Winter Backpacking Rules

I’ve had close calls with hikers getting hypothermia, so I always insist on a few basic rules for winter backpacking. These rules should always be followed in order! They are based on your survival priorities: “You can survive for three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.”

Fire at Governor Clement Shelter

Rules for Winter Backpacking

My rules are simple, and they should always be followed in order immediately upon arriving at camp.

  1. Change out of your wet clothes no matter what.
  2. Set up your shelter in case you need it.
  3. Help collect firewood and start a fire.
  4. Help collect drinking water for the entire group.
  5. Cook and eat a hot meal with hot beverages.

The only time I allow anyone to vary from these rules is if they’re already showing signs of hypothermia. If that’s the case, that person can skip steps 3 and 4.

winter backpacking
Hikers cross a small stream in cold weather.

Change out of your wet clothes

Even in the driest weather, your clothing will build up moisture of the course of a day of vigorous hiking. When you arrive in camp, you may feel warm and you might not notice that your clothing is damp. Don’t be fooled! As your activity level decreases, you’ll start to feel a chill. You’ll soon find yourself shivering. Once you’re cold, it is a lot harder to warm back up. This is why you should always change into dry clothes as soon as you arrive in camp.

In the winter, I have a minimum set of dry sleeping clothes for all trips. These clothes are only for sleeping in! I will not wear these on the trail. My sleeping clothes include mid to light weight merino wool tops and bottoms. I also carry a pair of puffy pants from Enlightened Equipment and a heavy down jacket from Mountain Hardware. I may also have at least one fleece dedicated for sleeping.

winter backpacking
St Gregory Makes Breakfast in his Mountain Hardware Phantom.

Set Up Your Shelter

Once I’m in my dry clothes, I put up my tent, blow up my sleeping pad, and fluff out my quilt. If it is raining or snowing, I may be forced to do this before changing my clothes, but that isn’t my first choice. Once my shelter is set up, I have a warm place to retreat to if the weather gets worse or I develop a bad chill.

If you’re planning on sleeping in a lean-to shelter or back country cabin, that’s fine – but you should still blow up your pad and fluff out your quilt or sleeping bag.

winter backpacking
The Argonauts Bundled up in a Lean-to

Collect Wood and Start a Fire!

I’ve said it over and over: If you’re going to learn just one skill, learn to build a fire in wet conditions. It isn’t easy, and you’re not going to be able to figure it out on the fly. Learn this skill and practice it often!

I try to get the whole team to help gather firewood. You would be surprised how much wood you need to get through a long, cold winter night. The sun may go down at 4:30 PM and you may not feel like going to bed until much later. A good hot fire may be what keeps your group going for hours. For any size fire, you need about 5 times as much wood as you think you need.

Once your fire is going, it is going to help warm you up and cheer up your team. You can also use it to dry out wet clothes and boots. This could be critical! You don’t want your clothes clothes or boots freezing overnight. Its nice to get them warmer and drier before stuffing them into the bottom of your sleeping bag.

Being able to make fire from wet wood is a potentially life-saving skill when winter backpacking.
Being able to make fire from wet wood is a potentially life-saving skill when winter backpacking.

Help Collect Drinking Water

Before everyone gets too cozy, its a good idea to collect all the water you need for the night and the next morning. Your team probably won’t want to go do this once it gets dark, so get it done early. I personally like to have 5 liters with me in camp. That’s typically all the water I need to rehydrate after hiking, cook my dinner and breakfast, and fill my bottles for the next morning.

Let me tell you, it is really nice to have your water ready in your tent so you can make coffee in the morning without getting out of your sleeping bag!

Collecting Water

Cook and Eat a Hot Meal and Hot Beverage When Winter Backpacking

Nothing warms you up like getting some hot food and liquids into your belly. Sending that warm stuff right to your core always does the trick. If someone in your group is showing signs of hypothermia, you may want to help them eat and drink a hot meal right after getting them into their shelter. That person doesn’t need to help with fire or water!

You should try to eat fatty foods in the winter. Fat burns hot in your belly and will keep you warmer longer though the night. You can add oils to your dehydrated meals or eat snacks of nuts, salami, or cheese.

Cooking in your vestibule also heats up your tent. I’ve seen the inside of my tent heat up as much as 20 degrees while running my stove.

Always have a plan!

As always, have a plan! Having a plan may save your life. In a leadership position, it may give your team the confidence they need to follow your advice. Its pretty obvious when a leader seems to be guessing his way through problems as they arise. The famous Mountaineer Ed Viesturs says he makes all of this decisions on the ground, before he starts his climb. When situations pop up, he just does what he had already decided to do. Have a plan, stick to it, and follow your own rules for winter backpacking!