Polar Bear Weekend Ski Backpacking

Required & Recommended gear for a weekend midwinter snow camping outing, with a snowshoe or XC ski in several miles to a fixed-base campsite.



It is important that we carry as little gear as possible, for comfort while backpacking. At the same time, it is important that we carry enough to stay comfortable in a variety of possible conditions. Layering is critical, as it allows for adjustment to different weather and levels of activity, from strenuous mid-day skiing to standing around a nightime snow camp in a high wind. NO COTTON. Cotton is a negative insulator when wet by snow or perspiration. We strongly recommend midweight and expedition weight polypropylene (sometimes referred to as Capilene or a "wicking" fabric) as an inner layer.

1 Wool hat or equivalent
A fleece hat with ear flaps is great; a fleece balaclava is really nice to sleep in, but somewhat light during the day (use a heavy one or bring a hat as well). Having a hat that is windproof can be nice on windy days to keep your ears warm.
1 face mask (recommended)
1 neck+gaiter (optional, can be used as a face mask)
3 - 3 1/2 upper+insulating+layers
An upper insulating layer covers the torso and both arms. 1 layer is the equivalent of a heavy sweater or jacket. A half layer could be polypropylene or wool long underwear (midweight to heavy). NO COTTON, as cotton offers no insulation when wet. Examples: Fleece sweater (1), Heavy wool sweater (1), Long-sleeve wool shirt (1/2), pile jacket (1), expedition-weight polypro top (1). A sleeveless vest is acceptable as one insulating layer provided it is layered inside another layer and windproof shell.
1 upper+rain/wind+shell
This should not be insulated, but should be big enough to serve as an outer shell over several inner layers. If you've got a fancy-fabric one like Gore-tex, great! This is what you will typically use during the day when you are cross country skiing, or other hard exercise. There are now many companies that sell waterproof breathable jackets for fairly cheap, so avoid non-breathable shells. They will trap moisture next to your body during day time activities, which will make you cold at night.
1 winter parka with hood
Down or synthetic fill is fine. Should be roomy, so as to fit over inner layers. A parent's parka might be a good choice. This is what we call an "uber" layer. After a day of activity, when you have come back to camp to sit down and start dinner, you will put this on to stay warm.
1.5 - 2.5 lower+insulating+layers
A lower insulating layer covers the legs with the equivalent of a wool sweater in thickness. Do not discount these layers. The legs provide a lot of surface area for heat loss, and these layers are very important for keeping your feet warm. Examples: Fleece pants (1), Expedition-weight polypropylene long underwear (1); mid-weight long underwear (1/2) and wool pants (1/2).
1 pair lower+rain/wind+shell
These should not be insulated. Look for water-proof breathable fabrics and avoid non-breathable pants because they trap moisture inside and make you wet, cold, and miserable in the evening.
1 pair insulated ski pants or bibs
Down or synthetics are fine; must fit over inner layers. These may be your typical snow pants. However, be sure that the insulation travels the full length of your snow pants. Some snowpants are being manufactured that only insulate that top half of the legs, and these will not do for our purposes.
1 pair light silk or polypro socks (optional)
Worn as a lining sock under wool socks for comfort
3-4 pair wool socks.
Wool "stretch" blends (85% wool) or wool-polypro blends are great. Should be heavy wool socks, not thinner variety.
1 bootie system or 1 pair insulated boots
A "bootie system" includes 2-3 pair of layering insulated synthetic slipper/booties for wearing around camp. Commonly a plush pile slipper which fits over socks, followed by a polarguard or down booty with a thick, insulated sole. A mukluk-sized outer layer is optional. Weight and warmth-wise, these are preferred to insulated boots. If using boots, slightly oversized boots are preferred to ones that barely fit, as circulation is most important to foot comfort. Person must be able to wear at least one pair of heavy wool socks inside an insulated boot without being tight. Sorels or equivalent with the heavy felt (removable) insulation are recommended.
1 pair x-country ski boots or 1 pair hiking boots that can be worn with a pair of wool socks on.
1 pair nylon gaiters
Gaiters are a necessity for winter camping. They keep snow from traveling into your boots which will cause your feet to get very cold. When going into any snow over a couple inches deep, this single piece of equipment can be the difference between frostbite and warm-toasty feet.
1 pair polypro liner gloves
1 pair wool gloves.
Thin, cheap $7 rag wool gloves that can be mistreated, worn when cooking, etc. Because wools does not melt when cooking, these gloves are great around a stove, and will make you a happy chef, instead of a chef with freezing hands.
1 pair heavyweight gloves or mittens (ski gloves) (must fit liner gloves under)
These keep your hands warm while setting around camp and talking they may be substituted for 1 waterproof mitten shell or covering with two layers of insulating glove/mittens worn underneath
Clothes organizing+bag(s)
To put all or most of the clothes in for easy packing.  Most boys do a couple of small water-resistant bags of different colors to keep things straight, and perhaps one kitchen-sized garbage bag for clothes that have become "toxic."


For equipment, the most important consideration is quality. Cheap crap just won't cut it in the harsh winter environment. If you think it just might possibly break, it's guaranteed to fail on the first day.

Sleeping bag
Down or synthetic insulation, rated to an appropriate temperature (0° F) depending on individual preference. Synthetic is strongly recommended over down for scouts under First Class. Two summer-rated bags can be combined to make one winter bag. Mummy or tapered bags only; no rectangular bags.
1.5 Insulating pad(s)
Closed-cell foam or open-cell foam inflatable (Thermarest) pad, full body length, with a second shorter pad (3/4 body length) for additional insulation. Usually scouts go with one full length thermarest on top, with a full length or 3/4 length closed-cell foam pad underneath.
Sleeping bag stuff sack (waterproof nylon).
If using an external+frame+backpack, the stuff sack should be large enough to hold an insulating pad & sleeping bag, with room to spare. Go LARGE.
1 waterproof nylon ground cloth (1 person sized) (recommended).
This goes under sleeping pads and bag to keep you dry when sleeping in the snow.
1 Pocket knife
2 Large-mouth+water+bottle 1 qt. minimum each
1 Compass
1 Headlamp-style flashlight & 1 set spare batteries.  Lithium batteries are a much better choice than other batteries for winter use.
1 Ditty+bag containing insulated mug, bowl, utensils, toothbrush, toothpaste
1 small nylon bag or stuff sack for holding food.
1 Candle (optional)
1 Water-resistant wristwatch with alarm.
Glasses or corrective lenses for boys who need them
Not optional!  Boys need to be able to see to play capture the flag, to navigate without getting lost, etc.   Boys with glasses should consider glasses+retaining+straps.  Glasses are strongly preferred over contacts, as maintaining contacts in a cold snow-filled environment is very challenging.
Large, frame backpack
If you have access to an internal frame expedition pack, these are excellent for this type of activity, provided you are a very organized packer. Otherwise, a large external frame pack of good fit, with top extension bar. External frame packs should have 4 webbing lash straps added for lashing sleeping bag and day pack.
This must be larger than the average bookbag backpack. To be worn on day ski outings, with shovel, food, water, extra clothing.
Cross-country skis, bindings, boots, and poles (if you already own them)
Ideally, metal-edged back-country touring or telemark skis with cable (or other heavy-duty) bindings (though these are rare in this part of the country). Waxless skis are easiest in Michigan. Boots are best as above-the-ankle boot style, rather than the lower shoe-style boot. Boots must fit well and be large enough to allow good circulation with heavy socks. Poles should be shorter and thicker than x-country daytime poles; get aluminum over thin fiberglass. Downhill ski poles work OK, especially if a bit big.

Group Gear

Scouts do not need to worry about providing group gear.   This section is just a reminder to patrol leaders and trip leaders of things to consider.

Backcountry First Aid Kit(s)
One for each traveling group. Include some chemical hot packs and a hypothermia thermometer.
Backpacking (light weight) white gas stoves & repair kits
One stove for every 3-4 people, one repair kit per stove, and at least one spare stove. Test stoves first in cold weather pre-trips; many manufacturers make crap. We recommend MSR or big Optimus (111) stoves.
Stove insulating pads
Made from thin plywood & ensolite pad, to put under stove so that stove doesn't melt its way through snow.
White gas, bottles and funnel
Don't use kerosene in the winter. One quart per stove per day, plus reserve.
Backpacking cookware.
The usual, though you're probably not going to do much field baking. All pots need lids, one with pressure latches is useful for storing liquid water overnight.
High-quality stowable shovels.
At least 2-3 per patrol, or 1-2 per cook group.
Snow saws
One (or two) per group of 3, if you're planning to build igloos.
Lightweight 4-season tent or fly shelters
Many of us prefer flies, as full tents accumulate moisture during the evening and are heavier. Flies are difficult above treeline or in heavier winds, however. If you know absolutely that you'll be able to build snow shelters for the whole route, these can be dispensed with.
Avalanche transceivers
One per person required if you're going ANYWHERE that avalanches are a remote possibility. Group members must be trained in their use. Otherwise, just fun things to play with and learn about!
Pulk X-country ski tow sled (1 per patrol) (optional, but strongly recommended)
Towing some gear sure beats carrying it on your back. Improvisational sleds can be made with plastic sleds, ski poles, and the hip belt of a backpack when necessary.
Repair kit(s)
Repair supplies for everything - packs, stoves, skis (including extra bindings, screws, replacement tips), ski boots.
Food (& spices)
Lots! Easy to cook, high fat content, pre-cut into small pieces for ease of handling. 1.5 - 2 lbs per person per day (dry).