15 Winter Camping Essentials
You plan on going camping in winter and you know how it gets cold during that time of year — that’s the beauty of it. What do you need to take along with you?
Right now, we want to go over a list of the most important items to bring along for winter camping, so you can stay warm, safe, and comfortable while outdoors.
Winter Camping Essentials
A lot of clothing is needed for a winter camping trip. You will be better off layering with multiple layers — at least 3 layers — rather than just wearing one very thick layer. Multiple layers are best for retaining the most amount of heat, and if you get hot, you can always take off a layer.
In terms of your legs, torso, and upper body, you want to wear a bottom layer which is thin and well-insulated. This is usually going to come in the form of long underwear and the equivalent for the top of your body.
This layer should be something that can wick moisture away from your skin to keep you dry, and it should be made out of a material that can insulate your body for warmth.
The middle layer is all about warmth. While the bottom layer is about warmth and moisture-wicking, this layer is all about warmth.
For this layer, worn over your long underwear and insulated shirt, it should be something simple. This could consist of insulated pants and a thick wool sweater or a hoodie. Think of normal fall or winter clothes you would usually wear to keep warm. This layer should be fairly thick.
The top layer should consist of straight winter gear, or in other words, insulated, waterproof, and windproof pants and coat. Think of what you would wear to go sledding. Some good snow pants and a thick winter coat are essential here. This is your primary layer of defense against the cold, wind, and moisture.
Always be sure to bring extras, especially for the first and middle layers. If you really feel the need, you can always bring extra coats and snow pants, although they will take up a lot of space.
- Boots and Socks
Let’s not forget your feet. When winter camping, your feet are going to be on the ground a lot, and because your feet are often going to be standing or walking across wet, snowy, and cold terrain, they are highly susceptible to the cold, moisture, and heat loss.
It is strongly recommended that you bring along at least 2 pairs of socks for each day, if not 4 pairs. The reason for this is because you may want to wear a thin pair of socks underneath with thick wool or winterized socks overtop. Remember, it’s all about the layers, and this goes for the feet too.
Moreover, your boots are going to be the primary line of defense for your feet, so they need to be very thick, well-insulated, waterproof winter boots. Once again, you may want to consider bringing along 2 pairs of boots.
- Gloves, Hat, Scarf
You can’t forget your hands, face, and head. You’ll want at least 2 pairs of gloves. This way, when one pair gets wet, you can always put the other pair on while the first pair dries.
They should be well-insulated and waterproof. You need good gloves because cold and stiff fingers won’t be able to complete even the most basic of tasks.
A scarf or some kind of facemask, as well as a hat to keep your noggin warm should also be brought along. The head does bleed a lot of heat, so keeping the head warm and insulated is essential for winter camping.
- Insulated Tent + Rainfly
Sleeping under the stars is fine in the summer, but for wintertime you need a thick and well-insulated tent. Your tent should have insulated walls, and particularly important is an insulated floor.
Any feature a tent could possibly come with related to cold weather and moisture should be invested in, especially if you plan on making winter camping a regular event.
You will also want to invest in a rainfly, a good overhang for the door which will help to keep wind, rain, and snow away from the entrance of the tent.
Keep in mind that you don’t want a tent that is too large for winter camping, just enough for you and whoever else needs to fit inside. The larger the tent is in comparison to occupied space, the harder it will be to keep the tent warm.
- Winter Sleeping Bags + Padded Mats + Liners
To provide an extra layer between you and the hard, cold, and wet ground, you may want to bring along a padded mat. A mat that is around 1 to 2 inches thick will help keep you dry, will hold your body heat, and it will provide a layer of protection from the frozen ground.
On that same note, you’ll also want to bring a winterized sleeping bag, one that is rated for extreme cold. Sleep is one of the most dangerous times when it is freezing outdoors, so you need to keep warm and dry as you get some rest.
Even winterized sleeping bags, ones rated for double digit negative temperatures may not always do the trick. This is why they make sleeping bag liners. These are thin yet well insulating layers of fabric which you can put inside of your sleeping bag; they add an extra layer to keep you warm all night long.
- A Space Blanket
Just in case your sleeping bag, the mat, and the tent is not enough, consider bringing along a space blanket — one of those squares that looks like a thin layer of tin foil. These blankets, although they don’t look like much, can hold an extraordinary amount of heat. You can use them in bed or just when sitting in front of the campfire.
- Fire Starter + Wood + Wind Guard
Speaking of the campfire, finding wood or anything dry to burn in the middle of winter when everything is covered in snow is not going to be easy.
It may sound odd to go camping in the woods and to bring along your own wood for burning, but this way you will know that you have wood to burn, to keep warm, and to cook with.
You will also want to bring some sort of fire starter, because once again, you probably won’t be finding many dry things to burn. There are also specialized wind guards to keep wind away from campfires. You may want to invest in one of these if you see a windy trip ahead.
- Propane Cooker + Cookware
In case your fire won’t light, and you want to have a source of warmth, and more importantly, somewhere to cook, bringing along a propane or gas cooker is going to be clutch.
As long as you have a full canister of gas or propane, a decent cooker with a wind guard, and a bit of cookware, you should be able to eat warm meals regardless of having a campfire. There’s nothing better than a hot meal when it’s freezing cold.
In case you have to hike to get to your campsite, plan on hiking during the day, or there is a lot of snow in the forecast, snowshoes will come in handy.
They make walking on thick layers of snow much easier and less taxing on the body. They can make the difference between mobility and being stuck due to a heavy snowstorm.
Just like snowshoes, a sled can come in very handy in terms of mobility. Do you plan on hiking from your car to your campsite, and you have a lot of gear?
Winter camping, as you can see, requires a lot of gear, so chances are that a small sled will come in handy. It will allow you to lug along all your gear across the snow with relative ease.
A small shovel may also be useful for wintertime camping. It can be used to dig a latrine and to dig out your tent in the event of a snowstorm. Making paths and many other tasks can also be done with a decent little shovel.
- First Aid Kit
Regardless of the season, always carry a first aid kit when camping. If something goes wrong and there’s no hospital nearby, a first air kit is going to come in handy. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so always have a fully stocked first aid kit on hand.
- Food and Water
Food and water are camping essentials, no matter the season. Always bring along enough food for each day you plan on camping, and then some more.
Carrying a good amount of spare food is essential for winter camping, just in case you get stuck outdoors for a few days. Water may not be as important for winter camping, as you can always melt snow and ice.
Now, something else that is important to think about is what kind of food to bring along. Generally speaking, during the winter, you will be wearing gloves or mittens which make it hard to cook and clean. Therefore, the food you bring along should be easy, simple, and make for quick meals. Canned goods are always a go-to option.
Really, anything that you can just heat up in a single pot will be ideal. Anything that involves a lengthy or multi-stage cooking process should be avoided here. It’s not easy to cook with gloves on, and if you need to take your gloves off to cook, then you are putting your fingers at serious risk of frostbite.
- Mirror, Whistle, Radio, and Flares
For a worst-case scenario, in case you get lost or stranded in the woods, you want to have signaling equipment with you. Things like mirrors, loud whistles, flares, and two-way radios are all things you should have in your winter camping gear.
- Camping Knife
A good outdoor camping knife is going to come in handy. Knives can be used to make traps for food, dig for water, make shelters and fishing gear, and much more. A knife is every camper’s best friend.
Essential Winter Camping Tips
Now that we have figured out what the most important pieces of winter camping gear are, let’s go over some other tips for you to follow, so you can stay safe and warm, and of course, so you can enjoy your trip too.
- A Note on Water
If you are camping in the winter, it is probably fair to assume that there will be ice and snow around. Therefore, if you want to keep your camping pack as light and compact as can be, you want to bring along some equipment to melt water.
Of course, you can’t eat snow or ice as is; this isn’t healthy and can result in an upset stomach.
However, if you bring along all of the appropriate gear to make a fire and to suspend a pot above it, you can melt and boil the snow and ice, making them perfectly safe to drink and to use for cooking purposes.
There is absolutely no point in lugging along gallons of water if there is a huge source of water right under your feet.
That said, do take into account that if you are melting snow, you will need a lot of extra fuel, such as propane or butane, like a serious extra amount of it. You don’t want to melt a bunch of water, only to realize that you now don’t have enough fuel left to heat up your food.
- Batteries and Power Banks
Something that you may not know is that the cold is not good for electronic equipment. The colder it is, the faster anything electronic is going to die.
Whether you are using batteries, solar power, or anything else, electronics consume more power to function in the cold. When it comes to your lanterns and flashlights, you will want to bring along a few sets of extra batteries.
When it comes to your phone and other electronics which need to be recharged, it’s a good idea to bring along a high-quality power bank that can hold a big enough charge to recharge your phone several times over. You don’t want to get stuck out in the cold wilderness, only to realize that all of your electronics have died.
- Choosing and Preparing the Campsite
Something that you may not have thought about for your winter camping trip is that you first need to prepare the campsite, and choose the right one too. If you can find some cover, that will add to your comfort.
We do need to make a distinction here, which is that you do want to be beside some cover, such as thick bushes, trees, or rock faces, but you don’t want to set up your tent under trees with many branches. The reason for this is because if you are beside some sort of structure, and you place your tent on the right side of it, it can go a long way in keeping that deadly winter wind at bay. You’ll be happy for some cover once the nighttime hits.
However, you don’t want to be under large branches that can support snow because snow will eventually fall off the branches once enough of it builds up. You don’t want to be sleeping at night only to have a couple hundred pounds of wet and cold snow come crashing down on your tent.
It is also a good idea to try and find some low ground. High ground is fine for summer camping, but winter is a different story. The higher up you go and the more exposed you are, the windier and colder it is. Therefore, finding something like a little valley will help in keeping you warm and comfortable.
Moreover, remember that you not only need to find the right campsite, you also need to prepare it. Generally, this will involve doing a bit of snow shoveling. Of course, you cannot set up a tent on a foot of snow, and a fire won’t go so well either. You will need to put that shovel to use to prepare the area first, getting as close to the ground as you can manage.
- Using a Tarp
Another tip that you may want to follow if you are winter camping is to bring along a large tarp, or a few of them actually, as well as some rope and stakes. The reason for this is because as you might know, it can snow in the winter, and depending on where you are, it can snow a lot.
Sure, a nice 4-season tent should not let any moisture in, but even the best tents can only handle so much. Therefore, you want to have a tarp that is a few feet wider and longer than your tent. Using some rope, you can then suspend that tarp on some trees above your tent, which will prevent snow from falling on your tent.
Remember that the tarp should be at an angle, so the snow can slide down the tarp on a specific side of the tent. If the tarp is not sloped, the snow will build up on it; it will get heavy, and it might come crashing down on you.
The other reason why a tarp will come in handy is because if you need to leave any of your gear outdoors during the night, say if your tent can’t fit it all, you need to cover that gear up to prevent it from getting snowed on and getting wet.
Finally, if it is winter, but also fairly warm, you will notice that snow will melt under your tent, and that’s a risk because if you don’t have a top notch tent, that moisture can seep in through the bottom. Laying down a tarp under the tent will add an extra layer of waterproof protection to prevent you, your tent, and all of your gear from getting wet.
The dark is always an issue. During winter, nights can get very dark. If you have to get up during the night to use the bathroom, or you are hanging around the campsite after dark, you definitely want some lighting so you can see.
A couple of good flashlights and lanterns will come in handy. Just make sure that you bring enough batteries with you. Once again, remember that electronics don’t last long in the cold, and you don’t want to get stuck with dead flashlights after the first night.
- Making the Fire
Something else that you need to consider when winter camping is your fire. We already talked about the various things you should bring along for your fire, but there is more to it than that. For one, something you should always do is to dig a good hole in the snow on the spot where you plan on making your fire. You never want to build a fire on top of snow — this is a huge mistake.
All of your burning materials will sink into the snow as soon as you place them there; they will get wet. Next, building a fire on top of the snow leaves the fire vulnerable to wind. However, if you dig a hole in the snow, you can effectively create a walled pit that is encircled by snow which can provide a good amount of cover from the wind, thus making the fire easier to light.
Now, if you don’t dig a hole, and even if you manage to get that fire lit, there is still another big problem to deal with. This problem is that as the fire burns, it will melt the snow underneath. This will result in your fire completely collapsing into the snow, getting wet, and going out. Therefore, always dig a hole in the snow for your fire, as close as you can possible get to the ground.
Also, make sure to make the pit big enough so that the fire does not melt the surrounding snow, or else that melted snow will flow right into the base of your fire.
- Some Tricks for Staying Dry
Of course, this is winter, so staying dry is essential. The fact of the matter is that water conducts heat very well, whereas dry air does not. This is why you will stay much warmer for longer if you are dry. Cold clothes will sap the body warmth right out of you.
This is important when it comes to choosing your clothing, because even a bit of sweat in your clothes will be detrimental.
The trick here is to be just warm enough to be comfortable, but not so warm that you sweat a lot; sweat too much and you will get cold fast. Therefore, if you feel like you are about to start sweating, it’s a good idea to take some clothes off.
Remember how we talked about those layers of clothing? This is where they come in handy. Being able to take clothes off or put them on to keep you in the right temperature zone, warm but not sweating, is essential for winter camping.
If your clothes do get wet, you do have some options. For one, you can always use some rope to make a clothes line, so you can suspend your clothes by the fire. However, if they still aren’t dry by the time you go to bed, an old trick is to put your wet clothes in your sleeping bag. It may not be super comfortable, but it does make for a good last resort. Your body heat will dry the clothes overnight. On a side note, going back to the electronics, if you sleep with your electronics in your sleeping bag, your body warmth can actually help extend their battery life.
Finally, when it comes to winter camping, it’s always a good idea to overpack, by which we mean to bring plenty of dry clothes — extras. You will not be happy if you have to put on wet or damp clothing in the morning.
- Using the Bathroom
You may not think that you need to put much thought into how and when to use the washroom when winter camping, but this is a mistake. When you need to pee, don’t wait. This is not like at home where you can just lay in bed for hours, needing to pee the whole time.
Your body will actually use a lot of energy to keep that urine warm inside of your body, which takes away from the energy that could be used for the rest of your body. Therefore, if you need to pee, don’t waste time and go do it.
Now, if it is in the middle of the night, you don’t want to leave your tent to go use the washroom. All of the heat that has built up in the tent will be let out, and that is of course a problem. Therefore, keep a bottle in your tent so you don’t have to open the doors during the night. Yes, you should always stay hydrated, but be aware that drinking lots of water before bedtime is risky business.
- Bring a Book or Something Similar
During the winter, the sun rises late and goes away early. You can expect the sun to make its first appearance sometime around 8 a.m., and go away as early as 4 p.m.
This doesn’t leave much daylight, and when camping, this means that you will be spending a lot of time in your tent. Therefore, bring along some books, maybe some crosswords, or anything else to help keep you busy.
There you have it — the 15 winter camping essentials that you absolutely need to have with you, as well as some of the most important tips to keep you safe and warm. Winter camping, especially if the weather forecast calls for snow and cold temperatures, can be dangerous, and although it is also fun, you need to be adequately prepared.