Winter Backpacking #TrailTips

It’s one thing to enjoy hiking with clear skies and warm breezes, but learning to embrace the outdoors in cold, rainy, or even snowy weather presents unique challenges. Even a day hike can become dangerous in 40-degree rain without proper equipment and preparations. That being said, the forest also reveals a new kind of beauty during the winter months that should not be missed.
A very snowy A.T. on April 12th, 2016
A very snowy A.T. on April 12th, 2016
When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, I started my trek on February 29, 2016. The trees were barren, the daylight hours were brief, and the weather was cold, wet, snowy, and more cold. The air was crisp and invigorating, and a quiet stillness surrounded me. I listened to the soft crunch of the earth beneath my shoes as I made fresh prints in the early morning powder. At the end of each day, I huddled into my warm sleeping bag with a hot dinner and waited for the long night to pass so I could keep trekking north.
I had never been winter backpacking prior to my thru-hike, and I will readily admit, I WAS COLD! Very cold. Some nights, I couldn’t sleep a wink because my body was shivering, which burns energy, which made me hungry, which made me colder, which kept me awake. I counted down the hours until the sun would rise above the ridge line and warm me up.
Luckily, I learned many tips and tricks in those early weeks that made it easier to stay safe, warm, and dry. So as you’re prepping for holiday outdoor adventures, keep these simple winter backpacking #TrailTips in mind.

5 Tips for Cold Weather Backpacking

1. Plan ahead for short days
During the winter months, the sun sets early, so unless you’re comfortable hiking by headlamp, don’t plan on hiking your first 12 hour days in December. Not to mention, hiking through snow will slow even the strongest hikers’ paces. Even a few inches of snow can slice your miles per hour in half.
As you plan your hike, find a route with options for campsites incase the weather slows you down, and always bring a headlamp in case nightfall comes sooner than you think.
In any weather, it is important to tell someone where you park your car, where you plan to hike, when you plan to return, and when they should start to worry if they don’t hear from you. I call this my “flight plan,” and I leave it with my family before any adventure solo or group.
2. Dress in layers, no cotton allowed
Rule #1 for rain = NO COTTON. Wear fleece, polyester, and other synthetic materials that insulate well when wet and that dry quickly. Rule #2 is to wear layers.
Waterproof Layer: Rain coat, rain pants, and gaiters.
Hiking Layers: Trail runners or boots, socks (min. 3 pairs), leggings, long sleeve t-shirt, quarter-zip fleece.
Night/Camp Layers: camp shoes, dry socks, dry long dry warm leggings, dry sleeve t-shirt, dry quarter-zip fleece, dry puffy jacket, knit hat, warm mittens.
3. Use hot food and water to warm up
Nothing boosts my mood more than a hot breakfast and dinner on a cold day! Even if I’m not in the mood for hot chocolate or tea, simply drinking hot water goes a long way to warm the body up.
Additionally, if you’re cold at night, try filling a Nalgene water bottle with boiling water and sticking it inside your sleeping bag to help generate heat.
4. Insulate your sleeping space
Clear any snow away to reveal the dirt and create a flat sleeping area. Always, always, always use a sleeping pad to insulate you from the ground. Even a high quality sleeping bag will feel cold without proper insulation. In especially cold conditions, you can double up and use a closed-cell foam pad with an inflatable pad on top.
Sharing a tent with another person can help to generate heat and warm up the space. The more the merrier.
Use an emergency blanket or plastic trash bag to add insulation to the inside of your tent or outside of your sleeping bag. Just be wary of excessive condensation because moisture is your enemy in cold weather.
On that note, breathing and burrowing into your sleeping bag can accumulate moisture, so instead consider wearing a balaclava and cinching the drawstrings of the sleeping bad hood tightly so as only to expose your nose and mouth.
5. Know the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite
Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia:
  • Shivering that may cease as condition worsens
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)
  • Unawareness of the severity of their condition
Signs and Symptoms of Frostbite:
  • At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
  • Numbness
  • Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases
If you suspect you or your hiking partner is experiencing hypothermia or frostbite, seek immediate help. Any person experiencing these symptoms needs medical attention.
In the mean time, you can help the individual by removing cold clothing, giving them warm, sugary beverages to drink (no alcohol), and if safe, relocating them to a warm, protected area. Do not walk on feet with frostbite.

I hope that these tips will help you prepare for fun and safe adventures in the backcountry this winter! Remember, with proper equipment and planning, winter backpacking is perfectly safe and incredibly beautiful.
If you have further questions about cold weather camping, gear recommendations, or trails near you, email us at!
And don’t forget to register for spring trips today!

Author: Emma

Having grown up in the Diocese of Virginia, I am now embarking on a year-long journey to Muscat, Oman through the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps (YASC). If you have questions or would like to connect, please feel free to reach out via email.

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