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Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping

A lightweight approach to traveling light in the winter on snowshoes.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2014-12-10 03:00:00-07

2014 Update

Update: This article was originally published in January 2004, and was updated in December 2014. This update reflects changes that I've made since the original gear list was published, based on changes in my personal preferences and/or significant evolutions of material technology or design.

These changes have resulted in impactive benefits for me:

  • A simpler kit that requires less fiddling to use;
  • A warmer kit for less weight that reflects changes in choice and performance of materials in clothing and sleep systems;
  • A lighter pack - in fact, a pack that is about five pounds lighter today than it was ten years ago.

Of course, more experience gives me more confidence to use lighter gear. That realization shouldn't be overlooked when analyzing your own progress as a lightweight backpacker over a period of years.

Context

Seasons: Winter, Early Spring
Length of Trip: 3-Day Weekend

The gear list provided below is one example of how a lightweight backpacker might select equipment for a 3-day weekend outing in temperate mountain ranges in the winter. Inherent assumptions in this list include:

  • Several feet of unconsolidated snowcover on the ground;
  • Overnight low temperatures of zero to fifteen degrees;
  • Daytime highs not above freezing;
  • Relatively flat terrain free of avalanche risk.

 - 1
Inside a makeshift winter snowcave built adjacent to a forest of shallow snow (snowpack is only about 5 feet deep). First, a trench is built, then a lattice of dead wood is laid in an arch fashion over the trench. The final step: pile a layer of snow across the lattice several inches (at least 8-12") thick. The result: a warm, insulating shelter that is easy and quick to build.

Gear Notes

This list focuses on camping inside a snow cave. With enough snow cover, snow caves are the fastest, warmest types of snow shelters available. Properly built, a snow cave gives you the flexibility to use three-season gear to remain warm, which can save a tremendous amount of weight. However, this approach requires an exceptional level of skill in locating a site for, and properly building, a snow cave. In addition, snow caves can be wet enough to warrant the use of a highly water-resistant sleeping bag shell or bivy sack if you are using a down sleeping bag. Finally, digging a snow cave is wet business: waterproof raingear, or all-synthetic insulating clothing, may be warranted. An important disclaimer: if you are caught with an equipment kit like this and are unable to build a snow cave, or you build one improperly, you will subject yourself to severe risk of hypothermia if conditions are extremely cold. In context, it is important to note what constitutes an improperly built snow cave. Primarily, a properly built snow cave is one that is just large enough for the number of occupants (less volume to maintain a thermal mini-climate), has thick enough walls for proper insulation (generally, considered to be two feet), has a properly located entrance (below the level of the ground surface so warmed air doesn't escape), and proper blocking of the entrance (with packs, a hung jacket, etc. to minimize cold air exchange).

In a snow cave, conditions are very damp. They tend to be quite humid, gear has no ability to dry, and dripping walls tend to get sleeping gear wet.

In 2004, when this list was originally published, I wrote:

Consequently, I have selected synthetic insulation in my clothing and sleeping bag, and have added a water resistant bivy sack to shed some of the external moisture. I have specified an insulated clothing and sleep system that will allow me to survive a night outside the snow cave, if a cave cannot be built. This system has been used to comfortably sleep at winter temperatures down to minus 10 degrees F outside of a tent. If the risk of spending a night in the open is very small, and you are a competent snow cave builder, I recommend that you save further weight with a lighter sleeping bag. I have spent nights down to zero degrees using the clothing specified in this list in combination with a two-pound synthetic bag rated to 40 degrees F (Integral Designs Andromeda Strain).

With advances in the moisture resistance of down, and the increase in breathability of water-resistant fabrics, I'm more inclined to go with a down bag with a highly water-resistant shell on it, and to skip the bivy sack (unless I know there is a very high likelihood of being caught in the open outside the shelter of a snow cave in stormy conditions).

In addition, the 2004 list included a white gas stove, as originally written:

I have elected to bring a white gas stove over a canister or alcohol stove, for its improved efficiency in melting snow. Snow cave environments are usually warm enough such that both white gas and alcohol stoves work well; however, a white gas stove has the power to melt several liters of snow quickly, and if I need to melt snow while still traveling at midday, and conditions are cold, I appreciate the power of a white gas system.

Significant advances in both inverted canister (i.e., liquid-feed) and integrated canister stoves have been made since then, and they now occupy standard spots on my winter gear list. In particular, my favorite solo winter stove is the MSR WindBoiler - a tiny little thing that has enough juice to rapidly deliver hot water from snow for a hot drink or meal in an emergency. Because it boils a small volume so rapidly, it's a successful stove for a solo traveler, even in very cold conditions. In the warmth of a snow cave, or even an 18-inch deep "snow pit" out in the open, the warmth of the stove maintains plenty of thermal feedback to keep the canister from freezing and slowing down the boil.

Other important changes since 2004 (strike-outs indicate what was originally written):

  • I have selected wide mouth water bottles for their ability to resist freezing in the opening, and the wide mouth caps are easy to handle with gloves or mittens. I've seen (and experienced) enough failures of Nalgene Cantenes in the field that I am hard pressed to recommend them. However, aside from using hard-sided bottles, they still seem to be the "best of what's available" for soft-sided wide-mouth bottles, and have enough durability to at least last for short trips...
  • I've chosen a hybrid LED headlamp with a high-power (1-watt) LED to give me the flexibility of navigating after dark, not an uncommon occurrence in the winter. There are so many good LED headlamp options that I can't cover them all here, but the age of hybrids is over. I've simply selected a high-performing, bright, 1-LED lamp that can be fueled by lithium batteries for cold weather performance.
  • The clothing system has been simplified to three layers for the torso and two layers for the legs. This assumes two states of being in cold, foul weather: moving hard (traveling) or being still (camping). If your level of fitness is below that which might be required to stay warm on the move by moving fast, an extra traveling layer should be considered.

Some examples of brands and models/styles are listed below for reference only. They neither represent an endorsement of that particular product nor a suggestion that the product listed is the best choice in the context of any particular situation.

Changes from 2004 to 2014 are indicated by strike (2004) and bold (2014).

Clothing Worn

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
thin hat thermal headwear for active conditions thin PowerStretch balaclava 1.5 oz
active shirt bicomponent wind shirt Rab V-Trail Top Patagonia R 0.5 Hoody - lighter, more breathable 12.0 oz 8.5 oz
underwear trim-fitting support shorts, boxer-style Nike Spandex Running Short Tights 3.0 oz
active pants soft shell stretchwoven long pants Arc'Teryx Gamma MX Patagonia Simple Guide Pants - lighter, more breathable 18.0 oz 15.2 oz
gloves windproof waterproof, insulated gloves Cloudveil Icefloe Gloves Arc'Teryx Beta AR Gloves (warmer, waterproof) 5.0 oz 7.2 oz
snow socks ultralight thin, ski-style sock Smartwool Ultralight Ski Socks 4.0 oz
gaiters breathable gaiters Outdoor Research Flex-Tex none - not needed with overboots (see below) 4.5 oz 0.0 oz
boots insulated snow boots Baffin Tundra Inov-8 Roclite 286 GTX Boots + Forty Below LIght Energy TR Overboots - lighter and warmer system 48.0 oz 42.0 oz

Other Items Worn / Carried

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
ski poles one piece adjustable, carbon fiber, with snow baskets Stix X1 with Nordic handles Black Diamond Razor Carbon with snow baskets - more durable for long term use 8.0 oz 21.0 oz
snowshoes large deck model for deep snow Northern Lites Backcountry 30" 43.0 oz
whistle pealess whistle on Spectra cord Fox 40 Mini Whistle, AirCore Plus lanyard 1.0 oz
watch compass / altimeter watch Suunto S6 Casio Pro-Trek PRG-270B - easier to use, esp. with gloves on 1.3 oz 2.1 oz

Other Clothing

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
storm jacket soft shell stretchwoven hardshell jacket Cloudveil Icefloe Patagonia M10 - lighter, less restrictive 20.0 oz 8.1 oz
insulating jacket synthetic down high loft insulating, hooded pullover Integral Designs Dolomitti Parka Feathered Friends Helios Hooded Jacket with Pertex Endurance Shell - lighter, warmer 23.0 oz 19.0 oz
insulating pants synthetic high loft insulating pants with side-zips Integral Designs Denali Pants Patagonia DAS Pants - lighter 20.0 oz 15.3 oz
warm hat wool beanie cap PossumDown Beanie 1.5 oz
warm mitts insulated mitts Integral Designs Down Mitts MLD eVENT mitten shells to go over gloves, extra pair of dry fleece glove liners - same weight, more versatile system with less duplicity 5.0 oz

Sleep System

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
snow shovel suitable for digging a snow cave SnowClaw Backcountry Snow Shovel 5.4 oz
bivy sack waterproof bottom, breathable top none Bozeman Mountain Works Quantum X Bivy Gossamer Gear Polycro Ground Cloth 6.5 oz 2.0 oz
sleeping bag synthetic down, rated to 10 °F Integral Designs North Twin PrimaLoft sleeping bag Englightened Equipment 10 °F winter quilt - lighter 23.0 oz
sleeping pad full length closed cell foam inflatable pad Cascade Designs Ridge Rest NeoAir Xtherm Sleeping Pad, Full Length - warmer, more comfortable 14.0 oz 15.0 oz
sleeping pad torso sized inflatable mattress - not needed Bozeman Mountain Works ComfortLite 10.0 oz 0.0 oz

Packing

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
backpack backpack with 30-lb carry capacity Granite Gear Vapor Trail Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 4400 - more comfortable, simpler, better snow and water shedding with less water absorption 32.0 oz 34.0 oz
stuff sack 250 ci 700 ci for clothing Bozeman Mountain Works SpinSack Hyperlite Mountain Gear XL Cuben Fiber 0.25 oz 0.5 oz
stuff sack 250 ci 700 ci for clothing Bozeman Mountain Works SpinSack Hyperlite Mountain Gear XL Cuben Fiber 0.25 oz 0.5 oz
stuff sack 500 ci for sleeping gear 700 ci for sleeping gear Bozeman Mountain Works SpinSack Hyperlite Mountain Gear XL Cuben Fiber 0.25 oz 0.5 oz

Cooking and Water

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
stove white gas inverted canister MSR SimmerLite with pump and windscreen WindBoiler - faster, easier to use 11.0 oz 15.3 oz
fuel container titanium 8 oz net canister MSR Titan Fuel Bottle, 0.6L (empty weight of canister) 3.5 oz
cook pot 2L cookpot (large enough for melting snow) 1L pot included above in stove weight AntiGravityGear 2L Pot with lid & cozy 8.0 oz 0.0 oz
drinking mug 16+ oz capacity drinking mug Snow Peak 21 oz titanium mug Stove pot works great as an insulated drinking mug 2.8 oz 0.0 oz
utensil spork Vargo titanium spork Light My Fire Titanium Spork 0.5 oz 0.6 oz
lighting matches & 2 lighters Bic lighters (2) & storm matches in 4" x 7" Aloksak 1.5 oz
water bottles 1.5L soft bottles with wide mouth lids Two 48-oz Nalgene Cantenes 5.0 oz
food storage waterproof bag 12" x 15" Aloksak 2.0 oz

Other Essentials

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
maps custom printed on waterproof paper National Geographic Topo! 2.0 oz
light LED headlamp, suitable for nightime navigation Princeton Tec Yukon HL with lithium AA batteries Fenix HL22 - lighter 7.0 oz 3.0 oz
first aid minor wound care & meds assorted wound & blister care and medicines 2.0 oz
firestarting emergency firestarting - waterproof Sparklite & firestarter in 4"x7" Aloksak 1.0 oz
sunglasses 100% UV blocking, plastic lenses/frames Julbo Native Dash SS - lighter, more comfortable 1.0 oz 0.5 oz
goggles lightweight ski goggles for blizzard travel Bolle Zoopla 3.0 oz
anti-fog for glasses & goggle care anti-fog balm, cleaning cloth 1.0 oz
sunscreen 100% UV blocking, waterproof, paste Dermatone 1.0 oz
personal hygiene assorted toiletries toothbrush, soap, toilet paper, non-alcohol hand gel, in 4" x 7" Aloksak 2.0 oz

Consumables

FUNCTION STYLE EXAMPLE WEIGHT
fuel white gas canister fuel, 2.5 days 6 3 oz / day 15 oz 8 oz
food 2.5 days 32 oz / day 80 oz
water average carried 1.5 quarts 48 oz

Weight Summary

(1) Total Weight Worn or Carried 9.33 9.28 lb
(2) Total Base Weight in Pack 15.53 11.41 lb
(3) Total Weight of Consumables 8.94 8.50 lb
(4) Total Initial Pack Weight (2) + (3) 24.47 19.91 lb
(5) Full Skin Out Weight (1) + (2) + (3) 33.70 29.24 lb

Citation

"Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00277.html, 2014-12-10 03:00:00-07.

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Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping on 12/10/2014 13:42:23 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping

Gary Dunckel
(Zia-Grill-Guy) - MLife

Locale: Boulder
Winter gear list on 12/10/2014 17:34:34 MST Print View

That update is interesting, Ryan, as it does indeed reflect the improvement in the products now available vs. 2004. This is timely, as our local Boulder Lightpackers meet-up group will have winter gear as a topic of discussion sometime this winter.

One thing--in your gear list you mentioned an inverted canister setup (vs. white gas), and then you chose the Windboiler, which is not an inverted canister stove. I assume that you meant either an inverted canister stove OR the Windboiler.

I hope you will post your experience with the Windboiler after you encounter teperatures of 0*-10* F. A year ago I did some cold weather stove testing, and the MSR 1.0 L. Reactor didn't do well at all at 10-15* F. Maybe they've improved things somehow with the new Windboiler burner technology?

Edited by Zia-Grill-Guy on 12/10/2014 17:35:43 MST.

Stuart .
(lotuseater) - M

Locale: Colorado Foothills
Re: Winter Backpacking Checklist on 12/10/2014 21:57:08 MST Print View

Interesting update, Ryan, showing the proliferation of lighter weight or higher performing gear over the last decade. Three comments:

(1) Any experience with Hunersdorf water bottles? I understand they are easier to handle with gloves and withstand boiling water better than Nalgenes.

(2) Wot no sleeping pad / mat? Is this just for a snow hole situation? I'd have thought that even a 1/8" CCF pad would help with conductive heat transfer to the snow.

(3) Bloody hell those Dead Bird gloves are expensive! What makes them so dang good to justify the price?

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping on 12/10/2014 22:03:06 MST Print View

The author could use an editor.

--B.G.--

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Down DWR advances not included on 12/11/2014 01:03:01 MST Print View

This is a good list that I agree with in the main and one that makes me re-thinkmy own inter gear list.

I may sound like a broken record, having posted several times on BPL about DWR down. But once again I'll say that winter camping without DWR treated down like Down Tek or Dridown is omitting gear that could, at the least, make camp life and trail life warmer.

And at best avoid serious cold exposure problems from compromised down garments.

Edited by Danepacker on 12/11/2014 01:04:21 MST.

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: The Great Lakes Bay Region
Re: Down DWR advances not included on 12/11/2014 04:58:52 MST Print View

Oh, Eric.

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Down DWR advances not included on 12/11/2014 06:06:11 MST Print View

"I'll say that winter camping without DWR treated down like Down Tek or Dridown is omitting gear that could, at the least, make camp life and trail life warmer. "

Yeah, all those long term tests we hear about, not. Let's disregard the previous decades data that shows down works without it.

Mike Henrick
(Hikerbox) - F - M

Locale: Boston
Edits on 12/11/2014 06:37:51 MST Print View

I think you should double check some of your changes, like the synthetic sleeping bag to down quilt doesn't show a weight change.

Otherwise excellent article. I'm considering making the jump from single layer insulated boots to trail runners and the 40 below overboots. This helps!

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
few observations on 12/11/2014 07:14:46 MST Print View

Thanks for posting the new list!

few observations:

personally I wouldn't venture into the mountains w/o a real shovel- several to chose from right at 16 oz, a 10 oz hit I'll gladly take over the Claw

I don't think a R .5 is a substitute for a wind shirt, not to mention it's no longer made-bring a windshirt!- you'll wear it almost all the time

a substitute for a layer that is nice on the move (under a windshirt or on it's own) is the Cap 4 hoody- I've been using this as a base layer (vs a mid-layer) in the winter and it's great

for a trench shelter, I'd consider packing a light nylon tarp to stretch over the top- makes construction easier and prevents a lot of leaking from the "roof"

a prefer a waterproof bivy (eVENT) so I don't have to rely on a water resistant shell on my bag, not to mention the bivy adds warmth and would allow for a slightly lighter bag, also a great piece of emergency kit if you can't dig a shelter

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping on 12/11/2014 14:18:57 MST Print View

Are there other trolls on BPL or is Bob Gross the only one?

In serious response however I have to disagree with you, Mike. I can rarely hike with a windshirt and find that my even my R1 is almost too much of a layer when I'm actively hiking. I've never put on the .5 however so maybe that would change my mind.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping on 12/11/2014 14:54:44 MST Print View

"Are there other trolls on BPL or is Bob Gross the only one?"

Sam, I made a positive suggestion. No trolling allowed.

--B.G.--

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping on 12/12/2014 00:12:44 MST Print View

Glad to see the lightweight GTX boot paired with a 40 Below overboot combo here. I'm looking to adopt the same thing this year.
For others that use this system...
I'm thinking of including a light event gaiter as well. In the winter condition I hike in it can get very mixed and sloppy; snowshoes are not always used. I figure I could easily switch between the snowshoes with overboots when it's deep or just wear the boots and gaiters when it's mixed.
Thoughts?

Andrew F
(andrew.f) - F - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Re: Re: Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping on 12/12/2014 00:22:30 MST Print View

Craig, I can't speak for the overboots but I'm in and out of my snowshoes all the time. I wear GTX boots with gaiters and it works perfectly. My gaiters aren't waterproof (just nylon with a light PU coating) and I haven't had any problems with getting wet - if I'm trudging through snow, even slushy stuff, I've stayed dry. The only time my feet get wet is in lots of powder when snow comes up between the gaiter/boot junction - my boots aren't very tall or this would be less of a problem.

Travis Bernard
(DispatchesfromtheNorth) - F - M

Locale: Lake Laberge
Re: Re: Re: Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping on 12/12/2014 11:47:05 MST Print View

Craig,

I'd recommend getting the short forty below overboot. That way, you can wear just the boots and gaiters and if you need to put the overboots on you can add the gaiters on top of the overboots as well. Lighter than carrying the forty below overboots with built in gaiters as well as your normal gaiters.

I'm testing this system out in the Yukon this winter (using Salomon GTX Ultra trail runners) but it's been so warm that I haven't even had to wear the overboots yet.

Cheers...

Rick Horne
(Rick778) - M

Locale: NorCal - South Bay - Campbell
Stoves? on 12/13/2014 13:44:49 MST Print View

I haven't spent the time to research, so this could be a dumb question, but how does the WindBoiler differ from the Jetboil? They at least look very similar.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Stoves? on 12/13/2014 13:52:48 MST Print View

Look Here

There are several versions of "JetBoil" stoves.

Also, - backpackinglight.com windboiler - in google, and select MoreTools/AnyTime/LastMonth to cover most of the bases.

Edited by greg23 on 12/13/2014 13:59:42 MST.

Rick Horne
(Rick778) - M

Locale: NorCal - South Bay - Campbell
Re: Re: Stoves? on 12/13/2014 17:31:45 MST Print View

Thanks

peter vacco
(fluff@inreach.com) - M

Locale: no. california
Re: Winter Backpacking Checklist on 12/14/2014 14:16:48 MST Print View

well, here we are today, preparing the terrifying number of 250k topos for next spring's effort up north, and what comes along.. but a new gear guide.
hooray !

i am right about where Ryan was a decade ago (but heavier. of course). looking forward to the 'ol whisperlite (vs a bushbuddy in the wind), and all such as that.
that guide is a lot to ponder. i don't know so much that i am ready to jump into with both feets. need a tent for sure. there's seldom enough snow, and stuff has to dry out on a long trip. will prob go with the old foamy underneath my t-rest. not trusting a non-foam t-rest for weeks on end and no replacing a hole'd one.
got a 315 mile section on one bag of food somewhere along the line, and that means a big heap of food, which equates to a bigger and heavier pack.
and so it goes ...

will certainly research the gloves and overboots recommendation.

thanks for your efforts,
v.

scott Nelson
(nlsscott) - MLife

Locale: So. Calif.
Got Enough clothes? on 12/16/2014 16:03:33 MST Print View

I'm surprised that Ryan wears a baselayer top, Hardshell Jacket, and a puffy jacket. Seems to me I'd be cold at some points with only a baselayer and hardshell. The Down Jacket would be too warm to hike in. What happened to the polypro mesh shirt and some sort of midlayer like a fleece, softshell, or thin synthetic? Am I missing something?

Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
Clothing on 12/16/2014 18:37:57 MST Print View

Exactly Scott,
Ryan, some questions:
1-you hike in a R0.5 fleece top. That offers no resistance to wind. Any time there is even a mild breeze, it will start to get mighty cold one it gets below 15f or so. Donning the shell doesn't seem like a good option, considering the amount of condensation you'd get in there at low temps and high effort.

2-Second question: sleep clothes. I see no sleeping socks listed, and with an non-breathable overboot, your thin day time socks would be very wet by evening.
Are your insulated pants long enough to cover your feet, or what do you do?

3- why a waterproof jacket but no waterproof pants? If you are not expecting wet precip, why the waterproof she'll instead of a windshirt?

Edited by Tjaard on 12/17/2014 19:48:14 MST.