Originally published October 2012. Fully updated August 2018 with all new gear lists. I’ve also added affiliate links, which means that if you purchase something after clicking one of my gear links, I will get a small cut of the payment and it won’t cost you anything more.
Backpacking into the mountains is a great joy of mine. It feels adventurous and liberating to venture into the wilderness with everything you need to survive (and even stay comfortable) on your back. By backpacking you have the means to “live” – albeit briefly – in paradisiacal locations that boggle the mind and soothe the soul. But, first you need to have the gear to do it.
As Terence McKenna observed, humans are probably better categorized as crustaceans, since we basically live our lives moving from one shell to another, whether it’s a house, car, office, or a tent. Which is to say, we can’t just wander off naked into the woods and expect to be one with nature! Fortunately for the modern adventurous crustacean we have an almost endless array of high tech, lightweight clothes, sleeping bags, shelters, and tools to keep us alive and happy while walking in the wilderness.
Recently I’ve received a bunch of emails asking me about my backpacking gear. I realize that it can be a bit daunting for someone who is interested – but not experienced – in backpacking to figure out what equipment they need to bring into the mountains for an overnight or multi-day camping trip. You need to travel light, but you also need all the stuff to keep you warm and dry. In this post, I’m going to list and explain all the gear that I use on backpacking treks. I will also include some helpful tips along the way.
I’ve been backpacking for many years now, and I’ve learned several valuable lessons about gear. Firstly, you will never stop buying gear! It is a constant cycle – just when you think you have everything perfected, something wears out and you have to buy another. Secondly, it definitely pays to buy the BEST stuff that you can, especially with the big-ticket items like the backpack, sleeping bag, and tent. Believe me, if you skimp on cheapo gear, you will eventually buy more replacements and upgrades, and will end up spending far more money in the long run. If you buy the good stuff from the start, it will last longer and you’ll get better performance and have a better time.
Please keep in mind that all the gear I’m listing below is for backpacking in the mountains of Colorado. In the summer here we have warm days, frequent thunderstorms with rain, and chilly nights. In the winter it’s often sunny but also it can be windy and bitterly cold. The consistent variety of Colorado’s weather means that the gear I use here will be similarly suitable for many of the world’s mountains.
Also remember that there are many different strategies for backpacking, and many great products on the market beyond the ones I list here. My strategy for backpacking involves striking a balance between lightweight travel and basic comforts.
MY SUMMER BACKPACKING SETUP
From top to bottom and left to right, generally, we have:
• TREKKING POLES: Trekking poles save your knees, give you extra hiking power from your arms, and aid in balance. Collapsible poles are preferred for their ability to fit into travel luggage, or to strap to your pack when not in use. Pictured above are the Black Diamond Distance Trekking Carbon Z-Poles: I’ve used these ultralight collapsible trekking poles (or the aluminum version) for many years. However, after having broken 5 different sets of Z-poles, I’ve finally learned my lesson that this design just isn’t durable enough. Therefore I recommend poles with a stronger telescoping design with quicklocks/fliplocks, and also I think it’s not a good idea to spend an exorbitant amount on poles since they do tend to break eventually. The Cascade Mountain Tech 3K Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles are lightweight, telescoping collapsible poles at a much lower price than most other similar trekking poles.
• TENT: At upper left the orange thing is my one-man tent, a Big Sky International Wisp 1P Tent, which weighs only 23 oz (1.44 lb) with footprint. This is a trekking-pole-supported tent which requires good staking to pitch, meaning that it’s not a good choice for camping on hard ground like slickrock, or for super windy weather. But for normal alpine camping around or below treeline it’s a nice lightweight choice if you want an enclosed tent. Nowadays I mostly backpack with my wife Claudia, and we bring a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3 tent, which is free standing and very spacious for its weight. You can potentially go even lighter with a floorless tarp style tent or pyramid style tent that uses trekking pole(s) for support. But, we think the comfort of having a sealed-up mosquito-proof tent is worth the little extra weight. Plus, with these tents you can take the rainfly off in hot weather, or to enjoy the stars on a clear night. Or, with the matching footprint you can leave the inner tent behind and just use the poles and rainfly for an ultralight setup. For trips when we expect very windy or snowy weather, we bring a Big Sky International Chinook 2P Tent with the optional storm flaps.
• SLEEPING BAG: In the black stuff sack is my Western Mountaineering Apache MF 15º down sleeping bag. Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends are two companies that make the lightest, warmest sleeping bags available, using top quality down fill. The 15º temperature rating is perfect to stay cozy on chilly alpine nights. For backpacking couples like us, we are big fans of double sleeping bag systems which are superior because you gain extra heat by cuddling up with your partner. We use a Feathered Friends Spoonbill double bag, but that has since been discontinued so I would recommend looking at the Feathered Friends Penguin bags. With this system a single sleeping bag opens fully up and can be zipped onto a matching groundsheet, making for a double-wide sleeping bag for two. The beauty of this system is that you don’t really need down filling under you since it gets compressed under your weight anyways; so by only having down filling on top of you, you save quite a bit of unnecessary weight. Plus, the Penguin can be used as a one-person bag too, killing two birds with one stone.
• SLEEPING PAD: The little orange thing is my sleeping pad, an Exped Synmat HL M Sleeping Pad. For many years I used a regular old RidgeRest foam pad, but I would have to find a perfectly flat spot for the tent, and would still sleep uncomfortably on my side. Since trying modern air pads I haven’t looked back! Now I have no problems with bumpy ground, and can sleep comfortably on my side. It’s also very warm. Yes, there is always the danger that it could leak or pop; I carry the patch kit just in case of emergency. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad is a comparable highly regarded pad, but it’s not quite as comfortable in my opinion, and it makes loud crinkly noises when you move around. But, the Therm-a-Rest comes with a lifetime warranty, which is something to consider compared to Exped’s 2-year warranty. For couple camping we use the Exped Synmat HL Duo Sleeping Pad, which is the same thing as the Exped above, but double wide for two people.
• PILLOW: The little blue thing is a Sea to Summit Aeros Premium inflatable pillow. Most people would be just fine stuffing a sweater into a stuff sack for a pillow, but I’m pretty picky with my sleep comfort so for me it’s worthwhile to bring along this soft and comfortable inflatable pillow.
• CLOTHES: The bigger blue bag in the top middle is an Osprey Ultralight Drysack which I put all my clothes into. Another cool option for this is the Osprey Ultralight Stuff Backpack, which is nearly as lightweight but has backpack straps so can double as a small daypack for short hikes around camp. More details on clothes below.
• FOOD: The white bag is my food bag, an Ursack Bear Bag. This super strong Spectra fabric food bag is much lighter than a normal bear canister. You put your food into an odor-proof plastic bag inside, then tie the bag to the base of a tree away from your tent. Bears cannot tear the bag or the rope, so they can’t steal your food. Remember: NEVER STORE ANY FOOD IN YOUR TENT! Do not give bears a reason to come knocking. Or smaller critters either, for that matter. We once had some aggressive squirrels chew a hole through our tent trying to get to some toothpaste we left in there! As for backpacking food, we prefer to dehydrate our own meals, though we also sometimes eat the freeze-dried backpacker meals too (which are actually pretty good these days). But that is a whole ‘nother topic that I will try to tackle some other time in another post.
• RAIN COVER: The green thing. Don’t want your backpack to get wet if/when it rains on you!
• WATER BOTTLE: One Nalgene water bottle. A Gatorade bottle would work just fine too.
• WATER PURIFIER: Some of my friends never filter water around here at all, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. There are a lot of options and different techniques for purifying water, and I’ve used just about all of them, but my absolute favorite is the Platypus GravityWorks 4.0L Filter System. Gone are the days of tedious pumping or squeezing; with the GravityWorks you just fill up a 4-liter “dirty” bag, hang it in a tree, and wait 10-20 minutes for the water to flow through the filter into another 4-liter “clean” bag. It really works well, and if/when it does start to slow down after numerous uses, you can just reverse the process to back-flow and clean the filter out. Plus, you have a 4-liter dromedary bag which is super handy for camping in awesome spots away from water sources. This system is a little bit bulkier and heavier than other purification methods but in my opinion it’s totally worth it. The only drawback of the GravityWorks system is that it does take a while to filter the water, so it’s not practical for quick filtering while hiking. Also, the filter can be destroyed if it freezes, so you have to be careful about that. My second purification choice for times when I know I’ll need to purify during hiking, or when I want to travel really light, is the SteriPEN Adventurer Opti. This is a very light, compact, and quick UV purifier. Just make sure to carry extra CR123 lithium batteries.
• STOVE: My backpacking stove of choice is the Soto MicroRegulator Stove, which runs on standard propane/butane fuel canisters. This tiny thing is super lightweight and compact, has very nice flame adjustment for simmering, and reliable auto-ignitor. I’ve been using this same reliable stove for years with no issues.
• COOKWARE: I would recommend titanium cookware, even though it’s quite a bit more expensive. It will lighten your load and last forever. For the pot, cooking for couples or groups, I’d recommend something in the 1.5 to 2-liter volume range, such as the Snow Peak Titanium Pot. Perhaps solo hikers could use a smaller pot. I also like the Snow Peak Titanium Fork and Spoons, and their Titanium mug for coffee. The plastic style backcountry spoons/forks work fine too. Don’t forget to bring a couple BIC lighters in case you want (or need) to start a fire; and store them someplace where there’s no chance of getting wet.
• KNIFE: If you wanna feel like Rambo you’ve gotta have a knife out there! But let’s be honest, its main job description is slicing salami. I’ll admit, I once spent a good chunk of a day geeking out on the internet researching knives… and the winner was the Kershaw Skyline knife. It works as described. I also carry a tiny multi-tool like the Leatherman Squirt in case I need to fix something with pliers.
• TOILETRIES: Don’t forget your sunblock, toothbrush, mini travel toothpaste, and a travel bottle of hand sanitizer. As for TP, NEVER leave your toilet paper lying around after you’re done! This is the number one most common offense of careless and disrespectful backpackers. After finding a private place a long distance from any campsite or trail, you should first dig a hole at least six inches deep, then bury everything when you’re done. Sometimes it’s easier to find a big rock, roll it over, poop in the hole, then roll it back in place. If the weather is damp and wet you can burn your TP, but of course never attempt this if there is any chance whatsoever of sparking a wildfire.
• FIRST AID KIT: You can buy a prepackaged first aid kit like this, or just compile your own.
• SUNGLASSES and sunglass case if you’re anal like me about not scratching up your glasses.
• HEADLAMP: I like the Petzl MYO Headlamp. This thing is super bright and essential for my pre-dawn and post-sunset hikes. I always bring 3 extra AA lithium batteries as backup.
• PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON: I always bring along the ACR ResQLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon. The way PLBs work is that if you have a dire emergency in the wilderness you can activate an SOS and the device will alert an emergency center via satellite, who will then initiate rescue knowing your exact GPS location. These things have gotten so light, compact, and cheap, that there’s really no reason to not have one with you at all times in the backcountry. The Garmin inReach is another option which has the advantage of being able to send non-emergency texts via satellite too, which can be handy for updating your loved ones while you’re out. But the Garmin is bigger and most importantly requires a recurring subscription which in the long run makes it far more expensive (whereas the ACR is a one-time purchase).
• MAP/COMPASS (OR PHONE): You’ve always got to have a map with you on backcountry treks. Fortunately nowadays we can have all the topo maps we want with us on our smart phones, using apps like Gaia GPS or Topo Maps, with the added advantage that those apps will tell you your exact location on the map. The catch is that you have to make sure your phone doesn’t run out of batteries! Battery life can be lengthened by always keeping your phone in airplane mode and by carrying a compact battery backup such as the Anker PowerCore+ mini.
Since this is a photography blog and I’m a photographer, here’s my current camera gear that I take with me on most backpacking trips, in case you’re interested.
• Sony A7RIII camera
• Sony 24-105mm lens
• Canon 17mm TS-E tilt/shift lens with Metabones adaptor (Sometimes I will leave this one behind if I really want to travel light and I don’t anticipate much need for ultra-wide shooting).
• Hoya circular polarizer
• Hoya 10-stop neutral density filter
• Remote trigger (for longer exposures)
• Two extra batteries. Usually 3 batteries will last me for a 7-day trek, if I’m careful.
• Really Right Stuff TQC-14 Carbon Fiber Tripod with a Gitzo short center column, or when I really want to hike light I’ll take the Gitzo GIGT0545T Traveler Series 0 Carbon Fiber Tripod.
• Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ultra-light ballhead with lever-release clamp.
I typically carry the camera with zoom lens in a toploader chest pouch (in this case an F-Stop Droploader 15) which is rigged to my backpack’s shoulder straps with releasable clips. This keeps the camera handy for easy and immediate access while I’m hiking, and also nicely balances my backpack load by putting the camera weight on my chest and not completely on my back.
The wideangle lens and other filters and batteries I put into my backpack in an F-Stop Micro Tiny ICU. If/when I want to carry two extra lenses, I’ll use an F-Stop Small Shallow ICU in my backpack instead. The tripod gets strapped to the side.
Here are some things that we may or may not bring, depending on the trek and/or how much we’re willing to carry:
• A dromedary bag. This is useful for hauling water, allowing you to camp in awesome locations that aren’t necessarily near a lake or stream, like high ridges. Sometimes useful in Colorado, this is often a must for the desert. Check out the 6-Liter MSR Dromlite Bag or better yet, if you use the Platypus GravityWorks 4.0L Filter System then you’ve already got a 4-liter dromedary bag.
• Bear spray. A must in places with grizzlies like Montana, Canada, and Alaska, but not really necessary in Colorado.
• Bug spray and/or head net, depending on the location and time of year. During the summer months we usually bring bug spray, but not the head net, which is only needed in places where the mosquitos are horrendous; usually it’s not that bad in Colorado. I like Ben’s bug spray, which doesn’t have such a noxious odor. If you are in a place where you actually need a head net, you might also appreciate a bug-repellant shirt such as the ExOfficio BugsAway Halo shirt.
• Umbrella! If the forecast calls for a lot of rainy weather while hiking, an umbrella is a great item to have. Why? Because most waterproof rain jackets are not very breathable, and you will be probably be drenched with sweat in addition to being miserably hot in that jacket. An umbrella completely solves that problem, and you will be SO much happier hiking in the rain with one. The My Trail Chrome Umbrella is a good one for hiking and backpacking.
• Entertainment! Cards, Sudoku, a lightweight book (I wrote about backpacking books here), perhaps a Kindle, and maybe a lightweight journal or sketchbook. I have these great knot-tying playing cards, so when we’re not playing Rummy I can brush up on my bowlines, bends, and hitches! Ounce-counters might prefer mini playing cards instead.
• For shorter trips and/or car camping, you might enjoy lounging in a hammock! Mine was gifted to me and I haven’t done any research about these, but I do know that you can get some pretty compact and lightweight hammocks these days. Don’t forget that in addition to the hammock itself you will need a set of adjustable hammock straps to wrap around trees and hang the hammock from.
• USB battery recharger for recharging your phone and/or other devices. As mentioned above, the Anker PowerCore+ mini is a good compact choice for recharging your phone about 1-1.5 times.
• A super-duper flashlight can be very helpful for night hikes. I use the Coast HP7R LED flashlight, which has an incredibly powerful light and a slide focus that can be focussed to a tight long-distance beam that can illumate your path across a valley, or widened to a wide circle to illuminate an entire forest around you (good for calming your nerves if you’re paranoid about bears or mountain lions!). It also comes with two long-lasting rechargable lithium battery packs. The cost may seem excessive for a flashlight, but it will quickly become your favorite toy for hiking in the dark!
• Binoculars. Not really necessary for most backpackers, but they can be fun for exploring the landscape from a high perch.
• And not pictured: the vices. A flask of whiskey, tequila, or [pick your poison] is always a treat when backpacking with friends. I met some guys in the wilderness once who were proponents of packing Everclear instead, because as they claimed, “it’s half the weight!” I just can’t go there, though. Those of you in Colorado, Washington, or other personal-freedom-allowing states might enjoy bringing along some cannabis which I’ve heard goes well with being out in nature.
The main rule of camping clothes: NO COTTON! When cotton gets wet, it does not keep you warm, it is heavy, and it takes forever to dry. It’s better to use wool or high-tech hiking fabrics, which are lighter, will breathe better, keep you warmer, and dry faster. Here is the essential summertime backpacking clothes list:
• Lightweight, breathable hiking shirt. This will get sweaty!
• A warmer, long-sleeved layer for hanging out at camp, and at night. I like REI’s Sahara shirts.
• A sweater. I’m a big fan of down sweaters, like Patagonia’s, which pack light and compact, but provide LOTS of warmth, especially when layered under a shell jacket. A hooded down sweater provides a bit more warmth when needed. These can also double as a pillow when stuffed into your tent sack at night.
• A shell jacket to protect from rain and wind. I am a big fan of the Outdoor Research Foray Jacket. It shields you well from wind and rain, yet it is lightweight and semewhat breathable, so you can wear it while hiking without sweating to death. Also, it has full length pit/side zips that can zip all the way apart, turning the jacket into a poncho when it’s really hot and wet outside. Plus, the pockets are positioned up higher than usual so that you can still use them while you’ve got your backpack’s waist belt strapped on. If you prefer a barebones and ultra lightweight rain jacket that is stripped of extra features like pockets and pit zips, check out the Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket.
• Shell pants, with full side zips so you can pull them on and off over your boots, and have plenty of ventilation while hiking. I like the Outdoor Research Foray Pants.
• Shorts. Running shorts are very light and fast drying.
• Undies. As with everything else, go for something non-cotton like nylon/spandex/wool, which dry out quickly after a sweaty day of hiking. I usually bring along with a spare so that I don’t stink too badly after a week of trekking.
• Long underwear. Smartwool makes some nice ones, as does Patagonia.
• A sun hat, or a ballcap with a handkerchief underneath to shade my neck.
• Gloves and a warm beanie for when it gets cold.
• I sweat a lot so a sweat band is a must for me to keep my sweat out of my eyes; I don’t care that it looks super dorky! Check out the Halo Headband which has a much thinner profile than usual sweatbands, so it fits nicely under a hat. It also works great – the sweat evaporates efficiently so the headband doesn’t get all soaked like normal ones.
• Socks. Wool socks are more durable and will keep your feet warmer when they’re wet. I prefer lightweight wool socks like the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Ultra Light Crew Sock, since most wool “hiking” socks are far too thick and warm for comfortable hiking. On longer treks, I’ll take three pairs of socks, one of which I keep for camp and sleeping.
• Sturdy boots. When I was younger I used to wear skate shoes when backpacking – because they were comfortable. That is, until I had to go to a physical therapist for my damaged knees. Now I wear leather boots with good insole inserts that provide better arch support. My current boot of choice is the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot, which is sturdy yet still flexible enough for comfortable walking. I highly recommend swapping out your boots’ flat insoles with ones that have more arch support, such as Spenco Total Support Insoles or Superfeet.
• A lightweight pack towel to wash with. The best is to fully jump into a lake or stream, or you can splash-wash yourself next to a lake/stream, or if options are limited or it’s super cold out, you can just do a towel wash with a wet towel. By the way, don’t use soap or shampoo in lakes or rivers as the suds are pollution (yes, even eco-friendly soap). If you must wash with soap, get a pot of water and do it away from the water source.
A backpack is probably the #1 item where you should really be careful what you buy, and buy the best available. A good backpack will last for many years and will make the difference between an enjoyable trek or a grueling death march.
When you’re shopping for a backpack, make sure that you load it up with lots of heavy stuff in the shop so you can feel how it really holds a heavy load. A good pack will put most of the weight comfortably on your hips, not your shoulders, and it will sit straight without pulling backwards on your shoulders. Don’t pay much attention to all the bells and whistles, like a bunch of cool pockets or whatever, but rather the main priority should be how well it carries a heavy load on your body.
Here’s a tip: a sign of a good backpack is one where the shoulder straps and the top of the internal pack frame rise up above the shoulder pads at least a couple inches – this keeps the pack straight on your back without pulling backwards.
I use and highly recommend the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack, which I actually helped to design specifically for us backpacking photographers, but I’d recommend it to non-photographers just the same. You can read my full review of the Seek Outside Exposure backpack here.
I am a big fan of panel loader packs, which means that the whole pack unzips like a suitcase, instead of just having a top pull-tie opening. It’s so much easier to access your stuff when you can unzip the whole pack, instead of having to dig through from the top.
Above, from bottom to top (left to right), there’s the sleeping bag (not visible), sleeping pad and some other stuff, food bag, clothes bag, and finally the camera case on top and quickly accessible. The tripod gets strapped to the side.
For day hikes, hut treks, or short one-night backpack trips with minimal camera gear, I use an Osprey Stratos 50L Backpack, which is supremely comfortable (though it doesn’t carry heavier loads nearly as comfortably as the Seek Outside Exposure pack).
MY WINTER CAMPING GEAR
Winter camping is a whole ‘nother ballgame. It’s more of a suffer-fest than anything, and I don’t really recommend it to anybody. However, during the winter I still get that urge to go out and backpack in the wild and take photos. Typically I don’t go winter camping more than once a month, because it takes at least a month after each trip to forget how brutal it was!
In any case, here’s what I take on winter backpacking trips:
Instead of listing every single thing again, I’ll just list the main differences from the summer setup.
• WINTER POLES: You need to have the big snow baskets on them, which the summer trekking poles don’t have. I highly recommend the Black Diamond Expedition 3 Ski Poles (not pictured) which are durable, lightweight, and have a telescoping collapsible design with easy to use flicklocks.
• Since the bears are probably hibernating, I leave the bear bag behind (I could be wrong about this!). I also take less food, since I typically don’t go out for more than two nights at a time in the winter.
• TENT: For solo outings my winter tent of choice is the Black Diamond HiLight Tent. This single-wall tent is lightweight, spacious enough for one person plus all gear, has plenty of ventilation if needed, and is pretty solid in inclement weather if you add a few extra guylines. But what I appreciate most about winter camping with this tent is its small footprint because it’s freestanding and has no rainfly – which means that you only need to stomp out a relatively small area of snow to pitch the tent, and its structural integrity doesn’t depend on lots of snow anchors (as with floorless pyramid-style tents). For a two-person winter camping tent I use the Big Sky International Chinook 2P Tent with storm flaps which can be covered in snow for a totally bomber shelter.
• TENT SNOW ANCHORS: Obviously normal tent stakes are useless in snow. The easy solution, if you’re camping anywhere near a forest, is to just use sticks or tree branches as snow anchors. You loop your guyline around the branch then just bury the branch under the snow and stomp the snow down around it; the snow will harden around the branch forming a solid anchor. If you are camping someplace up high where there are no trees, you might need to bring dedicated snow anchors, which are basically like little fabric parachutes that you fill with snow and bury the same way.
• WINTER-RATED SLEEPING BAG: You’ll need a much thicker and warmer down sleeping bag to stay safe and comfortable through frigid winter nights. My winter bag is a Sherpa Adventure Gear Tenzing -40º down sleeping bag, which fortunately I was able to pick up from SteepAndCheap.com for less than half off! Good thing, since winter down bags are dreadfully expensive. I previously used a Mountain Hardwear Lamina -30º synthetic bag; although much cheaper, this was very bulky and heavy, and not nearly as warm as down. For multiday winter camping trips you may also want a vapor barrier liner, which prevents heat loss and keeps your sleeping bag from getting wet from your body condensation, thus keeping it warming over longer periods.
• WARMER SLEEPING PAD: A sleeping pad with a high R value is necessary to keep you insulated from the snow or cold ground in the winter. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm air mattress, and I also bring a shortened RidgeRest foam mattress, just for extra insulation and as an emergency backup in case the air mattress pops.
• 2-3 NALGENE BOTTLES. In this case, they must be Nalgene bottles, or similar sturdy thick plastic bottles. The reason for this is because you can fill up the bottles with hot water and put them in your sleeping bag to keep warm at night! Also, by having multiple bottles, you can fill them all up with melted snow water in one sitting, then have water for the day.
• A LARGER POT (like 1.5-2L) is helpful for melting more snow at once for water.
• WINTER-SUITABLE STOVE: For short winter camping trips I use a MSR WindPro II Stove. The main advantage of this stove over other normal cannister stoves is that the fuel cannister is positioned upside down so in cold weather when there’s less pressure in the cannister the fuel can flow out easier so it’s more reliable. That said, for multiday winter trips you’ll probably be better off with a traditional pump-style stove like the MSR WhisperLite. With a pump stove you don’t have to worry about your fuel cannister losing pressure in extreme cold temps, since the pressure is created by the manual pump instead. Also, since much of your time winter camping is spent melting snow, it’s much more economical to have a big bottle of cheap white gas instead of burning through lots of expensive and wasteful fuel cannisters. Either way, make sure you also have a good windscreen and heat reflector base for your stove. Make sure your stove is functional and reliable before you go – if your stove breaks or you run out of fuel, you have no water, and with no water, you must leave immediately!
• SHOVEL: Whether you’re digging out a snow cave, building an igloo, or simply carving out a flat spot for your tent, a shovel is a must for winter camping. You can also use the blade as a platform for the stove. Ski/snowboard avalanche shovels like the Black Diamond Deploy Shovel are perfect for this; just make sure that it’s a metal one, not plastic. If you are building an igloo, you’ll appreciate an oversized shovel to move lots of snow around quicker and more efficiently.
• Remember to keep your spare batteries inside your down jacket at all times to keep them warm (cold batteries die sooner). Some people recommend keeping your boots inside your sleeping bag at night, but I don’t do this.
• What’s not shown here are skis or splitboard, and all that entails, or their mobility-challenged little cousins, snowshoes. One way or another, you’ll need a way to get through all that deep snow!
• I also have not included avalanche beacons or probes – here’s why: I do not know anybody else who enjoys winter camping, so I always just go out alone; thus, beacons or probes are useless to me. I do, however, only go winter backpacking on routes that are safe from avalanches – no steep slopes whatsoever. This severely limits my options, especially in the San Juans where the mountains are mostly all steep. But I would rather return home safe! All that said, if you’re going out with partners, definitely bring your avy beacons, shovels, probes, and of course the knowledge of how to use them and and how to assess avalanche danger.
WINTER CAMPING CLOTHES
Obviously you’re going to need more warm clothes in the winter! Again, NO COTTON. Here’s my list:
• Performance long-sleeve shirt for hiking in cold temps.
• A winter weight long-sleeve shirt and long underwear bottoms. These are heavyweight shirts that are not meant for hiking in, but just for sitting around in the winter. Very, very warm for the weight. My new favorite winter item is the Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight One-Piece Suit which is even more thermally efficient as there’s no gaps at all between your tops and bottoms (though sadly it looks like maybe it’s been discontinued?).
• Softshell jacket with hoodie. Softshell jackets are great for winter hiking as they protect you from the elements but are breathable enough for strenuous exercise, especially with big pit zips. The hoodie is useful for windy or blizzard conditions. You might think about erring on the larger size so you can wear this as an exterior layer over your poofy down jacket when you’re at camp. I like the Outdoor Research Linchpin softshell jacket.
• Poofy down jacket with hoodie. The most important piece of clothing! A big, thick down jacket will keep you toasty warm on even the coldest days. I definitely recommend one with a hood, since it keeps the drafts out and insulates your head and neck much better. I’m a big fan of the RAB Neutrino Endurance Jacket.
• A down vest like the Montbell Alpine Light Vest can add a huge boost of body warmth for a minimal amount of extra weight.
• Western Mountaineering Flight Down Pants. After years of lusting after down pants, I finally sprang for a pair and OMG, they are awesome! I can’t believe I’ve ever gone winter camping without them. The nice things about these particular pants, aside from the usual excellent down that Western Mountaineering is known for, are the full length side zips for when it gets too hot, and reinforced butt and leg materials.
• Ski/snowboard pants. The summer shell pants won’t cut it in the snow. Make sure they have side or thigh zips for ventilation while hiking. I like the North Face Freedom pants.
• Snowboard boots. (Unless you’re skiing). Whether you’re splitboarding or just snowshoeing, snowboard boots are comfortable and warm. I prefer very flexible boots; you don’t want to spend three days in stiff boots. Unfortunately these days it’s very difficult to find flexible snowboard boots that also have high-end features like durable vibram rubber soles and boa lacing systems; the K2 Taro Tamai Snowsurfer Boa Boots are the closest I’ve found. For non-snowboarders you could also try a more traditional winter boot like Sorels, though I haven’t tried that myself and don’t know how well those work for long hikes.
• If your boots aren’t super warm, if the weather is crazy cold, and/or if your feet often get cold, you’ll benefit from some vapor barrier insulated socks, such as the RBH Designs VaprThrm Insulated Socks, which will keep your feet noticeably warmer over a longer period of time.
• Down Booties. As opposed to down “slippers”, down booties have rubber soles so you can walk around in them on rocky terrain. They are very lightweight and easy to pack, and they are comfortable and warm for when you’re lounging around camp, melting snow.
• Depending on how snowtight your pants and boots are together, you might need gaiters keep the snow (and wind) out. Outdoor Research Verglas Gaiters are good ones.
• Warm gloves, like ski/snowboarding gloves. Mittens are even warmer, but you lose dexterity. I prefer to have lightweight gloves along with the super warm down-filled Outdoor Research Transcendent Mitts.
• Hand warmers. Very important! Especially for photographers who must use thinner gloves when fiddling with the camera, hand warmers will keep your blood warm and your fingers from freezing.
• Super warm beanie, such as the Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon, along with a lightweight beanie for hiking.
• I forgot to include it in the photo, but a neck gaiter helps to keep heat below your neck, as well as keeping your face warm and shielded from wind. The Hoorag is a useful and versatile neck gaiter that is much lighter and more compact than a typical fleece neck gaiter (which is usually too hot and bulky anyways).
If it’s not entirely obvious by now, collecting all of this gear can be a very expensive endeavor! Here are a few ways that you can cut the costs:
• Make SteepAndCheap.com your homepage! Steep and Cheap is basically a fire-sale division of Backcountry.com, where they offer one deeply discounted item at a time, hour after hour, day after day. Discounts of 50-75% off are not unheard of. And they DO have good stuff on there quite often!
• Spring is probably the best time of year to find great deals on gear; many online retailers slash prices and have big sales to try to unload last season’s gear before the next year’s inventory comes in. This is an especially good time to buy winter gear, with down jackets and ski gear often on sale for 50% or even 75% off. Around Memorial Day time (late May) almost every shop has big sales.
• Go to local ski swaps. In many towns, at least here in Colorado, there are big annual ski swaps, where companies and stores unload all their old stock at cheap prices, or where people sell their used stuff.
• Do you have a friend in the biz? I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity a number of times to buy (or trade for) a batch of gear from friends who have the coveted “pro deal” – items direct from the warehouse for less than wholesale price. This is probably more likely to happen if you live in a mountain town, where mountain athletes live.
LEAVE NO TRACE
Through my trip reports and informational articles like this, I hope to inspire people to get out backpacking in the wilderness, because I truly believe it’s one of the healthiest and most satisfying things a person can do – physically, mentally, and spiritually. I also believe that the more people go out and immerse themselves in nature, the more likely they will be to support the protection and preservation of wild places. But on the other hand, this only works if backpackers respect nature and the wilderness while we’re out there. So I think it’s worth listing here the Leave No Trace Seven Principles which apply whenever you are camping, whether it’s next to your car or deep in the wilderness. I will add some further comments of my own to elaborate.
1) Plan ahead and prepare. Know the regulations and special concerns of the area, be prepared for possible weather and hazards, schedule your trip to avoid times of high use, and go in smaller groups rather than large groups.
2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Use established campsites whenever possible, or campsites on rock, hard dirt, or dry short grass. Don’t camp right next to lakes or streams, and don’t trample meadows and wildflowers.
3) Dispose of waste properly. See above my comments above about TP. Basically poop far away from any potential campsites, trails, or water sources, and bury your poop and TP.
4) Leave what you find. Don’t take artifacts or plants. Leave places as you found them.
5) Minimize campfire impacts. Do you really need that campfire? Especially deep in the wilderness, the answer is no, you don’t really need that campfire. Don’t create new fire rings, especially up on fragile tundra areas or near lakes.
6) Respect wildlife. Don’t harrass wildlife just to get a photo. Store your food properly. Keep your dog under control or leave them at home.
7) Be considerate of other visitors. This is so common sense but I think I should still spell out some things: Leave your portable speaker at home; nobody wants to hear your tunes in nature. Don’t camp right nearby other campers. And definitely no drones in wilderness areas!!!
I hope that if you’ve read this far, you’ve found some helpful tips and suggestions for attaining and/or improving your backpacking gear collection, and enjoying your time in the backcountry.
If you are discouraged by the sometimes outrageous prices of some of this gear, remember that people have been enjoying the mountains for hundreds of years, using gear that was probably worse than what you could compile from a thrift store nowadays! As long as you can get the basic essentials, you can make it happen.