HIking · Living in Alaska · Winter

Winter Backpacking 101

Hi everyone!  If you read my last post, you’ll know that I went backpacking this past weekend to a cabin along Nancy Lake.  Yep, I went backpacking in January in Alaska!  And here’s another fun fact:  it was my very first backpacking trip!  To say I was nervous is an understatement.  I spent so much time googling “winter backpacking gear” and getting stressed about my trip.  It’s hard to find information about backpacking gear that doesn’t make you feel like you need to spend one million dollars on the best gear out there and be a hardcore survivalist.  What if you’re on a budget and don’t even know if you’ll ever want to do it again?  What if you’re a total newbie at carrying heavy stuff on your back through the snow?  That’s where I got the idea for this post – a realistic approach to one night of backpacking for a newbie on a budget.  Check out what worked for me and what I wish I’d known before we left the house.  I’m not paid to promote any of these items, just happy that they worked so well on the first try!  Note:  I’m not an expert and can’t be held accountable for keeping you alive while backpacking.  Make sure to do your research before any outdoor adventure and use common sense in the wilderness.

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What you absolutely positively need:

  • A sleeping bag.  This was the hardest thing for me to pick out.  First, you need to figure out which temperature rating you want.  The temperature ratings are survival temps, meaning that you will survive at the temperature listed – but you won’t be comfortable.  You’ll also want something labelled for backpacking so that it will be lightweight and small enough for your bag.  My price range was under $100 because it was going to be a Christmas present, so I knew I couldn’t get the best thing out there.  I actually had many people tell me I couldn’t find a good bag under $100, but I knew there had to be something out there for me.  After tons of research, we chose the Teton Sports LEEF 0 bags.  They were 4 pounds, packed up small enough for backpacking, and would probably keep me comfortable down to around 20 degrees.  We used them in the cabin, which went down to around freezing when the fire died (it was -10 outside) and I was super comfortable.  I like the bag so far, and I can always upgrade if my budget changes later!
  • A sleeping pad: Some people sleep without pads, but they’re really important in the winter for body heat retention. Sleeping on a cold surface without a pad will just make you cold faster. Plus, only the hardcore can actually sleep on a hard surface all night.  Everyone in Alaska has Therm-A-Rest pads, so we bought their Trail Lite version which are made for backpacking. They really are crazy light, and surprisingly comfortable considering they were super thin and we were sleeping on wood.
  • A cookstove:  We went with the MSR Pocket Rocket, which apparently is the most popular backpacking stove on earth.  You totally can’t go wrong with a tiny little thing like that, unless you forget to buy the gas canister to hook onto it!  It’s really cheap and we only needed one canister for the night.  Why is this a necessity if you can just pack in food that doesn’t need to be cooked?  Because you will definitely want some hot chocolate after a cold hike!  Trust me.  We also bought the MSR Trail Lite Duo system to cook in  and found it super useful for the two of us.
  • A headlamp:  Winters in Alaska are dark, and even if I didn’t take a lantern I would have needed to wear a headlamp in order to safely get around the cabin and make my way out to the outhouse.  Bring lots of extra batteries because the cold makes batteries wear out faster.
  • Wood and matches:  We stayed in a cabin with a wood burning stove, but the park has a rule that you can’t chop down live trees to get wood (plus it’s all covered in ice right now).  Despite researching it, we had no idea how much wood to actually bring to the cabin.  We dragged in 6 bundles of wood on plastic sleds and it was just enough for 24 hours at our comfort level.  I think people with more badass survival skills could have handled a colder night, but we kept getting up to put wood on the fire.
  • Water:  This one is tricky in the winter.  Technically you can just melt snow, but since we were already dragging in wood on sleds we decided to throw on a few jugs of water too.  Note:  Camelbaks can freeze in the winter so research your gear to know what will stand up to freezing temperatures.
  • First aid kit:  I bought the tiny travel sized kit from the Target travel section and added some medicine to it.  I’m looking into buying a real wilderness backpacking first aid kit for the summer months.
  • Toilet paper
  • A backpack to carry everything:  Backpacking packs are bigger than regular backpacks and are meant to help support the weight of everything you are carrying.  We bought ours secondhand from our friends and were pleasantly surprised by how comfortable they were!

What you will probably want to think about bringing:

  • A pillow:  Technically the hardcore skip this step and use either their clothes or nothing at all.  We decided that pillows were necessary for us, and looked at inflatable pillows because they pack down super tiny (smaller than a soda can!) and weigh practically nothing.  I just took a chance on some random pillow I found on Amazon (made by Trekology) and it worked out pretty well!
  • Snowshoes:  We actually brought these along but left them in the car once we saw how packed down the trail was.  Walking in deep snow is exhausting, so make sure to bring snowshoes if the trail is covered in deep snow.
  • Stuff to do:  We  brought books and card games to keep ourselves occupied during the long night hours in the cabin.  My friend brought wine.  Know what you’ll actually use out in the wilderness and bring it if you have room!
  • Lanterns:  You can get super cheap and tiny battery powered lanterns at Fred Meyers that will fit in your pack.  It was so dark out there and we were glad to have 3 lanterns to keep our table illuminated during game time!
  • Extra clothes:  We each had an extra full outfit in the car (which was a mile away) and I made sure to pack an extra fleece as well as extra socks in my pack.
  • A swiss army knife

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What I ate:

  • Dinner:  Velveeta mac and cheese (packed in a ziplock instead of the box) and canned chili.
  • Snacks:  A small ziplock of Fritos (which are also great fire starters in a pinch!), a ziplock of Muddy Buddies, and hot chocolate packets.  I never travel without snacks.
  • Breakfast: Pop tarts.
  • Note:  there is actual freeze dried backpacking food out there which is way lighter than the food that I brought.  However, since we had a table and even a “kitchen area” in the cabin, we decided to bring what we did.  It worked really well and tasted yummy!

What I wore:  (It was below zero outside)

  • Wool socks
  • North Face boots
  • Two pairs of fleece tights – one light pair for indoor wear, and a heavier pair to wear outside
  • A moisture wicking tank, sports bra, and underwear
  • A thin fleece lined shirt
  • A Columbia fleece
  • A Columbia waterproof ski jacket
  • A fleece Buff
  • A fleece lined hat
  • Mittens with separate fleece lined gloves inside

Where can you backpack in the winter?  Check out public use cabins in your area.  Back in Pennsylvania we would book cabins that you could drive right up to, which is a great intro to winter cabin life and doesn’t need small, light gear the way that backpacking does.  It was important for us to find a place that allowed dogs so that Ridley could come, and the public use cabins in Alaska are great for that!

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These were my biggest questions when looking into backpacking in the winter, and I hope this information helps someone else who is totally overwhelmed and looking for non-expert advice.  I know I could have packed less or bought better gear, but I ended up using everything I brought.  I’m interested to see what changes on this list as I continue to go backpacking in the future!

Have you ever been backpacking?  What gear did you bring?  What did you wish you knew the first time you went backpacking?

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5 thoughts on “Winter Backpacking 101

    1. Good question! He has a pop up kennel thing that we take everywhere (the car, other people’s houses when they dog sit, etc) and it’s super lightweight and folds up small. So we brought that for him. It ended up being a good call because Ridley is still a puppy (9 months!) and he was chewing on all of our wood all night long until we put him in the kennel. He won’t sleep with us for very long so it seemed like the best option, although I’m hoping that as he gets older he’ll chill out more and we can try having him sleep between us again.

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