In addition to eliminating gear, it also helps to pick what you must carry carefully. There always seems to be something lighter for either the same price or even less. Usually these gear changes come with no sacrifice of quality and often serve their purpose better. However, sometimes there seems to be no perfect setup and the options are endless. I want to illustrate some of my choices and the frustrations I have had that led me to these gear choices. There are some specific priorities with regards to dropping weight. First and foremost, I try to ditch weight from the pack to relieve my spine of unnecessary burden. Secondly, I try to ditch or minimize gear on my body, such as a watch or shirt. Also of importance but often overlooked is body weight. Many backpackers carry an additional 50 pounds of fat on their abdomen, making their journey difficult and far more dangerous. However, I will only talk about the modifications to gear. Here is my Appalachian Trail gear list for a winter section hike:
- Pack: Osprey Hornet 32Coming in at 1lb. 4oz. this is one of the lightest packs on the market. This is a huge downsize from my Osprey Exos 58 liter pack and also a huge weight drop of 19 ounces. Additionally, I dropped the “brain” off the top of my pack for another 3 ounces weight savings. The brain is to make little things more accessible but I found that I can put these things into a ziploc bag in the top of my pack for just as much convenience. Additionally, some of the other bells and whistles on this pack can be removed or cut off. I’ll never be carrying an ice axe so I have no need for that loop on the bottom. This pack is frameless, so I am counting on being able to drop enoughstuff to make a frame unnecessary. If your total pack weight is going to be less than 20 pounds on the first day out, then I suggest a frameless pack. If it is going to be more, go with it’s framed brother, the Exos. The Atmos and all other Osprey packs are unnecessarily bulky and while they may be comfortable, they are only necessary for epic expeditions necessitating heavy gear.
- Sleeping Bag: Marmot Lithium 0° sleeping bagAt 2lbs. 10 oz. this toaster of a sleeping bag contains 850+ fill down and a eye catching price tag (for the wrong reason). When I bought this bag, I knew it would be my only one. I was preparing for the worst and I am thankful that I made that decision. While totally unnecessary on 80% of the nights I have used it, in the unpredictable weather of the Appalachian mountains, having it has saved my life on many occasions. It has allowed me to venture into the coldest and highest mountains with confidence. If I only backpacked with other people instead of nearly always opting for solo trips, I would probably have chosen a lighter, lower insulation bag. Or if I refused to venture out in the most bitter cold season, choosing summer instead, I wouldn’t have seen this bag as necessary. But seeing as I like to travel alone in the harshest conditions these mountains can provide me, I chose a bulky bag.
- Sleeping pad: Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite Mattress
Having adopted an Exped Downmat for a time, I have returned to the trusty, traditional, closed cell foam. The Ridgerest is incredibly lightweight and durable. I cut mine in half, then cut one of the halves in half. This dropped a quarter of the weight and left me with a 10.5 ounce pad, dropping nearly 25 ounces from the Downmat. While the Downmat did have an R-value of 9, the Ridgerest falls far short with an R-value of 3. However, I place one quarter of my Ridgerest under my core where I need it most and place my pack under my feet to keep my calves from falling on the cold ground. This gives me a significant R-value of 6 beneath my core. Also, I use the quarter section of pad as a camp seat. Another benefit of the Ridgerest over the Dowmat in addition to the weight savings, is the durability. While I never have popped my Downmat, it has always been safely stored within my pack. The Ridgerest, on the other hand, can be strapped to the top of my pack, something I would never do with my Downmat for fear of briars tearing it. With the Ridgerest, a tear only adds to the weathered look of a veteran adventurer.
- Water storage: Platypus Hoser, 2 Liter
I recently decided on this water bladder because of my pack change from the Exos to the Hornet. With the Exos, I used a 32oz Gatorade bottle which could be easily shoved into the side pocket. But with the Hornet, the pockets are too small to accommodate the large bottle. I am excited about this change though. Putting a water bladder on my back places the densest material I am carrying closest to my spine, where it is easily balanced. While the Hoser does create a large bulge on the center of my spine, I found that Osprey’s water bladder, the HydraForm Reservoir, was not worth the weight. The HydraForm Reservoir is a great design, adding to the structure of the pack with a frame inside the bladder. Additionally, the Osprey bladder kept the water from uncomfortably bulging on the hiker’s back. However, these enhancements come at the cost of an additional 5 ounces, weight which I am not willing to carry for minor improvements. When the technology drops in weight, I’ll give it a second look. But for now, the 3.6 oz. Hoser is my resorvoir.
- Water Treatment: Katadyn Micropur Water Purification Tablets
At less than one ounce for 30 liters of water filtration, these tablets are the lightest and most convenient option for water treatment. People often whine about the taste of chemically treated water. Typically the only time I treat my water is when it tastes like ass anyways. I usually carry the Steripen Adventurer but at 3.5 ounces and only compatible with bottles, I am opting for a lighter alternative for this trip. The downside of the tablets is a two hour wait time for neutralization. However, having earned my trail name “Thirst” by constantly running out of water, having an additional liter of water in the process of purification in my pack can’t hurt.
- Shelter: Survive Outdoors Longer Emergency Bivvy
While this sub-four ounce emergency shelter stays in my pack 95% of the time, it conveniently serves two purposes. In case of a surprise rain storm, this bivvy can be easily thrown over my sleeping bag. In the morning, however, the condensation built up will make my sleeping bag’s insulation nearly useless. For this purpose, the bivvy really is only for emergencies. However, this boPET sack also can serve as a vapor barrier on exceptionally cold nights. Retaining the moisture evaporated from my body keeps me from losing that heat. Additionally, the metallic surface on the inside of the bivvy reflects 90% of my radiated heat. The bivvy saves me from an enormous amount of heat loss while also protecting the down sleeping bag from destructive moisture. On longer trips, the water vapor from my body condensing in the down can negate the insulation and make the sleeping bag all but useless. A vapor barrier prevents that and allows me to take longer trips without having to dry my bag.
- Compression sack: Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil Compression Sack Yellow, M/14L
At only 2.6 oz., this compression sack for my sleeping bag is an increase from the 1 oz. stuff sack my sleeping bag came in. However, the extra weight allows me to carry a smaller pack, actually dropping the weight of the entire system. The small sack is easily capable of fitting my sleeping bag and if need be, a down jacket can be compressed with it. That is my 0° sleeping bag compressed to be barely longer and no wider than a ballpoint pen. This is incredibly small for something that lofts to 6 inches high and is 6 feet long.
- Headlamp: Black Diamond Icon Polar Headlamp
This 200 lumen headlamp comes at a cost of 10.6 oz. but enables me to hike deep into the night. On winter expeditions, I can’t afford to travel only during the day time. With 10 hours of daylight and 30+ miles to cover, I need more time to comfortably cover the distance. With lithium batteries and abandoning the cloth case and strap, I dropped its weight down to a still heavy 7.5 ounces. However, a decent lit area in front of me speeds up my hiking and helps me be more comfortable in my surroundings with less risk of injury. For a summertime trip, a lightweight 70 lumen headlamp would do.
- Shoes: Mizuno Wave Ascend 7 Choosing to carry minimal gear opens up another opportunity to drastically increase my hiking speed while reducing my effort. I ditched the boots, choosing instead to wear a lighter, sturdy trail running shoe. These Mizuno trail runners have traction good enough to get me through shallow snow and up muddy slopes. At 11.4 oz., breathable shoes are a drop of 13 oz. from my Merrell Moab hiking shoes. However, I ditch the Gore-tex liner that the Merrell shoes have and because of that, have to implement my plastic bag technique in snowier conditions. However, Gore-tex is not nearly as breathable in dry conditions and because of that, I choose to have a removable water barrier. I always choose low-top shoes finding that the increased stability from ankle flexion is worth the minimal risk of injury. With reduced weight on my back, I have less concern for rolled ankles and more concern for falls.
- Trekking Poles: Leki Makula Carbon
I bought these poles many years ago and at around 12 ounces, they are the lightest ones of their kind on the market. Trekking poles are definitely worth their weight, providing additional balance over rough terrain, while also taking pounding off the legs. If used right, they are one of the best tools for being able to up mileage significantly.
- Miscellaneous: I bring my 1/4 ounce backpacking light spoon on all my trips, whether I bring a cook set or not. If at minimum, I use it for peanut butter which I almost always have. On this trip, I will not be bringing a cookset, which is actually only a MSR Titan Kettle which still only weighs 4.5 ounces. I also bring a .5 oz. travel toothbrush. I leave the toothpaste at home though. I have three firestarters which collectively weigh less than half an ounce. They are mostly for emergencies in case I can’t get a fire going with what is around or if I am feeling lazy. The rest: lighter, lip balm, 1 oz of petroleum jelly, 2 oz of duct tape, bandanna, phone, ID, debit card, cash, girl’s watch (lighter), Suunto wrist compass, food bag.
- PATAGONIA Capilene Midweight Zip Neck Men’s Top, Black, L: Lightweight, warm when cold, cool when hot, rugged as hell.
Merino wool is touted for it’s antimicrobial properties but is heavy compared to Patagonia’s Capilene base layers.
- Nike shorts: These shorts are lightweight and have a built in underwear and dry extremely fast. Any pair of synthetic fabric shorts with built in underwear and an elastic waistband suffices for my purposes however. There is nothing special about this particular pair.
- Darn Tough Merino Wool Boot Socks Full Cushion – Men’s Olive Medium:
I always wear sock liners. Liners prevent blisters by hugging your foot and allowing it to slip in your shoe without tearing at your skin. However, in colder, deep snow conditions, I use a layered system of liner, plastic grocery bag, and then the thicker wool sock. The liner keeps my foot a comfortable distance from the plastic. The plastic bag acts both as a vapor barrier and protection from melting snow. If it is really cold out, I do switch to Gore-tex shoes. There is a lot of talk about taking at least three pairs of socks. I find this to be unnecessary. I take only the two pairs. If the liners becomes too dirty, I wash it in a stream and wear the other pair while the liners dry.
- Icebreaker Men’s 260 Glove Liner:
This base layer glove keeps my hands warm and from chaffing in the straps of my trekking poles. They also act as snot rags.
- Mountain Hardwear Gravity Glove:
At just over 4 ounces, these windproof and water resistant gloves will keep me from getting frostbite even down to the extremes I expect on my upcoming trip. I opted out of a waterproof glove, feeling that if it is raining, it is warm enough that I don’t have to worry about frostbite while hiking and if it is cold enough, the snow should fall off the glove.
- Marmot Super Mica Jacket:
This 7 oz. minimalist jacket is exactly what I am looking for in a jacket. I won’t be bushwhacking and have a more durable jacket for the skiing trips or backcountry exploring. This jacket packs down to the size of a baseball and will act as shield from the wind on the open fields of Roan Mountain and will protect me from the snow and rain of early January. Over top of my Capilene baselayer, I expect to be plenty warm.
- Arcteryx Alpha SL Pant:
For snowy, windy, or rainy conditions, these pants are literally a life saver. I choose not to carry insulated pants because I never really have felt I needed them. At 9 oz. these pants are hardly noticed in the pack and are crucial on mountain peaks for keeping clear of hypothermia.
- SmartWool Midweight 250 Balaclava:
Most people don’t think about their necks with regard to heat loss but in reality, you can lose as much heat in your neck region than on your head. Covering exposed areas covered in windy conditions is crucial to heat retention. On colder trips, I’ll layer a Mountain Hardwear winter hat over my balaclava. At sub 2 ounces, the balaclava can be pulled up to cover nearly all of my face and I take ski goggles if the weather is expected to be especially gnarly.
At barely over 7.5 pounds without food and water, this is literally everything that I will be carrying with me on my next trip, one in which I will cover 500 miles and will endure the highest altitudes in the east in the dead of winter. I know this seems very minimalist, but this really is all I need. I don’t bring a camera because my phone works equally well for that. I don’t bring a book because my adventure is worthy of its own story. I don’t take any luxuries; otherwise I would visit a spa. I am out there to endure. This is what I need, this is what I carry. Some of this gear is expensive but I will take nothing less than the highest quality when my life is on the line. There are very few gear lists that actually explain their decisions. I hope, with this one, that people will better understand how to drop pack weight and what they may or may not need to carry.
19 thoughts on “Appalachian Trail gear list: Winter”
Congratulations on your well thought out blog. You are right that it is often difficult to find the rationale. I am an amateur hiker who intends to do some limited overnight hiking/ Virginia section of the AT during this coming winter. Thank you for your thoughts and good luck on career goals.
Thanks David! I think winter is my favorite season because no bugs!
Thanks for all the information. I am planning my AT trip in hopes of changing my life. I have alot to learn but hate waiting. I like the idea of winter and fewer bugs but hypothermia is making me cautious.
Hey Shawn, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Winter is my personal favorite time of year for backpacking but is definitely slower going. Have a great trip!
So insightful. Keep us posted on your adventures and any new gear discoveries.
Im glad you enjoyed the post Bekah! I should have a revised and updated pack list soon!
Hey. I meant to ask you – what light weight tent would you recommend? I’m hoping to thru-hike the Appalachian trail, possibly leaving as early as March 1st.
I absolutely love my big Agnes fly creek ul1. That thing is amazing. I’ve put it through the wringer and it’s never let me down. Best of luck on your trip! Are you planning on writing about it at all?
hey Grayson, those water proof pants are quite pricy. would you recommend anything cheaper for the same purpose? Im doing an AT thru hike from may-october -Michael
Hey Michael, thanks for checking out my site! Luke’s ultralight makes some awesome silnylon gear for cheaper that you might want to check out: http://lukesultralite.com/content/silnylon-pants However, those aren’t breathable so they’ll act as a vapor barrier. An even cheaper option would be Frogg Toggs which you can pick up at Walmart. They’re very inexpensive, work great, but are not very durable. That would be a good option if you’re not interested in carrying rain pants may-september when you probably won’t need them. You could just pick up a pair in Gorham or something if you’re headed NOBO. Good luck man and let me know if you have any other questions! I hope this helps!
No shelter or groundsheet other than that emergency bivy? As you said, sleeping in a non breathable bag like that will make your sleeping bag nearly useless after one night. So what if it rains/snows for more than more night?
Shelters! The AT is loaded with them. I understand this is a super specific gear list but in the winter on the AT you can be almost certain to get a spot in a shelter. But also if it is cold enough, there’s no need for a shelter because the nylon on the bag will simply disperse the snow. If the bag is doing it’s job, it shouldn’t be warm enough the melt the snow on the outside. I’ve slept out many nights under super cold snow storms without a shelter. Thanks for your question, I can’t believe I hadn’t addressed that in the original post!
Oh yeah, I forgot about the AT shelters. Never hiked on the east coast myself. As far as sleeping in a snow storm with no shelter, you don’t get buried? What about snow getting under your bag and wetting it out? I guess you sleep under a tree? Hope you don’t mind the questions, I’m preparing for some winter hikes of my own, having only done 3 season trips before. Like you, I try to go as minimalist as possible, but it seems you’ve taken it to a whole new level! Much to learn…
Hey Zach, sorry for the late response. You called it! I usually set up camp under a pine bough or something if I’m cowboy camping. I’ve never had too much problem with wetting out but it’s definitely not a good practice for a sustained snow storm. Usually here on the east coast the worst we’ll get is a few inches over the course of a day and then it won’t snow for a couple weeks. It’s a process though. Feel it out for yourself and see what works and what you’re comfortable with. Take care!
Heard that mouses are a pain in the shelters. is there that many?
Hey Ben, yeah they’re pretty bad in some shelters. Just don’t be covered in food though and you’ll usually be fine. I had one nibbling crumbs out of my mustache one night though :O That kind of grossed me out!
I am considering hiking the full AT alone, beginning in January 2018. I’ve never been on the AT. I am 68. I have a fleece jacket and light weight long johns. Is that sufficient for cold hiking days? Also, I have purchased a hiking hammock with a rain fly. What is your opinion of this?
I love your blog! Lots of great info from a fellow climber, backpacker, etc. My one comment is that the need for water purification in the mountains is one giant hoax. I have been drinking untreated mountain water from creeks since 1976 and have never had a problem. I’ve done this in the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, the Rockies and the Appalachians.
I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading it! I’m with you like 90% but do feel like for people who don’t have the knowledge and experience of picking sources, they should probably use some sort of treatment. But I’ve almost completely ditched treatment, especially out west. Thanks for your comment!