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

by Ryan Jordan. Don't let the snowfall across the U.S. keep you inside! Check out possible gear list and enjoy the winter wonderland in your backyard.

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.

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