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Winter Backpacking Part 2: Water, Cooking, Gear Hauling

by Karen Ung

Tips for treating water, cooking, and hauling gear when winter backcountry camping

Just because it’s cold out, doesn’t mean you need to pack up all your backcountry camping gear. Winter backpacking is a great opportunity to revisit favorite campgrounds without the crowds, stargaze (or view northern lights if you’re lucky!), and spend more time playing in the snow. In our first installment of winter backpacking stories, we talked about how to keep warm. Read it here: Winter Backpacking Part 1: Keeping Warm. For part two, Doug Dunlop, a seasoned winter backpacker, shares his tips on getting water, cooking and hauling gear in cold weather.


Cross country skiing Watridge Lake Trail to Lake Magog Backcountry Campground
Image Credit: Doug Dunlop


I find creek water or melt snow for cooking. Why? Filters don’t work in winter (they ice up), UV purifiers are less reliable (cold affects the electronics), and tablets and drops have very long waiting times.

Editor’s Note: “Most health organizations… recommend that you boil water vigorously for 1 minute up to elevations of 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) and 3 minutes at elevations higher than that.” (Source


Cold Weather Cooking

To maximize stove performance in cold temperatures, get one that inverts the fuel canister. The MSR WindPro II or Whisperlite Universal is a good choice.

Rehydrating food is slower and the food can get cold while it rehydrates. To cook dehydrated meals in cold weather, put the bag in a container or a fabric bag to help insulate it while it rehydrates. 

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If fires are allowed, I usually roast burritos on the fire at least one of the nights. Fresh foods, like milk for cappuccinos, can be brought in winter since it won’t spoil from the heat. We love fruits, but they need to be eaten the first night. Some candy and granola bars are difficult to eat frozen, so it is best to thaw them in your pocket before eating. The same applies to Brie cheese.

Friendly camp visitor
Image Credit: Doug Dunlop

Gear Hauling

As always, bring less and bring lighter. My spare inner clothing for a winter or summer trip fits in a medium sized ziploc bag: one pair of socks, a shirt, and a buff.

For biking, I don’t tow a sled, I pack everything on the bike.

For skiing, I don’t carry much in my backpack since it makes the grip wax on my skis drag; I put most of my stuff in the sled and pull it with poles (see below for sled info).

When hiking/snowshoeing, I try to balance the weight between my pack and my sled. 

I keep my sled total weight under 75 pounds (34 kg), otherwise I struggle to get it up steep hills and really struggle to slow it down on downhills. My son, Tadhg, can easily manage a 75 pound (34 kg) sled on foot, and 35 pounds (15.8 kg) or so on skis.

Tadgh towing the sled
Image Credit: Doug Dunlop

DIY Sled Poles

My sled is a basic sled with ridges on the bottom to keep it tracking straight. I tie it to the waist strap of my pack with two PVC pipes. The sled end of the pipes pivot on casters that have the wheels removed (replaced by the pipes). This gives me a rigid, but pivoting connection to the sled. An advantage of using poles vs rope is that the sled won’t slide into me when travelling downhill.


How to attach the pipes to the sled
Image Credit: Doug Dunlop

The pipes are crossed to make the sled swing wide on corners instead of shortcutting the inside of the corner – this keeps it on the trail following more or less in my tracks. 

Criss cross the poles and secure in the middle
Image Credit: Doug Dunlop

About the Author

Doug Dunlop (@coldbike) is passionate about enjoying nature, especially the backcountry, in all seasons. His favourite way to get around is by bike, but he will settle for feet, skis, or snowshoes. He loves his family and tries to bring them with him whenever he can, which has encouraged him to learn to pack lighter. Follow Doug’s adventures at Coldbike.

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