Winter Backcountry Camping Guide, Part 2
White Mountains National Forest - Photo Credit: Sharon Bernardino
In this chapter of our Winter Backcountry Camping series, we will go over the essential gear to keep you comfortable in the face of harsh elements. Two simple rules of winter camping: stay dry, and stay warm. Having the right gear for your trip can be critical to your enjoyment when you’re out in the cold for extended periods of time. The required gear for winter camping is similar to what you’d take fair-weather backpacking - but prioritizes warmth and durability.
Cold-weather camping is an unparalleled experience, provided you do some research, plan carefully, and pack smartly. The correct sleeping bag, pad, tent and clothing, along with some miscellaneous items will have you prepared for an unforgettable late-winter excursion. Keep in mind that this is not a complete checklist of backpacking and camping gear, but rather the essentials you need on top of your fair-weather kit to make a winter camping trip in the backcountry successful.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the first part of our Winter Backcountry Camping series, which covers trip planning and safety.
Well-equipped for the weather - Photo Credit: James Castignoli
Having the right clothing, and managing your layers appropriately, is the key to comfort while winter camping. It’s important to plan out exactly what you’re going to wear in advance, before you go out in the cold.
Your base layer will be the first item of clothing to consider - your underwear layer that goes next to your skin. For winter camping, midweight long underwear is a good choice for all-around use - though you can of course adjust the weight according to the conditions you’ll be in. You’ll want to opt for fabrics like polyester or wool that wick water away from your skin and dry quickly. Remember, avoid cotton at all costs. Once cotton gets wet, it will not wick properly - which can be extremely dangerous in cold-weather conditions.
Your middle layer is crucial because it helps you maintain body heat. For your upper body, you can’t go wrong with a synthetic insulated jacket or a down jacket. If you prefer the comfort of fleece, it would be a good idea to use a heavyweight fleece jacket. For your legs, fleece pants are a great option.
You will want to consider an outer layer that will protect you from snow, rain and wind alike. For winter camping, you will absolutely need a fully waterproof jacket and pants. If you skimp out on this part, you will run the risk of water penetrating your layers - which can lead to hypothermia. With that said, these items also need to be breathable enough to wick perspiration away from your body.
Your socks play an important role in your enjoyment of the backcountry. Always remember that “cotton kills,” so it’s a great idea to wear wool socks. This old adage isn’t just for socks - it applies for every piece of clothing you bring out into the backcountry. Also, don’t forget to bring a pair of back-up socks - better to have and not need, than need and not have!
Never sleep in the same clothes that you hiked in. Make sure you have a dry set of clothes to change into for sleeping.
Since you’ll be carrying more than usual, make sure your pack has enough volume to hold all of your gear. We would suggest a 65 liter pack to start with.
Desert snowstorm rolling in over the mountains: Bishop, CA - Photo Credit: Yuta Shiraki
Campsite and Kitchen
Your campsite is your temporary home for the night, so it’s important to make it as cozy as possible - yet functional too! From your sleeping bag to your stove, your gear plays a critical role in your enjoyment of the night.
It’s crucial to have a tent that will handle winter weather. Your typical 3-season tent can work if the conditions aren’t too harsh, but if you’re going to encounter high wind and/or heavy snowfall, then it would be a good idea to invest in a 4-season tent. With that said, you will want some extra space in your tent since you’ll be carrying more gear than usual. Bring some extra stakes and rope for tie-downs too, in case it gets windy.
Your sleeping bag is another crucial item in your pack. You will want to use a sleeping bag that is rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you expect to see in your region. Down, as opposed to synthetic, is the best choice for winter bags as they provide the best warmth for their weight.
Sleeping pads provide essential insulation and cushioning from the hard, cold earth. Keep in mind that the ground steals heat from your body, even more so in the winter months, so you will need to invest in a high quality sleeping pad. Your best bet is to use two pads to keep you warm on snowy ground - a foam pad next to the ground, and an inflatable pad on top to maximize your insulation from the cold below.
Like any other camping trip, bring your stove. You may even want to bring a backup stove, just in case your primary one malfunctions - it’s especially important in a cold-weather situation to have the peace of mind to know that your stove situation is 100%. Keep in mind that it takes extra fuel to melt snow for drinking water, and remember that you’ll use more fuel at higher elevations. Always make a base for your stove, preventing a melty mess and ensuring that your food will be safe.
If you’re in bear territory, make sure your food-hanging system is in good order.
Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Miscellaneous (Navigation, Emergency)
These are crucial items for cold weather backcountry excursions that don’t really fit in the other categories. With that said, you’ll notice that you will be bringing quite a lot of gear with you, so make sure to be mindful of your belongings - and always practice Leave No Trace Principles.
Bring a good headlamp with fresh batteries. You’ll want plenty of light to deal with winter’s long nighttime hours. In fact, bring extra batteries for all of the electronics in your pack - the cold temperatures will drain power quicker than you think! If possible, sleep with your electronics and batteries in your sleeping bag to help insulate them from this power drain.
Don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen. Reflective snow can cook you, especially from late February on! It can be easy to overlook, but just because the temperatures are low doesn’t mean UV rays can’t do their damage.
Bring along both matches and a lighter to start your campfire and stove. It’s always a good idea to bring both, just in case one fails.
Even if you planned your trip from A to Z, you’ll still want to bring paper maps and compasses just in case.
If the area you’re going into is extremely remote or otherwise dangerous, utilizing a personal locator beacon could mean the difference between life or death.
Death Valley snow: Bishop, CA - Photo Credit: Yuta Shiraki
There is so much gear needed for a successful cold weather backcountry trip that it may seem a little too daunting - not to mention that all of this gear can get fairly pricey! But don’t despair - there are many cheap ways to obtain proper equipment. Discount retailers are hard to find in the hiking/camping space, but they are definitely still out there. Shopping the sales at Moosejaw can get you great bang-for-your-buck, and Steep&Cheap, REI Outlet & Used Gear, and Campsaver are all great resources to find inexpensive used gear. Also, there are always people trying to get rid of lightly used gear on eBay and Craigslist, so don’t count those out! Cold-weather gear is definitely an investment, and not one you want to go bargain-basement on - “you get what you pay for” never rings more true than in a situation like this - but with enough research you can find high quality options that won’t break the bank.
As long as you carefully plan - and double-check your gear before heading out - you will be well-suited to face the elements. Although winter camping demands more preparation and gear, you’ll realize that it’s all worth it. You’re in complete solitude with nobody else around except for your close friends - what’s better than that?