Backpacking in the late Fall, or early Winter is unlike any other season of the year, for obvious reasons. There are definitely some gear changes that need you need to be aware of. Not to mention, it’s COLDER. When I go backpacking in the Winter, temps can get down into the teens at night. That by definition is Winter? It’s important to understand that depending on what region are you backpacking in, could be the difference in what gear you bring. The Southeast (where I am) is different than Northeast, or the Pacific Northwest. Is packing for a 20 degree night in the Southeast the same as packing for a 20 degree night in the Northeast? Probably not. Why? In the Southeast, it maybe cold at night, but it certainly warms up during the day. So your layering system maybe a little different.
Backpacking for Winter requires careful thought and planning. Weather and elevation are going to play key factors in how you pack for your trip. In the Southeast for example you are probably NOT going to run into 2 feet of snow. In the Northeast, I would makes sure I brought Snowshoes. Unlikely in the Southeast. Packing for cold nights and warm days can be tricky in of itself. Many times, it’s really cold in the morning. But once I get going, I’m pretty toasty warm
TIP: Learn the 3 layering system. This is essential when backpacking in cold temps.
I was quite warm under a tarp recently when the temps got down to 15 degrees at night. I had 3 layers and a 15 degree Marmot Adventurer sleeping bag with a 2mm ground cloth and a Long Thermarest underneath. However, during the day when temps reached a balmy 45 degrees, I had only 2 layers and never over heated.
My total pack weight was 28 pounds for two cold nights and 3 days in the 40’s. Having said that, I mixed Winter gear with Fall gear. In other words, I didn’t take snowshoes, snow stakes, a white gas stove, nor winter down snow pants.
Here is my clothing pack list for the Southeast:
Long sleeve base layer REI Midweight Polartec® Power Dry® Zip-T
Mid layer Delta AR Zip Men’s
Nail Driver Soft Shell Pants (these are excellent for cold nights and warm days) You will NOT need long johns with these.
First Ascent Downlight Jacket for camp. (I sleep in this and adds an extra R Value to my sleeping Bag. It’s also extremely packable) (look for a good deal on Ebay for this item)
Smart Wool Winter Socks
NorthFace Tent Bootie
Mountain Hardwear Balaclav
Wool Hat, and gloves.
One added piece of gear I brought but didn’t use, but I think is necessary is my Marmot Greenland Baffled Jacket. I bring this for two reasons. One, it makes a great pillow, and two, weather can change quickly in the mountains, so I bring an 800 fill jacket for the “just in case” scenario. If I don’t use it, my dog uses it as a sleeping bag.
And NEVER forget your Hardshell or Rain Jacket. I bring a Marmot Precip Jacket no matter what season it is. Your rain jacket works as a wind breaker and really stops the cold whipping wind from chilling you to the core. It also makes a great pillow.
This gear list would obviously change in high altitude conditions when snow and high winds would be prevalent. For Appalachian Trail Thru Hikers, who plan to start hiking early in the year, this gear list would work nicely for you.