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

Winter backpacking on a budget

Winter backpacking and mountaineering are great sports. But the cost of winter gear is very expensive, upward of $2000 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 campsite 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: $150-250.
  • For traction on slippery ground, you want to buy a pair of Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultras. You’ll probably use these more than any other form of winter traction. Price range: $75.
  • Depending on where you hike, you may also need real crampons. If this is your first pair, I would suggest buying “universal” strap-on crampons because they are compatible with any kind of boot, including mountaineering boots. Hillsound Trail Crampon Pros are an excellent choice, compatible with hard sole and soft sole boots. 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: $175-3000.
  • 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 Montbell Mirage Parka and the Mountain Hardwear Phantom Down Parka are good options. Price range: $400-500
Red hot glow of a MSR Whisperlite Stove melting snow on full power
The red hot glow of an 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 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: $450-$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. However, tarptents are usually too cold and breezy. 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. When you want to buy a tent, I recommend getting a Black Diamond Firstlight 2 because it’s bomber, lightweight, freestanding, and easy to set up. Price range: $350-600.
  • 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. Lightweight 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 Montbell Tec Down Pants or Feathered Friends Volant 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: $200-350.
  •  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 lightweight 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 wearing plastic bags or vapor barrier socks inside your boots to prevent them from becoming damps with perspiration. See Vapor Barrier Socks Using Reynolds Oven Bags.
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 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 10 Best Winter Backpacks 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.

Updated Dec, 2019.

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14 comments

  1. Awesome beginner article on winter backpacking! Exactly what I was looking for!

    Do you think something like the Montbell Light Down Pants or WM Flash Pants can pull double duty as 3-season low temp sleep pants as well as a true winter insulated pant? Something like Rab Argon pant is on sale currently, but it’s pretty heavy for 3-season use. Was hoping I could find something to pull double duty.

    Also, do you think I can use a KG Flex 30 for winter use down into the teens? I was hoping that if I wear a true parka and down pants, I could push its limits…is 20 degrees lower too much to risk?

    Thanks for your help! I appreciate having a trusted source that’s so knowledgeable about backpacking in winter. Not many sites have this level of information and detail and it’s very helpful!

    • I should note I’d be sleeping on a Xtherm with the Flex 30.

      • A sleeping pad won’t make you warmer. It just prevents heat loss through the ground. It’s a subtle distinction. But if you’re cold on top you’ll still be cold below.

    • You can sleep in those pants but I still think you’ll be warmer and more cold mfortable if you wear a base layer underneath. 12+ hours is a long time. The nights are long.

      You can try to push the limits of your flex but you won’t get another 20 degrees out if it without a proper liner or inner bag.

  2. IPS FOR COMFORTABLE WINTER SLEEPING:
    1. Zip up and cinch the hood of your parka shell or insulated parka, put it over the foot of your sleeping bag->
    Keeps yer bag’s foot from melting fros of the tent wall and into the bag and it give extra foot warmth.

    2. Wear a fleece balaclava->You can’t keep your head inside yer bag’s hood all the time when asleep. Also try wearing thin liner gloves. Seems to help me.

    3. Sleeping “naked” does NOT make you warmer. Add clothing as needed to sleep warmly. Always wear “sleep socks” to keep foot stink out of yer bag.

    4. buy a size longer winter bag than you use in summer so you can store things like (WELL) sealed water containers, barely operated gear, boot liners, etc.

  3. Winter days are so short in the Northern Tier that it’s been a long time since I’ve considered winter backpacking. This article makes me want to plan an adventure this winter!

  4. Phillip – thanks for using the photo of the kitchen we built at Mizpah years ago with Kellie in red. I must have been out in the woods when the photo was shot, but my Svea 123 stove and Sigg Tourister cook kit are I the photo. It didn’t work well and I still need to rebuild it.

  5. When using plastic grocery bags as snow anchors are you not concerned that the guyline will tear through the bag handles when the wind blows?

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