Winter Camping Primer

SKOAC: Winter Camping Primer by Sarah Ohmann Lightweight/Cold Style
“Traditional” Style
Winter Camping Resources:

It is possible to camp year-round in Minnesota and enjoy places like the BWCA without the bugs or summer crowds. The deep silence and extraordinary beauty of the snow-covered winter landscape are a real treat provided you stay warm, dry, and well fed. Winter Camping is too big a subject to cover in any depth here, but I hope this will serve to get you started and point you in the direction of books and other resources that will help you find what you need.

There are two basic styles of winter camping:

  • Lightweight/Cold CampingIf you want to try winter camping, but don’t want to spend a lot of money, try this first.

Use your summer camping gear but more of it. Bring a sturdy free-standing tent that will shed snow (you do *not* need one of those mountaineering tents or even a four season tent).

Use or borrow a second sleeping bag to put over your twenty-degree or warmer bag. Use whichever bag is smaller as the inner bag: the second bag should be a larger size and fit loosely over the inner without compressing the insulation. Rule of thumb: go for about 8″ of loft, total. Many people use two sleeping pads; a foam pad plus a thermarest or second foam pad.

Wear wool or fleece layers, with a windproof and breathable outer layer. Gortex-type materials are ok but will not breathe well at lower temps ( <0 degrees F).

For footwear, mukluks are the best, pack boots (Sorels, Kamiks, etc.) are ok, and hiking boots are the worst choice. Wrap boots or liners in a plastic bag at night and put in the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep them warm. Gear can be carried in packs or on sleds.

See the AMC Guide to Winter Camping (below) for more information and tips on this kind of winter camping. Try out your gear in your backyard or someplace like Tettegouche or Split Rock Lighthouse State Parks where you can retreat to a heated place (both have warm buildings open all night in the winter) in case you run into problems.

  • “Traditional” Winter CampingActually a blend of Native American and 19th century European techniques and equipment, the main features of this approach are a canvas tent with a woodstove, breathable cotton outerwear, wool clothing insulating layers, traditional snowshoes and mukluks, and sleds (usually toboggans) to haul the extra gear. For more information, see the Winter Wilderness Companion, listed in the reading section below.

Since we figured out that it is possible to haul your own personal heated cabin around the BWCA, many of the club’s winter campers have gone this route and swear they’ll never go back.

Note on Ice Travel:

Ice conditions in the BWCA have not been consistently good the last few years. Before you go, call an outfitter or resort near your entry point and ask if anyone has been out recently along your planned route, or try the USFS (United States Forest Service) ranger station for your district (in Ely, Tofte, Grand Marais). It is best to find someone who has a recent report specifically for your route because conditions vary a lot from lake to lake. Remember that 4″ of ice are the minimum required for safe foot travel.

BWCAW Permits

Advance reservations are not needed from October 1 through May 1, but you still need to get a self-serve permit for your winter trip. There is no charge for these and the permit forms are generally available at the larger entry points’ parking lots, or from the ranger stations listed at the link above.

Winter Camping Resources:


These two books are a good place to start:

  • AMC Guide to Winter Camping by Stephen Gorman(old and new equipment and techniques)
  • The Winter Wilderness Companion by Garrett and Alexandra Conover(traditional camping)

For further fun:

Winter Camping Equipment:

  • Steger Mukluks: mukluks, felt liners, choppers and anoraks. Located in Ely, MN
  • Piragis: all sorts of goodies, requires a visit in person as most winter stuff does not appear in catalog. They also rent canvas tents and wood stoves as well as snowshoes and skis. Located in Ely, MN
  • Duluth Pack Company: canvas goods, stoves, woolen clothing. Located in Duluth, MN
  • Four Dog Stove Company: portable stoves and accessories
  • North House Folk School: classes in making mukluks, mittens, anoraks, ice chisels, and toboggans. Located in Grand Marais, MN
  • Black River Sleds: plastic toboggans and runnered sleds
  • Empire Canvas Works: Traditional winter camping canvas tents, portable wood stoves, arctic style anoraks, true north mittens, outdoor clothing, toboggans packing systems, winter camping guidebooks. Handcrafted in the USA.
  • Wintergreen Designs: cold weather clothing. Located in Ely, MN
  • Tentsmiths: regular canvas and egyptian cotton tents
  • Kifaru Tipis: space age heated ultralight tipis, stoves and sleds
  • Filson: wool clothing that will outlast you
  • North House Folk School: offers class in making your own traditinal gear (snowshoes, cotton anoraks, mukluks, ice chisels, wood toboggans). Also puts on a “Winterer’s Gathering” in Grand Marais, MN.
  • Northwoods Ways: The Conovers’ guiding company, including the famous three week trek in northern Labrador.


© 2002 Sarah Ohmann