Beginner's Guide to Winter Camping, Part II: Gear Up

Picking the right equipment is key to having fun in the snow.

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We humans, Desmond Morris’s “naked apes”, are not engineered to live in the elements without clothing and shelter. This goes double in cold weather. We need gear, and without it we can’t last long in temps below about 50 Fahrenheit, much less sub-freezing conditions. Hence this point by point gear guide to staying toasty in the winter woods. Techniques (equally important) will be covered in a later installment.

Money Tips: Fair warning, winter gear can get expensive. But hey, life’s expensive. Everyone complains about the price of outdoor gear, but we also complain if it’s too heavy, or doesn’t have enough pockets, or doesn’t fit well, or isn’t made of space age materials – and especially if it doesn’t keep us warm. You CAN save money on winter gear, but you have two choices: Go heavy or buy used. If price is a problem (and it always is) then rent the gear, hawk eBay for deals (there are lots), or carry heavier, bulkier, cheaper gear. If the ground’s flat and the snow’s firm, you can haul a sled to deal with the resulting weight and bulk. Even a toy plastic sled will work if you rig the traces right and pack the weight low, and toward the back, but on steep or sidehill terrain, sled-hauling is a nightmare, and techno sleds that are suitable for this terrain are expensive in their own right.

Head: Thanks to numerous small blood vessels close to the surface of your scalp, you can lose more than 50% of body heat through your head. For winter camping purposes, think of your head like the radiator on your car. Cover it, and your engine runs warm. Expose it, and the engine cools. Strip the hat when you’re climbing hard up a steep hill, and when you’re sedentary in winter temperatures, keep your head covered. I usually carry a bandanna/sweatband or an ear-warmer headband to wear while I’m hard on the move. Then, during stops, I’ll don a thick wool hat with a synthetic liner. For hanging around in subfreezing temperatures, I always put my hood up. It’s a big deal.

Torso: If your torso is cold, the world’s warmest mitts and boots won’t help, because your body’s heat regulating mechanism will shut down blood flow to your extremities in an attempt to maintain your vital organs at operating temperature. Dress in torso layers so you can strip or add-on during the warm hours and active times of mid-day. Around camp, however, you’ll want a thick parka. Down is easily the warmest, lightest insulator out there, and in true winter, keeping it dry isn’t a big problem. Get a parka with insulated hand-warmer pockets and a good hood. Insulated pants are worth their weight for hanging around, and you can get good deals by purchasing inexpensive ski bibs. If possible, buy pants that have leg zippers, so you can take them on and off without removing your boots.

Footwear: As I mentioned in my first post of this series, keeping your feet warm can be the biggest challenge of all, particularly in deep snow. You want boots that are waterproof, but you also need breathability in order to prevent condensation and the chill brought on by wet socks and feet. When you’re actually hiking, most waterproof, leather boots will work well assuming you put in an insulative footbed, and have enough spare room to wear thick socks while still allowing wiggle room in the toes. Subzero temperatures, or standing around at rest breaks and camp, requires much more insulation than normal boots can offer. Snowmobile boots work well enough for most conditions, assuming they offer enough support and a fit snug enough to avoid ankle twisting. The rubberized bottom on most snowmobile boots also creates condensation, however, so bring along extra socks so you can dry out alternating pairs.

Rental boots and used boots are a good way to save money here. I found 130 pairs of “climbing” and “ice climbing” boots listed on eBay, with prices between $20 and $225. Sierra Trading Post and Campmor also had numerous footwear offerings that would work fine for most winter camping. Regardless, bring puff booties for standing around camp. They’re one of the cheapest, lightest, and most comfortable ways to keep your toes happy. If the snow’s deep, you’ll need gaiters. Inexpensive low-cut gaiters usually work fine, but avoid those made of waterproof, coated nylon, because the condensation inside them soaks your lower legs.

Hands: Most ski-weight gloves work well for winter camping, because when you’re moving, your hands tend to stay warm, and when you’re standing around, you can keep your hands in your pockets. I avoid fleece gloves because most aren’t windproof, the fleece gets wet every time you put your hand in the snow, and the fingers are often tight. Make sure your gloves fit loosely; If there’s any compression on your fingers, it shuts off blood flow, negating the insulation. If you really have problems with cold fingers (in extreme cases, this is called Raynaud’s Syndrome) then use mittens – and make sure your torso and head stay warm, so peripheral circulation doesn’t shut down. Always remember the winter camper’s motto: “Stay warm, don’t re-warm.” Wind is a bigger problem for fingers than mere cold. When it’s windy, expose your fingers as briefly as possible. Pocket handwarmers, like those made by Heatmax and Grabber, work very well for keeping mitt interiors hot, actively heating your fingers if circulation is a problem, and re-warming fingers after handling metal or other camp items.

Sleeping: I have a personal philosophy here; there’s no such thing as too warm when it comes to a winter sleeping bag. Nights are long, temperatures are low, and sleeping cold means you don’t rest well. Nothing is better than a -20F or warmer down bag, but they’re super pricey. Synthetic fill sleeping bags are another budget option, but aside from their heavier weight and bulk, I’ve found that synthetic bags are inherently colder than down, especially in sub-freezing conditions. You can save a lot of money on winter sleeping bags by simply inserting a summer bag inside a three-season sleeping bag, but the combination weighs about two pounds more than the equivalent winter-specific mummy, and packs bulkier. If you go the two-bags route, try the combination on before your trip to make sure you have enough room to zip both bags shut, and can still wear some clothing underneath them.

A second major consideration for winter sleeping is your pad. Camping on snow or frozen ground requires much more under-bag insulation than three-season conditions. It’s not uncommon for winter campers to carry two sleeping pads; either two closed cell foam pads or a foam pad with an inflatable on top of it. Thicker, insulated pads also work well on their own, while the ultralight closed-cell foam pads favored by thru-hikers, like the Cascade Designs Z-Rest, are a ticket to frigid overnighting. Avoid using air mattresses in winter, because they generate convection currents in the uninsulated air tubes and become actively chilly in temperatures below 40F.

Shelter:  The term ‘winter’ can mean many things, and your choice of tent depends on weather specifics more than official season. If it’s just cold and still, most tents will work fine. For full-on snowstorm blizzard camping, you’ll want a ‘four-season’ winter tent. This generally means a dome or modified dome with four pole arcs across the canopy for strength against high winds and heavy snow loads. Most expedition-style tents use an inner canopy and outer fly, which provides a dead-air space, a modicum of insulating value against the cold sky, and better frost resistance due to the lowered temperature gradient between warm, steamy tent interior and outer fly surface. Floorless tents like the Black Diamond Mega Light are classics as well.

Single-wall tents made of waterproof/breathable fabrics can save a lot of weight, but usually mean more frost on the tent interior come morning. Tarps and ultralight tents can work perfectly well in mild winter conditions, but they’re colder than a full-coverage tent, and make for a noisy night in high winds. Open bivouacs can be wonderful if you’re the type who can handle a cold nose and a rough brew-up in the morning, but expect major frost on the outside of your bag, and a tough night if the weather kicks up.

One last hint for folks who put a premium on comfort. Check out the Kifaru Tipis, silnylon pyramid tents with a collapsible wood stove. A four-person tent with stove runs about 10 pounds, and the stove folds down to the size and weight of a laptop computer – but the combo costs nearly a thousand bucks. Still, I’ve tested them and they’re awesome, especially in frigid winter environments like Yellowstone, interior Alaska, or northwoods Minnesota, where ‘winter’ is a gigantic deal.

Pack: Unless you’re hauling sleds, you’ll need a pack big enough to carry all this puffy stuff. Simplicity is the watchword here. The more pockets and zips your pack has, the more it weighs and the more you have to freeze your fingers dealing with compartments and stuffing. Get a big single-compartment sack. If a second pack isn’t an option for you, add capacity by using stuff bags strapped to the outside. One-inch Fastex straps are inexpensive and versatile. For smaller items, bicycle toe clip straps work great, hold securely, and cost about $4/pair.

Cooking: White gas stoves are the best bet for winter cooking. They prime in sub-zero temperatures and rock out serious BTUs to melt water and overcome cold air. Bring a large pot for melting snow to obtain water, because it’s easy to get dehydrated in winter. You’re not sweating, but you’re still breathing out water vapor in the dry air, and your thirst doesn’t kick in quickly. For all the hot drinks, hot food, and snow melting you’ll do, you typically need 3 to 4 times the fuel you’d carry for an equivalent summer trip. Alcohol stoves can work well too, if they have an efficient windscreen to maximize their typically light heat output. But they can be hard to prime, since alcohol doesn’t like to vaporize initially, and they work best with smaller pots and pans, which doesn’t mesh well with the snow-melting requirements.

Blended fuel canister stoves can also work well, (avoid butane/propane blends like Colemans and stick to isobutane like MSRs and Snowpeaks) but you need to keep the canister warm before cooking. In the evening, just stuff it down your jacket for 30 minutes before starting up. For breakfast, just keep it in your sleeping bag all night. Insulate the canister from the cold ground (a chunk of foam, plastic or light wood works well as long as it’s non-slip).