I’ve been hiking and camping through the weird and wild winters of New England since I was a kid. In fact, one of my favorite stories to tell is about the time I woke up on the Appalachian Trail with the top of my tent on my chest; buried under ten inches of freshly fallen snow. I realize that to some people that sounds like a drag, but the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people who work, play, and live in the outdoor world during the frozen months that would get a kick out of being in a situation like that one. True, winter is the most demanding of all the seasons and it needs to be taken seriously. It requires a different physical and mental approach when compared to other times of the year – but the experiences it yields can be some of the most rewarding.
That being said, I decided to capture my passion for living off the grid during the frozen months with one of my closest friends. We headed to our cabin in the Green Mountain National Forest of southern Vermont, which is 13 miles from the nearest cell signal and doesn’t include the mile walk in from the road. We brought with us clothing and gear that we had been using for years and paired it with new stuff we had been asked to test out in the real world. For two nights and three days we lived through record low temperatures (-23°F / -30°C), snow and ice, and had some seriously good laughs – all without electricity, running water, or a proper outhouse. But don’t think we were just a couple of guys holed up in a cabin playing Cribbage for 72 hours. We were out there in the wild from sun up to sunset doing our best not to become human popsicles.
As far as I’m concerned, this article serves as a gear guide to the best of the best for living and playing in and around a cabin in the dead of winter. The clothing and gear that follows was tested to the highest degree by forgoing any sort of preset parameters and favor of using it in real life situations essentially to survival. In the end, I am confident in saying that this stuff is a prime sampling of the top-notch gear that is available from the outdoor industry today.
The key to enjoying life in the outdoors in the colder months is staying warm, staying dry, and making sure you don’t impact your mobility too much with bulky layers. There have been a lot of advancements in fabric technology in the recent years, but it’s important to note that some of the old stuff is still viable too. I’ll be honest, I wear a lot of cotton – very little Gore-Tex – and I love Merino Wool.
In my experience, thin and moisture wicking is the way to go – and thankfully; that seems to be the way the industry is going as well.
Top: Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Color Block Hoody
Form fitting and thin equals effective, and the Patagonia NTS Mid 250 is just that. This base layer is great in cool or cold weather and it has the added benefit of a hood too. The body loses most of its heat through your extremities; and your head is an extremity – so this is a nice added bonus.
Bottom: Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Boot-Length Bottoms
Made from Polartec Power Grid fabric, the Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Boot-Length Bottoms are soft and effective: having the ability to keep you warm, dry and comfortable without adding too much bulk. The boot length is a personal preference – as the cuff sits above the top of your boots allowing for more movement without feeling like you’re pulling your pants down.
MID & OUTER LAYERS:
Your Mid & Outer layers need to be durable, resistant to water – at a minimum – and ultimately need to allow you to move freely. Since we were living and working out of a rustic cabin most of the time, we needed clothes we could work in – so the following is going to be a little different than the standard “winter fare.”
Filson Mackinaw Vest
A good wool vest, like the Filson Mackinaw, does two things: it keeps your core insulated and is naturally water-repellant. This particular vest is ultra-durable and has a multitude of pockets which makes it functional. I can wear this vest with a baselayer and be warm in a windy snowstorm as long as I’m moving. Additionally, you look like a stud wearing it at the local watering hole.
Carhartt Sandstone Waist Overall – Quilt Lined
After selling the Carhartt Quilt Lined Sandstone Waist Overall for years to folks who work outdoors in the winter, I realized they were on to something. Not only are they warm and abrasion resistant, but they wear like a regular pair of pants. I would recommend DWRing yours for an extra barrier of protection though.
Heat leaves from our extremities first – hands, feet, and head. So, it’s super important to keep yourself warm when you’re out in the wild for a day (or night). Here are a couple of key elements that have acted as an extra barrier between myself and the deep freeze.
Superfeet merinoGrey Insoles
Even with insulated boots, heat can escape through the soles: especially when you’re walking through the white stuff. Superfeet merinoGrey adds an extra barrier of comfort, wicks moisture, and can regulate temperature. Additionally, they’re so durable that they’ll probably outlast your boots!
Outdoor Research Yukon Cap
If you’re going to gear up to stay warm, you might as well do it with a little style, and the OR Yukon Cap provides just that. Made from an exterior of blended wool and a fleece liner, the Yukon Cap looks just like the cap your grandfather used to use to chop wood – ear flaps and all.
Flylow Tough Guy Glove
Flylow Tough Guy Gloves are waterproof, durable, and cheap – which is something we hardly find in the outdoor industry. Designed like a leatherwork glove, and triple baked with SnoSeal, the Tough Guy has a broken-in feel and doesn’t adversely impact your finger dexterity.
OUT ON WALKABOUT: GEAR FOR GETTING AROUND
When the trails are covered in ice and snow you need the right equipment to help you get around and get you through the day. Furthermore, because your body uses more energy in these conditions, you need to keep your engine up and running – so proper food and water storage is paramount.
Shallow Snow and Ice: Hillsound Equipment FreeStep6
Great for superior traction on packed snow and ice, the Hillsound Equipment FreeStep6 is like a set of tire chains for your feet. They feature a rubberized frame which sits higher over the toe and back of the boot than most of the competition, allowing them to stay in place.
Deep Snow: MSR Revo Explore Snowshoes
Built for those times when you may not always have the luxury of walking on a marked trail, the MSR Revo Explore snowshoes are rugged, lightweight, durable and will perform exceptionally wherever you walk with them. Their single-hand bindings are like something out of the future, and the Ergo Televators take the burn out of your calves when making ascents.
Brooks-Range Mountaineering Compact EXT Sharktooth Shovel
A pack shovel can be useful for everything from making your way through a blocked cabin door to instrumental in building an emergency shelter for the night. The Brooks-Range Compact EXT Sharktooth shovel weighs in at 28oz. and is made from durable 6061 T6 Aluminum. It telescopes to a back-saving 40”, and has a toothed edge that allows you to cut through packed snow and ice with ease.
Hults Bruk Jonaker
A good hatchet can be a great friend on the trail in winter – especially if you stop to make a fire. With a 1lb head and an overall length of 9 ½”, the Hults Bruk Jonaker is a mighty mite on the trail. It is head-heavy allowing you to swing through small branches and kindling, but does a fine job on large diameter branches and logs too. Despite its overall size, at 1 ½ lbs, the Jonaker can easily store on your belt or in your pack.
Agawa Canyon Boreal 21
I recommend a good saw for cutting up large timber on a trail and the Agawa Canyon Boreal 21 is just the ticket. Compact by design, and coming in at just over 1lb, the Boreal 21 can process logs up to 6” in diameter in half the time an axe could – while using less energy as well! If you’re not sold on it yet, the Agawa Canyon offers different blades for different tasks from taking down green wood to quartering fresh game.
When you step away from the cabin for a day, you don’t need a large pack to weight you down – but you do need something to carry your essentials. The Mountainsmith Day, coming in just shy of 900 cubic inches is large enough to carry everything you need, and, by design offers a multitude of lashing points that allow you to expand the possibilities. Tip: Add on a pair of Mountainsmith Strapettes if you plan on carrying a heavier load.
Stanley Adventure Vacuum Food Jar, 18oz.
To keep a hearty meal warm and at the ready on the go, I recommend the 18oz. Stanley Adventure Vaccum Food Jar. I fill mine with steel cut oats, granola, chocolate chips, and warm almond milk and stash it in a water bottle pocket until it’s time for me to refuel. Its insulation will keep contents warm for up to 12 hours – and it comes with its own spoon!
Klean Kanteen 64oz Vacuum Insulated Classic
Keeping your water from freezing can be a real bear, so I look to the Klean Kanteen 64oz Vacuum Insulated Classic as it has the ability to keep your water in liquid form for up to 24 hours. Large and in charge, this mammoth will still fit in the water bottle pocket of the Mountainsmith Day – or you can store it in the bottom of your pack.
BACK AT THE HOMESTEAD: GEAR THAT MAKES ANY PLACE HOME
Life in the cabin is all about rest and relaxation and to achieve those two things you need to stay warm and conformable. Additionally, because of your luxury lodging, you’ll have the ability to cook up a solid meal that doesn’t come out of a foil bag. Take advantage of the situation to put on your chef’s hat and get your fill of food and drink.
Light & Power
You’d be surprised how devoid of light and sound the woods can be in during the winter. It’s so cold and quiet in fact that not even the mice are moving around in the rafters. We relied on a Goal Zero Yeti 400 for our main power source, but here are a few items of interest that can keep you from stumbling out into the cold when nature calls at 3am.
UCO Original Candle Lantern
I’ve used this brass UCO Original Candle Lantern since I was 15 years old as a personal light on my “remote nightstand” – and in the past 20 years it’s never failed me once. What’s nice is that no matter how cold it gets it isn’t affected the same way as a battery or gas powered lantern. If you need to fill up larger area with light, check out UCO’s Candlelier.
Princeton Tec Helix Rechargeable Lantern
Small enough to fit in your pocket and bright enough to light up a 20×30 room, the Princeton Tec Helix Rechargeable Lantern is a godsend in conditions like these. Though it runs on batteries, the cold didn’t affect them as much as the gas in the lanterns, but because it was so cold we didn’t get a full 22 hour charge. Neat feature: the rubber “globe” glows in the dark so you can find it in the dead of night.
Flint & Steel Kit #8.1
This kit came in the day before we left and it ended up being a lifesaver. Built off of a centuries old design, the Flint & Steel 8.1 kit comes with flint, steel, charcloth, and jute rope; everything you need to get a fire going in almost any condition. Don’t let this antiquated process fool you – it’s a lot easier to start a fire with it than you might think.
FOOD & DRINK
Besides some comfortable accommodations, the right food and drink combo can help ease you into a dream-filled night. I won’t go as far as tell you what to eat, but I will say the more complex the better. Be sure to get in your carbs, calories, and protein but save your sugar intake for the drinking portion.
Yeti Tundra 75 Cooler
Some people think you can just throw your food out in the snow to keep it cold – but the reality is that it will freeze (or get eaten) so you need a solid cooler to moderate the temperature. I’ve yet to find one that is more durable and effective at keeping food cold (and safe) as a Yeti. The beauty of the Tundra 75 is that, even though it’s large, it can be carried by one or two people, even when completely full. It is also the ONLY cooler you need because it holds enough food and drink for two burley dudes for three days.
Coleman Gladiator Series 3-in-1 Fyrechampion Stove
Though it’s relatively lightweight, the Coleman Fyrechampion Stove is a big powerful beast designed to cook a meal for an army of gladiators. Featuring two burners that can pump out 12,000 BTU’s a piece, the Fyrechampion has 162 sq. in of cooking space which COULD accommodate two lobster pots side by side. It even comes with two griddles that fit over the burners and are capable of cooking up to four burgers at a time – EACH! No wonder the Fyrechamion is the official stove of the National Park Foundation.
Stanley Adventure 3 Quart Vacuum Crock
If you like to get an early start to your day, cook up something the night before and store it in the Stanley Adventure 3 Quart Vacuum Crock. With the ability to keep food warm for up to 12 hours, you can rest assured that your oats or eggs will be nice and warm for you when you wake up.
Even with a full belly and the wood stove blazing, it can still be a challenge to “settle in for the night.” There’s no better remedy for a situation like this than a good dank and dark beer or a glass of bourbon whiskey.
Wolaver’s Alta Gracia Porter is thick and rich and tastes like a chocolate and coffee bomb went off in your mouth. To moderate its temperature, I like to sip at it from the Stanley 24oz. Classic Vacuum Stein.
The right whiskey needs the right vessel, and the Yeti 10oz Rambler Lowball is perfect for the smooth and spicy flavor of Wymoing Whiskey’s Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey. Drink it straight or mixed up with some Ginger Ale and snow to make yourself an adult slurry.
Sleep is a quintessential ingredient to your effectiveness and survival when you’re living off the grid – especially in the cold months when you require more energy to do even simple things. Sleep allows you to rest your muscles, bones, and mind – and can stave off illness. The nice thing about cabin life is that you don’t have to worry about how much your gear weighs (except for that initial hump into camp) – so why not go all out and sleep like a king or queen? Layer it up – bring in the softest and most insulating stuff you can find, and by all means STAY OFF THE GROUND!
Slumberjack Big Cot
Slumberjack’s Big Cot represents a departure from the form fitting and uncomfortable cots we all grew up using at camp and weird overnights in elementary school. The Big Cot is not only long, wide, and high, but it’s also insanely comfortable. Unlike cots of old, the fabric is drawn tight enough so it holds you, but not enough so when you move you bounce off of it like a trampoline. Also, coming in at 18” off the ground allows you to store gear underneath in tight quarters.
Slumberjack Country Squire 0 Sleeping Bag
If you’re in a dwelling that can get cold and condensation can form, you want to stay away from top layers with a nylon shell as they will get cold and wet – and that’s why the Country Squire 0 from Slumberjack makes a great fit. With a cotton fabric shelf the Country Squire is thick and heavy and can be used as a standard rectangular bag or unzipped and wrapped around you for a little extra cuddling. What’s more? You can zip two of these beauties together for those “wild nights.”
Selk’bag 5G Sleeping… Bag?
A form fitting sleeping bag that fits and functions like a union suit? GOLD, JERRY, GOLD! Not only does the Selk’bag 5G allow you to move freely – while completely covering your body – but it’s rated down to 37°F which makes it a great spring and fall bag on its own, or a very high level sleeping bag liner in the frozen months.
So there you have it folks – a collection of clothing, gear, and spirits that have been tested the best way we know how: in real life and in some pretty unsavory conditions. As I said before, some of it was stuff we had come to rely on from previous adventures and some of it was brand new to us. Bottomline, if any of it failed – old or new – we could have been in a real jam, so we’re thankful it didn’t. Additionally, that weekend was the coldest weekend on record for the year – so if this stuff was going to fail; it would have.
In the end we made it through with very little complication or complaint. We woke up with the sun and hit the trail for some hiking, exploring, and living like we would on any other occasion. When the sun started to set we headed back to the cabin and took it all in, preparing massive meals while reflecting on the day. Based on this experience and a myriad of others that I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, I would recommend that you simply get out there and put yourself into a situation that requires you to work for everything as this one did. You have to map out your day ahead of time knowing that the terrain is blanketed in snow. You need to know what’s worth expending your energy on. Camping – indoors or outdoors in weather like this requires a lot of preparation. In the end, this whole thing was so much bigger than a bunch of clothing and gear tests – it was a test of our physical and mental ability to endure, which we did.
This was a massive undertaking so, aside from the companies who helped make this possible, I’d like to thank three of the greatest people I know:
Molly LeFort – for letting random rooms in our house be filled with gear. I love you, Mama Pajama!
Nick Wolf – for “toughing” it out with me in that cabin. Dig. Squat. Bury. Goonies Never Say “Die”!
Nate Teodoro – for letting me bounce ideas around and for leaving parts of busted stuff in my driveway.