Monday 30 November 2015

Lightweight Gear In Winter

Camp on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair in the Cairngorms

With winter underway here's a piece, slightly edited, that first appeared in The Great Outdoors early last year. Happy winter camping!
Winter hiking means extra clothing plus, if there is snow on the hills, ice axe and crampons. Backpackers also need a warmer sleeping bag and a tent that will stay up in snowstorms. This means a heavier pack both for day walks and overnight trips. However careful selection of equipment can keep the weight down. It's possible to go winter backpacking with less weight than some people carry for a summer trip. What is important is not to cut it too fine. Winter weather is unforgiving and equipment must be adequate. It's wrong though to equate that with heavy gear. Consideration must also be given to where and when equipment is used. Trail shoes and lightweight boots are fine for winter as long as steep snow and ice isn't involved. Waterproof socks and gaiters can be used to keep feet warm and dry in light footwear. And even when winter walking becomes more like mountaineering and more substantial boots are required these don't have to be very heavy. Summer backpacking tents are fine on sheltered sites, as long as heavy snowfall isn't expected.

TarpTent Scarp 1 with crossover poles
For higher camps and snow single pole, single-skin shelters are stable and roomy and far lighter than geodesic domes, the classic design for winter mountains. Single-hoop tents aren’t good in snow but adding poles can make them support a snow load as with the TarpTent Scarp. 

TarpTent Scarp buried in heavy snow

A good sleeping bag rated for winter use will weigh more than a summer one as will a mat warm enough for sleeping on snow and frozen ground. In both cases two lightweight sleeping bags or mats could be used. Down-filled sleeping bags are much lighter than synthetic ones with the same warmth rating and can weigh less than a kilo. Down bags take up much less room than synthetics too so a smaller and lighter pack can be used.
Down is also good for clothing, especially in sub zero temperatures. A light down jacket will be much lighter and less bulky than the pair or more of fleece jackets that provide similar warmth. Water-resistant down makes down clothing much more usable in Britain now. However thin synthetic insulated clothing is warmer than fleece for the weight too and there are now many very light garments.

In winter hot food and drinks provide real boosts to morale. However cooking requires more fuel in winter, especially if snow has to be melted. Fuel weight can be reduced by using a pot cosy so food can continue cooking when off the stove. A heat exchanger pot also means less fuel is needed, though these weigh more than conventional pots so you need to be out for more than a few days before there's a weight advantage. Insulating the stove and fuel container from snow or frozen ground also reduces fuel use.

Kahtoola K10 crampons fitted to lightweight boots
In the hills snow and ice mean ice axe and crampons are needed. Full weight climbing ones aren't required though. Lightweight walking crampons work well except on really steep slopes and weigh far less than mountaineering crampons. The Hillsound Trail Crampons Ultra weigh 426 grams and the Kahtoola K10 crampons 608 grams while the Grivel Air Tech Lights, which are more suitable for steeper slopes, weigh 455 grams. These crampons can also be fitted to bendy boots and even trail shoes. Mountaineering crampons weigh from 700 grams upwards (the popular Grivel G10s weigh 822 grams for example) so a significant amount of weight can be saved here.

CAMP Corsa
Lightweight ice axes designed for walking or glacier travel weigh far less than traditional axes too and are perfectly adequate for hillwalking. For example the 70cm CAMP Corsa ice axe weighs just 282 grams in the 70cm length whereas the 73cm CAMP Neve weighs 584 grams, again a significant weight difference.


  1. Maybe Chris your post/topic should make me think twice about continuing my backpacking trip here in the Lakes. Ive come direct from the French Pyrenees this summer with gear for 35c weather there and hadn't planned to continue in the Lakes, so I'm using a PHD Half Bag 165g plus a PHD Wafer down shirt, but I need to wear every item of clothing Im carrying at night. Not clever I know, so might have to improvise or bail out.

    I have the Camp axe and G10 crampons, as you say, they don't really add That much weight do they?

  2. Hi Chris, another helpful article! When it comes to single walled shelters, how would you rate the Trailstar for winter use? Anything you'd recommend using with it in winter, in terms of groundsheet, mat, sleeping bag cover/in er etc? I noticed in one of your reviews that you don't use a bivi with yours (if you're still using it that is). Would you say the same for winter? Or would you use a fabric walled inner for warmth (adds a lot of weight though, may as well take a tent!). Generally, would you still rate the Trailstar as the best tarp type shelter for UK use, or has it been superseded by something better? Thanks for any help!

    1. The Trailstar is ok in some winter conditions. It stands up to strong winds and heavy snowfall. However the lack of a door means spindrift and snow can easily blow in. In those conditions I prefer a shelter with a door like the Nigor Wickup 3 (essentially a version of the no longer available SL3). The Trailstar is the best tarp shelter I've used - I still use it!