Updated: Mar 17, 2021
The silence that winter brings along with the change in scenery is a welcome sight for us winter lovers. As a kid, I read the book "Hatchet" over and over, daydreaming about surviving in the northern wilderness. As an adult I have watched documentaries and read articles describing arctic expeditions and the camping excursions of mountain climbers. However, I had yet to camp in anything less than the high 20's. So, when I saw the forecast this past weekend, I thought to myself, "no better time than now!". The low was expected to be -6 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills pushing -30. This would be a good test of my willpower, preparation, clothing and gear. Maybe I could become a sub zero adventurer after all.
Despite the potential for danger and extreme discomfort, everything went quite admirably. In fact, it was a blast, and I can't wait to try again in more remote locations! I learned what was necessary to maintain comfort, from my clothing to my sleeping kit. I learned what gear worked well and what did not. Here is the process I used and my findings that will hopefully encourage you to safely enjoy your first camping trip in sub zero weather.
The key to staying comfortable in cold weather largely relies on your clothing or lack thereof. It is well known that layering is important.
A quality polyester base layer can wick moisture and prevent the chill that comes if you build up a sweat. I use polyester underwear topped with Under Armour 4.0 Cold Gear leggings and 1/4 zip top to keep me warm but also prevent the moisture/insulation issues that cotton will give you. AVOID COTTON ENTIRELY!
An insulating mid layer and an outer shell that is windproof and waterproof helps hold your body temp without allowing moisture or wind to cut in and reduce your garments' insulating ability. This should be separate layers. Most cold weather bibs and parkas include a zip off shell or zip out liner so that you can maintain the exact level of warmth you need to stay comfortable, without overheating. Your largest enemy in extreme cold is sweat. As hunters or ice fisherman know, building up a sweat followed by long periods of inactivity lead to a major loss of body heat and discomfort/danger. I will often wear only my base layers, bibs and a fleece vest while hiking, setting up camp or gathering wood. This helps prevent the overheating issues and then once settled in and lowering heart rate you can put on the outer garments to maintain the accrued body heat.
Hats, gaiters and gloves should all follow the same general rule. Your best materials will give insulation quality and moisture reduction, such as wool or polyester. Hats and gloves can be removed or adjusted based on your workload. There are many times where I will pull my gaiter down, hat up or gloves off to prevent overheating. I also find a hand warmer pouch and chemical handwarmers to be extremely useful to keep hands warm with minimal use of gloves or if gloves become damp. I personally prefer the larger single warmers as they put off more heat and last up to 18 hours compared to the smaller pairs of hand warmers only lasting around 10 hours.
Socks and boots should also offer plenty of insulation without compromising moisture control. Socks made of wool or polyester will wick sweat and maintain their insulation qualities. Rubber boots with heavy insulation will keep out 100% of snow and water but do give up some breathability. I prefer at least 1000 grams of thinsulate for temperatures well below freezing. If your trip requires an extra lengthy hike you may look into an insulated hiking boot with Gore-Tex to see a nice compromise between breathability and waterproofness while still locking out the cold.
The wind can be the most dangerous part of being out in below zero temps. So, obviously finding a place with a good wind break is imperative. This past weekend it didn't take me long to find out that my first option wouldn't work due to stiff north wind, so option two became the immediate priority. A quick adjustment and I was buried in a small brushy hollow where I had a flat spot for the tent and a bowl of calm air for myself and my fire.
Tents can be inexpensive, heavy and leaky or several thousand dollars, ultralight for backpacking, or canvas and woodstove compatible. My personal tent is an Alps Zephyr 2. It is what I would consider mid-range (some serious backpack campers may consider it cheap). For extreme cold it would not be recommended by most. Most winter campers would recommend a four-season tent with nylon walls rather than mesh covered in a rain fly, and I believe if you camped in brutal cold and wind often you may be able to justify the added cost and weight. However, I can say without a doubt by keeping the rain fly as close to the tent as possible and getting a good wind break my 3-season tent was more than adequate. Beyond that, I prefer the lighter materials during the summer heat, which is where much of my camping is done. Personally, I suggest saving a few hundred dollars until you know that you are going to be camping in freezing temps more often than not.
I used a few things to keep the frozen ground as far from my body as possible on my sub zero trip. The first step was a piece of Tyvek wrap on the ground under the tent. I use this in the summer to prevent tears. In the cold I felt that it was a little bonus insulation as well as a moisture barrier from any melting snow if I was leaking body heat. You can buy this at most home improvement stores by the roll but some camp suppliers have started selling precut sheets with grommets for securing it in place. Bonus, it weighs almost nothing and packs down small. From there I used a fleece blanket on the ground and then placed my Insulated Klymit Static V sleeping pad and Klymit memory foam pillow on top of that. On top of that were my bags. If you camp below freezing often I would recommend a bag rated at 0 degrees or less to maintain comfort and that should be all you need. However, in my case I have a compromise with a Camp Saver 30 degree goose down bag. Since I 'm often in warmer temps I stuck with this and in the case of the sub zero trip I just added two more cheap bags I had in the closet. I ended up having my main bag tucked inside another mummy and a zipped open classic bag on top like a comforter, with a bonus body warmer tossed into the feet of the main bag. I was unbelievably toasty all night long. A welcome surprise with the brutal temps that were just inches from my body. Expect to wake up in a tent full of ice crystals from your frozen breath but still comfortably warm if you create my home made "squirrel's nest" or have a quality extreme cold rated bag.
Much of this list is the same whether it is -20 degrees or 90+, but there are a few slight changes as well as complications associated with the extreme cold.
The first thing you need is water. If your trip is short, you can carry water in with you in a hydration bladder. If it's extremely cold you can use an insulated bottle or thermos to extend the amount of time before freezing. On my recent sub zero trip I opted to carry in an uninsulated container of water with the plan to have a fire early on to prevent freezing and melt down snow for water in the morning. This worked very well. A longer trip requires the use of a filter or tablets to gather water as you go. I always carry a sawyer squeeze filter and purification tablets when camping solo, and if in a group it is a great to have a Platypus filter system to filter larger amounts of water, faster. Of course, boiling is an option as well if nothing else... but that method uses more fuel and time.
The next step for me is to make a fire, especially in cold weather. On my recent trip, a fire kept me at a quite comfortable temperature all night before climbing into the tent. Also, the search and collection of firewood was enough work to prevent me from having a chance to get cold. Fire starters should always be carried and can be as simple as a ferro rod if you have some practice. I personally carry a lighter and matches and have found that stormproof matches are the real life saver. In wet or extremely cold conditions a lighter is nearly useless and traditional fire starters can make it difficult. A box of stormproof matches are light, foolproof and will work in nearly any condition. Other items that can help start your fire include a Ziploc bag of dryer lint (no wonder houses burn when the lint traps aren't cleaned) or some hand sanitizer, which I prefer as it serves multiple uses. Especially nice when pack space is at a premium.
When car camping or on a day trip, food can be heavy and bulky without a concern. On a longer backpacking trip, food will use a lot of your space, so it makes sense to use something as light as possible. I personally use Mountain House dehydrated food due to its flavor profiles, price and availability. However, there are several brands to choose from if you want to shop around. If you pack dehydrated food you will also want a stove and fuel to boil your water to rehydrate it, generally 12-16oz of boiling water per meal are needed. I have had excellent results from my MSR Windburner and MSR Isopro fuel. This stove boils water incredibly fast, in the strongest of winds and can double as your water provision. I've used it in the hottest of temps and now down to the coldest with no issues. I will say the gas flow wasn't perfect on my recent sub zero trip at first ignite but after a few seconds it loosened up and burned normally. Take this into consideration on an extremely cold trip and maybe keep hand warmers on your fuel canisters before use to better regulate flow. This next one may seem insignificant, but don't forget a good spoon. I use a titanium spoon for weight savings but the real benefit is the extra length and the angle of the bend making it much easier to eat out of the fairly deep bags that the dehydrated food comes in. For snacks there is always the old trusty trail mix or granola bars. I also will occasionally bring Uncrustables for something different.
Another often overlooked item is a good headlamp. This makes camping so much easier. I've used traditional lights before and have even been guilty of using my phone light plenty of times, but those batteries die much easier and the convenience of having both hands free will make the benefits of a headlamp apparent immediately. No more cold mag lite on your teeth. I personally use a Black Diamond Storm for its dimmability features, battery level light bar and weight. On my trip my camera and phone batteries were all dead very quickly and the AAA batteries in the Black Diamond are still good to go. Seriously, just get the headlamp... you will thank me later.
I always have these items with me as a precaution to emergency or just an added convenience. Most items attempt to serve more than one purpose.
First Aid - This one should be obvious, throw in some Tylenol or aspirin.
Hatchet- My personal hatchet. Great for firewood/tent stake hammer. Not for ultralight.
Outdoor Edge Knife - My personal knife. I own three. Obvious uses.
Paracord - 100's of uses. Clothes line, shelter beam, lash, belt, tourniquet, sling, stringer, etc...
Spare Batteries/Powerbank - Replacements for headlamp, bank for phone/gps
Book - Not necessary, but a nice past time on a solo camping trip.
Pack - I personally use a Tenzing frame pack
At the end of the day, a little preparation and a strong will and you can enjoy the unique experience of a sub zero camping trip. You don't have to be a gear nut to pull it off, but with the items and tips I mentioned here your odds of an enjoyable trip are much higher. Get outdoors and good luck!