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Cold Weather Backpacking Equipment List

The information provided here is designed for educational use only and is not a substitute for specific training or experience. Princeton University and the author assume no liability for any individual's use of or reliance upon any material contained or referenced herein. When going into the outdoors it is your responsibility to have the proper knowledge, experience, and equipment to travel safely. The material contained in this workshop may not be the most current. Copyright © 1995 Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.


This list is only a general list and should carefully evaluated and added to as necessary. You may need different equipment for specific activities, ecosystems or to properly deal with your own body metabolism. Some items listed as optional may be required. You will need to be prepared for whatever possible weather conditions that may occur based on your location and the season. You should be familiar with the Environmental Hazards in the area and what personal equipment you will need to adequately safeguard yourself. If you are not familiar with the Dynamics of Accidents, please read that document as well. If you are not familiar with Hypothermia or Hyperthermia, please see those documents. [Any reference to specific products is used only for illustration purposes and does not imply any endorsement of the product or the manufacturer.]

This list is designed for basic multi-day backpacking trips in temperate forest conditions in the United States. Typical temperature ranges would be 30's - 50+ Fahrenheit during the day with evening temperatures from 10's - 30's Fahrenheit.


The clothing layers should consist of several different types of fabrics. Cotton should be avoided in cold conditions. Cotton absorbs and retains water, and therefore it will not keep you warm if it gets wet. Also it can be difficult to dry. Polypropylene or other hydrophobic synthetic fabrics move the moisture (sweat) away from your body to the outside of the layer, reducing evaporative cooling and keeping you dry and comfortable. Wool or synthetic pile/fleece fabrics don't absorb water so they keep you warm even if they get wet. Pile also dries very quickly. A wool sweater or pile jacket provides warmth on a chilly evening. Nylon or Nylon/Cotton Windshells reduce convective heat loss. For raingear, coated nylon is lightweight and works well. Waterproof-breathable fabrics are also possible but are expensive.

The Layering System

Combinations of these types of fabrics creates a layering system. The purpose of a layering system is to be able to mix and match the layers of insulation to match the weather conditions and your activity level to maintain a comfortable body temperature without excess sweating (which can lead to heat loss). ). Throughout the day you will need to layer up and layer down as conditions and activity levels change. Typically in the morning and evening when it is colder, you will need many layers on. The inner layer keeps the skin dry and comfortable. The middle layer provides some insulation and protection from the elements. The outer layer provides insulation. The shell layer protects you from wind and rain. A waterproof rain jacket is essential in case of bad weather. The head layer is to reduce heat loss. The feet layer is actually two layers. You should wear a lightweight synthetic liner sock against your foot which helps pass moisture away from your foot. On top of this you wear a wool/nylon blend hiking sock. People wonder why you should wear two socks. Since wool doesn't absorb water it passes the moisture from your foot outwards, keeping your foot dryer. If your feet stay damp, they get wrinkled and are more prone to blisters. Having two sock layers means that your socks will slide against each other so that the friction from your boots is between the sock layers rather than against your skin (friction against the skin leads to blisters).


_______ Wool/Pile Hat (must cover ears)

_______ Brimmed hat (for sun protection)

Upper Body:

_______ Midweight Synthetic Long Undershirt - polypropylene, or other hydrophobic, wicking fabric

_______ Expedition Weight Synthetic Long Undershirt - polypropylene, or other hydrophobic, wicking fabric or Wool

_______ Heavy Weight Pile Jacket /Wool Sweater (ex. Polartec 300™)

_______ Wind Jacket - nylon (can be same as rain jacket if waterproof/breathable - must fit over insulating layers)

_______ Winter Parka - synthetic or down filled (Optional)


_______ Synthetic/Wool Glove liners

_______ Synthetic/Wool Mittens

Lower Body:

_______ Underwear as needed.

_______ Midweight Synthetic long underwear bottoms - polypropylene, or other hydrophobic, wicking fabric

_______ Expedition Weight Synthetic long underwear bottoms - polypropylene, or other hydrophobic, wicking fabric

_______ Midweight Pile/Wool Pants (ex. Polartec 200™)


_______ 1 pair of midweight hiking boots: Boots should extend above the ankle and be leather/fabric or all leather with lug soles for traction. It is best if the boots can be waterproof, either by treating the leather with a waterproofing compound before the trip or if the boots have a Gore-tex™ liner. Boots should fit comfortably with two pairs of socks, a light liner sock and a heavy wool sock. Above all, make sure that your boots are well broken in before you arrive. Otherwise your feet will pay the price. We cannot emphasize this enough. Non-broken-in boots invariably cause chafing and blisters.

_______ 1 pair of running shoes, sneakers, or sandals: For around campsite wear and/or water activities.

_______ 2-3 pairs of light synthetic/polypropylene liner socks: Wearing liner socks underneath wool socks helps to prevent chafing since the friction is between the two pairs of socks, not between the boots and your feet.

_______ 2-3 pairs of medium weight wool hiking socks: Wool keeps your feet warm even when wet and gives good cushioning. The higher the wool content of the socks the better (we recommend 85% wool, 15% nylon).

_______ Gaiters (Optional)

Rain Gear:

_______ Waterproof Rain Jacket - coated nylon or waterproof/breathable fabric

_______ Waterproof Rain Pants or Rain Chaps - coated nylon or waterproof/breathable fabric (Optional)


_______ 2 1-quart water bottles or canteens

_______ 1 unbreakable cup with handle

_______ 1 unbreakable bowl

_______ 1 spoon

_______ 2 bandannas: multipurpose

_______ 1 flashlight with fresh, alkaline batteries (alkaline batteries last longer)

_______ 1 small towel

_______ 1 toilet kit: Just the essentials, biodegradable soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, sunscreen, lip balm.

_______ 1 pocket knife

_______ 3 heavy plastic garbage bags - one for sleeping bag, one for inside backpack, one as a rain cover

_______ 1 pair of sunglasses or clip-ons

_______ 2 pairs glasses or contact lenses (if needed): If you wear contact lenses and will have difficulty cleaning them in the field it is suggested that you bring glasses instead. Please bring an eyeglass safety strap for your glasses.

_______ Any medications you will need to take during the trip (allergy medications etc.).

_______ 1 small notebook and pencil (Optional)

_______ 1 camera and film (Optional)

Travel Gear:

_______ External Frame/Internal Frame Pack with Padded Hipbelt

_______ Pack Rain Cover (Optional, can use a garbage bag)

_______ Sleeping Bag - synthetic fill, rated to 0 degrees F

_______ 1 closed cell foam sleeping pad (3/8 in.) or inflatable mattress. Pads provide insulation from the ground and padding for more comfortable sleeping.

This article is written by Rick Curtis, Director, Outdoor Action Program. This material may be freely distributed for nonprofit educational use. However, if included in publications, written or electronic, attributions must be made to the author. Commercial use of this material is prohibited without express written permission from the author. Copyright © 1995 Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.

This page is maintained by Rick Curtis Director, Outdoor Action Program. Rcurtis@.princeton.edu