About to take the plunge and embark on your first winter camping adventure? Got a good idea of what to take with you but worried you’ll forget something important? You’re in the right place!
Winter camping is a truly spectacular experience. It’s a great way to get away from the summer camping crowds, and there’s nothing quite like emerging from your tent in the morning to a field of fresh snow and watching the birds singing from their powder-topped trees.
Sure, the conditions can make setting up camp challenging and it can be physically demanding, but it’s totally worth it – if you’re prepared. There’s nothing worse than ruining an entire weekend trip because you didn’t take the right gear with you.
The top priorities for winter camping are warmth and safety – your gear needs to be able to keep you warm and, in case that fails, you need to make sure you’re ready for cold-weather emergencies (hypothermia, frostbite, etc.) – plus, there are those pesky avalanches to consider.
Here, we’ve put together a winter camping checklist that covers everything you need to keep warm and safe during cold-climate adventures – happy camping!
Let’s start with the basics – camping is camping after all, and there’s some gear you should take with you on all camping trips (we probably don’t need to remind you to pack a tent!).
Although you’re unlikely to forget these items, you want to make sure that they’re up to the challenge of winter camping – your lightweight summer sleeping bag just won’t cut it, we’re afraid! Here are some pointers on what to look out for in your basic camping gear.
Just like at any time of year, winter weather varies. Although a sturdy 3-season tent will most likely keep you snug during mild winter weather, if you’ll be out in blustery winds, significant snow, or heavy rain, then you should definitely be taking a 4-season tent with you. The last thing you want is any water making its way inside your tent at night – getting damp is a fast-track route to getting a chill, which can be dangerous when winter camping.
Also bear in mind that when you go winter camping, you’re likely to have more bulky gear with you than during the warmer months – we recommend finding a 4-season sent with at least one vestibule for you to stash your stuff.
Getting a good night’s sleep really does make all the difference to how much you’ll enjoy your trip, and investing in a great sleeping bag is one of the best ways to make sure you catch enough of those precious Zs.
Bags with mummy-style hoods trap in extra heat, and there are tonnes of other features such as draft collars and tubes that help to keep you toasty at night. The main thing, however, is the insulation. We must admit that we’re suckers for a good down filling – it has a great warmth-to-weight ratio, which is great for backpacking trips. Having said that, it doesn’t insulate when wet, whereas synthetic filling does, so you’ll have to decide which factor is most important to you.
Whichever insulation you decide to go for, make sure you check out the temperature rating of the sleeping bag (the lowest temperature at which the bag can keep you warm) and check that it’s suitable for your destination.
If you need some inspiration for choosing a cold-weather sleeping bag, check out our list of the warmest sleeping bags in 2020.
No matter the weather, no one likes sleeping on the ground after a long day on the trail. It’s cold and it’s uncomfortable – and this only gets worse in winter, especially if camping on frozen ground. Not only does an insulated sleeping pad keep you comfy, but it can keep you considerably warmer by keeping you away from that cold, cold ground.
The warmth of a sleeping bag is measured via an R-value – the higher it is the warmer the pad. For winter camping, you want an R-value of 4-6 (but at least 5 if you’ll be sleeping on snow).
One of the best ways (and definitely our favorite way) to keep yourself in tip-top shape for battling those winter elements is to eat plenty of food and keep your hydration levels up. Keeping yourself warm uses up your body’s energy after all, so it’s only fair that you put that energy back in (plus who doesn’t love a good snack break).
You can nibble on apples, cold pasta, and packs of chips to your heart’s content, but nothing beats a hot meal. A warm breakfast can really take the edge off those cold mornings while a hot dinner keeps you warm as you swap stories by the campfire. Plus, tea breaks along the trail give you an instant surge of warmth and can really help with cold hands. That’s why one of our essential items has to be a camping stove.
There are all kinds of camping stoves currently on the market. Some are super portable and built for solo backpackers (see here for our best backpacking stoves), while others are huge constructions designed for family trips with a vehicle. You’ll have to think about which kind of stove is right for you but, whatever type of winter mission you’re on, you won’t forget taking a stove with you, trust us.
Some camping stoves, such as the Jetboil range, come as entire cooking sets with integrated cooking pots. However, if you opt for a simple, lightweight stove, or you want to cook larger, fancier meals, then you’re going to need some pots and pans to go with your stove.
Cast iron and titanium are some of the most commonly used materials for camping cooking equipment. Cast iron is popular due to its fantastic heat distribution and retention (it will stay hotter far longer than aluminum) and the fact that you can shove it on anything – stoves and open flames. Just make sure you season it beforehand so it stays non-stick and easy to clean. However, cast iron is pretty heavy, so we’d only recommend it for camping with a vehicle.
Titanium, on the other hand, is super lightweight and has become the number one choice for backpackers looking to shed some pounds. On top of that, it will heat up far faster than cast iron, making it a better choice for times when you need an instant warm-up.
….And don’t forget your plates and cutlery either!
These days, many stoves feature push-button ignition, which means you don’t have to bother lighting it yourself. Although we love this feature, it sometimes fails, plus many stoves still require you to actually light them. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to have a lighter (or three – it never hurts to have a backup) to hand.
Furthermore, you can use your lighter to start campsite fires, and they can be a great bit of emergency gear when you need to catch someone’s attention. Matches are a little trickier to keep dry and functional but there are some great waterproof ones on the market nowadays, so why not opt for both to be sure you’ll never be forced into darkness? And you can always pop them in a zip-lock bag or dry bag if you want to make sure they’ll stay dry. Just make sure you keep them away from any little ones that are camping with you.
You’re going to need plenty of water to cook up carb-filled meals (pasta, potato, rice, noodles) to keep you going. Plus, as keeping those calories up, you also need to stay hydrated. Taking a collapsible water container will make your life a lot easier if you’re camping with a tap nearby – fill it up once and you’re set for the evening.
You’ll also need a water bottle for when you’re on the go. You might even want to consider a hydration-compatible backpack, as this will enable you to slurp without stopping, removing gloves, etc, which will keep you a lot warmer.
Finally, a thermos is a great bit of winter camping gear. It can be a faff to whip your stove out while you’re on a blustery trail just for a cup of tea, so why not triple up on your tea-brewing in the morning and take some with you? A decent thermos will keep your drink warm for 24 hours, and it means you can boost your heat levels in no time, no matter where you are.
The trick to winter clothing for outdoor activities is getting as much warmth as you can while trying to minimize bulk and weight. The best way to do this is to stick to the three-layer principle – wear an outer, mid, and inner (base) layer.
Also known as a ‘shell’ layer, this layer is what separates you from the outside world, so it’s super important. The main decision is how shell-like you want your shell to be.
For seriously cold trips, there are jackets out there with a lot of insulation to keep you warm, but they’ll restrict your movements slightly and weigh you down (although down jackets do offer a great warmth-to-weight ratio).
Alternatively, you can opt for a lighter, hardshell with less insulation. This will be far lighter and offer better rain protection (water will eventually penetrate even the best down jackets), but you’ll need to get your warmth from your other layers.
Overall, the decision will largely come down to how cold and rainy your trips are likely to be.
As the name suggests, this layer is the one closest to you and it forms the base of your arsenal of protective clothing. As they’ll be resting directly on the skin, you want something that can retain heat but can also handle a bit of perspiration. If sweat hangs around for too long, it will make you feel wet, which can lead to chills and eventually more severe conditions such as hypothermia.
Look for materials such as merino wool, polyester and nylon in a base layer as they’re both great at moving heat away from the skin (a process known as wicking) and at trapping precious body heat. Avoid cotton at all costs, as it will absorb sweat and leave you soggy at your core.
Three guesses where this one goes… The mid layer sits between the outer layer and the base layer, and its primary purpose is to keep you warm. Ideally, you want it to be breathable too, so fleece, wool, and other synthetics are very popular mid layer fabrics
You’ve probably already got a hat and gloves knocking around at home somewhere (and you’ve definitely got some socks), but are they up to winter-camping standards?
We lose tonnes of heat through our heads, so it’s super important you have something to keep your noggin warm. This is particularly important at night when temperatures drop and you’re likely to be stationary. In fact, in super cold conditions, it’s best to sleep with a hat on to make sure that you stay warm while sleeping! A beanie is the best shout, but we also recommend taking a lighter option with you for the daytime, when a beanie might be too much. Buffs are a great, versatile option that you can wrap around your head, neck, or chin, and it won’t add any weight to your pack to take one with you. A waterproof hat is a nice touch, but your jacket should have a hood anyway if you’re out in cold weather, so the main things to look for is adequate insulation.
Gloves, on the other hand (see what we did there?), are going to exposed to the elements all of the time, so it can be worth investing in a waterproof pair – just make sure the insulation is decent too. As with the hats, it can be worth packing an extra pair of lighter gloves for drier conditions when you just need a touch more warmth.
We won’t spend much time on socks, we’re sure you already know what socks work best with your boots. But what will say is make sure you pack some spares. Soggy socks are the worst, and cold feet are a sure way to get the chills. For a five-day trip, we’d say take at least 8 pairs. That way, you’re covered if your pack gets wet, your boots start to leak, or you lose a pair or two. You should wear a pair to bed too – there are socks specifically for this, but if you want to save some pennies, just don one of your spare pairs.
The last thing you want is slush in your shoes, and gaiters are a great bit of protective gear that won’t weigh you down. Plus, if you get a little lost and end up wading through a river, you’ll be very pleased that you packed them.
It might seem counterintuitive to pack your favorite pair of sunnies for the beach for a camping trip but, honestly, they’re needed. When the sun bounces off the snow it creates a fierce glare that can, in extreme cases, cause permanent damage to your eyes. The best sunglasses will be wraparounds that don’t let any sunlight reach the eye. It’s probably a good idea to pair up your sunglasses with a strap to make sure they aren’t whisked off your face in windy conditions. Alternatively, if you want to play it super safe, then why not opt for a pair of sports goggles – there’s no way that those will get blow away.
Hopefully, you won’t need most of the items on this list but, if things take a turn for the worst, you’ll be super happy that you packed them
You don’t need to go overboard with this, but you want to make sure that you can deal with any nasty bumps and scrapes. You’ll want to make sure you have some antibacterial wipes, antiseptic cream, painkillers, tweezers, gauze, and a bunch of plasters and bandages. For anything more serious, you need to get back on the grid ASAP. Obviously, make sure you remember any personal medicines you might need, such as an inhaler or antihistamines.
These are a great way to keep yourself informed of any drastic weather changes. Plus, some of them have added emergency features such as dog whistles and strobe lights in case you really get into trouble. If you want some inspiration on choosing an emergency radio, see our recent article on the best emergency radios.
You never, ever want to get caught out without water, no matter what the weather. That’s why it’s a great idea to keep a water filter handy. These range from large filters designed to keep entire families hydrated to minute emergency filers no larger than a pen. We recently reviewed the best water filters, so check out the article if you’re interested.
These are a great way to safeguard against super cold hands (and even the dreaded frostbite). If you feel that deep chill starting to set in, activate a handwarmer, and slip it inside your glove or pocket. The warmth will be instant and most hand warmers last up to 8 hours – more than enough time to get yourself back to camp (or even the car if things are getting really bad).
This might sound silly, but snacks really can save the day. It’s easy to underestimate how much of a toll the cold takes on your body and, if you don’t compensate enough for this with your calorie intake, you might find yourself in a state of fatigue, which can be serious if there’s a snowstorm heading your way.
You want something heavy in nutrients and sugar, so make sure you carry a few protein bars or you could try the energy gels that marathon runners use. Failing that, even something as simple as a pack of gummy bears can be enough to give you that kick you need to get going again.
Transceivers are a great bit of gear that emit signals that can be used to locate you even in remote locations. It might sound a bit unnecessary but, if you’ll be heading out anywhere where avalanches might occur, it’s a necessary bit of kit.
This will totally depend on the kind of trip you’re taking, but if you’ll be climbing, skiing, or sledding around, make sure you have everything you need!
Even if you aren’t planning on any extreme activities, if you’re going to take one bit of ‘sports gear’ then we definitely recommend trekking poles. They’re a great way to keep you steady even in the summer, but they’re especially useful when making your way through terrain that’s icy or snowy.
And now for the extras…. these items are by no means limited to cold-weather camping, but you’ll definitely need them on your icy explorations, so we’ve added them here as a quick reminder:
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!