You know that your cold weather camping checklist is probably going to look a lot different than your summer camping checklist…
But how, exactly?
Honestly, it depends a lot on exactly when you’re going camping (early fall versus late spring) and where.
You can still enjoy summer-like weather, but not always.
Even if the weather forecast is calling for hot and humid weather, it’s important to be prepared for the unexpected.
Ready to plan your spring or fall camping trip? Good!
Here’s a solid cold weather camping checklist to get you started…
Your sleep system
First things first: You’re going to need a three-season tent as well as a three-season sleeping bag.
Three-season tents are designed to hold up against shoulder season weather conditions, which can include everything from rain and snow to high winds.
As for sleeping bags, you’ll want one that’s rated to at least -5°C (23°F).
Make sure you know what your sleeping bag temperature rating is to ensure that you’ll stay warm when the temperature drops potentially below freezing overnight.
Tip: You can make an existing sleeping bag warmer by adding a sleeping bag liner to it, which is basically an extra layer of fabric (in the shape of a sleeping bag) you insert into it for extra insulation.
Some brands claim that their liners can increase the temperature rating of your sleeping bag by up to an extra 5°C (23°F).
If you haven’t already, you may also want to consider investing in an air mattress with an R-value of 3 to 4 for three-season weather (or 4.5 or higher if you plan on winter camping).
The R-value is a measure of how well a material resists heat flow—the higher the R-value, the better insulated your mattress will be.
Sleep system checklist
- Three-season tent
- Tent groundsheet
- Tent stakes
- Tarp and cordage
- Three-season sleeping bag (rated at least -5°C/23°F or lower)
- Sleeping bag liner (optional)
- Air mattress (with an R-value of 3 to 4+)
- Earplugs (optional)
- Eye mask (optional)
- Portable propane heater (optional)
When the seasons are in the process of transitioning from warm to cold or cold to warm, layers are best.
You’ll want to pack a base layer, an insulating mid-layer, and a waterproof outer layer.
The base layer is the layer that’s in direct contact with your skin.
It should be made of moisture-wicking fabric (like merino wool) that will keep you dry and comfortable even when you start to sweat.
The insulating mid-layer is designed to—you guessed it—trap heat and keep you warm.
This can be anything from a fleece jacket to a down vest, depending on how cold it’s going to be.
And finally, the waterproof outer layer will protect you from the elements, whether that means rain, snow, or wind.
This can be a rain jacket, snow pants, or both.
Don’t forget to pack a pair of comfortable hiking boots or shoes, as well as socks (preferably also made of merino wool) and underwear.
It’s also a good idea to bring along a hat, gloves, and a scarf—even if you don’t think you’ll need them, you’ll thank yourself during those chilly early mornings or late nights!
- At least 2 pairs of base layers (tops and bottoms)
- 1 to 2+ insulating mid-layers (fleece, down vest, sweater, insulating pants, etc.)
- 1 waterproof outer layer (rain jacket, rain pants, etc.)
- 1 pair of hiking boots or shoes
- 1 pair of “camp” shoes
- 2+ pairs of socks (preferably merino wool)
- 2+ pairs of underwear
- 1 hat (like a toque or beanie)
- 1 pair of gloves
- 1 scarf or buff
- 1 pair of cozy and warm clothing to sleep in (sweatpants, sweatshirt, etc.)
- 1+ short-sleeved top if warm weather is expected
- 1+ pair of shorts if warm weather is expected
- 1 pair of sunglasses
What do you sleep in when camping in the spring or fall?
If your sleeping bag is warm enough, you’ll most likely be fine sleeping in your base layer (top and bottom), some sweats (sweatpants and a sweatshirt), or potentially both if it’s cold enough.
If you tend to get cold feet, consider sleeping with at least one pair of merino wool socks on.
Your fire-starting kit
There’s nothing like sitting around a campfire at night, cooking good food, roasting marshmallows, and enjoying the crisp night air. But in order to do that, you need to be able to start a fire.
Be sure to pack a reliable fire starter like a couple of lighters, a box of matches, or a ferro rod if you know how to use one.
Since the spring and fall seasons can be rainy, expect the twigs, sticks, and wood to be wet.
You may also want to consider buying a bundle or two of dry wood and bringing it along if the weight and bulk isn’t going to be a problem.
If you plan on mainly using your fire for cooking purposes, consider making it easier on yourself by bringing along a canister stove or a twig stove like the Bushbox Titanium XL stove.
A canister stove is great for boiling water quickly whereas a twig stove gives you the effect of a campfire on a much smaller scale (and is also compatible with alcohol fuel).
- 2+ lighters
- 1+ box of matches
- Ferro rod (optional)
- Tinder and kindling (dryer lint, thin wood shavings, birch bark, fire starter bundles, etc.)
- 1 to 2+ bundles of dry wood (optional)
- Canister stove with fuel canister (optional)
- Twig stove with Trangia stove and alcohol fuel (optional)
- Hand saw
- Hatchet or axe
- Work gloves
Your cookware and food
When camping in the spring or fall you’ll want to focus on comfort foods that are hearty, easy to make, and full of warming spices.
But before you can enjoy a nice warm meal, you need to have the proper cookware and utensils.
At a minimum, you’ll want to bring along a pot or pan (preferably with a lid), a spatula or wooden spoon, some plates and bowls, and some eating utensils.
If you’re planning on doing any cooking over a campfire, you’ll also need a fireproof grill or grate to put your pot or pan on.
Extra items you might want to consider bringing include a cutting board, a fillet knife (if you plan on fishing), a long spoon for stirring, coffee or tea-related items, and a cast iron dutch oven for making hearty soups and stews.
Don’t forget to bring a cooler, dishwashing supplies, water filtration system, and garbage bags!
Cookware and food checklist
- Pot or pan (preferably with lid)
- Spatula and/or wooden spoon
- Set of eating utensils
- Water bottles
- Cutting board (optional)
- Cutting/carving knife (optional)
- Long spoon (optional)
- Cast iron dutch oven (optional)
- Garbage bags
- Aluminum foil
- Coffee and tea items (French press, mugs, thermos, etc.)
- Dishwashing kit (collapsable bowl/bin, sponge or cloth, and biodegradable soap)
- Water filtration system (gravity filter, pump filter, inline filter, water purification tablets/drops, etc.)
- Plenty of hearty dehydrated meals
- Plenty of healthy camping snacks
Additional camping items
Your cold weather checklist should include a range of other common camping items, one of which that’s especially important is your headlamp, flashlight, and extra batteries (or a portable charger) for them.
The sun sets earlier in the fall so you’ll need a light source for getting around camp after dark.
Another important item to bring is your bear hang.
Never assume that the bears have gone into hibernation just because the summer is over—many bears actually stay active well into fall (especially if the temperatures are quite mild).
Additional camping item checklist
- Bear hang
- Extra batteries
- Portable electronic charger and charging cords
- First aid kit
- Medications (ibuprofen, antihistamines, antacids, etc.)
- Personal hygiene items (toothbrush, toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, etc.)
- Toilet kit (toilet paper, trowel, hand sanitizer, etc.)
- Map and waterproof map case
- Satellite GPS messenger device
- Quick-drying towel
- Extra cordage
- Extra fuel
Personalize your cold weather camping checklist
This cold weather camping checklist items covers the basics, but you should consider the style of trip and the activities you plan on doing when finalizing your list.
For instance, we’re canoe campers, so we need to bring a lot of extra gear for staying safe on the water.
You may also want to consider bringing a favourite game, a journal to write in, a pair of binoculars, a good book to read, skewers for roasting marshmallows, and other items to help make your trip as enjoyable as possible.
The sky’s the limit when it comes to personalizing your cold weather camping checklist!
As important as it is to understand what to bring for your cold weather camping trip, it’s just as important to know what to leave behind.
The more prepared you are for cold weather, the more successful and enjoyable your trip will be.
So make sure to pack accordingly and don’t forget these essential items!
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Is camping in the spring good?
Spring is one of the best times to go camping because it’s right before peak season hits—when the summer vacation crowds move in and the bugs are at faull force.
Depending on what time of the season you go, you also get to witness nature coming back to life after a long winter’s rest.
You may notice buds on the trees, plants popping up from the earth, and flowers getting ready to bloom.
It can certainly be cold and rainy, but the days are much longer and if you’re lucky enough to get a few sunny days, you’ll get to feel the strength of the sun’s rays on your skin.
(Remember to wear sunscreen, of course!)
Mid-March to mid-April is probably going to be the coldest.
Here in Ontario, we still get winter weather during this time.
Depending on the weather, you can get snowstorms or late spring-like weather as high as 20°C (68°F).
Mid-April to mid-May is often still cold and wet with the potential for frost warnings and snow in northern areas, but the transition from winter to spring is more apparent.
This is the time when you start to see the first signs of plants and animals coming back to life.
Mid-May to early June is when nature bursts to life and most of the frost and snow is done for the season.
If you’re lucky, you can get summer-like temperatures during this time!
June is when the days are at their longest and the weather is really starting to warm up.
Peak season is just around the corner and black fly season is nearing its peak, but if you can tolerate the bugs, this is a great time to be out before the crowds take over!
Is camping in the fall good?
In our experience, fall is another one of the best times to go camping!
The weather is generally more mild, campgrounds and parks are far less crowded, and the fall foliage is absolutely stunning.
Oh, and best of all—the mosquitos, black flies, deer flies, and horseflies are mostly done for the season!
That means you can forget the bug protection and rest easy knowing you won’t be eaten alive.
The days may be shorter and swimming may be out of the question, but fall camping has so many other things going for it.
You get to experience nature in a way that simply isn’t possible during the summer months, and warming up by the fire at night is is simply magical.
Late September to mid-October is your best bet for catching those final days of summer-like weather.
You may be able to get away with lighter gear, but always err on the side of caution and pack for colder weather—you never know when a cold front will move in.
Mid-October to early November is typically when fall transitions into winter.
In most parts of the Canada and northerly parts of the U.S., that means snow!
Is November too cold for camping?
That depends on where you’re camping, what temperatures and weather conditions you’re willing to withstand, and how well your gear stacks up in cold weather (and against the elements).
December is generally too cold (and dark!) for most people, but some winter campers will venture out even then.
How do you stay warm camping in the spring and fall?
Staying warm in the spring or fall depends a lot on the quality of your camping gear and your clothing.
You also need to understand how to properly use what you have—whether that means knowing what clothing materials are best for cold weather or how to set up your campsite in a way that will maximize your warmth.
The way you use your energy also plays a big role in how warm you’ll stay.
If you’re constantly moving around, you’ll naturally generate more body heat, but if you’re sitting still or sleeping, your body will lose heat much faster.
Understanding this will help you know when to layer up or layer down depending on the activity you’re doing.
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).