My first winter camping trip was a 9-day Outward Bound expedition in the Maine wilderness, cross-country skiing and dog sledding. I learned the basics there, and I have been winter in winter in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for over 10 years.
On our first trips to the Boundary Waters, we focused only on survival — and we did okay, despite a catalog of mishaps. But the true challenge of winter camping is to be comfortable, not just to survive. (Plus, being comfortable tends to get you a much larger margin of error when it comes to survival.)
It is possible to be comfortable, even in the wilderness, and even in the dead of a Minnesota winter. Ordinarily, you are not equipped for long-term exposure to the cold when you go outside. Street clothes and shoes just won’t keep you warm. It can be hard to imagine spending three days in the cold without freezing, but it is very possible. It all comes down to having the right gear.
Not expensive gear, necessarily, just the right gear.
Here is the checklist I usually give first-time winter campers.
This is no substitute for experience, obviously. Don’t use this to pack a bag and head out into the woods in winter unless you know what you are doing or are going with someone who does. Besides, you will starve if you try; there is no food on this list. Or any other group supplies, for that matter.
Before we get to the list, though, there are two important rules:
Rule #1: No cotton. In order to keep warm, you need to stay as dry as possible. Cotton will not keep you warm when it is wet, and it takes forever to dry. Leave it at home.
Rule #2: No substitutions. There are good reasons for putting each item on the list.
Head and neck
- lightweight stocking cap (for activity)
- heavyweight stocking cap (for camp)
- neck gaiter or scarf
- lightweight long underwear top
- lightweight fleece or wool sweater
- heavyweight fleece or wool sweater
- waterproof breathable shell or windbreaker
- parka you can wear over your other clothes
- lightweight gloves
- warm mittens
- long underwear bottoms
- windproof pants
- insulated overpants or really heavyweight long underwear
- ankle gaiters (these are optional, actually, but really nice to have)
- 2 pairs of wool or synthetic hiking socks
- thick wool or synthetic socks
- snowshoes or cross-country skis, boots, and poles
- insulated winter boots
- backpack or duffel bag for your gear
- warm sleeping bag (make sure it is rated for the temperature you expect, with a healthy margin for error; it’s fine to nest two bags together, if you don’t have a warm-enough bag)
- Nalgene water bottle (no steel, and no fancy drinking valves)
- 2 closed-cell foam sleeping pads
- headlamp or flashlight
- eating utensils
- unbreakable plastic cup and bowl (metal is okay, too, but food and drinks get cold much faster in metal)
- toilet paper
- matches in a baggie or waterproof container