Commonly, winter camping gear is transported in a backpack or towed on a toboggan, sled or pulk.
Internal frame packs tend to be better for winter use. They have a lower center of gravity and hug your body better. When skiing or snowshoeing, the weight moves more with your body allowing for greater freedom of movement.
A large capacity internal frame pack is suitable for winter camping
To carry all the winter gear for a multi-day trip (large sleeping bag, lots of clothing layers, tents, lots of food and fuel, etc.) you need a pack with a capacity of 5,000 cubic inches or greater.
7.1.1 Choosing an Internal Frame Backpack
When choosing an internal frame backpack look for these features:
- A slim profile to enable travelling off-trail.
- Straps and loops for transporting sleeping pads, ice tools, etc.
- Compression straps to squeeze and stabilize the load and for carrying poles or other items on the outside of your pack.
- Load lifter straps to pull the load off the top of your shoulders.
- A shoulder harness that doesn’t inhibit arm movement or have buckles that pinch.
- A hip belt that cups your hip bones, so the pack’s weight is evenly distributed over the entire belt surface and not just on the part of the belt that rests on your hip bone.
- Head clearance so you can easily look up to see where you are going.
7.1.2 Measuring Torso and hipbelt Length
All pack makers design their packs with your torso in mind. Know your torso length. Lack of this knowledge often leads to the realization, after the fact, the pack doesn’t fit correctly. A tall person can have a short torso thus requiring a smaller pack. Conversely, a shorter, person can have a longer torso and require a larger pack.
To determine your torso size, ask a friend or family member to help you, if possible. You will need a tape measure or tailor’s tape to measure along your back from the seventh vertebrae, the largest bump on the back of your neck with your head tilted forward, to the point on your lower back which is horizontal with the top of your hipbones. This measurement in inches corresponds to the following pack sizes:
<——— Short ——->
<——— Tall ——–>
<——- Regular —->
If you find that your torso is on the border between two sizes, my experience is to go with the larger size. For example, if your torso is 18 and a small size is torso 16-18, and a medium size is 18-20, go with the medium because you’ll have more room to make adjustments. Most good packs allow for that.
The hipbelt should wrap around your hips, not your waist and the lumbar pad should be centered properly into your lumbar area. You want a significant amount of the pack’s weight on your hips. A good way to do that is to make sure your hipbone is centered under your belt and the lumbar pad centered and pressing firmly into you lower back.
7.1.3 Fitting a Backpack
Once you’ve selected a pack with the right torso length and hip belt size, you need to get properly fitted. Your goal is to have 80% to 90% of the load weight resting on your hips. To achieve this, start by putting about 10 to 15 lbs. of weight into the pack to simulate a loaded pack. Follow the steps below in front of a mirror and/or get a friend to help if possible.
- Adjust the Hip belt. First make sure all the pack’s straps and hip belt are loosened. Put the pack on your back so that the hip belt is resting over your hip bones. Close the hip belt buckle and tighten it. Check the padded sections of the hip belt to make sure they wrap around your hips comfortably. Keep at least 1″ of clearance on either side of the center buckle. If the hip belt is too loose or tight, try repositioning the buckle pieces on the hip belt straps. If this doesn’t solve the problem, you may need a different pack (or hip belt).
- Adjust the Shoulder Straps. Pull down and back on the ends of the shoulder straps to tighten them. Shoulder straps should fit closely and wrap over and around your shoulder, holding the pack body against your back. They should NOT be carrying the weight. Have your helper check to see that the shoulder strap anchor points are 1″ to 2″ inches below the top of your shoulders.
- Adjust the Load Lifters. Load-lifter straps are located just below the tops of your shoulders (near your collarbones) and should angle back toward the pack body at a 45-degree angle. Gently snug the load-lifter straps to pull weight off your shoulders. (Over tightening the load lifters will cause a gap to form between your shoulders and the shoulder straps.)
- Adjust the Sternum Strap. Adjust the sternum strap to a comfortable height across your chest. Buckle the sternum strap and tighten until the shoulder straps are pulled in comfortably from your shoulders, allowing your arms to move freely.
- Adjust the Stabilizer Straps. Pull the stabilizer straps located on either side of the hip belt to snug the pack body toward the hip belt and stabilize the load.
- Final Tweak. Go back to the shoulder straps and carefully take a bit of tension off of them. Now you’re ready to go!
7.1.4 Packing your Backpack
For an external pack it is best to have the weight low, but for an internal pack the weight should be kept to the middle since the pack is designed to fit closer to your body. Put your sleeping bag and clothing not needed during the day in the bottom.
Locate the stove, cooking items, and food in the middle. Keep fuel (especially white gas) containers away from food and cooking gear. Place fuel containers in heavy duty gallon zip-loc freezer bags and pack upright.
Next to the top goes the tent, because it will be one of the first items you need to access. Finally, on the top of the pack stuff the clothes you will need accessible during the day, like extra gloves, a windbreaker and/or insulating layer. Pack items such as water, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, camera, and other quick access gear items, in an easily accessible location such as next to a side zip, in the pack lid pocket, a side pocket, or on top of the pack.
Strive for a horizontal distribution of weight, so that one side of the pack isn’t heavier than the other. You should keep the weight centered so that you don’t lose your balance or hurt your back.
7.1.5 Lightening Your Load
It may be stating the obvious but the ultralight concept just isn’t a viable option for winter camping conditions. I can’t imagine anyone venturing out with an uber-light pack and expecting to have a safe and enjoyable experience. You need extra insulation and food especially if you are going to spend more than one night out.
That said, there are reasons to try to lighten your load. The benefit is a light pack that makes outdoor travel easier, safer, and more fun. Packing light may offer the aging participant who has to deal with knee, hip and/or back injuries the ability to continue backpacking.
Packing light requires careful planning and self-discipline to assure that every item of gear and clothing is truly necessary, and that each item is as light as possible. To lighten your load start by reducing the weight of the big three: tent, sleeping bag and stove/cookware.
- Tent. Selection of a tent involves making a tradeoff among price, space and weight. Accepting a snug interior and/or paying a higher cost will yield a lighter tent. Aim for a per-person weight of less than 3 pounds. Single wall tents made waterproof/breathable fabrics such as Gore-Tex, Epic or eVent don’t require a rain fly and are subsequently lighter than traditional double wall tents. Designed for alpinists they usually do a good job of shedding snow. A typical complaint on single walled tents is moisture and condensation which is best countered by keeping windows and doors open as much as possible to eliminate internal condensation at night.
- Sleeping bag. Try to acquire the lightest and highest quality sleeping bag. This usually means a down sleeping bag.
- Stove/cookware. Winter camping makes it easy to minimize the amount of cookware that you bring on a trip. Melting snow, heating soup and making one pot meals can easily be satisfied by one medium sized cooking pot.
Think about lightening your food supply by substituting freeze dried foods for heavier items.
When packing your gear examine each item and ask yourself if it is necessary or if something else can perform its function. After your trip make a note of the items that can be eliminated or replaced to lighten your gear. Take care of the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves.
While this discussion is focused on reducing the weight of your backpack it also applies to the load you might pull on a toboggan, sled or pulk.
7.2 Toboggans, Snow Sleds and Pulks
Frankly I have mixed experiences using sleds to transport winter camping gear. In the right circumstances a sled offers advantages over backpacking. It easy way to move a lot of gear – up to 18,000 cubic inches and 200+ lbs – more than one can comfortably stash in a backpack. So if you are setting up a base camp, hauling supplies to a cabin or outfitting a scout troop, you might consider a sled. One can just hook into the harness and pull your winter gear rather than carry it.
In theory, a sled just sliding along behind you sounds wonderful. In practice, it works very well on smooth flats and slight down hills, especially if the load is light. It doesn’t work so well up or down steeper hills. Pulling something behind you can get pretty complicated as you thread your way through tight trees, around blow downs, or crossing brooks and steep-sided gullies. On side hills, pulling a sled can be a real pain. Here in the northeast you can encounter all of those challenges within a matter of feet on any given trail.
Sleds work best in the right circumstances. This usually means adequate snow cover and a reasonably level, wide trail. In steep terrain a sled benefits from lashing the gear inside and stiffening the sleds and/or harnessing. The addition of a rigid harness system is what differentiates a sled from a pulk.
My first sled was a $12 sliding model from the local Super-Mart that we modified with lashing, but it proved to be thin and the plastic cracked under the abusive conditions of winter camping. Carrying a broken plastic sled out of the woods is not fun. Unless you are only going in your neighbor’s woods, these toy sleds are not recommended.
A more durable sled is the 5 lb, bright orange Paris Expedition Sled, which I have used as-is. The Paris Expedition Sled is made of .125 mm linear polyethylene and it has metal grommet reinforced tow holes with additional holes along the side for a towing harness and/or lashing. It tends to track straight and is a tough sled for the price. It is also a popular model for modifying into a home-made pulk. These sleds can be found at local hardware stores or ordered online.
“Over the counter” sleds may be used in some winter camping situations.
Otter Outdoors offers 8 different sizes of their sled. Originally marketed for ice fisherman (some models even come with ice shack accessories), it supposedly will not crack even at -40 degrees. The sleds are deep (10-14″) and stable. Cabalas sell two small Jet Sleds ($25) that look like the Otter Outdoors design.
A pulk (from Finnish pulkka; Scandinavian for a low-slung sled) is used to carry supplies or transport a child over snow. The addition of a rigid harness system is what differentiates a sled from a pulk. The components of a pulk include the sled, the poles and the harness / hip belt.
A pulk is designed with a harness system to enable towing winter camping gear.
220.127.116.11 Commercial pulks
At the high end are commercially available pulks such as the ones from SkiPulk, Granite Gear, Kirafu, Snowsled, WildernessEngineering or Fjellpulken.
- SkiPulk offers a wide range of SkiPulk accessories and models. You can purchase poles, hip belts and/or harness to accessorize a Paris Expedition sled or complete SnowClipper, Weekender or Expedition pulk system.
- The Granite Gear Expedition sled weighs 17 lbs and has a capacity of 15,000 cubic inches. With a crossed fiberglass stay system, flexible nylon connecting rods, and a zero play full body harness, this sled pulls and turns easily. The lightweight hull offers a low coefficient of friction (drag) over the snow. There is a durable cover with 3 compression straps to secure gear and a full-length zipper for access. The hull has molded-in ski runners and there is a brake prevents sled from sliding backward on slopes. The harness poles are constructed in such a way as to allow for hip rotation.
- Kirafu offers three pulk models: Expedition ($825, 15lbs/18000 cubic inches), Armadillo ($638, 12 lbs/12000 cubic inches and Military sleds (MILSPEC versions).
- Snowsled makes a variety of pulks for short 2 week expeditions to lengthy multi-week trips, adventure racing models and day trip versions.
- WildernessEngineering offers an 11,000 BaseCamp Pulk and a 6 page instruction booklet.
- Fjellpulken from Lillehammer, Norway offers a broad assortment of models for children, disabled, touring and expedition, rescue and dog racing.
- Northern Sled Works offers the Siglin Sled and Siglin Pulk as well as models for towing behind a snowmobile.
Expeditions rely on pulks to transport large amounts of gear.
18.104.22.168 Build your own pulk
If your winter camping budget doesn’t warrant an expedition pulk there are internet resources for making your own pulk. Some that we like are:
- My Cheap Snow Camping Sled by Michael Krabach who starts with a sled model called the HO! by Recreation Inc.
- On ExploreNorth.com Mark Harris has a simple, cheap and quick to build design.
- Penob Bob gives instructions for modifying a Paris Expedition Sled into a pulk
- PiceaRubens offers modifications to the Penob Bob design.
- Mad River Rocket offers a pulk kit, material list and instructions.
- Visit Skipulk.com and download the Pulkbook. The Pulk Book includes instructions for drilling holes and rigging fiberglass poles to a sled, attaching the poles to a hip belt, tagging on fins for tracking and stabilization, and using it in the wilderness. Pulk poles and hip belts are available for sale through the skipulk website.
Some winter travelers prefer the traditional toboggan design. Toboggans are the traditional sled in North America. Toboggans are especially popular with traditionalists, “hot tenters” and base campers due to the increased capacity for gear.
Toboggans carry large loads and can fit in a set of snowshoe tracks. They are usually quite stable due to their length. They don’t work well in steep terrain or with cross-country skiers. Toboggans can be made from wooden or plastic materials. Wooden toboggans need to be waxed and may crack or snap if hauling a heavy load over a log. If a wooden toboggan is dragged over a rocky trail you can gouge the base or crack the planks.
One tradeoff is the width of the toboggan. The narrower the toboggan the easier it pulls. However, very narrow toboggans are more susceptible to tipping. 16 inches is a typical width with a length of 8 – 12 feet. A wider toboggan is more stable, but harder to pull and it may not fit inside your snowshoe trail.
Typically gear is packed in duffel bags, plastic buckets, plastic bins or milk cartons or lashed to the toboggan using a tarp.
A method for lashing gear using a tarp involves the following steps:
- Lay a large tarp on the toboggan. It should be large enough to turn up on all sides such that the ends cover the load completely. The tarp can be used as a shelter or windbreak after you unpack at camp.
- Distribute the load equally on the toboggan so that it will track properly.
- Make sure the load is packed squarely, that nothing projects beyond the toboggan edges, and that it is not top heavy.
- Once gear is stowed on the toboggan cover it snugly with the ends of the tarp and proceed with the lashing.
- Start the lashing rope at the front of the toboggan, crossing over the top, through the side ropes, back up and over. Repeat down the side of the toboggan. Bring the lashing rope back to the front of the toboggan in the same manner and secure it with a knot.
- After your lashing is completed you can secure additional items such as axes, shovels, poles, and snowshoes to the top of the load. However, to maintain balance it is best to keep these extra items to a minimum.
Try to ensure that you make a neat, secure job of lashing the load. This will ensure that the load does not slip or move while you are on the trail.
When you get to your campsite an over-turned toboggan makes a great platform on which to place your stoves for cooking.
Toboggans are used by traditionalists for moving winter camping gear.