Secrets to Cold Weather Camping Survival


Maybe you're Conan, and you can walk around half-naked in an ice castle. Me, not so much.







Building on our successful Ice Station Zebra campout, I know that at least some of you are wondering how we could have been so happy and warm in such cold.

It really doesn't take much.  You don't need fancy bibs, high fashion accessories, or high-dollar fabrics.  Or big pecs, a sword, and a damsel in distress.

You need good gloves. Don't cheap out on the gloves. Cold hands make the rest of you miserable. My gloves are the most expensive part of my winter kit.  I prefer lobster gloves for real cold.  Lobster gloves keep some of your fingers together like mittens, but give you better dexterity and comfort.


Cycling lobster gloves

They come in two varieties; the one finger kind are usually available at hunting and backpacking outlets and the two finger kind are in cycling stores.

You need decent boots.  Waterproof, with an insulated sole.  They need to be waterproof all the way to the top, so that snow and meltwater doesn't get in.  Boots are a good item to get at end-of-season sales.  They're big and they don't sell during the summer, so you can get big discounts – if you can find your size.

Backpacking or hunting lobster gloves

Backpacking or hunting lobster gloves

You need good socks.  I'll take cheap boots and good socks over good boots and cheap socks any day.  You can buy Merino or Smartwool socks relatively cheap these days, especially if you get a color/pattern no one wants.

A warm coat or jacket.  Big enough to let you move and breathe and small enough where there's not a lot of room for cold air to get in.

Much of your gear you can collect at end-of-season sales, discount stores, and such.  One of my best purchases was a fleece vest that I used on just about every outing for nearly 10 years.  It cost me $5 at our local discount store; it works out to about $0.50 per year and maybe a penny for every time I used it.

Nobody told them that polka dotted socks in Men's Large aren't going to sell well.  I got merino wool socks for $5 and the dots were free.

Nobody told them that polka dotted socks in Men's Large aren't going to sell well. I got merino wool socks for $5 and the dots were free.

I layer various synthetic shirts, a fleece vest, a fleece jacket, a windbreaker or a heavy jacket depending on how cold it really is.  Take layers on and off to regulate the temperature.

For my legs I usually layer a pair of tights and a pair of quick-drying zipoff hiking pants.  If you're small and manly enough (or a woman), get ballet or gym  tights at Walmart or a similar discounter; they're usually just a few dollars and they will do a great job keeping your legs warm when covered with a pair of synthetic zip off pants.  You can pick up cycling tights at bike shops – but they cost much more than the ballet tights.

Stay away from cotton! Cotton is very efficient at cooling your body when wet.  This is the opposite of what you want in the winter.  Wearing cotton is a good way to have a miserable experience in the winter.

I have no idea what you'd call that color.  Aparently no-one else did either; I got the hat for $2.

I have no idea what you'd call that color. Apparently no-one else did either; I got the hat for $2.

Online sources for gear:

Sierra Trading Post


Backcountry Gear

Bricks and sticks

Any local discount store

REI, LL Bean or similar outdoor store for mid- and post- season sales (they usually don't advertise their deeply discounted items on line; you have to go and look)

Any bike shop; paw through the throw-off bin

Hey, if you're into cold weather camping, please share your clothing, equipment, and places to buy in the comments!

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  1. Knapp Hudson

    These are all good tips. Another piece of clothing I use a lot is a balaclava; it keeps your face and neck warm. Buff makes a great lightweight wool neck warmer (I keep one in my camera pack). Also, a boot dryer is a good thing to have at least at home (we have two made by the Peet Co.). In the van you can also use newspapers to dry out the inside of your boots if you don’t want to plug in a boot dryer – dry boots make a huge difference in your comfort. For you who pass through Freeport, Maine in the summer make a stop at the North Face and the Patagonia outlets (across the street from LL Bean). These are real factory seconds/returns stores and the prices can be good. LL Bean also has a returns store with good prices.

  2. Russ

    Rule #1: keep your head warm. #2 is keep yourself dry, both from outside moisture but also from sweat. Ventilate if needed. Layer. Down is great BUT only if you’re assured of it staying dry. Synthetic down isn’t quite as good an insulator (but down’s quality continues to go down and synthetic’s improves) but it is a lot better if/when wet…including moist with perspiration. I’m a big fan of fleece under garments (neck gaiter/balaclava, hat liner, glove liners, jacket/sweater/vest, pants) and polypropylene long underwear on the coldest days, layered under wind resistant and water resistant/proof outer layer. I avoid heavy, thick single garments that take you from 70 deg F interiors and are comfortable at 20 deg F….but NOT 40 deg (too warm) or 0 deg (too cold)…LAYER! I use various weight fleece vests under a fleece jacket (zips down the front vs sweater) as bulk around body isn’t nearly as encumbering as bulk of layering in arm sleeves…ie better range of motion.

    Gloves: exotic option is the much heralded Heat 3 ($199): These are mittens over gloves. Mittens are warmer (all other things being equal) than gloves, but gloves have more flexibility. Note that index finger and thumb have flip-off covers for maximum dexterity (photographers, shooters, etc). I mostly use Ragg wool or fleece fingerless gloves over thinner (“runner’s”) gloves with digital-touch finger tips…to provide warmth AND tactile dexterity for outdoor activities. I’ll use a heat pack if necessary.
    Footwear: the tradeoff here is how well insulated (and thus bulky/heavy) vs how light/flexible do you need. Are you standing around (poor circulation in extremities) or active? Are you in cold but dry conditions or cool and wet conditions? Keeping your feet DRY (not sweaty) is key and where good socks can come into play.