Ultralight Winter Backpacking Sleep System Strategies

An ultralight pyramid tent set up for winter backpacking in Alaska.
Photo by Bayard Russell. Winter camping in Alaska.

Text by Matt Jenkins & Elyssa Shalla

 Matt Jenkins and Elyssa Shalla, backcountry rangers at Grand Canyon National Park, have been exploring the deserts of the southwest together since they met in 2008. The couple’s next adventure will combine many of the backcountry routes near their home on the Coconino Plateau into one, extended, mostly trail-less adventure. Their plan, a winter thru hike of the Grand Canyon from the Grand Wash Cliffs to Lees Ferry, will take place over the 2015-16 El Nino season.

As rangers, Matt and Elyssa constantly seek ways to share their passion and enthusiasm for traveling lightly and efficiently through wild places. In this article, the pair explore ideas that have made ultralight winter backpacking more fun and comfortable for them in the vast wilderness that is their backyard.

Sleep System Strategies for Ultralight Winter Backpacking

Wherever you’re headed, planning a trip during the winter requires couples and teams to re-evaluate every piece of gear in their standard ultralight set up. That means considering a given piece of equipment’s purpose in relation to efficiency and weight with extra scrutiny. Sometimes this results in more questions than answers for people who are new to winter backcountry travel: What are you bringing, should I bring one too and who gets to schlep this heavy thing around!?

In this post, we will briefly discuss some key tweaks we’ve made to one system of the “Big Three”– our winter sleep system. Our approach is the result of an evolution over time and many trips, and we hope you’ll find it useful as you head outside this winter.

Like a lot of ultralight backpacking enthusiasts, we’re pretty obsessed with our systems. We put a lot of thought into “The Big Three”–the sleeping, pack and shelter systems. These systems are ideally comprised of items that work together to keep us protected from the elements, move with ease and stay well nourished.

Many years ago our Big Three for winter trips was made up of a pile of oversized, heavy items including seven-pound packs, a four-season mountaineering tent and separate sleeping bags. In order to boost the fun factor we began to make major tweaks that would reduce our pack weight and better suit the Colorado Plateau’s unpredictable and often harsh winter environment.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillow and ultralight stuff sacks.
Stuff Sack Pillow and CF11 Stuff Sacks.

In the winter our weight savings primarily come from changes and modifications to the traditional sleep system. Our 2-person system eliminates unnecessary redundancies and increases warmth by sleeping closer together on “one” sleeping surface inside one quilt under one shelter. This system is comprised of the following items: two versatile Hyperlite Mountain Gear Cuben Fiber ground cloths, two Thermarest Neo Air sleeping pads lashed together, one two-person Feathered Friends Spoonbill quilt and two Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillows. Combined with our two-person Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid pyramid tent, this entire kit weighs six pounds. It’s also comfortable in single digit temperatures, takes a lot less time and set-up than multiple tents, and is less fussy than dealing with separate sleeping bags and bivy sacks. One person can easily set up camp while the other person fixes dinner, thus avoiding exposure to the elements as temperatures plummet shortly after sunset. The few extra ounces for “luxury items” such as pillows are offset by the increased comfort in camp during long winter nights. Like all good ultralight gear, our pillows also double as a water resistant stuff sacks – critical pieces of equipment for storing precious down items that will lose their loft and warmth if allowed to get wet.

Another great way to shed winter pack weight is to share as much gear as possible. Our winter ultralight strategy takes this mantra to heart, and we literally share almost everything. While sharing a sleeping bag or quilt with your smelly buddies may reduce the fun factor of your expedition, you’ll definitely want to consider reducing the total number of shelters that you carry. Carefully consider the environment you will be traveling through and agree to only bring the minimum number of shelters necessary for getting the group through a storm. Another thing to consider: how many trips have you been on where there are three first aid kits, two Jetboils and four GPS units? Have a quick pre-trip meeting, share a group gear list on Google Docs, or shakedown at the trailhead and see how quickly a group of two or three can shed 10 to 20 pounds.

These tips are just a few of many that we utilize when ultralight backpacking during extended winter trips. A serious look at any of the Big Three can easily cut pack weight by a third. Sharing means bringing less and spending more time together–bonuses both on and off the trail. And modifying your technical gear can allow a group to flow over technical terrain with increased confidence thanks to lighter packs, which really translates to having more fun. Next time you are headed out give one of these tips a try. Any of these basic ultralight concepts can go a long way in increasing the success of your next winter adventure!

Winter backpacking in the Alpental, Snoqualmie Pass, Wash. Photo by Bryan Carroll
Ultralight winter backpacking in the Alpental, Snoqualmie Pass, Wash. Photo by Bryan Carroll