It’s 3AM and properly raging outside. We’re on the North side of Pitchoff Mountain, in New York’s Adirondack Park. It’s a relatively short snowshoe from the car, but it feels like Alaska right now. It’s -4F inside the tent and it’s been snowing hard since the sun set at 4pm. When it’s this cold, you can hear trees crack like a baseball bat striking a fast ball as sap freezes and splits them. Frozen ponds emit deep, undulating moans as ice shifts on their frozen surfaces.

It’s my turn to dig out the tent, my bladder’s full (has been for hours) and moving is the last thing I want to do because, ironically, it’s hard to imagine I’ve ever been more comfortable. I’m hunkered down in my sleeping bag, warm as can be. An ominous wind whips through the treetops while the calming hiss of snow sliding down tent walls beckons me to stay in my bag.  I’m content thinking about the ice climbs, now just a short walk from the tent, that we’ll get to jump on in a few hours, with no one else around in the ominous, post-storm silence of a backcountry winter.

looking out tent on winter hike

Times like these remind us that winter camping presents a unique set of challenges and rewards. Mentally, the ability to laugh at yourself and understand that discomfort is temporary goes a long way toward keeping things fun. On the physical end, being hyper vigilant about what you bring along is key. Comfort is important, but when breaking trail through deep snow you can definitely be reminded that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

As much as the idea of ultralight winter backpacking might sound like an oxymoron, somewhere between overpacking and under-packing, there’s a balance; a happy place where you’ll be warm and relatively comfortable without lugging 50 pounds of gear into the woods for an overnight. Here are a few key areas of gear to focus on that can save you pounds on your back, keeping your winter backpacking equation tipped solidly onto the fun side of things. Note that the majority of these principles apply to every season but can have a outsized impact in winter, simply because you have more stuff.

packing backpack

Your Backpack

Choosing the right pack can save you a pound or two right off the bat. Start by trading out that deluxe summer backpacking pack, with its tricked-out suspension and a million zippered compartments, for a dedicated winter pack. Typically categorized as “alpine” or “climbing” packs, they will serve you best in winter with their pared-down suspensions and fewer bells and whistles. Most alpine packs are dedicated top-loaders, meaning no “sleeping bag compartments” or fancy access points. This saves weight, means fewer potential failure points and a drier pack overall with fewer points for snow to penetrate.  The straightforward, single-compartment design also packs super-efficiently. There are no funky spaces to fill–just one big tube that can be stuffed to the gills with little wasted space. What features these packs do have are also multi-functional for maximum efficiency, with just a few external straps offering options for stowing ice-axes, crampons, skis, snowshoes and more. And finally, with the right gear focused on packability, you can easily get away with a 50-55 liter pack for most 1-2 night trips without wishing you had more room.

putting together winter sleep system

Your Sleep System

Aside from your shelter, your sleep system is likely the place where you stand to save the most weight and space. Broadly defined as “everything you sleep in or on”, the warmth of your system can be dialed in by changing any individual piece of it. To simplify things, let’s look at the three main components that effect the warmth of your system: your sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and what you wear inside your bag.

The Sleeping Pad

Simply put, there’s no better way to save weight and space than the unmatched warmth-to-weight ratios of Therm-a-Rest NeoAir® air pads. Nothing else will pack as small and deliver the warmth you need with less weight. Use an air pad. Save weight. Simple enough.

The next thing to note is that R-Value is additive. This means that if you stack two pads with an R-Value of 1, you’re going to get the warmth of a pad with an R-Value of 2. While it might be intuitive to grab a winter warrior like the XTherm™ NXT air pad with its crazy-warm R-value of 7.3, you might already have what you need in your summer sleeping pad. For instance, using the ultralight XLite™ NXT pad that you already have and adding a Z Lite™ SOL closed cell foam pad (R-value 2.0) underneath, you get a cumulative R-Value of 6.5–plenty for winter. While the Z Lite/air pad combo might appear to be a little heavier and bulkier by the numbers, it will afford you three things that are great to have in winter: A protective barrier under your air pad, a fail-safe backup to a compromised air pad, and perhaps the most utilitarian, a virtually indestructible, insulated pad you can use around camp for a seat or even to stand on to keep your feet warm. Here again, having something that serves multiple purposes is one of the best ways to save weight, and since the Z Lite SOL can be easily carried on the outside of your pack, it won’t consume valuable space inside.

How much warmth you need from your sleeping pad is, of course, subjective. Remember though that you can never have too much warmth – only too little. What you can have is too much weight and bulk. That’s where we fall back on the idea of a sleep system.  If you double down on the insulation beneath you (which is a pretty efficient place to do so considering our ThermaCapture/NeoAir technologies weigh so little), you can likely pare back on the insulation above you a bit, giving you another opportunity to streamline your winter backpack.


drinking in winter sleep gear

The Sleeping Bag

Down vs. Synthetic
In winter, down rules supreme. Warmth-to-weight ratios are the gold standard of assessing the value of your winter insulation and no other fill material can match it. Down sleeping bags do take a bit more care, but a good, 700-fill (or higher) down bag has no peer. The common rationale of using synthetic bags in wet environments still holds true: down loses loft when wet and insulates less, synthetic fill retains more loft and thus can still insulate. However, our modern hydrophobic down can easily handle the typical dampness of a few winter nights and, if you can air your bag out in the sun a few times during your trip, it dries three times faster than regular down, making it totally fine for most any trip. You’ll find the added weight and bulk of synthetic is best saved for extremely wet environments and folks that would rather carry more weight than take the bit of extra care that a down bag demands.

Temperature Rating
The next thing to consider then is how warm your sleeping bag needs to be. Conventional wisdom has been that a 0-degree bag was synonymous with a winter bag. If you really look at the conditions in most temperate winters around the globe though, that’s overkill for most people.

staying cozy in tent

The new, universal EN/ISO standard for measuring sleeping bag warmth is also more useful and realistic these days, allowing you a more objective understanding of a bag’s warmth over the wild west days when manufacturers pretty much guessed how warm their bags were. For many, a modern 20-degree (F) sleeping bag will be plenty for most of winter and, if you need more on occasion, try a down quilt over top for those few extra-cold nights. Since a quilt only covers your top and you have plenty of insulation below, you’ll again save weight and space compared to a warmer, larger sleeping bag with fill all around you. Plus, you’ll boost year-round utility in the process as you’ll now have an ultralight quilt for warmer summer trips too. (If you haven’t tried a quilt in summer yet, you’re absolutely missing out!)

And finally, don’t forget to view it all as a system. A 20-dgree bag in top of a pad with an R-value of 6.5 will feel a lot warmer that one on top of a pad with an R-value of 2. You’ll have to start somewhere to know how much warmth you need, but think of your sleep system the same way you think of layering your clothes and you can create a system that works perfectly for you.

Your Layers

The final piece to your sleep system (aside from a multifunctional pillow) is what you wear to sleep. One piece of lore we can dispense with is the idea that sleeping naked is the warmest way to roll. This makes zero sense. Since when have fewer layers and less dead air space to trap heat meant more warmth? Layering up with moisture-wicking baselayers will not only make you warmer, you’ll also be more comfortable as those layers help disperse moisture, and prevent that clammy feeling. If needed, you could even sleep with a down jacket on for added warmth. If you absolutely needed to shave weight, you could even plan on that and take an even lighter bag. Options, options, options…

setting up tent in the snow

Your Shelter

In winter, a solid, 4-season tent can keep you safe and secure in the worst conditions. But is it really going to be that bad where you’re camped? Will you be in the trees, sheltered from the wind? Is a heavy snowfall really in the forecast? While a 4-season tent is not a bad idea, you might not need one that’s built to handle being pitched at 23,000 ft on Everest. Even a floorless tarp-style shelter might do, saving pounds from your pack. Going somewhere there’s a lot of snow? Build a snow shelter and save all the weight of a tent from your pack–as much as 6-9 lbs for most four-season tents, not to mention a ton of space.

One thing is for certain: winter camping isn’t for everyone. However, it could also be said that, if you haven’t tried it yet, it’s a lot more fun that you likely think it is. Modern gear has brought comfort to a whole new level for winter and it’s getting smaller and lighter all the time.

Do all the things–start small and close to the trailhead, learn about avalanches, if they affect your plans and how to avoid them, and go ahead and overpack on those first few trips as you gain experience­. Soon you’ll discover that winter is no excuse to be stuck at home.

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Updated. Originally Published February 7, 2023.