Updated: Jan 22
I got a laugh the other day when I read the anonymous quote, “If you choose to not find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in life but still the same amount of snow”. It’s funny because it’s true and those who enjoy embracing winter by getting out camping in winter know the perks which include solitude, no bugs, and the ease of backcountry access that the hard water season offers. But potentially the biggest perk that winter camping offers is simply the option to extend the season. Naturally, it comes with a different host of challenges and you have to be prepared for them. The cold temps and heavy snow mean winter is not a good time, or a fun time to practice raw survival skills with little gear in most backcountry scenarios. Naturally, knowing some winter survival skill will make you safer incase something does go awry but having the right gear and knowing how to use it can in fact make your stay quite warm and comfortable in the winter woods. So if you’re already a winter day-tripper, instead of heading home at the end of the day, why not spend a couple nights or more in the bush and enjoy some of the added benefits like waking up beside your backcountry fishing hole without a soul in sight?
When it comes to winter activities, the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” rings true and extending this saying from clothing to include gear in general creates a good mantra for someone getting into winter camping. With a good attitude and a few key tips on how to use and transport a winter camping outfit, you’ll be set to go in no time. The gear recommendations and skills below will be helpful to those starting out, but they’ll also give a more seasoned winter camper some food for thought if looking to diversify their winter camping style or discover some new gear options.
Key Gear Items & Clothing:
Regardless of what kind of winter camping trip you’re doing, there are a few things that apply across the board but you’ll generally want to reserve the larger and heavier options you see in the list below for snowmobile trips.
Sleeping bag: Go with a down bag rated to -40F if possible but a -20F synthetic bag will get you through. Remember, you can always double-up on sleeping bags for extra warmth too.
Sleeping bag liner: Compact and light, this is a thin bag that fits into your sleeping bag and increases it’s R-value by an additional 10 degrees or more.
Ground pads: You may want to consider bringing two for added warmth, choosing to sleep on your standard foam ground pad with an inflatable ground pad on top of it. A higher end, down-filled inflatable such as the Xped Downmat XP 9 will be plenty warm on its own but a foam pad is nice to have to use for just sitting and kneeling on around camp. Make sure to bring a patch kit for any inflatable ground pad and keep them away from the fire so they don’t pop.
Water bottles & insulated liners: Bring three 1L Nalgene bottles and buy the appropriate liners made for them. With insulated liners on them, your water won’t freeze nearly as quickly. A double-wall insulated bottle such as the YETI Rambler will do a good job at preventing freezing too. If you don’t have liners or the temp really drops, you can carry a couple water bottles on a lanyard around your neck and under your sweater where your body’s heat will keep it from freezing. Also, filling your water bottles with hot water and keeping them in your sleeping bag at night will keep them from freezing while providing you with added warmth on a cold night.
Vacuum Bottle: This is your standard Thermos or Stanley bottle. It’s a good idea to keep a warm drink close at hand during the day to get warm with a mug up when you’re taking a break, or once you’ve settled in at your ice fishing hole. Make sure to get a vacuum bottle that’s particularly durable such as the Master Unbreakable Thermal Bottle by Stanley.
Auger or Ice Chisel:
An ice chisel is slower than an auger but it will get you through thicker ice than a hand auger. A two piece ice chisel will be more transportable than a hand or power auger too. Ice chisels are also key tools used by trappers when targeting beaver. If chiseling through thicker ice, you’ll need a metal ice fishing scoop to scoop the snow out of your ice hole periodically. Consider affixing one to the end of your chisel if possible. To save space and weight, you may want to consider packing along an ice chisel bit and fashioning a pole to use it once you’re in the backcountry.
Hand Auger: You can get through the ice pretty quickly with a 6” hand auger if it’s sharp. Note that it’s impossible to field sharpen the cutting blades on a standard hand auger. Consider bringing a pair of pre-sharpened, backup blades and an Allen Key to swap them out incase the blades get damaged in transport or if you drill through the ice into rocks. If you’re going to be in the north, you may need to bring an extension for your auger.
Gas Powered Auger: These can be bulky and potentially hard to start but if you’re traveling by snowmobile and you need to punch through hard, thick ice, it’s the way to go. Bring extra fuel for extended trips and an extension if you’re going to be augering through ice beyond 4’ thick.
Battery Powered Auger: Many are skipping the hassles of gas or propane and switching to the much quieter electric options. For longer trips where you won’t have a chance to recharge, consider an electric drill powered ice auger that converts to a hand auger such as the Nils 8” Convertible Hand Auger. Cordless, electric drills best suited for this purpose range from 12v to 20v. At the upper end of this range is the powerful DeWalt DCD777C2.
Snowshoes: Even if you’re traveling with cross country skis or snowmobiling, it’s a good idea to bring a pair of snow shoes along. They’re great for tamping down the snow before setting up your tent and of course, walking in deep snow for retrieving upland birds or exploring off trail in the bush. Traditional-style snowshoes such as the Elongated or Modified Bar Paw are usually larger and superior in very deep snow than modern options, however modern-style snowshoes, such as the MSR Lightning Ascent are lighter, more packable, and much better in icy conditions and at going up hill.
Shelter: From larger sized wall tents to other styles of canvas tents like those made by Snowtrekker, to Arctic Oven Tent options, ice fishing shelters, and four season mountaineering-style tents, unless you’re planning on sleeping in a quinzhee or an igloo, you’re going to want to bring along a tent. I cover more on tents as they apply to specific styles of winter camping below. Note that most of these tents don’t come with a floor. You’ll need to lay boughs down or a tarp. The use of cots also make having a floor less necessary.
Wood Stoves & Stove Pipes: If you really want to be comfortable out there, “hot tenting” is the way to go. There are many portable wood stoves available on the market, some are collapsible. The one you choose will depend on how big a tent you want to heat, how much you want to haul, and whether you’re travelling on foot, by snowmobile, or with dogs. Kin-Co Manufacturing stoves makes a variety of portable wood stoves designed for heavy use. The larger of a tent you’re trying to heat, the larger of a stove you’ll need and vice-versa.
Shovels: At some point, you’re going to want to move snow. You’d be surprised how much snow a small folding snow shovel can move, it’s a great thing to bring along in winter however you’re traveling. If you’ll be traveling by snowmobile, you may want to consider bringing a larger sized aluminum scoop shovel. Beyond the camping and backcountry travel-specific aspect of your trip, an aluminum scoop shovel is good to have incase you want to dig out a snowbank to create a place to park your vehicle or to dig your vehicle out if you get stuck. A large shovel is too bulky to bring on a self-propelled trek but it’s still a good idea to leave one in your vehicle regardless.
Lantern: Winter nights are long so it’s nice to bring a lantern of some sort. Consider bringing lightweight string lighting and a fully charged anchor battery to power it. Using a cordless power tool battery for this works well as many now come with USB ports.
Comms: The Garmin InReach 66i is both a GPS device and a satellite message in one. It has an S.O.S. button if SHTF but also allows for two way text messaging. It doesn’t hurt to bring along an anchor battery and the device’s cable so you can charge it on the go.
Cook Set / Mess Kit : The same you’d bring on any camping trip more or less, choose stainless steel pots, a frying pan, plates, mugs and a spork.
Gas Stoves and Starter’s Paste: Stick with liquid fuel stoves for winter as propane and iso butane stoves don’t preform as well when the temperature drops. If you’re going to be bringing a portable wood stove, you can cook on that effectively but it’s nice to have a naphtha gas stove along too as it’ll boil water faster. For larger groups the Coleman Classic Double Burner is the stove to bring as it sits well in the snow and the grill on top means it’s not such a balancing act to keep pots and pans from sliding off. I’ve also used the Double Burner sparingly for heat in winter while in a well ventilated, breathable canvas tent north of the Tree Line where a wood stove is not an option. Otherwise, it’s a Colman Duel Fuel 533 Single Burner stove I bring along. Lighter weight options such as the MSR WhisperLite will work fine too but it’s best if you bring along a flat piece of plywood to act as a flat surface to balance them on. Affixing a length of bungie cord to the board to slip the tank under will prevent the tank from rolling around.
Fire Paste: Don’t forget to bring a tube of Fire Paste along as the above mentioned camping stoves are tricky to light when it’s cold.
Food: You burn more calories in the winter trying to keep warm so budgeting more fat such as butter and bacon will help keep you warmer. Dehydrated food will help lighten your load but one of the good things about winter is that stuff stays frozen so it won’t go bad. You can bring steaks, a couple packs of bacon and pre-made stews. It’s a good idea to vacuum seal these items first and then thaw them in warm water in your pot while they’re in their vacuum sealed packaging. You may also want to pick up some finger foods for your “muff pot” too if traveling by snowmobile (more on this below).
Guide tarp: A tarp can create an extra layer of insulation over your canvas tent and provides a nice outdoor shelter if you want to hang out around a bonfire while it’s dumping snow. Guide tarps are lightweight polyester tarps with a plethora of reinforced anchor points. DD Hammocks manufactures high quality options.
Base Layers: Dressing in layers is a good idea. Avoid cotton, particularly next to your skin and choose poly materials or merino wool for your base layers. Base layers include long johns and a long sleeved T-shirt that you wear next to your skin. It’s best to bring two sets of base layers along incase one gets damp from sweat.
Gloves & Mitts: Bring insulated work gloves for finer work around camp and a heavy duty pair of mitts. Mitts will keep your hands warmer than gloves and avoid using glove liners in your mitts because the skin on skin contact of your fingers is the warmest.
We’ve already covered long johns under base layers. On top of that you’re going to want to wear army surplus wool pants, lighter weight wool blend pants, windproof fleece pants, Fleece lined canvas pants, a fleece lined bib / overalls, or fleece lined quick dry (nylon outer) pants . Fleece lined jeans will work too.
If you’re going to be spending a lot of time ice fishing or snowmobiling, you’ll want a more heavily insulated option in addition such as Yukon Gear’s men’s Insulated Bib Overalls which should do the trick in most situations. If heading into potentially extreme cold, down filled pants such as Baffin’s Polar Pants for Polar trekking or a snowmobiling-specific insulated bib such as the Choko Extreme are the way to go.
Windbreaker Pants & Jacket: If you’re faced with strong winds while trekking, an insulated bib or heavy parka is going to be too warm but your wool pants and sweater will be too cold to wear as your outer layer. In situations like this, you’re going to want an outer wind breaking layer. Go with nylon or polyester and note that water resistant windbreakers provide the most breathability which is key. Heavy waterproofing isn’t necessary in the depths of winter. The only waterproof options that are highly breathable are garnets made out of Goretex Pro (not GoreTex but GoreTex Pro) which will work too but will hold in more moisture than water-resistant windbreaker options and they cost way more as well.
Always choose boots with a removable liner and a low temperature rating such as Baffin Snow Monster Boots. If you’re going with a more traditional-style mukluk (your warmest option), consider bringing a pair of Neos overshoe to wear overtop of them when faced with slush on lakes or early spring conditions when the snow is very wet. Note that running boards of snowmobiles can tear up more traditional materials too. If your trip is going to be on the lower end of the physical activity spectrum and/or if slush on frozen lakes is a real concern, consider insulated rubbers with a removable liner such as the Baffin Titan Plain Toe. For in the tent and immediately around the tent, bring a pair of down booties.
Socks: Wearing two pairs is a good idea for warmth and blister resistance but don’t wear too many pairs of socks or your boots will be too tight and your feet will actually get colder due to a lack of circulation. Go with a thinner pair under a thicker pair. Murano wool options made by brands such as Icebreaker, Smartwool, or Baffin are prime.
- A great tip is to carry a couple plastic bags along with your socks. Large Zip-Lock or bread bags will do. Put the plastic bags over top of your socks or even under the socks against your skin. This will prevent blistering on long treks but will also prevent moisture from building up in your boot liners, sucking their R-value and leaving them frozen in the mornings if not kept in your sleeping bag at night. GoreTex socks will work just as well for this.
Parka: Large and heavily down-filled parkas with fur lined hoods like the Snow Mantra from Canada Goose are among the warmest options for snowmobiling or activities with little movement like ice fishing. They’re bulky and heavy and just too hot when you’re moving on a winter trek. If you’re man-hauling your gear on a sledge in cold conditions, it’s a good idea to keep a heavy parka like this accessible, dawning it when you stop to take a break (or when you get to camp to set up) and then take it off when you start to move again.
Anorak & Puffer: An Anorak is basically a parka that typically pulls over the head. They also extend down further on the body than other jackets, as they typically continue down below the hips. The absence of a zipper means less heat escapes while less wind gets in through a zipper at the same time. Therefore, pound for pound, anoraks offer more warmth with less weight and bulk than zippered jackets. Anoraks made of 3-ply Supplex Nylon are the choice of many northern dogsled mushers and Polar adventurers who head into extreme winter conditions. Choose an anorak with a real fur ruff on the hood or add it yourself. An anorak often consists of no more than a shell with a hood. This allows you to dress in significant layers underneath which should include a high-loft puffer jacket when facing cold temps. Canvas is a breathable, wind-blocking, and largely waterproof material suited to winter that makes efficient, traditional-style anoraks. Traditionally, a courier du bois-style sash was worn on the outside of a canvas anorak at the waist to better hold in the heat. Since the anorak covers the hips, it’s challenging to access a belt knife while wearing one. Because of this, many anorak wearers choose to carry a sheathed knife on a lanyard around their necks.
Sweaters: Go with wool, fleece or a wool fleece blend such as Stormtech’s Montauk System Jacket (arguably more of a jacket than a sweater), Cabela’s Windsheer Wooltimate, an Army Surplus “Commando” Wool Seater, or a standard fleece sweater such as the Patagonia “Better Sweater”. It’s a good idea to bring along two or three.
Other Wearables: Balaclava, (so your face doesn’t freeze), neck warmer, (because about as much heat escapes from your neck as from your head), beanie (toque), fur hat, sunglasses, (because in the winter, the sun comes from above and below as it reflects off the snow and snow-blindness can be a real concern). Ski-goggles, if the weather’s bad and there’s a lot of blowing snow, dawning a pair of ski goggles can make it feel a heck of a lot nicer out.