    Very helpful list to round out my gear.

  2. Tom Murphy September 11, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

    This is how I have tried to reduce the costs of winter hiking:

    - use a white gas stove year round

    a weight penalty in the summer

    SVEA 123R generates comments from fellow hikers all summer long

    very reliable operation

    - use a 3 season tent year round

    I camp with my son in summer and early fall

    I use the tent as a solo tent in the winter

    a weight penalty in the summer

    I need to watch the snow build up over night and camp below tree line in the winter

    - use my son's 15 deg down bag inside my synthetic bag

    I bought my 15 deg synthetic in a semi-mummy shape (Big Agnes – Encampment model) to accommodate his down bag, wanted to ensure no compression of the inner bag when they are nested together

    The extra interior space and optimistic rating of the BA syn bag make it an OK bag for 3 season use but it does a great job of extending the rating of the MARMOT bag.

    I spent a bit of money on his bag to get a 850-fill down bag. The MARMOT bag is rated to the EU standard. So the 15 deg rating is a true 15 deg rating. I have had this set-up down to zero deg and I have been toasty.

    - use my son's CCF pad with my insulated pad (Big Agnes Insulated Aircore) Again, I have had this set-up down to zero deg and very toasty.

    - googles, wool hat, wool mittens, bavaclava, snow shoes, ski jacket, down vest, microspikes, SMARTWOOL mid weight tops and bottom (inner layer)

    birthday and christmas presents over 2-3 years

    - From Army/Navy Store

    fleece bib pants for camp, 2 pair wool socks, 2 pair polyprop sock liners

    - I wasted a little bit of money on "ice fisherman" gloves from a popular Sporting Goods store

    They are great for shoveling snow or first day of winter camping but they do not dry out overnight

    Thankfully I discovered this fact during a weekend shake down camping in my backyard.

    - I bought Columbia winter boots shoes on clearance at a Sporting Goods store (~$50)

    similar to Bugaboot model

    These boots work well with my show shoes and the microspikes

    I use gaiters to keep snow out

    I stay off of anything requiring more than microspikes

    The boots are where I am going to ask Santa for an upgrade this year. I want something with a removable liner – I would prefer a leather shoe over the plastics. My winter hiking is mostly in the valleys.

    Phil, I am looking into making a pulk. Have you though about that?

    Tom Murphy

  3. Earlylite September 11, 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    Tom – I had to look up what a pulk was. Here's a cool link for you: http://www.skipulk.com/.

    I think your winter system looks pretty effective and is a creative way to combine gear that you already have. That's an angle on budgeting that I missed. That Marmot Helium is a very nice bag.

    A lot of people prefer something other than plastics boots – I was just discussing this last weekend in the back of a truck with some other winter climbers. Leather works but is a drag when it gets wet and you are out overnight. You might look at getting a gortex mid or a Sorrel to keep the cost down.

  4. Chris (i-cjw.com) September 11, 2009 at 6:50 pm #

    Winter is coming, winter is coming!

    I've got a Rab Neutrino Endurance hooded down jacket, which logged a huge amount of vertical meters last season – supplies come & go, but it generally retails for around $250-275. I can't recommend it highly enough (especially the high visibility orange version). The Haglof LIM Hooded Down jacket is also very nice.

    Boot-wise, I've been very happy with my Aku Spider Kevlars, as you know. They're a good B3, lightweight and waterproof (especially if you were a VBL sock to stop them getting damp from the inside out) and can be used for both winter mountaineering and ice climbing. And they look pretty funky.

    I've been using a MontBell ULSS down bag for the past couple of seasons, and while it's super-light, I don't like the fabric – it sucks up water like blotting paper. They seem to have got their act together on this season's bags, but I've yet to test them out. I'm intrigued, though, by the Mammut Ajungilak Shield bag – fully waterproof, and would obviate the need to carry my bivy bag. Maybe Santa will squeeze that into his sack for me this year!

    You're right about it being expensive, though. I often joke that I should just hand my paypacket to my local sports shop each month and be done with it. But the payoff is pretty high too :-)

  5. Earlylite September 11, 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    Nice stuff! I must confess that I too am ready for winter. Autumn is always nice but not nearly as satisfying as the deep freeze.

  6. David D. from the Up December 11, 2009 at 6:29 am #

    I am sticking my toe into winter backpacking and I was a little dismayed to learn that our local REI does not rent winter gear. Luckily, the Upper Midwest is not a very technical place and I can do without some stuff, like plastic boots.

    - David

  7. Tom Murphy December 11, 2009 at 8:53 am #

    David D.,

    The lack of elevation probably means that crampons and ice axes are not required.

    Double plastic boots have the cold weather benefits of not soaking thru & a removable liner that can be dried out more easily (or replaced with a spare).

    From my reading, it appears that many hikers in the Boundary Waters like to wear mukluk boots and pull sleds.

    The sled takes the weight off your back allowing you to use the mukluks which have no ankle support. A sled is great on flat terrain whether you are XC skiing, snowshoeing, or barebooting.

    http://www.skipulk.com – this site has an excellent free PDF file on how to make a sled

    http://www.mukluks.com – seems to be the most popular manufacturer with winter hikers; the other sites appear to be more about urban fashion

    wintertrekking.com – lots of your neighbors

    Good luck.

    TJM

  8. David D. from the Up December 15, 2009 at 6:37 am #

    Hi Tom,

    The northern MN hikes can get pretty cold, I think the record temperature is -60F with -20 to -30F being common. My neighbor who has been to the North Pole by dog sled never saw temps that cold as – 60. (She also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro twice, Mt. Everest base camp, etc, all in her 60's. She embarrasses us.) Lots of hikers/backpackers in MN,WI & MI pull sleds/sledges while xskiing or snowshoeing. This winter I was going to start by having a camp within a couple miles of the trailhead and snowshoeing. I have been out this winer with a full pack but only boots as the snow was only 4 inches or so deep. Good points about the plastic boots. Still, I am just sticking my toe into winter backpacking. I have a pair of Zamberlan leather boots as my winter boots. Lots of folks use the snow boots from Merrell, etc., as well. I still put Mukluks into the urban fashion scene. If I start to go out on the real cold or potentially stormy days, I am going to want to upgrade my tent as well. My heaviest tent is a 3+ season/light winter tent. I have a Hilleberg catalog on my desk with a yellow sticky note on the Unna page.

    - David

  9. Earlylite December 15, 2009 at 6:59 am #

    I'd really recommend against leather for winter if you will be out overnight. I accidentally stepped in a stream on saturday and the water froze instantly on my plastic boots. You wouldn't be so lucky with leather. I've had sno-sealed leather boots freeze on me in similar conditions and it's even worse if you are camping at night, because they'll definitely freeze. Plastic is impervious to weather. Trust it. Or else wear pack boots with removable liners that you can dry out by sleeping with them in your sleeping bag.

  10. David D. from the Up December 15, 2009 at 7:26 am #

    Hi Phil,

    I read one of your other reviews about boots were you cautioned about leather in winter as well. Even if I like winter backpacking I will spend more time snowshoeing, x-skiing; and, day hiking than I will overnight camping. Are there good alternatives of plastic mountaineering boots? I have seen products like the boots below:

    http://www.rei.com/product/773563

    http://www.rei.com/product/800267

  11. Earlylite December 15, 2009 at 7:37 am #

    It really depends on a lot of factors. Winter rescue is much harder than 3 season rescue and if a member of your party has a serious accident you may end up standing around on snow for a long time. In this case, you want the thickest sole possible. I snowshoe and day hike in plastic all the time, no problem. However, if you are near civilization or aren't going into wilderness, you should be able to get by with a lighter boot. Just consider what will happen if they get wet. Removable liners should be given serious consideration if you plan on doing overnights.

  12. David D. from the Up December 15, 2009 at 7:41 am #

    Thanks. It sounds like plastic is on the shopping list if I embrace winter this season like I plan to.

    - David

  13. lostalot January 22, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    I've been getting into winter hiking also and trying to make do with my insulated gore-tex leather boots. But while they stay warm and dry, punching through crusted snow is rapidly fraying the outside stitching, so that's another plus for plastic and another minus for my bank account.

  14. Anthony June 30, 2010 at 4:58 am #

    Reminds me of my dad's winter backpacking stories. I recommend my father Paul J. Brach (an Adirondack Winter 46er)'s new book Mountain High (2010, Lulu), http://www.lulu.com/pauljbrach/

  15. grant November 17, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

    very informative article! It has reminded me about how much I spent on gear over the years. Last year I bit the bullet and bought most of the winter gear knowing it will last a few seasons. This post should help a lot of people safely get into winter hiking

  16. Keith Rayeski November 18, 2012 at 2:49 am #

    Can not do plastic! I, taking Phil’s advice, did a rental before I took the plunge on plastic. I do not “ice” climb either so I looked toward a boot that I could wear a crampon, at the least microspikes, and snow shoe. I went with a Merrill and I am working angles to justify weight. I love my Sorels…..and the Merrills are light enough, at least in my mind….to wear the sorels and attach my Merrills to the pack…or bury them deep is another option.
    So let me go from there to a QUESTION: I have slept multiple nights at mid-teens temps with NO shelter, save nature…..but was blessed with good weather. It is to me, most tolerable. So I am going to go tarp in the winter….and I have crossed over to hammock for the other three seasons. I don’t mind the ground in winter….but if I have a good snow base….I’ll stay on the ground. Saves a lot of weight…a piece of which I will use to justify the Merrills. I have crampons but they can go only on the Merrills. So there’s my two and a half cents….no plastic…just can’t find a pair that don’t make me wish I was at Gitmo instead of going over Lions Head! I’ll go to ground with a tarp and should be good……great discussion topic!!! I used to dread winter!!!!

    • Earlylite November 18, 2012 at 10:06 am #

      Keith – are you implying that you will carry both the Merrills and the sorels on the same overnight hikes in winter – because the Merrills don’t have a removable liner and will freeze at night unless you sleep with them (rather large) in your sleeping bag at night.

      Why not wear a vapor barrier sock system instead. I’ve had good luck with the ones from Stepenson’s Warmlite located right in New Hampshire. You wear them over your skin or over a very light pair of sock liners and cover with a heavier sock, if needed. They prevent moisture from your feet (8 oz per day) from passing through them and into your boot, so it stays dry for days of use. No need to sleep with damp boots or liners at night.

      That’s basically the downside of using unlined boots in winter – you can’t dry them out and they freeze at night.

      • Earlylite November 18, 2012 at 10:09 am #

        Also, I’ve started using this system with non-plastic mountaineering boots that don’t have liners, but are stiff enough for kicking steps and using crampons on steep, even waterfall ice. Plastic boots are not your only option if you are willing to stick to day hikes or use vapor barrier liners.

        Also, I did a 14 mile hike yesterday wearing insulated garmont boots. You don’t absolutely need mountaineering boots in the Whites, but there are more technical routes where you do require them, especially when the ice is thick.

      • Keith Rayeski November 20, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

        I am going to try the vapor barrier socks this winter. I had read a gear review you did on them and thought, for the price, they beat the day lights out of Wonder Bread bags!! I had given thought to both pair Phil. I get cold feet and I think above all else, it is the one worry I have above all others…..cold feet….or worse!! I wondered about just sticking with the Sorels and micro spikes (they are a fairly hefty spike) but then, the other shoulder whispers in my ear that I am setting myself up for equipment failure if I don’t stay aggressive. Of course the other shoulder does disagree and reminds me of those who have gone before me with less……but I still prefer safe and stable. Always interested in your advice. Thanks…

  17. Chris November 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    I am working on my winter gear and a winter sleeping bag is my current project. I am trying to be a little more budget conscious, but still want to go with a down bag for compressibility, weight, and longevity of the bag’s life. Thinking about going with a zero degree bag from EMS or REI (like an EMS Mountain Light 0 or REI Magma) and using a Thermolite or silk liner to beef up the warmth (or additional clothing) as I want to stay closer to your $400 price point mentioned above. Is this a realistic approach or do you think it is better to try to stretch the budget to a -20 bag (like your Puma or a cheaper -20 alternative) if I’m looking for something with versatility in the coldest of New England temps? Do you use a vapor barrier or barriers in your winter sleeping bag? Thanks for putting together such a useful guide!

    • Earlylite November 18, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

      If you don’t want to spend $800 dollars for a down bag, you can rent something from EMS/REI or IMCS or simply not go when the foercast is for weather below zero. The reality is that I seldom need all -25 degrees (more like -15), except for the times when want to do something extreme like sleep on the Mount Jefferson snowfield. I do use a bivy bag even when I sleep in a tent to keep my bag on my pad and add a few degrees, but it’s not that significant a difference to matter. I don’t personally think using a silk liner is worth much but ymmv. Nope I don’t use a vapor barrier in a sleeping bag – I’ve tried but not found it very comfortable to sleep naked in -20 degree weather. It really comes down to whether you really want to do the most extreme conditions or not. If you do, I wouldn’t skimp on your equipment. You can also try to buy used. I saw a -40 degree bag for sale in the basement at IME in North Conway – check to see if it’s still there.

  18. Mazzachusetts November 23, 2012 at 1:11 am #

    Winter is a whole different ball game. Even having lots of good snowboarding gear like layers and goggles, its tough to drop coin on things like crampons when I don’t own snowshoes and winter tents. I find I have enough stuff to do conservative trips and I am using the winter to bag some smaller peaks that I feel would be a waste of perfect weather in the summer for example. Mostly staying below treeline and trying out some huts, shelters and cabins. Get a little more stuff every year. On a budget, strategy is my best friend.

  19. Tom August 17, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    Hey its easy to get great winter gear cheap-Ebay! I’ve been able to put together an excellent cold-weather kit by buying in the spring/summer used stuff. Most of what I get is TNF vintage (Summit Dryloft parka-$180;Ibex down bag-$150;Goretex pants-$37;Endurance pack 103 ltrs-$75)all in excellent condition.I bought my Mountain Jacket back in’88 and still using it.Don’t know about the new stuff but that old gear is durable. My Lenticular 4-season was bought new in’98 and has never let me down.Yeah the stuff ain’t as light as the new stuff but will it last 20 years? Just be careful what you’re looking at and don’t buy abused gear and you won’t be disappointed.Helps to have an old catalog,as well!

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