Summer is winding down, and winter is just around the corner. For outdoor enthusiasts, this means one of two things. Maybe you pack away all your gear into your garage until next summer. The other options are to unpack your cold-weather equipment and get ready for some winter excursions into the wilds.
Winter camping is a tricky endeavor that you can simplify with just a few short steps. Preparation and equipment are your two pillars of survival when making a treck out into the snow-covered wilderness, so let us be a guiding voice among as you step out your door.
Whether you’re a seasoned snow veteran or looking to get your feet wet (no pun intended), our winter camping guide and gear recommendations should put you on the right path to getting wherever you need to go.
Table of Contents
Preparation for Winter Camping
Camping in the snow brings many more inherent hazards that a typical summertime excursion into the woods. Hypothermia can set in much faster than one might expect as temperatures at 50 degrees Fahrenheit can set in the chill if you are wearing wet clothes in windy conditions. Preparation is everything when planning your trip, and when done correctly, can be the most rewarding experience an outdoors person can have.
Snow camping preparation differs from regular camping all in the minute details. Dozens of smaller nuances add up to be game-changing once the chill sets in at night. That is why we recommend that you team up with a more experienced hiker, camper, or guide before making the trek out on your own. Many of these nuances can only be learned by doing or experiencing them for yourself in the wilderness, so go with somebody who has done this thing before.
Take the extra time to plot out your destination for where you will be hiking or packing into. Choose a camping location that is as close to a river, stream, or lake as possible. You would be surprised how much extra fuel is required to melt snow enough to drink or use for cooking. Having to melt snow over a stove can quickly use as much as three times the amount of fuel as you would use on a typical summertime camping trip.
The fundamentals of camping prep are never more important than when you are getting ready to head out into the cold. Simple things like telling a friend or family member where you are going and when you will be returning can be life-saving if you happen to get stranded out in the snow. Things can take a turn for the worst in a moments notice, so be mindful of who knows where you’re going and who you’re going with.
Always ensure to check the weather forecast before heading out into the winter cold. All the preparation for snowstorms can quickly be for naught if the temperature rises just enough to turn that hail storm into pouring rain suddenly. Do not only plan for what you expect to happen after looking at the weather forecast.
Plan for what might not happen. This is especially true if you see there is a nasty weather front not far from where you know you will be camping. We all know how fickle mother nature can be, and can turn a storm front’s direction at the turn of a dime.
Checklist for Winter Camping Prep:
- Bring an expert for your first winter camp
- Tell a friend where you’re going and when you’ll be back
- Choose a suitable campsite
- Check the forecast
Camping enthusiasts love our equipment, and the cost of keeping up with the latest technology and gadgets can quickly add up to be a sizable part of our paychecks. Constant advancements in camping tech solve so many issues. Gear is lighter and more portable than ever, it keeps you warmer than previous generations of clothing, they are more fuel-efficient, and often the designs are sleeker (and thus WAY cooler looking).
But the ever-increasing costs of cutting edge technology can be a significant deterrent for those camping on any sort of budget. This is especially true for those just looking to get into the world of winter camping. There are indeed some areas to cut financial corners when buying your first set of gear, but knowing exactly which ones are necessary. Skip on the wrong equipment could leading to disastrous ends if things go south at the wrong time.
The best place to start is with the bare essentials. We will dive deeper into each of these later in this piece, but know that a suitable sleeping bag and pad are your number one friend when you’re out in the cold at night. Yes, a tent is definitely required, but chances are you have friend or group member who might already have a suitable one you can bum off of for the first year that you plan on snow camping.
The best way to amass a collection of these pricey camping pieces is simply over time. By the second year that you are snow camping, it might be time to invest in a tent and stove of your own. Year three might be a good time to start investing in warmer clothes, as you will likely want your treks to be more arduous by this point based off of your experience level. Small additions to your equipment list over time will take away much of the financial burden off of your shoulders when compared to buying it all in one lump purchase.
When it does eventually come time to purchase specific items, knowing which ones to get can be just as daunting as saving up for them in the first place. Looking at the endless racks of gear at your local backpacking store can be as exciting as it is intimidating. That is why we are here to lend a hand when recommending a few choice items that will set you in the right direction.
By grouping some of the bare essentials into a few choice categories, you can break down your buying guide into what matters to you most. Everyone is going to have different preferences and requirements when assembling their outdoor pack, so use this guide to see what exactly needs to be added to your wintertime list.
Cold weather clothing is all about how you layer different clothing and is likely going to be the most significant return on your investment when it comes to usability and practicality. Having multiple layers allows you to add or subtract different elements depending on the weather conditions, which tend to fluctuate while out in the cold.
Going with just a single layer is an option, but we recommend having multiple clothing layers at your disposal.
The outer layer, commonly referred to as the shell layer, is going to be the most water-resistant layer. Typically just a water and wind-proof jacket and pants that are lightweight and breathable. Camping clothing probably has the most significant fluctuation when it comes to price versus quality. Recreational winter campers can get away with a more economical outer shell, where more arduous campers can shell out upwards of $600 or more.
There are two primary styles of jackets that we can recommend. The first is going to be a soft outer shell that will feature less insulation with the added benefit of being extremely lightweight and compact-able. A second option would be to have an insulated jacket which would offer you more warmth at the cost of being more substantial and less compact-able when fitting it in your pack when it is not in use.
The primary goal of this layer is to shield you from wind and rain, so be mindful of that when looking for an outer shell layer.
The Main Jacket
When choosing a soft outer shell, we recommend the Stormline Shell Jacket by Black Diamond. Its lightweight and durable designs are built to withstand anything from light rain to mountainside downpour. Its breathable armpit sections still allow the jacket to breathe under strenuous activity and stays at the perfect starter price-point for hikers of any skill range.
- Built with BD.dryBlack Diamond's engineered waterproof/breathable/windproof solution
- Stretch shell fabric increases durability and comfort
- DWR pit zips for ventilation
- Underarm gussets for added mobility
- Adjustable, climbing-helmet-compatible hood
If you decide to go with an insulated jacket, look into purchasing the Rab Xenon-X Jacket . This award-winning jacket uses high-quality insulation that keeps it lightweight (it’s only slightly over ten ounces!) and versatile. The benefits of this piece are that it looks great, and you can wear it all year round if the weather is cold enough.
- Pertex Quantum outer fabric
- PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Active (60g/m2 (2oz))
- Under helmet hood, lycra bound
- 2 YKK zipped hand-warmer pockets; 1 YKK internal zipped pocket, doubles as integrated stuff sack
- Fit: Slim
The Middle Layer aka The Down Jacket
The next layer is going to be your middle layer of clothing. This layer is designed to retain body heat while protecting you from the colder temperatures. There will likely be a wide range of options when it comes to middle layer materials and designs, so do some research and ask some opinions before committing to any specific one for yourself.
A good rule of thumb to follow is that the puffier this middle layer is, the more insulated it will be on your body. The materials that make up the middle layer of clothing are going to be primarily down, polyester fleece, and synthetically insulated materials.
I personally have a soft spot, pun intended, for fleece when assembling my cold-weather attire. It doesn’t irritate my skin after long treks through the wilderness and doesn’t seem to cause me to sweat as much as synthetic materials do. If you are like me, I would recommend the 100% polyester fleece that Columbia makes. It is lightweight and maintenance-free, and the price point is approachable for hikers of any level and budget. Plus I know not many people care about matching colors when out on the trail, but these fleeces come in almost any color you can imagine and are easily matched to the rest of your attire.
- SOFT FABRIC: This Columbia Men's Steens Mountain Half Zip fleece is crafted of soft 100% polyster MTR filament fleece for ultimate warmth.
- HANDY FEATURES: This Columbia men's fleece jacket features two side zippered security pockets to keep your small items secure.
- ULTIMATE COMFORT: With a collared neck and half zip closure, this Columbia men's fleece pullover jacket is designed to give you ultimate comfort and warmth during cold winter days.
- CLASSIC FIT: With a modern classic fit, Columbia's Steens Mountain Half Zip pullover fleece is lightweight with an active cut for comfortable outdoor activity.
- Columbia's Steens Mountain Half Zip fleece is an outdoor staple during cold winters for it's ultimate warmth and comfort.
If you prefer the puffy nature of down, Illuminate is a trusted brand many enthusiasts reaches for. The benefits of down are that it is naturally incredibly insulating. Geese and other birds use their natural down feathers to stay warm via microscopic air pockets that retain heat like nothing else. Down jackets use these natural air pockets to achieve the same end by trapping your own natural body heat. The more natural body heat you release, the more that gets trapped within these small pockets, which is why sleeping bags and jackets made from down are arguably the warmest you can find.
- Fabric Performance: Water Resistant, Wind Resistant, Lightweight
- Design Features: Zip Hand Pockets, Two Internal Shove-It Pockets, Zip Chest Pocket with internal Media Pocket, Left-Hand Pocket Doubles as Stuff Sack, Carabiner Loop, Key Clip, Single-Separating Front Zipper, Elastic Drawcord Hem
- Functional Details: Single-Separating Front Zipper, Low-Pro Binding Elastic Cuffs, Elastic Drawcord Hem
The Base Layer
Your base layer of clothing is going to be all about moisture management. The clothing that makes up this layer will range widely in materials, price, and functionality. Polyester and nylon will be the most common materials, but don’t be surprised if you encounter other materials as well.
This layer is designed to wick away moisture from the body. This moisture might be from perspiration you’ve accrued through long hikes on the trail or even smaller amounts of moisture that have crept through your layers from the environment. Any shirt can theoretically be a base layer when it comes to winter clothes, but you want to ensure that the ones that you select offer the most considerable amounts of wicking.
When the time comes to choose a base layer of your own, there are some things you want to keep in mind. Aspect such as weight, fit, and materials all play an essential role when deciding what will be right for you.
In my personal opinion, the weight of the material is the most significant factor when it comes to choosing which base layers I will take on any specific treck. Heavyweight materials will generally be better designed for temperatures that range well below freezing temperatures. Lightweight materials such as nylon will be better for moderate to cooler temperatures overall.
When it comes to the actual material I prefer in a base layer, I almost always stick towards synthetic fabrics. Other options such as merino wool or silk may appear to be the most comfortable but tend to get smelly and degrade much faster than traditional synthetic material.
Synthetic fabric options can be found almost anywhere you go, and finding an adequate option within your price range shouldn’t be difficult. If you do decide to go with a different option such as merino wool, snag this WoolX Glacier crew shirt. It offers all-day comfort and supreme moisture-wicking, which is what you are looking for out of an ideal base layer.
- WARMEST BASE LAYER - DESIGNED FOR EXTREMELY COLD TEMPS - The warmest base layer you will ever wear, we guarantee it, merino wool will even retain its insulating properties when wet unlike cotton and synthetic fibers | (weight of size large 16.0ounces - 453 grams)
- MOISTURE WICKING & ANTI-MICROBIAL: When you're outside adventuring or working, you are going to sweat, we all do! Have no fear, our men's merino wool base layer bottoms move moisture to the top of the fabric and away from your body keeping you toasty warm all day and with no odor! There will be no bunching, dampness, or irritation like you get with cotton.
- NO ITCH - ULTRA SOFT & BREATHABLE - our base layer bottoms are as soft as cashmere and are ideal for any outdoor activity or for someone that always gets cold - Perfect for hunting, skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and winter hiking - you name it!
- AMAZING DESIGN - A lot of thought went into making these pants - they feature a non- roll waist band that is extremely comfortable - flatlock non chafe seams - double panel front seamed fly - wide bottom cuffs means no riding up - no interior labels
- MACHINE WASH AND DRY - no shrinkage - turn garment inside out
The Sleeping Bag
The next priority after clothing would likely be a sleeping bag. Like most other camping equipment, sleeping bag options are almost limitless when it comes to styles, pricing, opportunities, and usability. Choosing the right one for you can be difficult, which is why we wanted to help guide you through some of the tougher choices.
Winter temperatures can range from mildly cold to downright sub-freezing depending on where you are trecking. Often times these backpacking trips are planned months in advance, so check the local forecast when planning your packing kit isn’t necessarily an option. That is why I always plan for the coldest temperature so that I can always adjust from there if conditions turn out to be more frigid than expected.
Having a sleeping bag that can withstand temperatures of up to negative twenty below freezing is a right ballpark to be aiming for. Bear in mind that many manufacturers do not accurately list their screening temperatures on their sleeping bags, so assume the temperature recorded on their product descriptions are anywhere from ten to twenty degrees warmer than what they are telling you. You do not want to find this out while trying to get some shut-eye on a mountainside in sub-freezing temperatures.
If you have a bit of extra money to spare, we recommend the Mountain Hardware Phantom Torch Phantom Torch sleeping bag. This pack has an incredibly lightweight design and will fit right into the regimen of any weight-conscious packer. Plus the corded headpiece keeps all the warm body heat from escaping in the night, and can genuinely be a game-changer when the temperatures get to be extra chilly.
- Q Shield DOWN 800-fill has an advanced treatment applied that resists heat robbing moisture and retains maximum loft in damp conditions. Performance mummy is cut snug, for maximum warmth and minimum weight. Tight 5" baffle spacing maximizes loft. Lightweight but durable two-way #5 zipper for easy entry and exit.
- Down-filled face gasket comfortably blocks drafts at the hood opening. Six-chamber hood design maintains even loft around head for consistent warmth.
- Ergonomic draft collar blocks the escape of heated air from inside the bag Two drawcords can snug down as needed to secure the collar.
- Insulated draft tube with anti-snag panel prevents cold spots along zipper. Comfort footbox follows natural foot position for maximum warmth and comfort.
- Single-handed drawcords simplify adjustments. Nylon compression sack and mesh storage sack included.
The North Face Inferno comes in at a close second to the Phantom Torch. This bag is insulated with synthetic down, making it one of the best in terms of insulation that you can find. This bag is recommended for temperatures dropping as low as zero degrees, so be mindful if you are trecking through more extreme conditions. You might need something with a bit more weight to it.
- Durable 0-degree bag is constructed with 800 fill ProDown
- 800 fill ProDown
- Generous cut allows you to wear more layers or to "maytag" in the bag
- Trapezoidal side baffle to prevent down migration
The Cooking Equipment
Staying on top of your daily nutrition is what separates the professional hikers from the exhausted amateurs. Keeping a good set of cooking equipment is vital to the success of any treck, and becomes more important the farther you get out into the wilderness.
We wrote an extensive article on camping stoves that you can reference, so we will keep this guide relatively short (although quality stoves are an essential part of your pack). A rule of thumb is that white gas stoves will be the best option for winter camping and cooking. Remember that Kerosene and Naphtha stoves come with a much steeper learning curve than other stoves. Practice during the off-season to make sure you’re an expert by the time you head out on the trail.
Many seasoned packers first reach for the MSR WhisperLite when they are assembling their packs. This white gas stove is lightweight and sturdy and takes up very little room in a backpack. It is no wonder why it has been a quintessential tool and a crowd favorite for over two decades.
- Multi-Fuel-Burns white gas, kerosene and unleaded gasoline
- Light and Sturdy: Lightweight stainless steel legs offer excellent durability
- Compact: Folds small and fits inside most MSR pots.
- Field Maintainable: Self-cleaning Shaker Jet technology and new, one-piece leg assembly allow fast cleaning and maintenance in the field.
- Includes: Fuel pump, windscreen, heat reflector, small-parts kit, instructions, and stuff sack. (Fuel bottle not included)/Made in Seattle, USA
Remember that a warm meal at the end of a long day can be gratifying. But do your best to keep all your cooking quick and straightforward. The last thing you want is to slow your treck down through lengthy cleaning processes and having to scrub dishes out in sub-zero temperatures. Freeze-dried entrees can be your best friend during situations such as these.
These are just a few of the essentials that you will need when you’re first starting out in winter hiking. If you hike all year round, do not think you will need to start at square one when making your kit. Most camping gear that you use during the summer months will work just fine when traveling out into the snow. Take a look at our comprehensive checklist to make sure you did not miss anything before you head out.
When it comes to winter camping correctly, we would be doing you a disservice by not creating one last checklist specifically designed for the winter hikers among us. Below is a quick list to reference to make sure you bring everything along in your pack:
- A heat source for cooking
- Hydration (remember camelbacks might freeze in the cold. Bring insulation for your water bottles)
- Repair kit and other field tools
- Medical Kit
- Emergency Shelter
- Headlamp and flashlight
- Sun protection
Winter camping is a truly magical experience that even many avid summertime hikers never get a chance to experience. There is a certain solace that one gets when waking up in a silent forest surrounded by snow. At the same time, winter hiking can be hazardous. Never go out into the frozen wilds before making sure everything is taken care of. That means people know where you are going and when you’ll be back. It also means you have enough layered clothing and insulation to keep you warm even if temperatures drop well below what you expect them to.
Be careful not to go beyond your own skill range when winter camping as things can quickly take a turn for the worst. That is why we advise always trekking with a more seasoned hiker when you are first starting out. Once you get the hang of the environments and hazards presented to you, you can loosen the reigns and begin to really enjoy the icy wilderness.
For those of you looking to expand your knowledge of further, we have compiled an extensive list of winter camping tips to help you become an expert that much quicker.