Winter camping is a unique adventure everyone should try at least once. There’s nothing like waking up to a fresh layer of snow and stepping out into the crisp winter air. But winter camping requires a little more skill and preparation. Having the right gear can be the difference between life and death. Don’t get caught in the cold without the proper equipment and supplies. Use this checklist to ensure you have everything you need for a successful winter camping trip.
Here’s a comprehensive winter camping checklist for a successful camping experience. Items in bold are highly recommended or required. Optional items can help make your trip more comfortable but aren’t essential.
Clothing, Footwear, and Accessories
❒ Baselayer. To prevent discomfort and hypothermia, make sure you’re wearing a lightweight, moisture-wicking baselayer. Merino wool and synthetic materials are the most effective at keeping you warm, minimizing odors, and adding comfort to your ensemble. At a minimum, wear a baselayer top. If you’re in freezing temperatures, consider a baselayer bottom as well (like thermals or leggings). Baselayers are also the most comfortable layer to sleep in.
❒ Midlayer. On top of your baselayer, add an insulating midlayer. A good midlayer will trap your body heat without limiting movement. Fleece, wool, and lightweight down are great fabrics for midlayers. Popular options include fleece or synthetic pullovers and puffy jackets.
❒ Outer layer. Top it all off with a breathable protective shell (or outer layer). The purpose of an outer layer is to safeguard you from the wind, rain, and snow. Waterproof jackets and pants are effective and comfortable outer layers. Make sure to size up if you’re wearing a baselayer and midlayer underneath your jacket (as they add bulk).
❒ Socks. Your feet are particularly vulnerable to frostbite, so it’s important to keep them warm and dry. It’s always a good idea to pack several pairs of socks, so you always have a dry pair available. Opt for wool socks that reach above your ankle, ideally your shin. Whatever you do, avoid cotton (for all layers, but especially socks). If you’re wearing thicker socks, you may need to size up your boots or loosen the strings.
❒ Winter Boots. Do yourself a favor and leave the lightweight trail shoes for the warmer months. You’ll be more comfortable in a pair of waterproof winter boots. Most winter boots have a protective outer layer, extra traction, and insulation. They’ll keep your feet warm, dry, and comfortable. If you’re in more extreme weather conditions, consider a pair of mountaineering boots. And if you’re skiing or snowboarding, make sure you pack the right boots.
❒ Hat/balaclava. At a minimum, make sure to pack a warm hat, like a beanie. Wool and synthetic materials are best for winter hats. They prevent heat from escaping through your head, keeping you warmer in cold temps. It should be large enough to cover your ears without blocking your eyes. It’s often a good idea to bring a lightweight hat for daytime activities and a thicker hat for downtime and sleeping. And if you’re going to be in the sun, consider a brimmed hat as well. For extra protection, you can wear a balaclava, ski mask, or neck gaiter that covers your head and face.
❒ Gloves/mittens. Your hands are also susceptible to frostbite, so it’s important to keep them insulated and protected. Gloves preserve dexterity, but mittens are usually warmer. A good compromise is to wear a pair of lightweight liner gloves underneath waterproof mittens. It’s a good idea to bring an extra pair of liner gloves in case they get wet.
❒ Sunglasses/goggles. You need to protect your eyes in all weather conditions (even overcast). Sunglasses or ski goggles will help prevent snowblindness and eye damage. Polarized glasses are especially useful in snowy conditions, improving visibility when the sun glares off the snow. For optimal protection, choose a pair that wraps around your face, like performance glasses. You can attach a strap to prevent losing them and bring a case to keep them in tip-top shape.
❒ Gaiters (optional). If you plan on traveling through snow, you might want to consider a pair of waterproof gaiters. They help keep your feet dry and prevent snow from creeping up into your pants.
❒ Sleeping bag. It’s important to stay warm through the night so you can sleep comfortably. Make sure you choose a sleeping bag or quilt that’s suitable for winter temperatures. Check the sleeping bag temperature rating, opting for a bag rated ten degrees below the lowest expected temperature. Mummy bags will keep you warmer but can constrict movement. You can also add a fleece blanket or sleeping bag liner for extra warmth.
❒ Sleeping pad. To stay warm and dry, you want to create a buffer between your body and the cold ground. That’s where sleeping pads come in. Most sleeping pads are inflatable or closed-cell foam. For added insulation, use two pads (ideally one of each type). Check the sleeping pad R-value, aiming for an R-value of 4 or higher. If you’re using an inflatable pad, don’t forget to pack the patch kit.
❒ Camp pillow (optional). Sleeping on the ground doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. You can add a little luxury to your sleeping arrangements by bringing a small camping pillow. Opt for an ultralight inflatable pillow or a stuffed packable pillow. Alternatively, you can inflate a dry bag and secure it for a DIY pillow.
❒ 4-Season tent. If you’re camping in mild winter environments, you can get away with a lightweight 3-season tent. But for most winter conditions, you’ll need a sturdy, reinforced 4-season tent that protects you from the elements. A canvas wall tent or mountaineering tent will provide the most protection. Alternatively, if you’re alone and you want to save space, you can bring a bivy sack or swag bag to sleep in.
❒ Snow stakes. Traditional tent stakes won’t anchor your tent in the snow. You need more robust snow stakes that will keep your tent secured into the ground in any weather condition. Alternatively, you can fill a dry sack with snow or rocks and bury it deep into the snow.
❒ Reinforced poles. To make sure your tent remains stable throughout your trip, opt for a set of reinforced telescopic snow load poles. They’re more durable than regular tent poles, so they’ll protect you and your gear from extreme winter conditions.
❒ Tarp (optional). Tarps are great tools that provide added protection from the elements. A good tarp will save your tent from collapsing under the weight of falling snow. You can also put a tarp over your camp kitchen for extra comfort and protection.
❒ Extra paracord (optional). It’s a good idea to bring extra paracord (or nylon cord). It’s a practical, multi-use solution to many camping obstacles. You can use it to reinforce your tent, tie down gear and supplies, hang your food, or temporarily repair equipment.
❒ Portable tent heater (optional). If you’re sensitive to the cold or camping in extreme temperatures, you can bring a portable tent heater. Most camping heaters are electric, battery, or gas-operated, and weigh between 2 and 20 pounds. Many tent heaters can be cumbersome to transport, so they’re better for car camping.
❒ Camping stove. You’ll need to make (or heat) food to stay warm, active, and alive. If you’re car camping, you can use a traditional camping stove. Otherwise, you may want to consider a liquid-fueled stove or canister stove. Canister stoves are lighter and more versatile, but liquid-fueled stoves work better in freezing temperatures. Make sure you test your stove before the trip if you haven’t used it in a while.
❒ Fuel. You’ll also need fuel for your stove. As a general rule, you’ll want to pack enough fuel to burn about a liter of water per person per meal. Expect to use about three times the amount of fuel you would during the summer. Make sure you get the right fuel for your stove and bring extra just in case.
❒ Meals/snacks. You’ll burn even more calories in the cold, so bring plenty of food to keep you warm and satiated. Aim for three meals a day, with snacks in between. Make sure you bring nutritious foods with a healthy balance of macronutrients. You can make your food at camp, or prepare it before the trip. If you’re cooking in camp, consider bringing condiments or a spice kit. If you’re short on space, opt for dehydrated meals that don’t need to be kept cool.
❒ Cookware. At a minimum, make sure you pack a bowl or pot. You can eat most camping foods out of a bowl, even if you normally wouldn’t. Even better if you have room for a plate, a skillet, and a coffee mug.
❒ Utensils. Most campers can get away with a simple spork or spoon fork combo tool. Either way, you’ll need something to eat with, whether it’s a spork or a full set. And if you have room, it wouldn’t hurt to bring a knife, a spatula, and a serving spoon.
❒ Biodegradable soap. A good biodegradable soap allows you to clean your cookware and utensils without harming the environment. It usually comes concentrated, so you don’t need to use much. Don’t forget to bring sponges and a microfiber towel.
❒ Trash bags. No matter the season, it’s important to minimize odors around camp to keep critters at bay. Durable trash or compactor bags are a great way to keep food scraps dry and away from prying eyes. Bring more than one if you have trash and recycling, so you can keep them separate. Alternatively, you can use a scent-proof container, bear canister, or Ursack.
❒ Firestarter. Whether you’re using a stove or a campfire, you’ll likely need fire at some points. Make sure you know how to start a fire before you head out. The easiest methods for starting a fire are matches, a lighter, or rod and striker. It can be helpful to bring tinder or fuel to keep things burning longer. If you’re
❒ Water storage/filtration. Cold weather dehydrates you faster, so it’s important to stay hydrated. Make sure to pack a water reservoir, water bottles, or thermos. You may want to get an insulated bottle or sleeve so your water doesn’t freeze. Store the bottle upside down to prevent the cap from freezing shut. Unless you’re camping near a running potable water source, you’ll also want to bring a water filtration system or tablets.
❒ Hot beverages. One of the fastest ways to warm up in the cold is to drink a hot beverage. Try starting your day with a warm cup of joe or tea. And sip on a toasty mug of cocoa or a hot cocktail before bed.
❒ First-aid kit. Accidents happen; make sure you’re prepared with a basic first aid kit. You can buy a premade kit or assemble your own. If you’re packing your own first aid kit, be sure to include bandages, medical tape, antiseptic wipes, antibacterial ointment, hand sanitizer, NSAIDs, antihistamines, and an info card.
❒ Basic survival kit. With your first aid kit you’ll want to include a basic survival kit. Always be prepared. At a minimum, make sure your kit includes food, water, filtration tablets, an emergency blanket, a whistle, a flashlight or glow stick, firestarters, a multi-use tool, prescription medications, and a little cash. Assemble it in a dry bag and keep it on you at all times.
❒ Repair kit. You never know when your gear might start breaking down. Be prepared with a basic kit to repair essential equipment. Duct tape can fix a lot of repair issues, but it’s also a good idea to bring a tent repair kit, pole sleeves, patches, and sewing materials.
❒ Avalanche safety. Winter camping means an increased risk of avalanche danger. Make sure you pack an avalanche beacon, probe, and a snow shovel.
❒ Map. Even if you’re using a GPS device or electronic planning tool, make sure you bring a topographic map. If you get lost, the map could save your life. You can wrap it in a waterproof sleeve to avoid moisture damage. Include a compass so you can properly use the map and guide yourself to safety.
❒ Emergency communication device. No matter where you’re camping, bring an emergency communication device or locator beacon. Even the savviest campers need help once in a while.
❒ GPS device (optional). GPS comes in many forms these days. Portable devices, watches, and phone apps are the most common. You should always know where you are, and a GPS device is the best way to keep yourself on course.
❒ Waterproof backpack. Pack all your gear and supplies into a comfortable waterproof backpack. Make sure your pack is large enough for all your supplies. Aim for about 30 liters per day. You can make it easier on yourself by strategically packing your backpack to maximize space.
❒ Dry bags. It’s important to keep your gear dry throughout the trip. Dry bags are great for protecting supplies, hanging food, and carrying your sleeping bag.
❒ Trekking/ski poles. Traveling through snow can be cumbersome. You’ll be glad to have a pair of trekking poles or ski poles to help you through it. They distribute your weight for better balance and protect your joints. They’re even more effective with snow baskets on the bottom.
❒ Snowshoes/skis/snowboard (optional). If there are only a few inches of snow on the ground, you can get away with wearing boots. But if there’s significant snowfall, you’ll want a better way to travel to avoid postholing. Plus, they’re fun!
❒ Microspikes/crampons (optional). If the ground is slick with snow or ice, slap some microspikes or crampons over your boots. A little traction goes a long way and prevents injury.
❒ Sled (optional). If you’re hauling a lot of gear and supplies you may consider bringing a sled. It takes the weight off your back and helps you travel faster.
❒ Toiletries. Pack the same toiletries you’d use at home, like soap, lotion, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, and feminine products. You can use a pocket organizer to keep track of all your important items.
❒ Sunscreen. You’re especially vulnerable to sunburn during the winter, as the sun reflects off the snow. It’s even more important to bring SPF 30+ sunscreen and lip balm.
❒ Heat packs. Your hands and toes are susceptible to frostbite. Hand warmers and foot warmers are great ways to retain heat in cold temperatures.
❒ Lighting. The days are shorter in the winter, so make sure you have ample light. Lanterns, flashlights, and headlamps are all great options. And bring extra batteries; batteries lose their juice faster in cold temperatures.
❒ Trowel. If you’re camping in the backcountry, you’ll need to take care of your waste. Bring a trowel to dig a hole and toilet paper to, well, you know.
❒ Phone. Whether it’s for games, GPS apps, or taking photos, you’ll probably want your phone at some point. Be sure to protect it with a case and make sure it’s charged before you leave.
❒ Identificaion/credit card. Always carry ID on you. If something should happen, it will help the authorities identify you and your loved ones. And having a credit card on hand is a good idea in case you need to buy more supplies, replace equipment, or seek out different lodging.
❒ Entertainment. Since the days are so short, it can be helpful to have entertainment on hand. Bring something to keep you company while you rest in your tent. Music, games, books, and travel journals are all great options.
❒ Camera (optional). Everything is more beautiful in the winter. You’ll want to take pictures of your trip to make your loved ones jealous.
❒ Permit/parking pass (optional). Many backcountry camping areas require a permit or parking pass. It’s easy to forget the pass in the excitement of preparation. Double-check to make sure you have it where you need it.