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Camping in the cold can be a challenge, but with the right gear and preparation, even the coldest nights can be enjoyable.

When temperatures drop and snow falls, campsites become much less crowded. The fear of being cold keeps even avid campers bundled up indoors on winter nights. But there is no reason to lock yourself inside all winter.

With the right gear, any winter trip can be fun and comfortable.

Photo by papalar

Here are seven essential items for a comfortable winter camping trip:

1. Ultra-warm Sleeping Bag

When it comes time to curl up and close your eyes, the sleeping bag is responsible for keeping you toasty. Because of this, it is important to use a quality sleeping bag rated for the expected temperature.

The temperature ratings assigned to sleeping bags are approximations, but it is worth choosing one at or below the temperatures you expect (or fear) on your trip.

When sizing a winter sleeping bag, it is important to err on the side of roominess. You don’t want it to be huge, but allow enough room for extra layers and stashing things, like extra clothes, water bottles, and batteries.

Photo by Laurel Fan

Choosing between natural down and synthetic fill is often a matter of personal preference. One important consideration, however, is climate. Synthetics do much better in wet environments, like winter in the Northeast, while natural down is better suited to places with a dry winter, like Colorado.

When it comes to down sleeping bags, no one makes them better than Feathered Friends, a company based in Seattle, Washington. If you prefer synthetic, Mountain Hardwear is the standard among mountaineers.

Price: $154.95 – $174.95 | Mountain Hardwear Lamina

Note: You will sometimes hear people claim sleeping bags keep you warmest if you crawl in naked or wearing a single thin layer of clothing. This is simply not true. While you don’t want the fill of the sleeping bag to be compressed, physics tells us that the more layers of insulation you have around you, the warmer you will be.

2. A Bombproof Tent

After a sleeping bag, the piece of gear that will help keep you warm at night is your tent. Most people use four season or “expedition” style tents for winter camping. The major difference from summer tents is that winter tents have much less ventilating mesh.

Expedition tents generally feature extra guy-lines, stronger poles, and sturdier fabrics to battle extreme winds.

Both the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 and the North Face Mountain 25 have been expedition and winter camping standards for years.

One alternative to these classics is a single-wall tent. These tents are made from waterproof and breathable fabrics so they don’t require a separate fly. They are extremely warm, easy to set up, and durable. If you are serious about winter camping, it is worth checking out the Firstlight from Black Diamond.

3. A Big Puffy Coat

With the right tent and sleeping bag, you will be warm in bed, but to stay warm when you’re just standing around, you need a big puffy coat. The idea here is to choose something large enough to fit over all of your layers whenever you stop moving or are doing small things around the campsite.

The choice between natural down and synthetic fills is the same here as it is with sleeping bags: synthetic is the better choice for wet or damp climates.

If you are a fan of down, the North Face Nuptse Jacket is a classic, however, because I strongly recommend a jacket with an insulated hood, I think the Frontpoint Jacket from Feathered Friends is a better choice.

Price: $119.20 – $150.00 | Marmot Zeus Down Jacket – Men’s

Price: $143.20 – $180.00 | Marmot Women’s Ama Dablam Jacket

If you are looking for a synthetic jacket, you can’t go wrong with the popular DAS Parka from Patagonia. My personal favorite, however, is the Belay Jacket from Wild Things.

4. An Enormous Backpack

I used to think my summer backpack was huge. Then I tried to stuff a winter-weight sleeping bag into it. After an hour of wrestling with what looked like a giant, fluorescent, sausage I realized that even if I crammed everything inside my now small-looking backpack, there was no way I could repack it in the cold and snow.

The lesson: winter gear is massive and you need a giant backpack to contain it all.

Good choices for a winter-sized pack include the Denali Pro 105 from Gregory Packs, the Argon 110 from Osprey, and the truly enormous Astraplane from Marmot.

5. A Powerful Stove

Campfires are great in the summer but they confuse your body’s internal thermometer in the winter and are best avoided. This leaves the camp stove as the only way to cook food, melt snow for water, and brew hot drinks. All three of these things– lots of water, warm food, and warm drinks– are absolute necessities for staying warm in the winter.

Photo by Weembles

When picking a winter stove, you want to choose one with the highest output possible. Another consideration is the fuel type. Stoves that use pressurized fuel canisters are convenient in the summer, but the fuel has trouble staying gaseous in the cold. The more reliable choice is a stove that uses liquid fuel, most commonly white gas.

The WhisperLite from MSR is a good, popular, choice, but you cannot match the incredible XGK EX when it comes to durability or heat output.

6. A Simple Water Bottle Insulator

It seems like a frivolous thing: a big, zippered, coozie for your water bottle. In the summer, it probably would be. But keeping your water liquid when the ambient temperature is below zero is not a simple task. Insulators, like the one from Outdoor Research, make it a lot easier.

Another tip is to always store your water bottle top-down in the winter. This prevents the cap from freezing shut.

Price: $16.95 – $19.95 | Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka

7. Lots of Butter

Laugh all you want, but an ample supply of butter is the best way to stay warm in the winter. Drop a tablespoon into your oatmeal in the morning, another tablespoon into your soup at dinner, and drink some hot chocolate with a tablespoon before bed.

Photo by sanctumsolitude

As unappetizing as this may sound, the calories and fat in butter are exactly what your body needs to stay warm all day and night.

Camping in the cold can be a challenge, but with the right gear and preparation even the coldest nights can be enjoyable.

Sports + Adventure


About The Author

David DeFranza

David DeFranza has studied in China, worked in Japan, and wandered all over Asia, Europe, and North America.

  • Jim Muller

    I recently discovered your article and wanted to bring your attention to a winter camping resource that you might find interesting and worth relaying to your readers – There is a comprehensive collection of Winter Camping Articles from varied journals and newspapers. Winter Camping Skills includes an article on How to Get Started Winter Camping, special tips on Leave No Trace for Winter Campers, there are Trip Logs and Photos from past adventures, how to build snow shelters, advanced Winter Camping Tips, Winter Camping Recipes and a Winter Camping Video. Winter Camping Gear includes several gear reviews, a Sample Gear List, a discussion of The Ten Essentials and examples of What’s In My Pack? by different winter campers. The Lighter Side of Winter Camping includes: a collection of Winter and Wilderness Survival Quizzes, a tongue in cheek Winter Camping Application, Winter Camping Poems, Winter Camping Quotes and the Top Ten List Reasons to Go Winter Camping. Finally, the BLOG has the latest winter camping news, pictures and chatter.

  • nate

    If 7 is the magic number then you need to get rid of water bottle thingies and add a sleeping pad. I’ve never heard of anyone going winter camping without one. I would never consider it for a second. The ground (even thu a tent) will steal your body heat 3x faster than the air will. If it wasn’t for the butter I would conclude that this is nothing more than a sales pitch… butter’s good, but extra wool socks (COTTON KILLS) are way more important. You can put a sock or two on your water bottle if you don’t want it to freeze. Packing it upside down will keep the ice at the bottom of your bottle too, and fill it with warm water at night and put it in your boots in your stuff sack at the bottom of your sleeping bag. This will keep everything (including) you warmer, and your water won’t freeze. Altho it seems usefull… you DO NOT need an insulator for your bottle in the winter, I’ve hiked and camped in the ADK of New York in sub zero temps for years without one. Sleeping pad = ABSOLUTE NECESSITY!!! Extra wool socks = better than butter! You made a crappy list that could mislead some poor fool.

  • chris_van

    I’ve never needed more than a 50L pack for an overnight trip, and a 70L pack for a multi-day trip, even in the winter. Unless you have a massive winter synthetic sleeping bag, there is no need for such a big pack. I always follow the “no more clothing than you can wear at a time” rule, except for socks, and underwear if it’s a particularly long trip.

  • K.c.

    Butter is never unappetizing…it just isn’t

  • Chris Masters

    I work for the Canadian Military and some of the stuff mentioned doesnt make much sense. First of all you would be screwed with out water so a water bottle sounds pretty ideal. Also it is true to wear down to the thinnest layer esspecially in winter because wearing lots of layers yes will keep you warm but when you wake up you will most likely be sweating and when you sweat in the winter your sweat will freeze and make you colder. Your sleeping bag will be cold at first but believe me it will warm up. Also remeber not to wear a large coat as mentioned you need layers the reason I say layers is because say for instant you get hot all you have to do is take a layer off and then you will be fine instead of exposing any skin. Now if you were to have a large coat and not layers and you got warm you now would have to either get really hot, sweat and freeze or you.could take your coat off and be expose then freeze. Now if you have a tent you want it to be more wind resistent. Now not every tent will be perfect in giving 100% windproofing. Using your surroundings will help alot. Tree sheltering is great for helping. Also use snow to.your advantage since snow is a terrific insulator. Pack it around the sides of the tent which will help insulate any heat trying to escape. Also a great piece of kit is a bivy bag also in translation is a tent/sleeping bag. Basically its a sleeping bag that has a tent hood on it. With this you could burrow your self in the.snow which will keep you amazingly warm. The stoves he presented from MSR are really a great compactable piece of equipment I would always recommend these quick and efficient stoves. Oh and for food use Carbs. Carbs are what I consider energy food which will help get you through your day and put you back at a stage where you can just burn off without too much gain. Staying warm isnt about fatty foods. Fatty foods take awhile before.they really take any real effect Carbs on the other hand will work throughout the day. Now remember Carbs are meant to be burned off so keeping active is what you need so dont be lazy because it will turn around in a negative way. Well I thought I would correct some of these issues. I love to go camping all year round. So I hope my expertise helps a fellow camper.
    Chief Warrant Officer Unknown

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