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10 Winter Hiking and Backpacking Hacks

10 Winter Hiking and Backpacking Hacks

There is really no substitute for experience when it comes to winter hiking, backpacking, and camping. You can read about it in books and watch videos, but the best way to learn is to go out with an experienced friend who can teach you the ropes. Here are a few things I’ve picked up over the years that you can try your next time out. These are shortcuts and hacks I’ve picked up from others or invented myself that can make winter hiking and backpacking less expensive, safer, and more fun. Experiment, by all means, but bring a safety net. It’s the only way to become an expert.

1. Pre-hydrate before winter hikes by drinking a liter of water or juice before you start out.

Drink a liter of water on the way to the trailhead before a winter hike. This is above and beyond whatever coffee and liquids you consume at breakfast. You’ll pee more, but you’ll stay better hydrated and warmer. You lose a lot more moisture than you realize in winter, by sweating and exhaling the moisture in your lungs. It’s also hard to force yourself to drink enough on a winter hike, so drinking extra up front will keep you better hydrated during the day.

Staying hydrated in winter takes extra effort
Staying hydrated in winter takes extra effort

2. Warm up with a neck gaiter.

Neck gaiters are one of the most underrated winter hiking insulation layers. If you’re feeling chilled, put one on around your neck. Major veins and arteries pass through this area and covering them up will make you quickly feel warmer. You can use a thin neck gaiter or a Reversible Polar Buff for even more effect. Neck gaiters are also an excellent way to increase your comfort inside a sleeping bag or a backpacking quilt because they prevent drafts from leaking in around your neck and upper chest.

Reversible Polar Buff folded several different ways
Reversible Polar Buff folded several different ways

3. Wear exam gloves inside fleece gloves.

Winter hikers can use up several pairs of fleece gloves on cold weather hikes because they get saturated with body sweat. You can prevent this by wearing nitrile or latex exam gloves inside a fleece glove or mitten. Your hands will still sweat, but the sweat will stay in the exam gloves and keep your gloves drier.

Wear exam gloves under fleece gloves and mitts to prevent sweat from soaking them
Wear exam gloves under fleece gloves and mitts to prevent sweat from soaking them.

4. Insulate your water bottles with wool socks.

There’s no need to buy expensive neoprene bottle parkas to insulate the bottles of hot water you store inside your backpack. Wrap them up on a heavy wool sock and they’ll stay warm for most of the day, nestled together with your extra insulation and gear.

You can save money buy insulating water bottles with a wool sock instead of an expensive neoprene bottle parka.
You can save money buy insulating water bottles with a wool sock instead of an expensive neoprene bottle parka.

5. Dig a front porch for your tent.

With your avalanche shovel, dig a hole outside the front door to your tent, about the depth of your legs, below the knee. This lets you sit with your back inside the tent, but dangle your legs in the pit, making it easier to take off and put on your boots. Not only is this more comfortable, but it helps to prevent the snow and ice that clings to your boots from entering your tent, where it’ll cause internal condensation. A front porch also provides a good wind break for cooking and melting snow.

Dig a trench in front of your tent
Dig a trench in front of your tent

6. Wrap duct tape around liquid fuel bottles to help prevent frostbite.

The fuel inside liquid stove fuel bottles is gasoline which freezes at a lower temperature than water. If you touch the metal of one of these bottles on a subzero night with bare hands, there’s a good chance that you’ll get frostbite since the cold will be conducted through the bottle’s metal walls. Wrapping the bottles in duct tape helps insulate them but is also a tactile reminder that you should always wear an insulated glove when you touch a fuel bottle.

Wrap duct tape around liquid fuel bottles to help prevent frostbite in freezing temperatures.
Wrap duct tape around liquid fuel bottles to help prevent frostbite in freezing temperatures.

7. Bury your insulated water bottles at night.

Snow is an excellent insulator. One way to keep your insulated water bottles from freezing at night, instead of sleeping with them in your sleeping bag, is to bury them in a small cave that you dig into the snow. Turning them upside down is also recommended. Make sure to “close the door” to the cave to keep them well insulated and mark the spot so you can find it easily the next morning.

Snow is an excellent insulator. Bury you hot water bottles in snow to help keep them from freezing at night.
Snow is an excellent insulator. Bury your hot water bottles in snow to help keep them from freezing at night.

8. Use supermarket bags as deadmen for pitching tents.

When you pitch a tent on snow, you should stake it out. But snow doesn’t provide a very good grip, so you need bury a snow stake (usually sideways) and stomp it into the snow to create a solid anchor point. Called “deadmen“, these snow stakes can take 30 minutes or more to harden in place. A faster and lighter weight alternative is to bring 9 gram plastic supermarket carryall bags with you, fill them up part-way with snow, tie them to your tent’s guyout points, and then bury them. They set up almost immediately, so you can get in your tent and out of your wet clothes faster. Be sure to chop the bags out the next morning with your avalanche shovel and pack them out to leave no trace.

Plastic supermarket bags make great snow anchors to stake out your tent
Plastic supermarket bags make great snow anchors to stake out your tent.

9. Bring two pairs of ski goggles for above-treeline hikes.

You often need to protect your eyes from freezing mist, sun, and wind when you hike above treeline in winter. But they often fog up, especially if you’re hiking hard and perspiring, making it difficult to see. One solution is to bring two pairs of goggles instead of one, so you have a spare if yours or your partner’s become impossible to see through. I’ve used this trick to summit some challenging winter peaks that I would have had to bail on due to goggle fogging.

Be sure to bring full face protection including a facemask and goggles
Be sure to bring full face protection including a face mask and goggles

10. Wear high dexterity glove liners inside shell mitts.

Most shell mitts and heavily insulated winter mittens come with mitten-shaped liners. Replace these with gloves that have fingers, so you can take your hands out of the mittens to perform tasks that require more dexterity.

Wear gloves liners with fingers inside mitten shells.
Wear glove liners with fingers inside mitten shells.

That’s just a taste of the little tricks you can use to make winter hiking safer, more comfortable, and more efficient. Stay tuned. We’ll be posting 10 More Winter Hiking and Backpacking Hacks soon.

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25 comments

  1. Great post. I’ll bet it gets lots of comments. My two: 1. The most important winter “hack” is one you’ve stressed before: pay attention to weather and terrain and cancel trips if the weather outlook is too extreme. Do extra planning to map out bail out routes if forced back by weather. Even minor injuries can be real threats in extreme weather. 2. Wear clothes (including base layers) with zips or buttons to allow venting off excess body heat and sweat. Managing excess heat to avoid getting chilled by sweat is just as important as insulation.

  2. Another important tip is that when you stop hiking for any extended period of time, that you put on your puffy, or other warming layer, in order to trap the heat that you just built up hiking. You always have to keep in mind that it is much easier to stay warm then it is to re-warm.

  3. I always bring an aluminum seat cushion on my winter tours in the Alps. It weighs nearly nothing but serves perfectly for short breaks in the cold. It isolates your butt from freezing in the snow and the humidity on the ground. Plus it stowes awain in a second.

  4. If you can get exam gloves powdered on the inside, I would, then turn them inside out so they stick to your hands and slide in/out of the shell/glove much more easily.

  5. I really appreciate your article. Thanks, for sharing your words of wisdom. Your articles are rich food for thought every time I come across them and are also a true inspiration for those of us who want to get better every day. Thanks for spreading your experience.

  6. Really enjoyed this article. I live in the south where we rarely encounter snow but do get some cold mornings. This type of wisdom isn’t widely available.

  7. Nice collection of tips!

    I elaborate the neck gaiter thing a bit. I usually carry at least a couple of different weights/thicknesses. Sometimes i just need something thin when moving; like a thin half Buff. Can layer it with something a little thicker/warmer, like a Smartwool, during quick stops. For longer stops or when the wind kicks up, a full fleece version helps. Same with headwear. I mix and match head-/ear-bands, a windproof OR Peruvian fleece hat (with ear flaps), and a down beanie.

    I still almost never see them mentioned, but Zippo catalytic warmers that run on lighter fuel are the bomb. Small ones weigh two ounces, run about six hours on just over .5 oz. of fuel, and large ones are about three ounces, and burn for 12 hours on a shy ounce (22 ml.) of fuel.

    These are stiff metal things, half the size of a cell-phone case or so, and need oxygen for the catalytic “burn” to happen, so you can’t use them like the chemical warmers to stick in your boots or gloves. But put your damp boots in a plastic bag or stuff sack with the top open, drop a warmer in each boot when you go to bed, and, presto, dry boots in the morning. You can also just stick these in your jacket pockets (along with your hands) while you’re sitting around camp to warm up your hands.

    • Got to try some of those! Sounds like a great way to dry boots.

      • When i first got them, i tested them out at home on a 5ºF night. Wetted the inside of my boots (LL Bean Wildcats) down pretty well with water in a hand sprayer. Took the insoles off the bottom and stand them up vertically in the boots. Put the boots in a plastic bag (to contain the heat a bit) that came up just above the top of the boots. Left the top open so water vapor can escape. I think i used the large size Zippo, one in each boot. Totally dry in the morning (~ 9 hours later).

        I can imagine if the boots were thoroughly soaked, this method might not be completely successful. But still better than any other available alternative short of tending a fire all night.

  8. Hey cool blogpost! These are actually very useful tips instead of the usual captain obvious lists you see everywhere :)

  9. Great tips! Thanks for this post.

  10. Do you have pros and cons of different types of winter camp shoes? Have you ever seen anyone glue soles to down booties?

    • I don’t bother with them myself although I’ve tried them. I just keep my boots on and put my feet on a foam pad if they’re cold.
      No. But I’m sure they have.
      Look at the booties from 40below.com

  11. Great tips.

    The only one that I’m wary of is #5 the front porch. Given I’m a 58 year old man I never make it through the night without a pee break. And I’m not a pee bottle user. I could seem myself doing a header at 3 AM in that hole!

    Over the years I’ve learned to put most of my clothes in my pack on winter ascents even when I’m cold starting out. Once I reach the summit or a campsite and my heart rate slows down, I quickly throw on additional layers and have less issues with sweat.

  12. Cycling arm warmers – my torso has no problem staying warm when carrying a pack, and I typically wear a short sleeved base layer to strip down to when the going gets steep. When there’s no wind, that works superbly. With wind, my arms freeze which eventually makes my hands clumsy. Not all arm warmers actually block the wind so I’ve learned when checking out garments, stretch the fabric over my mouth and blow hard. If I can’t blow air through the fabric, it’s truly wind proof.

  13. Great tips! My son amd I slept in a tent on the snow for the first time. Digging out the front porch ended up being super convenient, and the snow anchors worked like a charm. Thx!

  14. Use soft surgical tape to cover your nose,cheeks to prevent wind burn.

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