Getting into four season gear can be pricey: warmer sleeping system, more complicated layering, new footwear solutions, etc. In reality, if you have a solid three season system, getting to four seasons (for snow camping) doesn't have to cost a fortune or be very complicated.
First, let's break down the main changes that need to be made:
- Increasing the warmth of your sleeping system: sleeping pad and insulation
- Estimating the need for a 4 season shelter
- Updating to a 4 season cooking system
- Adjusting to the appropriate layering system
- Choosing and getting the right footwear
- Finding the right balance at camp
With that outlined, let's address each of those issues so your gear can handle all 4 seasons.
Increasing the warmth of your sleeping system
This sounds daunting, but is probably one of the simplest adjustments to make as there are only 2 parts:
For the mat, the solution is easy: your 3 season sleeping pad is probably around 3-4 R-values, so you just need to bring it up to around 6+ R-values. Luckily, you can increase R-value for winter camping just by stacking more insulation, so get a good closed-cell foam mat to fit under your 3 season mat (a short Thermarest Z-Lit Sol is a great option) and you are done. For more on R-Value, check our in-depth post about it.
The insulation on your body (togs, or the like) is a bit more challenging. There are several "hacks" that try and solve that issue, like adding a reflective liner in or out of the sleeping bag, adding a bag liner etc. As nice as the idea of having a shortcut to warmth is, this is not how life works - for more warmth, you need thicker insulation. To get more out of your 3 season sleeping bag (20 Fahrenheit/-6 Celsius) you need to add more insulation, preferably on the outside to avoid pressing the insulation you are adding inside your bag/quilt. Though not quite the same as direct as R-values, insulation can also be stacked, so get creative. In the US, Costco down throws are a cheap and effective way to add warmth to your sleep system, or you can look into making your own synthetic quilt (what I chose to do).
With this, at about $100 you have upgraded your sleeping system to winter. Done.
Shelter - Yes? No? Which?
Shelter is directly connected to your camping spot and location. Personally, I prefer finding a sheltered (from wind) place somewhere on a slope and "cowboy sleep" in the winter, if snow is not predicted to fall. If snowfall is predicted, I prefer using a simple tarp in the same setting. As much as we all like minimalism in camping, that is not always possible and wind chill, snow fall (potentially heavy) and condensation are all a risk. In those situations, it is vital to use the right shelter for snow camping.
When it comes to tents for 4 seasons, there is not much to do besides buying a heavy, strong, 4 season geodesic tent. If you choose that, expect a high price point and don't pick one of the "single" or even "double" pole ones, you need 3+ poles for a strong winter camping geodesic tent.
Luckily, we have hundreds of years of experience from nomadic tribes to learn from about the pyramid style tent in winter. The modern iteration of that is the "mid" style tarps that use a single pole and have very steep slopes for good snow-shedding ability. If you like having some bug protection or just the sense of privacy, bug tents can usually be added inside.
A last thing to remember about winter shelters is that they need to have lots of room as there is a good chance you will end up spending most of your time outdoors in them. With long nights and harsh conditions, when winter backpacking you tend to do most of everything (besides walking) in your shelter.
Cooking Outdoors In Winter
Even if you are a UL fanatic and choose to live on cold soaks all summer, when winter hits we all crave some hot food at the end of the day. This is also a big part of heating your sleeping system at night with the heat your body produces when digesting. Our Buc bags are great for cooking your dehydrated meals. For some bonus warmth to you and your food, stash the warm bag in your jacket while it is rehydrating.
The big problem with cooking while winter camping is that alcohol stoves and the ultralight upright stoves just won't work (most of them, at least). For cooking in winter, you have 3 main options:
- White gas stoves - amazingly reliable in most conditions, they tend to be a bit hard to handle, heavy and pricey. But if you want something that will work come frozen hell, this is the best choice and they will be good for all year round
- Integrated gas stove system - think about the Jetboil family, MSR Reactor and the like - these are meant to increase the life and efficiency of an inverted gas stove in extreme conditions. The big issue with these stoves is that they are really only good for boiling water, they also tend to be heavy and cumbersome to carry
- Remote canister gas stove - the idea is to use gravity by inverting a gas canister to get the most out of a lightweight gas stove. To read more about how to do this, head over to this post.
With regards to pricing, things get pretty expensive when it comes to cooking, but a UL remote canister stove is a really good all around solution for cooking. If you go for any gas option, choosing the right gas mix is important, with isobutane (no n-butane) and some propane, but if you really want to learn a lot about this topic, check out this Adventure in Stoving post about it. A few more how to points for more efficient cooking while winter camping:
- Sleep with your fuel to keep it warm for cooking (free!)
- Have a heat reflector around and under your stove, you can use a disposable tin pan (very cheap)
- Regulate the temperature of your fuel from cold ground/snow with some insulation like something reflective, a small closed cell foam or a piece of ply-wood
No matter what, don't cook in your tent: it can kill you. Make sure you have enough ventilation and keep your stove outside of your shelter.
Adjusting Your Layering System
There is no need to rewrite all there is to know about layering, just read the post I wrote recently. I just want to make sure you are set for cold temps when active and mainly, when camping, in winter:
- When you stop moving, you will get cold fast so a warm, thick, insulation layer for camp is recommended: jacket, pants, gloves, hat, maybe even booties. Thick is the key here, and to make it light you can pick down, but synthetic insulation will work too. For a cheap UL solution: your sleeping system is insulation; wear it around camp while cooking/setting camp etc
- The key for cold weather is avoiding sweat buildup that might freeze, which is why synthetic, fast drying layers are better: a synthetic base layer (running shirt), fleece mid layer and a shell is the best combo for moving in winter. Softshells are a great shell in dry and snowy conditions for your torso and legs
- Protect your feet with a Vapor Barrier Liner. Place a sealed layer between two layers of socks to prevent the thick, external socks and footwear from freezing. An easy and cheap solution is using an oven bag
- Have dry, warm sleeping clothes. This is key for a good night's sleep. Focus on thick and dry socks and a hat that are only used for sleeping
- Don't let yourself get cold fast when stopping, layer on fast and replace wet garments quickly
Last but not least in winter: "be bold, start cold" is the only way to hike in the winter, as body heat climbs up fast and not dumping sweat out while active is very dangerous.
Choosing and Getting the Right Footwear
Footwear is tricky as it is very personal, so I will skip most of it. I'll just say that I hike in trail shoes in the snow, too.
How you choose to approach footwear will stay your choice but it's worth remembering:
- Vapor Barrier Liner (see above)
- Comfort is still key
- How fast are you moving?
- Will you need traction devices? Which?
As an example, I'll just explain my winter upgrade. To my trail shoes, I add Gore-Tex liners along with thick wool socks, trail gaiters to prevent snow buildup, micro-spikes for icy conditions, and snowshoes for deep snow. This setup can be as cheap as $100 and go up to $300. Snowshoes have a very popular and abundant second hand market.
Too Much Camp Time
This is a huge problem in winter camping that first time backpackers often forget - you will end up with 10-15 hours of dark in most of the Northern Hemisphere, and that is a long time of not moving. To make it more enjoyable, here are a few simple and cheap tricks:
- This is a good time for reading and writing. Bring the right tools for you
- There is no light, so your UL light probably won't be enough at some point; consider a lightweight lantern of some sort to make things more livable (like Montbell's)
- Drink lots of tea to catch up on liquids; it is probably dry and you won't have hydrated properly during the day. Stick with decaf teas that will also help you keep warm
- Warm bottle in your sleeping bag/quilt can make magic, especially near the feet
- Pee bottle is worth considering as leaving your warm sleeping bag 4 times to pee is really frustrating. 32 oz wide mouth bottle is really convenient (add a pee tube for ladies)
- Have a high calorie meal just before tucking in to warm up your sleeping system and give you enough energy to get through the night.
Lastly: enjoy! Backpacking year round makes the year so much longer and eliminates the constraints of the "hiking season."