Essential Gear for Winter Camping

By Brad Murrow , last updated November 22, 2011

Camping during the winter requires a variety of essential items, not only to keep you warm, but to keep you safe, as well. Camping equipment can be the difference between a fun experience and one that can lead to hypothermia or frost bite.

Tent

A lightweight tent that’s a good choice for hiking may not be warm enough to withstand cold winter winds and temperatures. You may have to set up your tent on snow-covered, frozen and uneven ground. Make sure your tent is easy to erect in cold conditions and on different surfaces. The tent should keep cold air out and warm air in. Check your tent to see if it’s been damaged since you last used it. A hole or tear you don’t see while your tent is in storage can prove dangerous if you discover it when you’re out in the cold.

Shop for a four-season, mountaineering or expedition tent to get one made specifically for extreme temperatures and winds. These tents feature fewer ventilation areas to keep warmth in, rounded corners to let snow slide off and sturdier, waterproof material.

Sleeping Bag and Support

A down-filled sleeping bag provides more insulation than a synthetic bag, but not when it gets wet. Synthetic bags may be a better choice if you think your equipment may get damp. If you are borrowing a sleeping bag, make sure it’s long enough so that you can comfortably get your entire body inside. Don’t put a sleeping bag directly on cold ground, including the bottom of a tent. Place a ground cover beneath you, such as a waterproof piece of padding or material, or even better, an air mattress.

Clothing

Dress in layers to trap your body’s natural heat between layers. Cotton absorbs sweat and keeps wet material against your skin, so look for clothes made from materials that wick perspiration away from your body. Start with thermal long johns and a long-sleeve undershirt. Add another shirt, then a sweatshirt, sweater or vest before you finish with a winter jacket or parka. Wear waterproof pants that provide adequate wind and cold protection. Wear two pair of socks made from a synthetic material to keep your feet dry.

Bring more than one hat: you’ll lose most of your body head through your head if the rest of you is covered. Consider earmuffs, a scarf and goggles, depending on the wind conditions. This will cover your head completely, preventing windburn or frostbite.

Gloves vs. Mittens

Gloves give you more dexterity, but mittens keep your fingers together, sharing body heat. Decide which is more important to you. Make sure your gloves are waterproof and pack an extra pair in case yours become wet, damaged or lost.

Shoes and Boots

Bring sturdy, waterproof boots or shoes that will withstand walking in slow, slush and mud. You may want to bring snowshoes and gaiters, which attach to your pants to keep snow off your lower legs.

Food

You’ll need your energy during winter camping, so pack food that’s easy to make and eat. This will prevent you from skipping meals because you’re too cold to cook. Freeze-dried meals provide plenty of nutrition when you add hot water, and you can eat them right out of the pouch. Bring energy bars for quick fuel.

Cell Phone

Make sure you bring a way to communicate with the outside world that works in freezing temperatures. Check your cell phone specs to make sure it will work in the cold.

Fire

To start fires, bring matches you keep in a waterproof container, a lighter or some other fire starter. Keep matches in two different areas, in case your pack gets wet or lost. Have a supply of dry tinder in plastic baggies to help start fires quickly. If you can afford a small stove, bring one for boiling water and cooking. Remember, while there may be plenty of wood available where you’re going, it may be wet. Bring a supply of wood if you’ll be traveling by car or camper. Bring a wind stop or other barrier to help get fires started.

Dry Storage

Keep essentials in heavy-duty plastic bags to keep clothes and other important items dry. Line your backpack by inserting a plastic bag first for added protection.

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