Winter Camping Gear & Clothing

Your complete guide to choosing, fitting, and using essential winter gear.

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Snowshoes | Skis | Poles | Boots | Tents | Packs | Sleeping Bags | Layering | Drying Clothes | DIY Gear Tips

SNOWSHOES

Binding Get rotating (or floating) bindings for deep powder. They pivot under the ball of your foot, which lets the tails fall away with each step–shedding excess snow and enabling you to kick steps into powder (but make it awkward to climb over obstacles or back up). For packed snow or forest travel, get fixed bindings. They bring the tails up with each step, permitting a more natural stride and easier maneuvering, but they also kick snow onto the backs of your legs (wear knee-high, waterproof gaiters).

Shape For deep, dry powder and open terrain, you want maximum flotation: Go for snowshoes with a large surface area (read: wider and longer). If the snow is packed or you'll be traveling through dense forest and brushy areas, look for smaller, more maneuverable shoes. The more tapered the tails, the easier it is to walk–but the less flotation you'll have.

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SKIS

Type On steep backcountry terrain, you'll need burly telemark or alpine touring (AT) skis. Both are sturdy and have full metal edges for better turning and control. Tele skis have lighter, more flexible bindings that always leave your heels free, making them the best choice for extended tours and long climbs. AT skis feature stiffer bindings and allow you to lock your boot heels down for aggressive turns. Backcountry touring skis are much lighter and more flexible. Designed for rolling terrain, they feature full metal edges and a waxless base with a fish-scale pattern for climbing. Rugged Nordic touring skis are narrower with less sidecut–beefy enough to handle long days of gliding, but with less downhill control.

Length The longer the ski, the faster you'll go. Plus, longer skis provide better flotation in deep powder. Shorter skis are easier to maneuver through obstacles, like trees.

Width Skinny skis perform best on groomed trails. Fatter skis give better flotation for off-trail travel while wearing a pack.

Sidecut This feature refers to the difference in width between the tip of the ski and its waist (its middle). The deeper the sidecut, the more control you'll have while turning.

Camber A ski with Nordic camber has lots of flex, making it best for floating and traveling in a straight line. Alpine camber has less flex, making it easier to turn. Go for more flex in powder.

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POLES

Features In the backcountry, choose telescoping models that let you adjust the length for traversing hills (tip: shorten the uphill pole) and collapse for easy packing. Skiers who head into avalanche territory can save weight with poles that convert to probes. Small snow baskets are best for skiing flat, groomed trails; get bigger ones for better purchase on off-trail terrain.

Length Nordic poles should reach your armpits (about 80 percent of your height). To size an AT or tele pole, grab the shaft just above the basket and turn it upside-down so that the grip is on the floor. Your elbow should be bent at 90 degrees.

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BOOTS

Mountaineering For the most warmth on very cold, high-altitude, or long trips, choose double boots, which have a weatherproof plastic or synthetic-fabric outer shell over an insulating inner bootie. Single-layer boots are more responsive and comfortable on lower, warmer trips. Also consider sole rigidity: You'll need stiff soles for front-pointing up steep slopes with crampons–but they make for clunky walking. Choose lighter, more flexible soles if the focus of your trip is hiking, not climbing.

Skiing Low-cuff, two-buckle boots are best for flat touring; high-cuff, four-buckle models give maximum control on descents. Mid-cuff, three-buckle boots are a popular compromise: comfortable enough for skinning up, stable enough for skiing down. If you'll be camping, remember that the liners in double boots will dry faster than insulated single boots in a tent.

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TENTS

Features A true winter shelter should have: wider-diameter poles for stability in wind and snow; lots of vents to limit condensation; and numerous loops on the rainfly for anchoring guylines in storms. Also consider that external pole clips make for faster setup in harsh weather than sleeves or internal poles.

Size Two travelers need at least 30 square feet of interior space to fit bulky winter gear, plus vestibules big enough for two packs. Pile into a new tent with all of your gear to make sure it fits. Claustrophobic? If living space matters more than low weight, a three-person tent provides ample room for two plus winter gear.

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PACKS

Features Let your gear be your guide. Need to haul shovels, ice axes, or skis? Make sure your pack has the external pockets, loops, and straps to handle everything you need.

Size Winter means bulkier clothes, more food, and extra fuel for melting snow. Shoot for a minimum of 4,000 cubic inches–and be sure all of your gear fits before you commit.

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SLEEPING BAGS

Features The keys to warmth in winter (besides extra insulation): a beefy draft collar–an insulated tube running along the top of the bag that keeps warm air from escaping around your neck–and a draft tube along the inside of the zipper. Also look for a water-resistant shell fabric that sheds condensation.

Size Usually sleep with hot-water bottles or extra clothes stuffed into your bag? Size a winter sack with all extras included; otherwise, a too-tight fit will compress the insulation and chill you.

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LAYERED SECURITY

In winter, your comfort–and even your life–depends on savvy layering. Here's how to dress for everything from sun to storms.

Start cool. "People often make the mistake of beginning a hike overdressed, and as a result, start to sweat profusely soon afterward," says Colorado Mountain Club instructor Gyorgy Kereszti. Adjust your layers so that you're cool–even shivering–when you start hiking. You'll warm up quickly as you move.

Avoid getting wet, either through sweat or precipitation. Moisture will chill you as soon as you stop moving, and introduce the possibility of hypothermia later on, when the water freezes. As soon as it starts to snow, put on a waterproof shell to keep other layers dry.

Try a windshirt. "Most days, I wear just a thin, wind-resistant baselayer," says NOLS's Marco Johnson. Key feature: The breathable fabric blocks chill gusts while letting moisture escape.

Pace yourself. When wind or icy temperatures prevent you from removing layers to cool down, hike slower to keep from overheating.

Opt for a breathable fleece or wool midlayer (when conditions permit) instead of a shell, which tends to trap more perspiration.

Wear gaiters, which keep crampons and ski edges from slicing your pants and provide additional waterproofing to keep your feet dry.

"Keep layers accessible," says Alaska Mountain Guides's Eli Fierer, who loads midlayers and jackets at the top of his pack, where he can grab them quickly.

Anticipate weather changes, and layer accordingly. Pull on a shell before emerging onto a windy ridge, and add on a fleece before you become critically cold.

Work first. In camp, complete sweat-inducing chores before bundling up in a down jacket. You'll give moist inner layers time to dry and avoid dampening fragile down.

Wear layers on your feet and hands, too. Use thick wool or synthetic socks and mitts over a thin, quick-drying liner.

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DRY YOUR CLOTHES
Inevitably, layers get damp–especially socks. Here are three techniques our experts use to get the wet out.

Wear them dry. Keep slightly damp baselayers on under additional insulation so body heat will dry them as you cook or play cards. Slide damp socks inside your jacket to dry them.

Sleep them dry. Spread soggy clothes, boot liners, and footbeds out in your sleeping bag, where body heat will dry them. "I wear long johns to bed, which keeps the wet stuff off my skin," says Fierer. "Your thighs and stomach, where there's a lot of blood flow, are especially good places to spread things out to dry."

Bake them dry. Take advantage of blazing sunshine: Drape shirts across a rock or between two skis, or hang socks from your pack.

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NEED TO KNOW
12 gear tricks, solutions, and DIY shortcuts from cold-weather veterans

1. Extra padding Carry a 2-by-2-foot square of closed-cell foam that you can kneel on while shoveling snow, stand on to help keep your feet warm, and sit on during dinner.

2. Lashing alternative Duct tape doesn't stick well in cold temps, so add zip-ties to your kit to repair ski bindings, reinforce tent pole junctions, and attach gear.

3. Ice axe safety Those sharp metal points can save your life–or threaten it, should you secure the axe haphazardly to your pack. Attach yours like this:

Feed the shaft down through the pack's ice axe loop so the pick is pointing toward the middle of your pack.

Flip the axe to point the spike skyward (so the loop cradles the axe's head) and secure.

4. Surefire lighter Carry a butane lighter on a cord around your neck to keep it handy–and warm enough to function.

5. Glove security When shedding gloves, never drop them in the snow: They can pick up moisture, or worse, blow away. If yours don't come with leashes, sew them on. Or clip the gloves to a small carabiner on the front of your jacket (or just stuff them inside).

6. Dry bed Air out the moisture that your sleeping bag absorbs each night by unzipping it and draping it over two trekking poles or skis.

7. Gas booster Canister stoves can work in winter–they just take longer. Use isobutane canisters instead of 80/20 butane/propane, improve performance by warming the canister inside your jacket, and opt for a stove like the MSR WindPro that lets you turn the canister upside down, which pushes the more combustible gas toward the valve. Not buying a new stove? Place the canister in a shallow pan of water while cooking.

8. Warmer feet Reserve a pair of thick, dry socks only for sleeping. Still chilled? Wrap your puffy around your feet.

9. Unfrozen water Blow the water in your hydration tube back into the reservoir after each sip, where it's less likely to freeze. For extra security, look for a bladder with an insulated tube.

10. Double insulation Place a closed-cell foam pad under your inflatable pad for extra protection from the cold ground.

11. Toasty toes Size ski or mountaineering boots to accommodate thicker winter socks (staff favorite: wool), making sure you have wiggle room in the toe box. A tight fit constricts blood flow, making feet feel colder and upping the risk of frostbite.

12. Warm drink At breakfast, fill an insulated metal thermos with hot coffee, tea, cocoa, or cider. Take sips throughout the day–you'll stay hydrated and get a psychological boost.