Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter

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

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


by Ryan Jordan | 2004-01-01 03:00:00-07

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

Context: 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

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, is warranted. An important disclaimer is warranted here: 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. 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. Consequently, we have selected synthetic insulation in our clothing and sleeping bag, and have added a water resistant bivy sack to shed some of the external moisture. We have specified an insulated clothing and sleep system that will allow the user to survive a night outside the snow cave, if one cannot be built. This system has been used to comfortably sleep at winter temperatures down to minus 10 degrees outside of a tent. If the risk of spending a night in the open is very small, and the user is a competent snow cave builder, we recommend that the user save further weight with a lighter sleeping bag. We 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).

We have elected to bring a white gas stove over a canister or alcohol stove, for the 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 you need to melt snow while still travelling at midday, and conditions are cold, you'll appreciate the power of a white gas system.

We 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. We've chosen a hybrid LED headlamp with a high-power (1-watt) LED to give us the flexibility of navigating after dark, not an uncommon occurrence in the winter.

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.

Clothing Worn

thin hat thermal headwear for active conditions thin PowerStretch balaclava 1.5 oz
active shirt bicomponent wind shirt Rab V-Trail Top 12.0 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 18.0 oz
gloves windproof, insulated gloves Cloudveil Icefloe Gloves 5.0 oz
snow socks ultralight thin, ski-style sock Smartwool Ultralight Ski Socks 4.0 oz
gaiters breathable gaiters Outdoor Research Flex-Tex 4.5 oz
boots insulated snow boots Baffin Tundra 48.0 oz

Other Items Worn / Carried

ski poles one piece, carbon fiber, with snow baskets Stix X1 with nordic handles & snow baskets 8.0 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 1.3 oz

Other Clothing

storm jacket soft shell stretchwoven jacket Cloudveil Icefloe 20.0 oz
insulating jacket synthetic high loft insulating, hooded pullover Integral Designs Dolomitti Parka 23.0 oz
insulating pants synthetic high loft insulating pants with side-zips Integral Designs Denali Pants 20.0 oz
warm hat wool beanie cap PossumDown Beanie 1.5 oz
warm mitts insulated mitts Integral Designs Down Mitts 5.0 oz

Sleep System

snow shovel suitable for digging a snow cave SnowClaw Backcountry Snow Shovel 5.4 oz
bivy sack waterproof bottom, breathable top Bozeman Mountain Works Quantum X Bivy 6.5 oz
sleeping bag synthetic, rated to 10 °F Integral Designs North Twin PrimaLoft sleeping bag 56.0 oz
sleeping pad full length closed cell foam pad Cascade Designs Ridge Rest Sleeping Pad, Full Length 14.0 oz
sleeping pad torso sized inflatable mattress Bozeman Mountain Works ComfortLite 10.0 oz


backpack backpack with 30-lb carry capacity Granite Gear Vapor Trail 32.0 oz
stuff sack 250 ci for clothing Bozeman Mountain Works SpinSack S 0.25 oz
stuff sack 250 ci for clothing Bozeman Mountain Works SpinSack S 0.25 oz
stuff sack 500 ci for sleeping gear Bozeman Mountain Works SpinSack M 0.45 oz

Cooking and Water

stove white gas MSR SimmerLite with pump and windscreen 11.0 oz
fuel container titanium MSR Titan Fuel Bottle, 0.6L 3.5 oz
cook pot 2L cookpot (large enough for melting snow) AntiGravityGear 2L Pot with lid & cozy 8.0 oz
drinking mug 16+ oz capacity drinking mug Snow Peak 21 oz titanium mug 2.8 oz
utensil spork Vargo titanium spork 0.5 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

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 7.0 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 1.0 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, alcohol hand gel, in 4" x 7" Aloksak 2.0 oz


fuel white gas, 2.5 days 6 oz / day 15 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 lb
(2) Total Base Weight in Pack 15.53 lb
(3) Total Weight of Consumables 8.94 lb
(4) Total Initial Pack Weight (2) + (3) 24.47 lb
(5) Full Skin Out Weight (1) + (2) + (3) 33.70 lb


"Winter Backpacking Checklist (Gear List): Ultralight Winter Snowcave Camping," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2004-01-01 03:00:00-07.