On the first night of a particularly memorable winter camping trip at Itasca State Park, my family and I saw no signs of other humans. All we heard were wolves howling in the distance. Stargazing was ideal with the early sunset, minimal light pollution, and the ease of slithering out of the tent in a warm bag to look at the sky. Another highlight? There was plenty of snow for skiing and hiking in the moonlight before dinner.
Born and raised in a mild-weathered big city, I never dreamed I would end up embracing nature and winter as much as I do today. Before moving to Minnesota from Buenos Aires, I knew two things about the state: it was the land of Prince and it was cold. In fact, Minnesota winters sounded so cold that my Argentine friends were concerned that my earlobes would fall off.
Once I made the move, I learned that I could either complain about the freezing temperatures or embrace them. I chose the latter, and winter camping quickly became one of my favorite seasonal activities.
Groomed cross-country ski trails and plenty of land to explore on snowshoes make Itasca State Park my preferred destination for tenting in the cold. Over the years, my husband, two girls, and I have made multiple winter visits to the headwaters of the Mississippi. It’s a magical experience every time. Imagine skiing from your camp to this iconic monument and having the place all to yourself. Picture a frozen Lake Itasca (Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan, “Elk Lake” in Ojibwe) dotted with fishing rigs, the Mississippi River flowing beneath the ice.
We usually spend all day out exploring and get back to camp for dinner just after dark. Brats, potatoes, and grilled apples are our go-to staple meal. After all, keeping the calories up is a must while winter camping.
Winter Camping Packing List
- Four-season tent or winter tent with a stove
- Winter sleeping bags. We use bags rated for -20 degrees.
- Insulated sleeping pads and foam pads
- High BTU stove for cooking, and ISO butane fuel formulated for cold temps
- Synthetics or wool clothing only—no cotton!
- Lots of high-calorie food, plus freeze-dried food for backup
- Water is typically shut down at campgrounds, so bring enough for the duration or make sure you have a reliable water source.
What to do at Itasca State Park in the winter
- Cross-country skiing
- Snowmobiling (trails inside and outside the park)
- Ice fishing
- Fat biking
- Carry a headlamp, water, food, and a space blanket for day expeditions.
- When temps are below freezing, things stay dry and you’ll be warmer with the right gear than when it’s just above freezing. Down gear is no good when wet.
- Until you’ve tested your gear in a safe environment, don’t try camping when it’s below zero.
- Electronics fail quickly when it’s cold. I like to bring a battery charger and not rely on phones for navigation.
- Make sure you have a way to start your car if it does get too cold, or have a backup vehicle.
- When planning your trip, visit the Itasca State Park webpage for up-to-date information about the park and its amenities.