This is striking: the same techniques that render a featherweight summer pack put a brick on your shoulders in the winter. It may seem obvious why but let’s do a bit of analysis: it’s always fun and sometimes revealing.
I’ve put together two gear lists, summer and winter. The use case is similar other than for the season: an overnight trip extendable to more nights by just adding more food. The hiker is obviously the same one (me) and the trip philosophy is bound to be the same. The winter version is meant to be on skis, over mountain terrain and without getting out of the snow for the length of the trip.
Many gear items are used in both lists: all the electronics, most of the accessories and the food/drink related stuff, some minor packing items and a few apparel items.
Out of all the figures provided, the most interesting are those for the Base Weight and the Weight on the Back, the difference between the two being the weight of the consumables (food, water and fuel). The Weight on the Back is the most real figure for a certain trip but it needs a time frame as it will change during the trip. Base Weight is better to cross-check among different trips regardless of trip length.
In this instance, the Weight on the Back figures belong to trip start, when the pack is at its heaviest.
|Summer Weight (gr)||Winter Weight (gr)||Variation|
|On the back||8049||9853||+22%|
Worn weight difference is ridiculously high due to the winter ski heavy items: skis, bindings and boots. This is also a good part of the difference in the Skin-out weight. The skis and all their paraphernalia are dragging along the ground anyway.
If we take the most significant figure as far as perceived weight goes that must be the On the Back Weight. The figures here belong to trip start, with the pack at its heaviest. The difference between summer and winter is from 8 kg to nearly 10, a 22% increase.
For a full breakdown, you can download the complete winter and summer lists in the links below. Items present in both lists are highlighted in yellow.
The weight difference on the back is significant but not dramatic, which somehow negates the opening lines above.
Weight is not everything
Weight is not everything, yet I know the feeling well as expressed in those opening lines. 2 additional kg alone can’t feel that heavy. There must be more to it. My thoughts on the subject:
Winter is inherently more demanding than summer
You get more tired on average. This may make your pack feel heavier than it really is.
Volume is also an issue
If weight goes up, volume does too. I’d say it does in a larger amount. Insulating stuff takes plenty of room. This means you need a big pack and your center of gravity will shift farther from its normal place than it does with a slim summer pack, demanding more work/energy to move around.
Packing a heavier load may change the way you pack
A big pack runs the risk of getting heavy itself. It is not my case as my winter pack is actually lighter! than my current summer pack but then a big pack that’s also light runs another risk: getting uncomfortable. It gets closer to the line of no return of the big loads: a load that demands a heftier pack which in turn increases the load. With a truly frameless winter pack, I may be dangerously close to the wrong side of the line.
Snow and skiing are different from dirt and walking
The type of activity may also play a role in how a pack feels. Skiing down requires a stand-up torso position that tends to concentrate the pack load on just hips and shoulders. Skiing up is more like hiking so a slight lean forward may help distribute the load along the back but this may not be due when the terrain is steep and/or the snow quality makes things difficult.
Analysis by category
The discussion will focus on the weight differences between summer and winter, not so much on the specific gear items.
Everything works together as a team. This was particularly noticeable when doing this exercise.
The Clothing category refers to items on the pack. Worn items are not part of the analysis but they do have an influence on pack weight, just because, indeed, items work as a team and retrofit each other.
Items appearing in both lists (in the same quantity, where quantity applies) are highlighted in yellow. Some items under Clothing in the summer list will be worn in the winter.
Weight difference is +9%
The difference between winter and summer may seem surprisingly small but be aware this figures are for clothing that’s not worn during normal activity conditions. In the summer list, only base layers, pants and a cap are worn so all the rest goes on the pack. In the winter, I have considered a torso mid layer and a shell as worn items, as well as two pairs of gloves and a beanie hat. The spare clothing needed for winter conditions is not that many items, hence the relatively small difference in packed weight.
Shelter & Sleeping
Weight difference is +23%
This is the only category where no items are shared between the summer and winter lists.
Most of the difference in weight goes to the respective quilts which happen to be easy to compare because they’re the very same model. All the difference goes to more down and a bit more fabric to make room for the additional down in the winter version.
Most remarkable is that the shelter weight is nearly the same once you add all the elements (tarp, bivy, groundcloth and stakes) in the summer list. At more than 1 kg, this is not a super light summer shelter system. I can certainly get lower than that but this is what I typically take for maximum versatility in the long distance routes.
In the winter shelter system I favor wind resistance and ease of setup. My tunnel tent only needs 3 anchor points so axe and skis are all the stakes I need and the fixed geometry helps get the pitch right on first try.
Weight difference is -21%
Stuff sacks, dry bags and ditty bags are quite the same between summer and winter. If anything, winter versions may need to be bigger to accommodate more volume but the difference in weight will be small.
The one item that makes a difference in this category is the pack. In my present case and surprisingly, the winter pack is lighter than the summer pack! This is rather incidental. It could have been the other way around but it shows something: pack choosing criteria was around volume more than carried weight capacity. Indeed, my winter pack is a big, frameless rucksack with no frills. The summer pack is more streamlined, not as big, equally simple but not as spartan and it has a minimal frame. It’s also waterproof, a feature useful in the summer, not so much in winter.
Weight difference is +8%
This sub-list is almost the same between summer and winter except for a few details, the most significant being the flashlight: winter nights are longer and there’s bigger potential for unplanned night activity so I take a more powerful light in the winter. The difference in weight is small anyway.
Food & Drink
Weight difference +8%
Once again, most of the items in this category are the same for both summer and winter: spoon, knife or lighter just work the same. Others deserve some comment.
Food weight is a rough estimation. I take the same kind of food and it is reasonable to pack a little more in the winter for both a safety margin and because more calories may be due.
Water weight has been stated for the sake of completeness and because I almost always carry some but its weight is highly variable, particularly in the summer. The most I can do without getting things too complex is to make it even at a reasonable 1 liter.
Bottles make a bit of a difference: I take a hard-sided, wide mouth one in the winter. It’s considerably heavier, about 6 times the weight of an equivalent soft-sided one, but I find the ease of filling makes it worth it. Stream sections are sometimes available but they may be difficult to access.
Water treatment will be hardly needed in the winter but I still take a few tabs just in case. Same item but different quantity in the summer, where water treatment may be more critical.
I take the same pot year long. It’s 850 ml. I could use a smaller, lighter one in summer but it’d be narrower and less efficient. Theory goes that winter requires a bigger pot for snow melting convenience but I find this one good enough for just myself.
I commonly use LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas, i.e. butane/propane) stoves in both summer and winter. Winter is trickier for these stoves as low temps prevent a true gas feed. Liquid feed is still possible in a remote stove with a pre-heat facility. Such stoves are more complex and heavy than a simple, typical screw-on one but not necessarily by much! My winter LPG stove is just marginally heavier than the summer one. It’s cottage made and not commercially available anymore but there are commercial versions that are not dramatically heavier.
This one needs little comment. It’s exactly the same items.
Lightweight winter backpacking main issue is volume rather than weight. It’s important to know this: it shows a possible area for improvement in carrying comfort.
I’ve commonly approached summer backpacking with less focus on volume and more on weight and I’ve seamlessly applied the same criteria for winter. I may need to reconsider this in the latter case. An inflatable mat that I’ve always refused to adopt is a great candidate for improvement in this area, it’s biggest advantage being the low packed volume. My current closed-cell foam winter mat takes a huge amount of room. Strapping it outside would work as an avalanche airbag.