Basic Winter Camping Checklist

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 camping in winter in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness since shortly after I moved to Minneapolis in 2000.

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 not to survive but to be comfortable. (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.

Disclaimer: 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, 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

Upper Body

Lower Body

Other Winter Camping Gear

Published on February 22nd, 2013. Last updated March 30th, 2020.