The most important gear in your winter camping kit may well be your sleep system: sleeping bag, liner and pad. If your sleep system can’t handle the temperatures in which you’re camping, you will be miserable. Worse, you could actually put yourself at risk for hypothermia.
The first thing you’ll need to do is determine what your lowest limit for winter camping is. Are you willing to camp in weather below 30 degrees? Below 15? Once you have your answer, choose a sleeping bag that is rated well below your threshold temperature and test it out at home (sit outside in it) before taking it camping. Bag manufacturers tend to be a little optimistic with their ratings, so if you use a bag rated for 20 degree weather in 20 degree weather, you may find yourself shivering in your sleep. A bag filled with down is going to be lighter, more packable, and likely warmer than a bag with a synthetic fill. Look for something like the Inferno, from The North Face, which, with its 15 degree Fahrenheit rating, makes it a good bag for winter camping in temperatures around 20 degrees or higher. If you plan on camping in even colder weather, look for a bag that’s rated for even lower temperatures.
Choosing the right liner can make a huge difference in your winter camping experience. By adding an extra layer to the inside of your sleeping bag, a liner can boost your bag’s internal temperature by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit when you’re inside it. Sea to Summit’s Thermolite Reactor Extreme bag liner, for example, boasts a 25 degree temperature bump.
Finally, an insulated sleeping pad will make sure that all your warmth doesn’t leech out through the floor of your tent. The insulating qualities of a sleeping pad are described as its “R value.” An average pad has an R value that falls between two and five. For colder temperatures, you’ll want a pad that has an R value of at least five, and for winter camping, you probably want something even higher.
The Exped Sim Comfort, with an R value of 8.1, is a good example of an inflatable pad that can be used in colder temperatures.