Gear List: Winter Day Hikes Below Treeline
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Winter hiking and three season hiking are extremely different sports with a completely different array of equipment required. I recently wrote an article on the ten essentials and what I typically bring on a three season day hike, and you'll need almost all of those for winter hiking as well. In addition, here are all of the extra things that I add to my pack in the winter! Keep in mind this list is intended for below treeline travel, so I'll write a separate article on the extra equipment and skills you'll need for those types of hikes later.
Emergency Gear: I recommend that you have all of these on hand for any winter 4,000 footer, but it can be split between the members of your group. You may not need all of it for shorter, less cumbersome hikes and it might seem like overkill even for some of the 4Ks, but this stuff will save your life in the case of inclement weather or other unforeseen complications. Are you 100% confident navigating a complete whiteout clutching a map and compass in 70 mph winds? Me neither, so make sure you have this gear in case you need to hunker down and wait it out. Weather reports are only so accurate, and storms can appear out of nowhere especially in the Whites.
1. Bivvy Sack: I have my dad's old Bibler bivvy sack from the 90s (which I love), but any emergency waterproof bivvy would do the job. This is just for emergency shelter in the case that you have to wait out a storm or you get hurt and have to wait for SAR and it's arguably the most important of the four emergency items. This Sol Thermal Bivvy is one that many people have their winter kit.
2. Sleeping Bag: A 20 degree rated bag should be sufficient as long as you have a bivvy and sleeping pad for extra insulation. Remember with sleeping bag ratings, the degree that it states is not the temperature that you would be comfortable sleeping in it. It is the temperature in which the bag will keep you alive, but you will not be able to sleep at twenty degrees in a twenty degree rated bag. But you likely won't die so that's a plus! If you're planning a longer above treeline trek, I would consider bringing a zero degree bag or warmer just in case. This one can be optional for the easiest 4Ks, but I recommend it for anything strenuous especially if you're solo.
3. Stove: This is the most optional of the four emergency items, but still important to think about. Your stove is to melt snow in the case that you run out of water or your water source freezes. A liquid fuel stove like the MSR Whisperlite is the best option if you're going to be out on long above treeline adventures, but if you're only planning to use it for emergencies you can get away with a tiny and cheap simple solid fuel stove and a metal cup to melt your snow. I'd say this would only really be necessary for long trips, but never a bad idea to have with you.
4. Sleeping Pad: For this I cut a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol into two pieces and keep the smaller one with me for day hikes. This comes in handy for sitting at the summit to take in the views, and it keeps an insulated layer in between you and the snow if you were to have to wait out a storm or survive overnight. The piece I cut out is relatively small (about 3'x3') and I use it for Lucy's bed when we camp. It's great because lightweight, cheap, and multi-purpose!
Other Important Equipment:
1. Layers: Layering is key! Sweating poses a serious risk of hypothermia in the winter because once your clothes are wet they freeze. Here's my post about winter layering systems for everything you need to know about staying warm on winter hikes.
2. Snowshoes: Although there's a lot of debate in the winter hiking community on brand of shoe, it is widely accepted that snowshoes are essential for winter hiking in the Whites. Don't be that guy that's post-holing through deep snow ruining the trail and making dangerous holes for someone else to break their ankle in. Snowshoes also make traveling in deep snow so much easier so you can float on top of the light fluffy stuff instead of sinking in waist deep. After a lot of research, my favorite snowshoes are the MSR Evo Ascents. They're significantly cheaper than the MSR Lightning Ascents (the best climbing snowshoes money can buy) but are just as durable and only an ounce heavier. Whatever you get, make sure they are ascent or mountaineering shoes because the ones for flat trail snowshoeing will be useless in the mountains.
3. Microspikes: These are absolutely essential as soon as the temperature drops below freezing. Clip them onto the outside of your bag for a quick and easy traction device for traveling on hard packed trails and in early season conditions. I've used the Hillsound Trail Crampons for two seasons with no issue. I'm not a fan of the popular Katoola Microspikes because they do not have the durability or reliability that the Hillsounds do at the same price. Be wary of the Amazon budget ones because they tend to fall apart quickly. The picture above also includes crampons, which are almost never necessary for below treeline hiking. I'll talk more about those in my article on above treeline winter day hikes.
4. Wide mouthed water bottles with insulation: Dehydration is a serious concern in winter hiking. It's always a battle trying to keep your water from freezing in the bitter cold conditions of the Whites. I've had success with wide mouthed Nalgene bottles with insulation. Specifically, I'll fill my Nalgene with warm water and put it in a thick wool sock. This whole contraption then goes upside-down in my bag since water freezes from the top down so when it freezes it won't occlude the opening. I've also had success with insulated water bottles like this Thermoflask 40oz bottle that will also keep water sufficiently insulated in cold weather. There are also water bottle insulators that encapsulate the whole bottle that see great success. Hydration bladders like Camelbak or other tube delivery systems WILL freeze even if you insulate the tube and blow the water back into the bladder after every sip. These are not a good option because once the tube freezes you are left with no way to hydrate yourself (which is why we always have a stove as well).
5. Food that won't freeze: I usually rely on Clif bars (the Cool Mint ones are my favorite!) and jerky when I hike, but in the winter these freeze to the point where they're inedible. This means you have to figure out a different way to fuel yourself in the winter. My go to snacks are homemade trail mix, cheese and crackers, or even Clif bars that I've chopped into bite sized pieces. I also like to warm up leftover food from the night before and put it in a thermos. Hot pasta or soup on the trail is the best!
6. Sun and wind protection for your face: Many people forget that sunburns are still a thing in the winter. In fact, they're often more likely in the winter because of the sun reflecting off of the white snow. Make sure you have sunglasses and sunscreen to prevent sunburn. My favorite is Dermatone because you can use it on your lips and face to prevent frostbite, wind burn, and cracked lips as well. I use it on my knuckles too to prevent them from cracking. In addition, neck warmers and face shields come in handy to keep your face warm in freezing weather. Bring an extra to switch out halfway through because frozen balaclavas are no fun!
7. Trekking Poles: I use these for all four seasons, but they're especially beneficial for when you're wearing snowshoes. The shoes can throw off your balance, so these will save you from toppling over time and time again! Just make sure you have baskets on the bottom because they're pretty useless in the snow without them.
8. Hand/Toe Warmers: These are great for their intended use, but they're even more so for keeping your electronics functional throughout your trip. Anything that you usually carry with batteries will die if you don't keep them warm. This includes your headlamp, phone, extra phone battery pack, and some satellite devices. I usually stick a toe warmer on the back of my phone and keep it in an internal pocket. For the headlamp, I keep it in a little mesh stuff sack with a hand warmer, my spare phone battery, and my PLB. Remember that the warmers are activated by oxygen, so they need some airflow. Have extras and check them halfway through your hike so you can make sure they're doing their job. And remember, when you expose your phone to the elements, it only takes a few seconds to freeze again so try to keep it tucked away on airplane mode or off when you don't need it.
9. 40-50 Liter Pack: Because you need all of this extra stuff, you'll need a bigger bag to carry it all! I use the Osprey Aura AG 50 because the anti-gravity system helps the weight disperse itself properly and makes it feel light even when I'm carrying over 30 lbs. Whatever you get, remember that you'll likely have a lot more weight in the winter so really test it out in the store with some weight in it. Don't forget that you'll have to be able to attach snowshoes to the outside as well!
So that's an overview of what I add to my pack for winter hiking! You'll still need all of your ten essentials, but these things are also necessary for winter travel. Check out my other gear lists for three season day hiking, winter layering, and winter hikes above treeline for more information on what you might need.
I feel like this post kind of needs a disclaimer. You alone are responsible for your safety in the mountains and being prepared for the worst possible conditions is part of that. This list is not the be all end all of everything you could possibly need in the mountains, so please take it with a grain of salt. This is more of a guideline of what I bring when I hike in the winter, so you may need more or less depending on what kind of hikes you'll be doing and personal preference. So with that said, have fun, be safe, and happy hiking!
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