The gear you need for an Appalachian Trail winter thru-hike is different from your standard summer gear list. Take it from me: I thru-hiked NOBO between February 3rd and June 9th in 2018. I experienced temperatures in the teens, three weeks of snow, freezing rain, and some of the best hiking ever.
If you have your sights set on an Appalachian Trail winter thru-hike, section hike, or even just an overnight, this article will help you figure out what to bring.
Backpack: Winter Gear is Heavy and Bulky
I’m a huge fan of ultralight, and I’m happiest when my base weight is below ten pounds. Unfortunately, this isn’t really practical when you’re dealing with the cold. Winter sleeping bags are heavier and bulkier than a summer quilt, and you need more layers.
I was able to keep my base weight below fifteen pounds, but I still needed a pack that had a higher capacity than normal. I used a Zpacks Arc Haul and found that 62 liters was large enough. If you’ve primarily hiked in the summer, make sure your normal pack is large enough to hold your winter layers.
Colder weather obviously means you need warmer layers. You want to be able to add and remove layers throughout the day. Sweating makes you colder, so having the ability to shed layers as the day warms up is crucial. I hiked in a thrift store dress and leggings: my standard summer hiking outfit.
I used Frogg Toggs as a waterproof layer for wind, rain, and snow. I was happy with my layers, but I have since acquired a coveted Melanzana hoodie which is now my go-to winter layer. The micro-grid breathes better than standard fleece, and I also love that the hood covers almost as much of my face as a buff.
In camp, I wore a Montbell Ex Light Down Anorak, although any lightweight puffy such as the Ghost Whisperer would work well. On really cold days, I used my sleeping bag as an extra layer. I would either wrap it around me like a blanket or just get straight in my bag as soon as I got to camp.
I also carried a wool hat, buff, and gloves.
Footwear is something I still have a lot to learn about. I hike exclusively in Altra Lone Peaks because their wide toe box and zero drop is the only thing that helps me avoid blisters and plantar fasciitis. I was hesitant to switch to waterproof boots since I knew I’d have to deal with foot issues as a result. Waterproof boots and shoes are also difficult to dry when wet.
As a result, I mostly just dealt with wet feet and frozen shoes in the morning. This did lead to a few nights where my feet were wrinkled, red, and burning, and I worried that I was getting trench foot. I tried to prevent this by wearing bread bags over my socks during the day to keep snowmelt out (which does not work as they always rip) and drying and warming my feet at night. The temperatures were never cold enough for me to worry about frostbite, and I was constantly moving except in camp, so my feet stayed warm.
Since my shoes were not waterproof, I carried a lot more socks than I normally would. I would wear a fresh pair each day, which would be soaked by camp. I would change into sleep socks at night. If I was lucky, I could put on wet socks the next day. If I was unlucky, they would be frozen solid and I’d have to dip into my supply of dry socks. I carried four pairs of socks- three to hike in and one to sleep in. On my next winter hike, I will take even more dry socks. Darn Toughs are my favorite since they are wool and have a great lifetime guarantee.
For my next hike, I’d like to try waterproof socks. If that doesn’t work, I guess I’ll just have to switch to waterproof boots and deal with the blisters.
Traction Devices and Snowshoes
I carried Kahtoola Microspikes. I only had to use them a few times, but they were worth the weight on days with freezing rain or where the trail was icy.
At no point on my thru-hike did I need snowshoes. There were a few days where I hiked through knee-deep powder, and I occasionally encountered thigh-deep drifts. However, the trail was always passable without snowshoes. If I had started earlier or hiked faster, it’s possible I would have needed them further up the trail. Snowshoes are heavy and difficult to strap to a backpack, so they are inconvenient to bring “just in case”.
Tent vs. Shelter
I almost exclusively stayed in shelters. I never worried about space in shelters as there were few people on trail. A tent may have been warmer some nights, as it would have blocked more of the wind and retained my body heat better, but I found the convenience of not having to touch cold metal poles and tent stakes in the morning worth the trade-off. I did bring a tarp for when I didn’t want to stay in the shelter. It was useful on breezy nights when I strung it over the shelter entrance to block some wind.
If you plan on using a tent, keep in mind that getting stakes into frozen ground or snow is almost impossible. This isn’t too much of a problem for a freestanding shelter, but if you use a tarp or non-freestanding tent, you might struggle. Snow stakes are an option. You can also learn how to make deadman anchors by filling plastic bags with snow or burying an object in a trench perpendicular to your tent.
Also keep in mind that in cold weather, condensation will likely build up in your tent overnight, even if you have a double-wall design. You’ll therefore need to take extra care to maximize ventilation and dry damp gear in the morning sun.
Your sleep system is important to get right. Get it wrong and you will find yourself running to town every time the temperature dips below your bag rating or dropping hundreds of dollars on a new, warmer bag. Keep in mind that many bags are rated for survival rather than comfort, so if you’re spending a night out at 20 degrees, you’ll shiver all night in a 20F bag.
I used a Zpacks Classic Sleeping Bag rated 5F (this is no longer offered by Zpacks. A 10F bag is now the warmest available). This was warm enough most nights, and other hikers around me used 0F bags without issues. If I had started earlier, or hiked faster, a -20F bag would have been necessary. These bags are much heavier and more expensive.
I used a Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite as my sleeping pad. With an R-value of 2.1, this is not a particularly warm pad. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite is a thru-hiker favorite that is much warmer, with an R-value of 4.2. I likely would have been much warmer at night with a better pad, but I liked the price of the RidgeRest.
Booties, Nalgenes, and Handwarmers
If your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, there are a few things you can do to help. Down booties are one of my favorite pieces of winter gear since my feet tend to get cold at night. They’re also great if you have to pee during the night since you don’t have to jam your feet into frozen shoes. I would both sleep in and wear my booties around camp in the evenings, which was great if my shoes were wet.
On really cold nights, I used a Nalgene full of hot water and a chemical handwarmer inside my sleeping bag. The Nalgene stays warm for a few hours, by which point the handwarmer has started to kick off heat. The Nalgene also means you have unfrozen water to drink in the morning. I found placing these objects on my inner thighs kept me warmest, although around my core and in my armpit also helped a lot.
Water Treatment and Bottles
Speaking of Nalgene, I found hiking with one helpful on the coldest days. Smartwater bottles with a sports cap are my normal go-to, but they freeze quicker than the Nalgene’s wide mouth. I also don’t trust Smartwater bottles not to leak if I sleep with them. Nalgenes are leak-proof, which is reassuring when you need to keep your sleeping bag dry at all costs.
I used a Steripen Ultra as my water treatment. While cold can drain batteries faster, I did not have to worry about it freezing, which was a nice reassurance. Freezing temperatures can damage filters such as the Sawyer Squeeze, so if you normally use a filter, make sure you sleep with it and keep it inside your jacket on really cold days. Chemical treatment is another winter-proof water purification option.
The Jetboil Flash is my go-to stove for its convenience and speed. Isobutane-propane stoves are less efficient in the cold, and my stove had a disconcerting tendency to produce small fireballs when I lit it on very cold mornings. It was never so cold that it didn’t work, but if temperatures had been much colder, it would have struggled. Winter-specific stoves are too heavy for me to consider them for a thru-hike.
I mostly used Guthook to navigate, which was helpful when the trail disappeared beneath snowdrifts. This did mean I had to be very careful to keep my phone as warm as possible. I kept it inside my jacket and slept with it and my backup battery every night.
I used a decade-old version of the rechargeable Petzl Tikka headlamp. A good headlamp is crucial with winter’s short days. It was bright enough for both night hiking and camp chores, and the red light setting was nice for reading in my sleeping bag on long nights. Rechargeable was also great since I was already carrying a battery bank for my phone.
Choosing gear for a thru-hike is challenging enough, but adding in below-freezing temperatures makes it even harder. Hopefully, the above suggestions will help you get out on the AT this winter and stay warm. Still not sure what to bring? Check out my complete Appalachian Trail winter thru-hike gear list below for specific recommendations.
Appalachian Trail Winter Thru-Hike Gear List
- Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite
- Mountain Laurel Designs Bug Bivy
- Zpacks Pillow Dry Bag
- Down booties (no longer made, but similar to these)
- Dress (thrift store)
- Leggings (thrift store)
- Thrift store microfleece (similar to this)
- Smartwool base layer
- Darn Tough socks
- Montbell EX Light Down Anorak
- Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite rain jacket
- Altra Lone Peaks
- Dirty Girl Gaiters
- Wool hat
- Fleece gloves
- Small bottle of hand lotion
- Kahtoola Microspikes
- Phone with Guthook
- Battery bank and charger cables
- Petzl Tikka headlamp
- Cheap gas station sunglasses
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Small hand sanitizer
- Trash compactor bag pack liner/rain skirt
- REI Traverse trekking poles
Featured image: Graphic design by Sophie Gerry.