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Defining a Winter Packing System

Lots of Winter Gear

We finally have significant snowfall in the White Mountains and I've got a two night camping and hiking trip scheduled this weekend. All I have to do now is to figure out how to get all of this gear (there's still more in the car) into and onto my winter backpack.

It did all fit last year, but there have been gear list changes since then, so I find myself having to reinvent my packing system over. There is a serious amount of detail involved in this process which I track with a spreadsheet. Everything has to be weighed on a digital scale and rationalized with safety in mind.

This includes figuring out what gear gets left at base camp and what gear gets taken on day trips. Winter conditions in the White are sufficiently dangerous that it makes sense to bring a stove, some sort of shelter, and a shovel, even on day hikes, just in case you need to spend the night out unexpectedly. These items can be split across a group of three or four people but you need to manage not only your gear, but the group gear resources in these conditions. This requires good communication between team members.

Defining a workable packing system is not an easy process and it has to be practiced to the point where know where everything is and can get at it quickly in poor visibility or darkness. The same holds for packing it up before sunrise. The key is to pack items that will be used together in separate stuff sacks and position items in your pack in the order they'll be used.

This is not all that different from the approach I use for 3 season backpacking, but there is a lot more gear required for winter backpacking, which pushes things to extremes. Skin out, including food, fuel, water, and what I'm wearing, I'd estimate that I carry 60% to 80% more gear by weight than I bring on a 3 season trip, in a winter backpack that is only 20% larger by volume than my 3 season Mariposa Plus.

So where does all this extra winter gear go?

  1. I wear a lot of it, including a 5 lb (pair) plastic mountaineering boots and two or three layers of clothing.
  2. My jacket pockets are crammed with a neoprene face mask, balaclava, glacier glasses, map, compass, snacks, and camera.
  3. A lot of gear hangs off of the daisy chains on the outside of my pack, in the crampon pocket, on ice tool holders, or lashed under compression straps, including snow shoes, tent, sit pad, step-in crampons, ice axe, and avalanche shovel handle.
  4. Insulated water bottles hang off my hip belt.
  5. Double layer mittens, more eye protection, skin protection, sanitary supplies, and extra snacks live in my pack lid.

Yep – a lot of the high frequency gear and tools don't even go into the pack at all. This is actually quite similar to how I pack my 3 season pack, where I put my high frequency gear into external mesh pockets, although it's much more extreme in winter since I need to carry so much technical gear.

Packed Winter Pack

The gear inside my pack is arranged in order of use with my  -25F winter down bag, a Western Mountaineering Puma, at the bottom. Stuffed in around it is a NeoAir inflatable sleeping pad, a 7 oz. Montbell gore-tex bivy sack, a Western Mountaineering down pillow, and my first aid and gear repair/fire kits. My second sleeping pad is stored in an internal pack pocket in my Cold Cold World winter pack and doubles as an internal frame.

The next layer up is my camp clothing and stuff that I wear above treeline: down coat with hood, full-zip shell pants, full-zip Montbell Thermawrap pants, and primaloft booties, stored in two stuff sacks.

The layer above that contains a third liter of water, a 22 oz bottle of white gas (stored upright), and a stuff sack that contains my liquid fuel winter stove, pot, and insulated mug. The fuel and water bottle are positioned toward the front and center of the pack to keep the weight on my hips, while the kitchen gear, which is mostly air, sits behind it.

I then slide the blade of my avalanche shovel behind my kitchen gear down along the inside of the pack. This provides some extra rigidity to the back of the pack and is a convenient place to stow it, out of the way. It also prevents the crampons in my outer crampon pocket from spearing any gear on the inside of the pack if I fall on my back or butt.

The topmost internal layer of my pack contains my food bag for easy access and the pack lid is strapped on top of it.

Full Winter Pack - 45 Pounds including Food, Water, Fuel

Here is a final shot of the packed backpack, which including 3 days of food, fuel, and water, weighs 45 lbs. This is a full 3 day  winter backpacking load. For winter day hikes, I carry about 9-10 lbs less weight.

I will publish my full winter backpacking and day hiking gear lists next week when I get back from my trip.


  1. Enjoyed the article, very informative. Looking forward to the full winter backpacking and day hiking gear lists.

  2. Great little write up on packing for winter!

  3. Excellent article. I enjoy this blog and check it daily.

    Ummm… Since I live in Texas, my winter gear list includes shorts and sandals.

  4. This year's gear list will be much more compact and weigh less. I'm replaced the avalanche shovel with a snow claw and the scarp 1 tarptent with a MLD duomid tarp.

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