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. No longer available now that Golite’s gone out of business.
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.
Just an excellent review of real world performance in some of the most dangerous places to walk in winter. I no longer take winter overnights in the Whites and prefer river or lake travel in New England, with my heated wall tent. You guys are tough!
Good info here. Thanks!
I’m curious about the trash compactor bag in the pack vs stuff sacks.
I use stuff sacks in an attempt to organize things.
What’s the difference between dumping everything in a compactor bag and dumping everything right in the pack?
Think about it this way. If you fill a jar with a bunch of rocks, there will be unused space between the rocks. But if you fill it with water the entire volume is used. While I do use a compression sack around my down bag, everything else is basically loose. If you look at my gear list, most of the rest of my gear is puffy insulation which acts like water filling in the gaps between other items in my pack. This really works and helps me use a smaller lighter weight backpack.
I need the organization of the stuff sacks, but like you don’t filling my pack with a bunch of “rocks”. I started using Sea to Summit Ultra-Mesh Stuff Sacks – the best of both worlds.
Very useful Review, thanks! Those gaiters look like a big step up from what I’ve been wearing for the past 11 years.
The sweat actually soaks the back stretchy part when I hike and then evaporates – much better than a solid goretex gaiter!
Just wanted to say, as a long-time reader of your blog, thanks for these amazing posts! So useful for a beginner like me. Keep up the fantastic work.
Have you ever tried the All-Season in winter without a CCF pad underneath? Curious as I’ve been taking 2x MEC Kelvin thermarests (R2.9 or 3) and figured if and when I did upgrade to either the All-Season or Xtherm, I could simply take it. For what it’s worth, in the MEC Thor -30C bag in the Dacks, I’ve been A-OK on 2x thermies at -25 to -30C, but cold at -25C with only 1 thermy.
For your mid-layer, what about a fleece instead of the MontBell? More breathable, should dry faster. If not warm enough, add a second base layer. Great part of all of this? There’s no one right way!
Thanks – hope you have some good spring adventures lined up!
Yes – when used alone, the All Season melts into the snow under the tent (evidence of heat loss) and I wake up at 3:30 am freezing on my back.
Mid-layer: I’ve done both actually. A fleece is too heavy to carry and very bulky to pack when not in use. I’ve used a second base layer but that just traps more moisure closer to my body. Somethig that works better, but is still not warm enough, is a Helly Hansen WARM base layer which is LIFA on the inside and Wool on the outside.
Something which I am experimenting with now is a DriDown 800 loft sweater with softshell panels. Looks promising to be honest!
It taken me years to get this far with my layers and I know I’m very close to the perfect system, but as you say, there’s no one right way and you still need to factor in metabolism and terrain selection!
A couple of more big winter hikes planned for spring, then I’m switching to more temperate backpacking in Scotland and the lake district in May.
Re: All-Season… wow – who knew! I would not have guessed that would happen. Thanks.
Regarding the Reactor – I just re-read your November review of the 2.5L pot with your Whisperlite. Any trials on a Dragonfly?
I would check the diameter of the Dragonfly flame and make sure it fits into the center of the 2.5 Liter pot. But be forewarned – don’t use the two together in a tent because MSR says that a liquid fuel staove will generate substantially more carbon monoxide than the Reactor stove when using the reactor pot. You wouldn’t believe that shit they gave me for even suggesting that you can mix and match the components. Primus also has a new 2.5ish L ETA heat exchange pot you might want to check out.
why do you want a dragonfly? for simmering?
that’s been one of my concerns with my simmerlite. how much fuel am i wasting running full throttle while melting snow (i always start with some water in the pot).
i have a love/hate with canister stoves. super convenient, stove portion is pretty light. but they don’t work down below ~30*F (inverted canister setup helps, i hear. you can also put a copper wire up through the flame and coil it around the canister, but that feels risky). i can use an alcohol stove that weighs 1 oz to almost 30*F, and if not i just bring my liquid fuel stove. i also hate the non-refillable, and in some cases non-recyclable canisters.
As always, a very insightful article. Thanks.
I have been playing with the Reactor stove as well. I found a statement that their pots work well on WisperLights so I got one. I figured worse comes to worse, I can use the pot on my White Gas stove. It works great on it and burns about 40% less fuel in my back yard test.
On my last 6 day trip I used only the Reactor stove an dpot and here is what I figured out to get them to work well.
* Put in the jacket initially when I get into camp to warm it up.
* After warm or when I done with my camp chores set up stove and boil around 1L of water or less.
* If the stove starts to die off turn it off. Take the canister end and dip in the water for 20-30 seconds. Even 45 degree water will heat the canister up greatly.
* Put the boiled water in a bottle and seal it.
* Take the hot water bottle and the canister and place them in my sleeping bag together.
* Kill some time preping dinner, setting up camp, going to the bathroom, adding layers, etc.
* Take the now warmish canister out and use it to bring another pot to a boil.
* Use the hot water in the bottle to keep the snow from burning and I put some in a mug and make soup.
* Once I have boiled water again put in my dinner pouch. Put the remainders in my soup mug to wash it out and to drink.
* Reheat canister in sleeping bag. While drink soup water and waiting for dinner.
* Repeat boil water -> reheat canister cycle until I have full bottles. Eat dinner while waiting for this.
* Put any water scraps into my mug and use it for hot coco.
One thing I learned was pocket warmers don’t work on canister. They need to be fairly warm to work and once the canister gets good and cold they just stop producing heat.
Another thing was I found the stove flared up when lighting sometimes. I suspect there was a bubble of liquid fuel that got through the valve. It only happened when lighting.
Finally I not sure if I see a pad below your canister but insulating it from the ground helps. My insulator goes up to the top of the canister since it will usually be much warmer than ambient temperature so I want to stop heat loss.
I understand that your sleeping bag could have been a bit lighter, but there are few things more comforting than a sleeping bag that is more than sufficient to the weather. One of my treasured memories is two nights in a rented Feathered Friends Ptarmigan (-10) bag. When I have no doubt that I will be warm, it is so easy to fall asleep. When I have a doubt, not so easy.
It’s possible but too much fuss and still no guarantee that it will work as relibly as liquid fuel. Although I have now started thinking about bringing an all propane Coleman canister. Now that might work – I think propane runs down to -40.
Thanks for another interesting and useful post. I noticed that you took Black Diamond trekking poles rather than Pacer Poles. Are Pacer Poles less suited to winter hiking?
Pacerpoles work fine in snow, but the handles are harder to bury if you try to push them into the snow handle first and use them as tent stakes.
Nice round-up. But I am confused about the stove. Mountaineers have been using canister stoves for years in much lower temps. Did you put the canister in your sleeping bag? And does Coleman really make a full propane canister that isn’t made of high-gage steel and super heavy? If so, that would be cool. Never seen one.
Pam, not sure if you are replying to me and “Earlylite”.
As for me I would bring the canister in my sleeping bag about 10 minutes before I got up in the morning. At night I would store it with a bottle of hot water in my sleeping bag between boiling pots of water. If I was coking far from my tent (an sleeping bag) I dipped the canister in the water I was heating to warm it back up. I never let it become warm to the touch so I felt fairly safe doing it but officially it is a “bad idea” as the canister can explode if overheated. You have been warned.
I’m suprized that you took a canister stove winter camping. They really are marginal in colder temps. Iso-butane freezes at 12º F. If you put a windscreen around a canister stove, you can keep it warm enough to operate, but I’d rather take a stove that is known to work in the cold.
It may be that the “works without a windscreen” aspect of the MSR Reactor is exactly what made it not work in the cold.
Inverted, liquid-feed canister stoves do not need as much vapor pressure to work, so they are good as long as the iso-butane is liquid.
It is too bad that Coleman discontinued the Powermax liquid-feed cartridge stoves. Those things were great in the snow.
I knew it was borderline but I’m now impressed at just how borderline it was. I did all the sleeping bag/warm it in your coat stuff and raised the canister off the snow. Next time, I’ll just bring a heat exchanger pot and my whisperlite which was my original intent at the beginning of the winter before I got distracted by the Reactor.
I learn something every trip. Thanks for posting, so we can learn from your trips.
I also learn on every trip. I’ve tried a number of things that were borderline and some worked out OK, others made for inconvenience, sometimes major nuisance, however, it’s only for a few days. There’s been a couple times I planned to test something and was going to bring the tried and true piece of gear along just in case the test failed but I decided against the backup–I needed to make it a true test. I don’t subscribe to that thinking if it could be a safety issue.
I’m planning another camping trip with the grandkids this weekend to try out a replacement for bulky car camping cooking gear. If it doesn’t work well, I’ll be the only one troubled because I’ll just have to work harder at getting my cooking done. The grandkids will play and explore the woods and rocks while I labor.
You didn’t say if you were actually in avalanche terrain, but it is considered best practice to store avalanche gear (shovel) inside your pack.
Putting the foam pad on top of the inflatable is pretty universally regarded as warmer.
I think a pre-warmed canister cools off really quickly. I have tried both putting the canister in a shallow pan with some water, and putting the pre-warmed canister in a cozy and off the snow. Both help, but I think the pan of water works better. I’ve used canister stoves into the upper teens with these methods.
Gabe – a couple of things.
It doesn’t matter where you put your shovel – what does matter is where you put your beacon (inside your coat).
an inflatable mattress can only get warm if you lie directly on it – at least that’s the case with all Neoair mattresses. In fact, you really need to lie on them with your entire back in winter because lying on your side won’t heat them up enough.
Very nice post.
Isobutane *will* vaporize down to 11F, but you need to be about 10F above the boiling point in order to decent pressure. The actual practical limit is more like 20F. It sounds like you were right at the practical edge to *start*, and of course the canister will only get colder as you use it. The canister will cool from within, so insulating the canister is of limited utility at best. You do however generally want to insulate the canister from the ground or snow.
Putting the canister into a pan or bowl of warmish water (*NOT* hot) while you run the stove will help tremendously. As long as the water is liquid, it will be over 32F, which places you at least 20F above the vaporization point of your fuel — which should be plenty. If the water starts icing up, just add a few spoonfuls hot water from the pot. Pouring water directly from the pot isn’t such a good idea. If you miss and spill on the canister, the stove might flare.
Of course in *really* cold weather, keeping water liquid can be a trick. I myself probably wouldn’t take an upright canister stove into weather down into the single digits.
Just some thoughts,
Very helpful jim. I was hoping you’d pop in and provide some guidance. I never knew that the canister cooled from within or about the *effective* vaporization temp. I guess I am surprised that MSR doesn’t provided more guidance about all this. Glad we have you.
Glad it’s helpful.
Yeah, there’s not much out there as to the *pratical* workings of gas in cold. Just knowing the boiling point (vaporization point) of the fuel alone isn’t enough.
It’s like a pot of boiling water with a lid. You know how the lid will “chatter” gently when the pot is barely at a boil? Your stove is like that when the fuel temperature is right at the boiling point (31F for butane, 11F for isobutane). But turn your boiling pot up. Now the lid is practically rattling right off the pot. Likewise with a stove, the farther above the boiling point, the more power you’ll have. As a practical matter, you need to be about 10 Fahrenheit degrees above the boiling point for a stove to have decent power.
But now comes the tricky part: A canister gets colder *from within* as you use it. Feel a canister with your hand after it’s been running a few minutes. It will be colder than its surroundings. I’ve had frost form on canisters on days where it was 55F out and sunny. So, it’s not just the temperature of the surroundings that matter; it’s how cold the canister gets that matters. That’s why putting the canister in a pan of warmish (**NOT** hot) water helps. Water is very dense and the canister can draw heat out of the water. With isobutane fuel which boils (vaporizes) at 11F, liquid water no matter how cold will give you decent operating power. Water must be above 32F (if it’s liquid). 32F is about 20F above the boiling point (vaporization point) of the isobutane. A 20F differential gives you decent power.
I’ve got a lot of this explained in Appendix III of my Reactor post which I wrote after you and I “talked” the other day on my blog: https://adventuresinstoving.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-new-lighter-10l-msr-reactor.html
I’ve also got a practical summary of which gas to buy, what to do before you start cooking, and what to do while you cook.
This might solve the problem with canisters for you.
They also make a stove called a ‘Fyrestorm’ that uses the same idea. A friend of mine has one and it works well.
Hmmm, link seemed to disappear. This time maybe. :)
You left off my favorite item – ear plugs :)
The wind can get bloody loud in the White Mountains.
May I ask which snow shovel you are using? Icy conditions killed my inexpensive shovel last year.
I have a light, but very puffy(and warm) down jacket that I use on winter hikes, but it is so puffy that my hard shell that I typically use over a fleece pullover mid layer does not fit. Do you bring a larger shell to go over your puffy jacket? Or a poncho? I have resorted to bringing along a light poncho to go my puffy jacket, but only wear if it is snowing and blowing.
I always wear the puffy on the outside. It’s so big that my shell won’t go over it. If wet snow is falling and I’m very cold, I’ll put on non-puffy mid layer and start hiking to warm up. If the snow falling is dry, I just keep the puffy on the outside since the snow won’t stick.
The term puffy is usually used to describe an outer layer. I will occasionally wear a light down or insulated sweater under a shell but it probably doesn’t insulate as well as it could because the shell collapses the loft, less so with synthetic insulation. I never wear a poncho so I can’t say.
Thank you very much. I’ve been on some hikes where a leader has said to put a hard shell over the big puffy, which for me, even with pit zips, might wind up being way too hot, while other leaders say not to do it. That’s why I wind up bringing the poncho, which is probably overkill.
And thanks very much for this post…it is really nice to read what gear works and what doesn’t.