5 of the Best Winter Backpacking Trips in the United States

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Hitting the trails in the wintertime brings with it a whole different level of adventure. The uncrowded mountains all to yourself, the challenge of navigating snow-covered trails and unpredictable weather, and the mug of hot chocolate at the end of a long day are all enticing enough on their own but put them together and that’s when the magic begins.

While backpacking in the winter can get a bad rap because yes, it’s cold, its benefits may far outweigh the concerns—it’s less crowded and the snowcovered forests make everything more peaceful and picturesque. This is not to say the cold should be underestimated, and it’s extremely important to be vigilant about the weather, your gear, and preparation when you hit the trails in the wintertime. When you are willing to put in the extra effort, there are plenty of options to get you into the backcountry during the long winter months.

Ready to hit the trail? Here are five of the best winter backpacking trips in the United States.

1. Fontana Dam to Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

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A beautiful view of Newfound Gap in Smoky Mountains National Park.

Kevin Stewart Photography

Distance: 42 miles end-to-end

Days Needed: 4-5

Where to Camp: Appalachian Trail shelters, located every 8-10 miles along the trail

Why Take This Trip

The “Smokies” get their share of intense winter weather, but the non-technical trails, convenient shelters, and lush forest make this a worthy winter destination.

Much of the trail through the Smokies is protected under dense tree cover, with welcome lookouts every few miles that let you stop and take in the views of this majestic area. You’ll need to leave a car at either end or arrange a shuttle from Newfound Gap back to Fontana Dam. Reserve backcountry permits here.

2. Bonds Traverse: White Mountains, New Hampshire

Distance: 20 miles round trip

Days Needed: 3

Where to Camp: Zealand Hut (unmanned) for both nights

Why Take This Trip

This three-day, three-peak adventure in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is a classic. The challenge set forth by these seemingly small peaks, especially in the winter, is substantial and should be tackled only by experienced hikers. The trip entails hiking into Zealand Hut on day one from Route 302—it’s important to note that Zealand Road is not maintained in the winter so you will have to start at the base of the road and hike in. Day two has you bagging three 4,000-footers: Bond, West Bond, and Bondcliff. Head back to Zealand Hut for the night and hike out the same way you came in on day three. There are other hiking alternatives to this route that can add on mileage and even other peaks, but it’s best to research and plan to drop cars or arrange a shuttle instead of heading back the way you came in.

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The Smoky Mountains become a winter wonderland when the snow starts to fly.

Cody Myers Photography

3. Lava Lake: Bozeman, Montana

Distance: Six miles round trip

Days Needed: 2

Where to Camp: A few hundred yards back from this amazing alpine lake

Why Take This Trip

This classic out-and-back day hike in Southwest Montana, also makes for an extraordinary overnighter that’s not too far off the beaten path. Spending the night in the quiet trees at the edge of Lava Lake surrounded by rugged peaks is an experience that’s hard to beat. The hike itself is moderate and stays mostly in the trees, but it does have a steady elevation gain all the way to the lake. You will cross a scenic bridge about 2/3 of the way up before hitting some steep switchbacks. The route is typically packed down enough to not need snowshoes after the initial snowfall.

4. Diamond View Lake: Crescent, Oregon

Distance: 10 miles round trip

Days Needed: 2

Where to Camp: At the edge of the lake, under the towering Diamond Peak

Why Take This Trip

This 5-mile hike to Diamond View Lake has you gaining 1,000 feet on a well-graded trail right off the Trapper Creek Trailhead. The hike itself is moderate and the scenery when you get to the top is well worth any effort. During the days, enjoy amazing views of Diamond Peak while at night the starry skies will have you mesmerized. Heavier traffic defines this trail in other seasons, but winter provides a quiet blanket of snow and drastically decreased foot traffic. Be sure to check trail conditions before heading out to see if snowshoes are necessary.

5. Pinhoti Trail: Alabama/Georgia

Distance: 335 miles end-to-end

Days Needed: 25-35

Where to Camp: Dispersed camping is allowed along the length of the trail and shelters are scattered throughout

Why Take This Trip

The Pinhoti Trail is a great winter trail for novices and experienced backpackers alike. It’s well maintained, easy to break into sections, and has less snow to manage than mountains in the northern United States. While this trail may feel remote, you are not ever very far away from town which makes it easy to break the hike up into smaller, more easily attainable adventures, especially if you are new to winter trips. March-April is the best time to hit the Pinhoti.

Written by Matcha for Gregory Mountain Products.

Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart Photography