5 Essential Skills for Winter Backpacking

Trail to Brokeoff Mountain.

This Thanksgiving instead of sitting at a warm table filling my stomach with turkey I decided to go on a solo winter backpacking trip in Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. I spent all but 24 hours of my five day, 65 mile trip either hiking through or sleeping on 6″ to 24″ of snow. Combined with my 20 years experience with snow and ice in Minneswota I’ve compiled a list of five essential skills for the winter backpacking experience.

1. Wayfinding

Wayfinding in Lassen.

In the summer, frequent footsteps, animals and trail maintenance groups beat down the trail and keep it free of debris. As a result, wayfinding is as easy as following a bare dirt trail. As winter sets in, these trails lose much of their visibility due to blowing snow and reduced human / animal traffic. As a result, on my recent trip to Lassen there was a whole day where I didn’t see any human footprints on the trail. If you find yourself in this situation these wayfinding tips will help you find your way:

  • Look for a sunken path or divot snaking through trees, thats the trail.
  • Watch for human tampering such as shear cuts in logs or trees.
  • When crossing open meadows and clearings look for trail markers on the other side. In Lassen these were 3″ orange metal disks nailed into trees.
  • More often than not animals also use hiking trails, these tracks can help show you the way when you are unsure. (Don’t use this tip alone, animals also strike off on their own trails frequently)

I used these tips to much success, but every so often I would still walk off the trail for 10–20 feet. When that happens, stop, look around, and analyze the surroundings and you’ll soon be back to trekking.

2. Layering

Example of layering.

Winter is cold. Layering is essential to use your body heat effectively, insulating it from the winter environment. There are three layer classifications: (I’ve linked to what I wore in Lassen)

  • Base layer — Tight to the body and wicks away sweat quickly.
  • Down layer —A puffy jacket which holds in your body heat and insulates you from the environment.
  • Shell layer — Waterproof and breaks the wind. Keeps you and your down layer from getting wet.

The basic rule here is if you are warm (before you start sweating) take off a layer. If you are feeling a little cold put on layer. For example: In 30-40 degree Fahrenheit weather I’m often hiking with just my base layer because I’m generating so much heat. When I stop for a quick break I throw on my down layer to keep that heat in.

3. Traversing snow

Foot breaking through the snow-crust layer.

When snow reaches 6″ deep or more a slick snow-ice crust layer an inch or more thick forms on the surface of the snow pack. This crust initially allows you to walk on top of the snow but typically falls through when your full weight is placed on the foot. These cave-ins are annoying, tiring and damaging to your joints. To avoid these frequent cave-ins I recommend using snow shoes if planning on traveling in 6″ or more of snow for any length of time.

Additionally, the slick surface of this crust can be pure ice and make it very difficult to ascend and descend slopes as small as a couple feet high. To effectively and safely traverse sloped terrain in boots you can use the following techniques:

  • When hiking down a steep decline let your weight fall on your heel. Your heel will pierce the snow crust and create a step-like foothold.
  • Conversely, when hiking uphill kick the toe of your boot into the snow. Just as with downhill this will create a step.
  • If slipping when hiking up a slope try walking sideways, like a penguin or doing a so-called L-step. An L-step is when you place the back foot parallel to the slope for traction and position the front foot towards the slope, using its strong hamstring to move the body uphill.

For any of these techniques always be prepared for the foothold to give out, loose traction or fail to pierce the upper crust. Snow-ice can be unpredictable.

4. Being Ice Aware

Area of ice below tree.

Pure ice is a little tricker and more dangerous than snow. Falling with a 50lb backpack can severely sprain or brake a limb. The best plan here is to identify these areas before you step onto ice:

  • Watch out for the shadows of trees, they typically contain a layer of slick ice beneath them.
  • Observe when a set of footprints may be icy and know when to create your own.

Lastly, when walking on ice rotate your center of mass around the ankle to maintain traction instead of pushing off with your foot.

5. Heat / Drying Techniques

Staying dry and capturing heat is essential to staying warm in the winter. Layering and gear selection are the most important aspects for keeping dry and warm, but you can supplement equipment with these techniques:

  • Walk around before going to bed to warm up your body and build up heat in your down layer.
  • When purifying water (by boiling) each night, put your last liter in a water bottle and sleep with it. I have never been so warm in the backcountry as when I slept with a hot water bottle at night.
  • Bring a spare pair of socks. If your boots and socks get wet you can sleep in the dry pair while keeping the wet ones in your sleeping bag. Anything in your sleeping bag dries out by morning.


Winter backpacking offers the rare chance to see many parks with literally no one else around but, requires additional technical skills. Hopefully with these tips you can begin exploring this isolated, unique and beautiful environment. Good luck adventuring.