What's In Our Winter Peak-Bagging Backpack?

Tackling any of the Northeast’s higher summits in winter is serious business. Whether it’s the “world’s worst weather” on Mount Washington, bitter winds on Mount Marcy, or cold on Katahdin, you’ll need the right gear to deal with the below-freezing temperatures, stiff breezes, and icy slopes. Fortunately, we’ve got you covered.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Upper Body Layers

Base Layer

Our usual winter base layer is a lightweight synthetic, like the EMS Techwick Lightweight Long-Sleeve Crew (Men’s/Women’s). It controls moisture by wicking perspiration away from your skin, so you stay drier. Aim for a snug fit, as you’ll be adding multiple layers over it during the course of the day.

Pro tip: We typically bundle up in a heavy puffy coat when getting ready at the trailhead, but then begin our hike in just our base layer. The weather may seem cold, but it’s surprising how quickly you warm up once on the trail, and avoiding undue moisture—for instance, early sweat—means being more comfortable later.

Lightweight Softshell

In our packs, we carry four more upper body layers. The first, which we put on over our base layer, is a lightweight softshell, like the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket (Men’s/Women’s). This layer is perfect for exposed sections of the trail, providing some insulation and protection from the wind and light precipitation. We like this garment to have a hood, as it increases our ability to stay warm and dry.

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Credit: Harry Berking

Lightweight Puffy

As temperatures drop, we don a lightweight puffy—preferably one with “active insulation”—like the Black Diamond First Light Jacket (Men’s/Women’s). Active insulation allows the jacket to breathe, meaning you can wear it while moving without overheating. Once the territory of midweight and Power Stretch fleece, today’s puffies are warmer, pack smaller, are significantly lighter, and wick as well as fleeces of the past. 

Hardshell

No matter the season, you won’t find us hiking the higher summits without a hardshell, and a jacket like the Black Diamond Liquid Point (Men’s/Women’s) is perfect for the worst conditions. From traveling rainy ridgelines to stormy summits, hardshells are essential for shedding rain and snow, as well as blocking the wind. We like ours to have an integrated and adjustable hood to keep out the elements. 

Belay Coat/Second Puffy

A second, heavier puffy coat is great for rest breaks and to have in reserve for cold descents and emergencies. If the conditions look dry, we’ll pack a down jacket, like the Outdoor Research Incandescent, since down is lighter and more compressible. But, if rain or snow is in the forecast, we’ll pack a synthetic jacket, like the Black Diamond Stance Parka (Men’s/Women’s), which retains more insulation value when wet. We like to keep this layer easily accessible in our packs, so that it’s easy to get out as soon as we need it.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Lower Body Layers 

Baselayer/Softshell

We follow the same principles for our lower body layers. We often start in a pair of EMS Techwick Lightweight Base Layer Bottoms (Men’s/Women’s) for warmth, layered under a pair of midweight softshell pants—like the Outdoor Research Cirque (Men’s/Women’s)—for protection from wind and light precipitation.

Hardshell

If the forecast looks wet, we’ll add a pair of full-zip rain pants, like the EMS Thunderhead (Men’s/Women’s), for maximum protection from the elements. Full-zip is a must, as they are much easier to get on over boots and crampons.

Socks

Wet conditions equal cold feet, and because of this, we always choose a sock made with a wicking material—and we especially like wool for its ability to fight funky smells. Although we reserve the Smartwool Mountaineer Extra Heavy Sock for the coldest days, it has been a staple of our winter kits for years. Just remember that the sock needs to fit in your boot properly. If it’s too thick, it can cut off circulation, making your feet colder rather than keeping them warm.

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Boots

If you are going to spend time moving through the region’s high peaks in winter, a good pair of insulated mountaineering boots should be in your closet. For years, the La Sportiva Nepal has been the go-to boot for people doing everything from hiking Franconia Ridge to climbing Mount Washington’s Pinnacle Gully. The latest version, the La Sportiva Nepal EVO (Men’s/Women’s), offers a Gore-Tex liner to keep your feet dry, insulation to keep them warm, and leather construction to withstand years of hard use. 

Gloves

We travel with a minimum of three pairs during the winter. Our kit usually includes a lightweight glove, like the Black Diamond Dirt Bag, for the below-treeline sections; an insulated, waterproof glove, such as the EMS Summit (Men’s/Women’s), for above treeline; and a heavyweight mitten, like the EMS Summit (Men’s/Women’s), for extreme cold and emergencies. With this combination, you’ll have options for changing conditions and activity levels, as well as backups if a pair soaks through.

Chemical hand warmers stashed in an easily accessible spot are also a great way to warm up cold hands in a hurry, and they can be really useful in an emergency, too.

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Headwear

Much like gloves, multiple layering options for your head are essential during the winter. We typically start the day in a baseball cap for warmth and sun protection, and then use our layers’ hoods to help regulate body temperature. A lightweight wool or fleece hat is great for above treeline or really cold days.

We also carry both a multiclava and a balaclava. The multiclava can be worn as a hat or headband, and then pulled down into a neck gaiter or impromptu balaclava if the temperatures start to drop. The balaclava provides full-face coverage for when the wind really picks up.

Glasses and Goggles

During the winter, the sun reflects off the snow on the ground, increasing its intensity and damaging your eyes, so sunglasses are a worthy addition to your kit. We also include a pair of goggles (two pairs if we don’t bring sunglasses) to deal with the high winds commonly found above-treeline in the White Mountains.

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Equipment

A pair of trekking poles and Kahtoola MICROspikes provide great stability and traction on snowy and icy below-treeline terrain. For above-treeline or anywhere there is more exposure—think the Lion Head route on Mt. Washington—you’ll want crampons and an ice axe, as well. The Black Diamond Contact Crampons and Raven Ice Axe are tried-and-true choices.

If you’re hiking a less-popular trail or heading out after a big dump, we also recommend bringing snowshoes. Something like the MSR Revo Explore 25, with add-on modular tails, is a versatile option.

Water

We typically avoid using hydration bladders in the winter, because they have the tendency to freeze, and instead carry traditional Nalgene Wide Mouth Water Bottles. Of course, Nalgenes sometimes freeze, too, so either pack them inside your puffy coat, or get them an Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka.

Depending on the length of your outing, consider replacing one of your water bottles with a Hydro Flask filled with your favorite hot beverage. We like hot chocolate, as it tastes great, provides those extra calories your body needs to stay warm, and helps keep your core temperature up.

Pro Tip: Adding a little bit of juice to your water makes it more resilient to freezing.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Food

For winter hikes, we prefer foods that can be consumed quickly (or on the move), because, the more we move, the warmer we stay. Gels, cookies, peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches, and leftover pizza are all staples of our winter hiking menus. And, because your body needs extra calories to keep warm during the season, we don’t scrimp on food when it comes time to pack. Just remember, some foods—like gels—can freeze. So, if you’re depending on them for sustenance, keep them close to your body.

Just in Case

When you pack for a winter hike in the higher summits, you should take a minute to plan for the worst-case scenario. While packing the items mentioned above checks off some of your cold-weather essentials, you’ll still need a few more.

A headlamp, like the powerful and rechargeable Black Diamond ReVolt, is important—especially because it gets dark so early in the winter. Because cold weather can wreak havoc on batteries, be sure to tuck a spare set into your first aid kit.

Speaking of which, a minimalist first aid kit, supplemented with other first aid supplies, helps address trail injuries. Additionally, fire starters, a map, and a compass (or another navigational device) are all worth the extra weight.

Equally important, a lightweight bivy combined with a Sea to Summit UltraLight Pad and, if you’re hiking with multiple friends, a lightweight sleeping bag can be a lifesaver if someone gets injured and you need to wait for help. All of the extra layers mentioned above, including the double puffies, hats, heavy mittens, and hand warmers, also come in handy here.

Pro Tip: Want more info on understanding the weather in the White Mountains and elsewhere? Check out our guide to Reading Weather Reports on Mt. Washington.

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Pack

To ensure you’ll have the space to carry all the gear necessary to venture up to the peaks during winter, we recommend a 35- to 45-liter pack. The Black Diamond Speed series has served us well over the years, and the Black Diamond Speed 40 is the perfect size for winter White Mountain missions.

Pro Tip: A crampon bag helps prevent the sharp points from punching holes into your winter pack and its contents.

 

 

Not every item listed above is essential for hiking above-treeline this winter, but having the right combination can make your experience safer and more enjoyable—not to mention more efficient. The best advice, though, is to get outside and discover what works for you. If you have a key piece of winter gear, tell us about it in the comments!