Best Cold Weather Camping Gear: what you need, and where to save money

Temperatures drop, half the trail population moves inside, and it becomes time to reconsider the gear you need for cold weather camping. Recently, I got back from a fall expedition to Isle Royale National Park, where temperatures got down to 25 degrees Farenheit.

Here’s the cold weather gear worth spending money on, and cheats to save money and still stay warm.

Nemo Tempo Sleeping Bag

I’ve struggled to find a good sleeping bag since I started camping. Before this bag, I had settled on a Big Agnes Elsie 15, which was warm and packs small and light. Before this trip, I switched to the Nemo Tempo, which is designed for side sleepers and people who find a mummy bag constricting.

This bag was warmer than my old one and more comfortable. No problem, even on the coldest nights. The only drawback is that it doesn’t pack down as small as a mummy bag. I’m willing to carry the extra weight for the comfort, so this is the perfect bag for my cold weather camping gear collection.

Big Agnes Air Core Sleeping Pad

Like bringing an air mattress, without the weight, the Air Core is comfortable, warm, and small to carry, making it perfect for cold weather camping, especially on longer trips and expeditions. I had trouble getting it back into the stuff sack, but that might have been a me problem.

Wool Base Layers

Smartwool’s 250 baselayers are my favorite, but wool in general is a good idea. I like Smartwool because it lasts. My first Smartwool base layer survived two full seasons of sea kayaking as my primary guide shirt, and an Armenian winter as the baselayer I wore to school every day. I still wear that layer year round, and my newer set is a permanent part of my cold weather camping gear.

Darn Tough Socks

This is my favorite brand of socks ever, both for hiking and for wearing underneath paddling booties. Warm, thick, and blister resistant, these are pretty much the gold standard of hiking socks. Darn tough socks aren’t just for cold weather camping, but they’re a good year round adventure sock. Socks are important.

Sleeping Bag Liner

I have no strong opinions on a sleeping bag liner brand, other than that for cold weather camping you need one. It adds warmth, and keeps your sleeping bag a little cleaner. I have this one, and it works just fine. My only recommendation is don’t get a cotton liner; you’ll be cold.

Jetboil

For our 12 day trip we used a combination of a Whisperlite and a Jetboil for cooking. The Whisperlite was good for cooking meals for a group of four, but the Jetboil holds up in colder temperatures in wind and cooks quickly.

Raingear

For the first time this year I invested in rain pants and it made a huge difference staying warm when hiking and at camp. This is the pair I’ve been using. I’ve been hiking in cold weather and the rain for a while, and I wish I’d done this sooner. Keeping dry layers dry makes a huge difference in warmth, and I’ll use these on day trips as well as for cold weather camping.

A Good Headlamp

Black Diamond or Petzel; I use Petzel and have some brand loyalty there. Better colors.

Colder temperatures means it will get dark sooner, and you want to be able to see. In your head lamp you want at least 300 lumens, with a red light option, so you can keep your eyes adjusted to the dark like the TIKKA.

Don’t Spend Money on…

Midlayers

A fleece makes a great midlayer, but you don’t need to break the bank for a brand name. A thinner fleece is better for layering than a thicker one, and getting one from your local thrift store works better than buying something expensive. A lot of the midlayers you find on REI or other sites are designed for fashion more than actual adventuring. Any fleece will do.

Pro tip on thrifting outdoor gear: outdoor destinations or trail towns near national parks tend to have thrift stores with deeply discounted gear. The blue Arc’teryx puffy jacket above? Thrift store.

A Winter Tent

For my winter tent, I use an older heavy duty tent with patches on the sides. I think it’s Eureka brand, but the label is peeled off. You don’t need a backpacking tent unless you’re actually going miles for multiple days, and short of mountaineering, don’t invest in a special cold weather camping tent.

For warmth, having more than one person in a tent makes a big difference. Most recently, we used an older REI Half Dome, but my usual tent is a Big Agnes Fly Creek.

The Fly Creek is good for distance backpacking, but tight to fit two people. In cold weather without two people, the tent becomes too cold as soon as it dips near freezing. For cold weather backpacking with another, it’d still be my choice, but for car camping, smaller hikes and paddling, I’ll pick something a little heavier.

Moral of the story, don’t buy a special tent for cold weather camping unless you’re mountaineering. Focus instead on layering, sharing a tent, putting a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag, and staying dry.

A Mess Kit

A lot of people spend a lot of money on a mess kit for camping. Make sure you have a good spork and a bowl/ tupperware with a sealable lid and that should be plenty. A lid that closes means you can cook a hot lunch in the morning and carry it cooked to pull out later. Being able to have hot soup instead of a cold lunch can be a game changer on a cold weather adventure.

A Camera

Above? That’s an iphone 7 photo.

I’ve shot with Nikon and Canon both, but without fail the best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not that has been my phone. A good camera won’t guarantee good pictures, so don’t shell out the money for a DSLR until you know photography is a hobby you want to put time into.

Understanding composition and lighting, and fine tuning your editing style are equally important in photography to a nice camera or lens. Upgrade when you’re ready, but the camera you have is capable of a lot.

Below? Also an iphone photo.

Looking for your next adventure? Check out this guide to outdoor recreation in the Midwest!


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