What to Bring Winter Camping

Our monthly camping challenge continues! In February, we spent another long weekend in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This time, we weren’t alone. Our friends Isabelle and Charlie from Madison came along for their first winter camping trip, the team building and bonding experience of a lifetime.

This trip, temperatures were forecasted to be even colder than when John and I camped in January, with lows dipping below zero at night. We were hoping the highs in the teens would hold for the three days we would be out, and luck was on our side. By early afternoon on a Thursday we were unloading our sleds, skis, and gear at the boat launch on Clearwater Lake to ski into the Boundary Waters. The wind nipped our skin and snow drifted down from the clouds and swirled around us, and the four of us smiled at each other: we were ready.

What does it take to go winter camping during below-zero temperatures?

The Essentials

  • Canvas tent We rented our canvas tent and wood stove from Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, Minnesota. The tent was large enough for four people to sleep in plus plenty of room for our gear, the stove and stockpiles of cut wood (this is important so you don’t need to reach outside your tent for wood every 10 to 15 minutes).
  • Wood-burning stove — Arguably my favorite part of winter camping, the portable wood-burning stove looks less than intimidating but with the right wood can be powerful enough to blast your tent’s temperature above 70 degrees. We did some research and learned that the best available wood to burn in northern Minnesota is cedar, and were lucky to discover a cedar grove of downed wood near our campsite. The difference it made in the success of our stove between this trip and last was like night and day. More efficient wood burning means more heat and less time spent stoking the fire.
  • Fire-starting materials — Lighters, matches, fire-starters, and even a little newspaper are necessary to keep your wood stove running. Some outfitters even recommend bringing a camping blowtorch, though we found that a well-built fire started just fine.
  • Collapsible hand saw — An absolute must! Prepare to break in your saw as you’ll need to cut a lot of wood to keep a fire going 4-5 hours at night and 1-2 hours when you wake up in the morning.
  • Clippers and/or hatchet — Useful for clipping kindling or splitting larger pieces of wood.
  • Sleeping bags — How warm you’ll stay at night can be completely dependent on what you’re sleeping in. I used a 15 degree synthetic sleeping bag with a fleece liner (which is estimated to bring the temperature rating down another 10 degrees). It was 2 degrees in the tent when we woke up the second morning, but I stayed warm by wearing multiple layers inside my bag.
  • Sleeping pads — It’s important to remember that the tent has no floor, so you’re sleeping pads are the only thing between you and a couple of inches of snow. We purchased inexpensive $12 foam mats to lay down first and insulate us from the frozen earth, then used our inflatable REI Flash pads on top.
  • Sleeping bag liners — Depending on the temperature, these just may make a world of difference. Sleeping bag liners come in a variety of materials and temperature gradients, so it may be most helpful to select one based on your sleeping bag. Packing extra warmth for nighttime sleeping when winter camping is never a waste of space.

Kitchen & Food

  • White gas camp stove and fuel bottles — In colder temperatures, stoves that use isobutane fuel can be unreliable, so white gas stoves are a better option. We used an MSR dragonfly outside of the tent to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide building up inside.
  • Thermos — While it may not be something you camp with in the summer, having an insulated cup or mug while camping in the winter will keep your drink warm while you finish dinner or stoke the fire.
  • Dehydrated meals — John and I are generally lazy chefs when we backpack at any time of year, but when the temperature is hovering around 0 degrees Farenheit outside, we’re even less keen to spend more time than necessary around the stove. Dehydrated meals mean the only cooking you need to do is boil a pot of hot water that will hydrate your dinner and fill your thermoses, too.
  • Snacks/Lunches — Lunches are easiest eaten on the go. Trail mix, beef and cheese sticks, crackers, tortillas, granola bars, and peanut butter are all great options to pack protein and carbohydrates to stay warm.
  • Hot drinks — It’s easy to get dehydrated while winter camping, and drinking hot liquids in the morning and evening is a great way to warm your core and hydrate at the beginning and end of your day. We packed instant coffee, cider, teas, and hot chocolate for plenty of variety.
  • Water bottles — For carrying water, of course! This time our tent got so cold that our water bottles froze next to us over night.
  • Pot for boiling water
  • Bowls and silverware
The team is hard at work preparing a site large enough for our 4-person tent.

Gear

  • SHOVELS — Packable shovels are essential to dig out your tent site at camp. We dug through more than 18 inches of crystalline powder in an area 16 by 10 feet large. It’s important to probe your selected tent site to ensure there aren’t any enormous boulders or stumps buried under the snow that would make life inside your tent more challenging.
  • Gaiters — If the snow is deep, wrapping gaiters around your winter boots or ski boots will prevent snow from getting into your boots and pants. In the top right photo below, I was standing on the metal fire grate that is typical at most boundary water sites, and even that had 8+ inches of snow on top!
  • Skis or snowshoes — A form of winter transportation can go a long way when trying to maximize your travel speed across a lake. They will also make any recreational day trips from camp easier and more fun. We went on a day ski and hiked over a 90-rod portage to get to Mountain Lake, where we skied across and set foot on the rocky shores of Canada.
  • Pulk sled or rental toboggan — Before our first winter camping trip, John and I followed instructions on REI’s website about how to make your own pulk sled. Charlie and Isabelle did the same for one of their sleds, then rented one of the available toboggans from Sawtooth outfitters.
  • Hand warmers — For Christmas, John gave me a rechargeable electric handwarmer. Having heat on demand in my sleeping bag when the temperature is dropping in the middle of night was life changing. Single use handwarmers work great, too, and can last in your pockets or socks throughout the night.
  • Headlamp — Remember, there’s less daylight in winter! John and I felt spoiled with the extra hour of evening sunlight we had on this trip compared to January. We also had a campsite that caught all of the morning rays as the sun poked over the spruce trees across the bay. Regardless, a headlamp will be necessary for finishing camp chores in the evening and those midnight bathroom trips.
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency blanket
  • Propane-fueled lantern

Clothing

Layers, layers, LAYERS! I cannot stress this enough. No matter how fancy of a jacket you have, if you are wearing a single layer under it at 10 or 20 degrees, you’re going to be cold.

  • Base layers — Synthetic or wool base layers trap heat near your body, but they also breathe and wick moisture for when you work up a sweat pulling your gear across the lake. You’ll want base layers for your torso and your legs.
  • Fleece — Fleece is an excellent insulator and always keeps me warm when I’m in my sleeping bag or moving around outside.
  • Fleece-lined pants or snow pants — Eddie Bauer makes some amazing fleece-lined pants (they’re practically the only thing I wear in winter) or snow pants will also do a great job of acting as an outer layer to keep your legs dry and warm.
  • Down or other warm jacket — An outer layer insulated jacket is necessary to keep the wind out. If it gets really cold, you can even wear it in your sleeping bag to keep warm.
  • Wool socks — Wool is a spectacular material because even if it gets wet, if you’re moving in it, you’ll stay warm. I bring at least three pairs of wool socks winter camping: one designated thick pair for sleeping, and two pairs to wear during the day.
  • Warm boots — If you do plan on skiing into camp, make sure you attach some warm winter boots to your gear to change into once you arrive.
  • Hats, mittens, gloves, neck gaiters — Make sure you have a way to keep your extremities warm. If it’s going to be really cold, a pair of liner gloves can even fit inside most larger gloves or mittens. Fleece neck gaiters will keep your neck warm and hats or headbands are essential, maybe even for sleeping.

Just for Fun

  • Collapsible canoe chair — These pack flat or can be rolled and secured to the bottom of your pack and offer luxurious back support when you’re enjoying the tent at night.
  • Binoculars — We didn’t spot much wildlife this trip, but I always keep binoculars on hand just in case.
  • Therm-a-rest Z-style foam sit pads — For keeping your bum insulated against the snow that is your tent floor.
  • Blanket — for cozy camp evenings in the tent.
  • Hand-powered ice augur — Melting snow to water is about a 10:1 ratio, which can burn precious fuel as you try to create enough water for meals and drinking. My dad’s hand-powered augur only weighed about 4 pounds and strapped neatly to the top of John’s sled. The time we saved drinking water straight from the lake was worth bringing it.
  • Kestrel temperature system/any thermometer — Some folks may not want to know how cold it is, but I think it certainly adds a wow factor. There is also an enormous sense of accomplishment when you successfully raise the tent’s temperature from 2 to 60 degrees farenheit in the morning.
  • pStyle — I had heard rave reviews before, but finally bought myself a pStyle before going winter camping for the first time last month (who wants to bare their buns to the cold winter winds every time they want to pee?). I’ve gotta say that I was impressed from the first time I tried it! No leaks, no problems, just a girl that can keep her pants on at zero degrees. Highly recommend.
  • Bailey’s for your morning coffee, mulled wine, or other alcohol to spike your hot chocolate and cider — Does this really need explaining?

Future trips

John and I would like to offer enormous thanks and warm hugs to Isabelle and Charlie for making this one of our favorite camping trips of all time. Enormous snowflakes, warm fires, hikes to Canada, shimmering stars, and stunning sunlight made this trip more magical than I could have imagined. Winter camping is not for everyone, but if you’ve got a hardworking crew that laughs as much as we did, you won’t even notice how cold it is outside. Better yet, you just may enjoy it.

Clearwater Lake

Our monthly camping adventures continue—stay tuned for a March/April update featuring Mississippi Palisades State Park in Illinois and Indiana Dunes National Park along Lake Michigan in Indiana. As always, thanks for reading!

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