Believe it or not, it is possible to be comfortable while winter camping. The key is being prepared. After all, if you’re attempting to brave the elements at -20F, being prepared is crucial for more than just comfort, it’s necessary for your survival.
The first ingredient to successful winter camping is clothing. A quality base layer is essential. Nowadays, capilene or merino wool are the standards. Both are relatively lightweight and incredibly effective. Next, it’s time to layer up… liberally. If you get warm, you can always discard layers. But if your core temp dips too low, extraction and artificial heat will be your only means of staving off hypothermia.
There are a few different outer layer options that will depend on where you plan to be outside. Down jackets are becoming lighter and warmer every year, and are a great option. But if the wind will be a major factor, heavy canvas is a good bet. For the extreme cold, you can even use the down jacket underneath a canvas carhart style. Keeping your core warm is of utmost importance. But there are two other key areas of the body that if not properly insulated, will never allow your core to stay warm… your outer extremities, and your head.
If you’re like me at all, male pattern baldness isn’t doing you any favors in this regard. But even our more follically blessed brothers and sisters will need a proper hat to keep the warmth in. You see, cold is not our enemy. It is the loss of heat. And we loose most of our body heat through the top of our head and our outer extremities, i.e. hands and feet. A tightly nit wool hat that covers your ears is the way to go. And since wool can be a bit itchy, I recommend a fleece lining on the inside for comfort. Next, a good pair of well insulated gloves that also keep the wind from stealing your warmth can make all the difference.
Perhaps the most important of these is socks and shoes. You really cannot over prepare when it comes to keeping your feet warm. Heavyweight wool is great for socks, but you will do well also to find a waterproof boot. There is no amount of wool sock that can keep your warmth in if your feet get wet from the snow. Muck style boots are versatile, you can wear them in any season, and perhaps your best bet to keep dry.
There is so much more you can get in to regarding proper clothing, and I would recommend going to a reputable outdoor retailer like REI, find a knowledgeable associate, tell them your plan, and see what new products are out there that will help you achieve your goal of staying warm, comfortable, and alive.
Now, on to the camping bit. Here are a few key pieces of gear that are absolute musts. A four season tent, 0 degree sleeping bag (at least), snow shovel, fire starter, sleeping pad.
A good all weather/ all season tent is going to be the first line of defense from the elements robbing you of your warmth, and a good night’s sleep. I’ve camped several times in the unforgiving winter in the Rockies in 2 or 3 season tents, and it can be quite miserable. A four season is going to have only very small (and covered) mesh windows. They are there simply for ventilation and reduction of condensation within the tent. This is crucial, because again, we are trying to keep the warmth in, not the cold out.
A good down (recommended) or synthetic sleeping bag is the next key component. Several bag makers will make 0, -20, -30, and even -40 F degree bags, so the options are out there, but beware, they get incredibly expensive. Find out what the max low temp will be where you’re going, and then get a bag that suits you. However, also beware the if you have a 0 degree, you will practically start to feel the cold when the outside temp reaches in the teens.