How to pack for an overnight winter backcountry hut trip – the checklist
A backcountry hut trip should be a very rewarding experience. With a little bit of preparation and clever packing; you should have a very enjoyable trip.
I run into this guy while climbing Denali in Alaska. Perfect example of how not to pack :-)
One of the most common mistakes novice (and even experienced) backcountry travellers make is, taking too much gear (or very heavy stuff); all packed into a huge pack. The heavy backpack becomes a big burden, slowing you down and draining your precious energy. Not to mention throwing you out of balance when skiing or hiking.
Have you ever fallen on your back while wearing a heavy backpack? If you never witnessed it – it’s not a pretty sight, trust me on this one! If you have seen it or done it yourself, then you know exactly what I’m trying to describe.
I learned the hard way so you don’t have to
I remember falling over backwards on my pack during my first winter hut trip. I felt like an upside down turtle, flailing my arms and legs trying to upright myself. I eventually did manage to get up, but not without help of a friend. ”How embarrassing,” – I thought to myself. Why did I bring all that extra clothing and gadgets? But it was so tempting, my 80-liter pack had all this extra room in it.
Advantages of going into a hut vs. winter camping
Good news is that many of the backcountry huts are equipped with the following:
Gas or electric lights, gas stove, pots & pans, utensils, gas or wood heating sove, mattress (and sometimes blankets). All of these amenities eliminate much of the gear you would otherwise have to pack in. Be sure to check hut amenities before deciding what to leave behind.
Very well equipped Wates Gibson ACC hut near Jasper, AB
The secret to a well-packed backpack
The secret to a well-packed pack is knowing what to pack, what not to bring and selecting the right backpack size / style. And making sure to keep the overall weight down.
So let’s get started with the checklist.
- Water: Assuming you will have access to snow or ice, only bring enough water to drink during your trip into the hut. The amount of water you bring is a personal preference. Most people need at least a couple of liters of water for a day trip.
- Coffee: Instant coffee is easiest. But if you are like me, bring some ground coffee or espresso and a filter (MSR MugMate Coffee & Tea Filters work great) to brew your gourmet cup.
- Tea: Tea bags or loose-leaf tea and a filter such as the MSR one mentioned above.
- Drink Crystals: Gatorade or other powdered energy drink to mix with water, tang or similar.
- Alcohol: If you enjoy a social drink while in the hut, I recommend hard alcohol (best weight to alcohol ratio). Wine (as long as you bring it in a wine bag or plastic bottle) is not a bad choice either. If you only drink beer you could bring some beer cans – so much for my light packing tips
Everyone has different opinion about what food to bring on an overnight hut trip. My take on this is; the longer the distance to the hut and the more elevation gain, the lighter the food I chose should be. In other words, if the hut is relatively close I will consider bringing real meat, vegetables etc. But if it’s very far or lasts over many days I will opt in for dehydrated food or freeze dried meals (boil in a bag).
Plan to have breakfast, lunch and dinner for each night. You want to be well fuelled, especially in the winter, when your body burns more calories.
- Breakfast: Instant oatmeal, cereal, eggs (if you want real deal bring them in liquid form), bacon or sausage. Yes, I know we were supposed to pack light but how can you say no to bacon?
- Lunch: I have a weakness for European style sandwiches (with fancy cold cuts and cheese’s). If you go with dark heavy bread, it will last longer and stay in one piece. If you are having lunch at the hut, you could go with mac & cheese, instant soups etc.
- Dinner: Sky is the limit here, but to keep weight down, consider: instant rice or potatoes, pasta, quinoa, cuscus. If you can get dehydrated vegetables and / or meats then great. If not, consider bringing fresh ingredients, but if you are on a long trip the weight will end up adding up too much. Note: For those of you who like meal-in-a-bag type dehydrated food you can find them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even deserts. This meal plan will keep your food weight way down!
- Vegetarian options: In the above list, substitute tofu or soybeans whenever I mention meat or bacon.
- Handy Snacks: Candy, chocolate bars, energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, trail mix. Keep them handy, so you don’t have to take off your pack every time you want to take a snack break.
- Luxury Food items: Fruits, vegetables, meats (I like to bring the meat frozen)
- Other: Salt, pepper, sugar, spices (many huts have these left behind by other parties), but I always like to bring some if I’m not certain they will be there.
Have I missed anything delicious from the food list? Please comment at the end of this post.
- Base Layers: Underwear, long johns or fleece pants (for very cold temperatures), ski socks (couple of pairs)
- Mid Layers: Fleece, merino wool or other mid-layer.
- Outerwear: Waterproof / windproof shell jacket and pants (I recommend Gore-Tex) and a down jacket (if very cold temperatures expected) Note: A nice soft shell jacket with a wind stopper type fabric will often work as a mid / outer layer, especially when you are working hard.
- Luxury items: Cotton shirt or t-shirt and pyjamas These items are nice to have luxuries, but if you are willing to wear the base layers you are traveling in, you could skip them. Note about base layers: If you have merino wool then you won’t smell too bad, but if you plan to wear the same synthetic layers you traveled into the hut in, you might want to reconsider out of respect for your hut mates.
- Footwear: Hut booties or sandals. Nice thing about hut booties is, you can wear them outside as well. This way you don’t have to put on your boots every time you want to go outside.
- Head wear: Winter hat - I often bring two, one thick and a thin one for when I’m seating up the hills. For spring trips, I like to bring a visor or a baseball cap. Both are great for shielding your face from the sun while keeping you cool.
- Gloves: Over-mitts with liner gloves work well or, bring a pair of soft-shell gloves and a pair of ski gloves. Spare pair of gloves is highly recommended.
- Sunglasses and / or goggles: Bring both if you have them. Nothing beats a pair of goggles in a winter storm or blizzard.
Sleeping bag & Inflatable Mattress
- Sleeping bag: Assuming these are not provided at the hut, I recommend a down sleeping bag which packs down to a very small size. In general, the higher the down fill rating the smaller a bag will pack. Hint: Use a compressible stuff sack to keep the packed size down. You would be amazed how much a 600+ down filled bag will compress.
Note: Some huts have blankets, in which case you might consider bringing just a sleeping bag liner to use with the blanket.
- Mattress / Sleeping pad: Many huts are equipped with mattress if not, thermarest or equivalent inflatable mattresses work best. The thicker the pad the more comfortable, but also heavier and bulkier. I’ve splurged for the Exped DownMat which is amazingly light and packs very small.
Cooking Stove / Fuel / Pots
Bring a cooking stove , fuel as well as cutlery if the hut you are going into is not equipped with them.
- Blister stuff: Make sure at least on member of the group has a decent blister kit.
- First aid kit: Make sure at least on member of the group has a good first aid kit and knows how to use what’s inside of it.
- Repair kit: it’s a good idea to have one (I will write a separate post on this soon). As a bare minimum, carry some duct tape and bailing wire and a small leather-man or equivalent.
- Communication device: radio, satellite phone, cell phone (if staying within cell coverage area) spot or other communication device
- Navigation Aids: GPS (with well charged or spare batteries) and / or map & compass (and knowledge how to use it)
- Emergency Shelter: for the event you are caught out over night it might be a good idea to bring a bivy sack, very light weight tent or even a “guides tarp”.
Matches and / or lighter, Sunscreen, chap stick, pillowcase, (stuff with spare clothing to make a pillow), small travel towel, toiletries, toilet paper, headlamp, medications (if you take any), anti inflammatories (ibuprofen or equivalent).
Surrounded by my gear after 17 days on Denali (Mt. McKinley). Winter camping expeditions require a lot more gear than hut trips
What NOT to pack
- Glass containers – they make sealable plastic ones these days
- Canned food – the convenience might be tempting, but I say don’t do it. If you love canned food, take it out of the can before you pack it. Sturdy zip lock or screw lid containers are your friend here.
- Liquid food – pasta sauces, soups etc. It’s convenient to have them already made but think about the weight savings if you opt in for powder sauces and other dehydrated food. The exception here is a little bit of cooking oil if you are planning to fry something (just remember bring just enough in a plastic container). Personal Note: On my first backcountry hut trip our group 0f eight brought six glass bottles of wine. I must have carried at least a couple of those bottles and I sure paid the price. What were we thinking?!
Backpack sizes, styles, weights
Skiing near Stanley Mitchell ACC cut with my 50-L Pack. I did leave some of my gear in the hut while day skiing.
Recommended backpack sizes
In the winter we end up needing to bring more clothing and warmer sleeping bag, which requires a bigger pack you would carry in the summer.
- 40-50 liter pack: If you don’t have to bring a sleeping bag (or you have a very compact down sleeping bag) and the hut is equipped with cooking essentials you should be able to pack into a 40-50 liter pack.
- 60-70 liter pack: If your sleeping bag is larger or you have to carry, stove, pots, fuel etc. you will more than likely need a 60+ liter backpack. I often put my thermarest on the side of the pack (using side straps) to free some room inside.
- 80 liter or larger backpacks: Honestly I don’t recommend going this large but if you are on say a 5 + day trip you might have no choice but to bring an 80 liter pack. If you do, you should make sure you are fit enough to carry this much weight and that your equipment and skills match the terrain you will be traveling through.
Recommended backpack styles
Waist belt, shoulder straps: Good waist belt, chest strap, and back support are the key for keeping the pack stable on your body. Shoulder straps should be very adjustable and have enough padding to feel comfortable on your shoulders.
Pockets: Easily accessible top pocket to keep your handy snacks, camera, map and other things you want to get to quickly. Side or front accessible pocket for your; water bottle, water bladder (camelback), etc.
Straps: Side, top and or bottom straps to attach your mattress or sleeping bag to. If you are strapping things to your pack, make sure they don’t end up towering over your hear or they are not loosely dangling around.
While on a hut trip in Tonquin Valley near Jasper our group used 50-65L backpacks.
Packed Backpack weight
In general your packed backpack weight should be based on; terrain type (complexity), trip duration and type of skis or other approach you are using. The more challenging the terrain, the longer the approach and the skinnier your skis are the lighter your pack should be. If you are doing a long duration trip often your pack will end up heavier than ideal but at the end you do need to eat and have more than one pair of socks etc.…
Rough packed weight guideline; <30 lbs. for a 40-50 liter pack, 30-50 lbs. for a 60-70 liter pack and. Anything more than 50 lbs. and you will be suffering.
You can even get your dog to help you if you get him a nice backpack and he’s into it.
What do I do if I need to bring more than 50 lbs?
If you must bring more than 50 lbs. of gear and the terrain you are traveling over consider pulling a sled behind you and put half of your load in there (just make sure not to pack it too high and make sure the load is secured with straps).
Towing our sleds during Mt. McKinley (Denali) Climb. Mark and I had 80 L pack and Alicja a 65 L one. We all had sleds. In total we had 350 lbs. of gear and food for this 3 week expedition
Wrapping it all up
Remember that all of the above are my suggestions, which come from years of experience doing different winter hut trips of different distances and varying durations. I have made many mistakes which all served as good lessons. Following the above checklist should help you with your overnight hut adventure and remember: minimum weight = maximum fun.
Now that you have a well-packed pack, don’t forget your skis, split-board, snowshoes or what ever your mode of transportation is and have fun out there!
Alicja with a 65-liter pack during our ski ascent of Mt. Columbia. We did carry the full gear including tent, stove, pots. etc but still managed to fit into 65L and 50L packs.
Backpacks I recommend
Author: Mike Blarowski
What’s your overnight hut story? Do you have packing stories and or suggestions you would like to share? If so, please comment below.