I'll start off by saying that, although I do all my hiking east of the Mississippi and have done a fair amount of winter camping with Scout troops, little of my experience has been in the mountains, and none has been in the mountains when there was significant snow or temperatures below 20 degrees.
Accordingly, I'd only have a couple of general comments.
First, I would think you should avoid canister stoves; after one cold-weather experience with a canister stove, I now choose a white gas stove when the temperatures dip below freezing. Others have told me their canister stoves work fine into the mid-teens, and I have no reason to doubt them. My only experience with a canister stove in cold was with a Jetboil PCS, when the temperature was about 20; I had to hold the canister in my hands to get it to work well. (The Jetboil's pot locks onto the stove, which makes this feasible; I wouldn't try it otherwise.) A friend told me he got his Jetboil to work at 10 degrees by heating a cup of water with the feeble little flame, then setting the canister in the cup; at that point the canister warmed enough to function at near-normal levels.
Another general comment would be to make sure that, in addition to a reliable, accurately-rated sleeping bag, be sure to take enough sleeping pad to adequately insulate you from the ground. Around here (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana flatlands), my Prolite Plus pad has always been enough. I did have problems with a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core pad letting a chill through at 25 degrees; others have reported similar issues with NeoAir pads at even higher temperatures. Many winter campers will take along a closed-cell foam pad to place under or over (opinions vary) their regular pad to boost its insulating ability. (Such a pad is also handy to sit on at lunch or in camp.)
Don't fill your water bottles completely full. That way, if they freeze, they won't burst. Also, store them upside down in the tent; if they don't freeze solid, the water won't be blocking the mouth of the bottle. Also, try to insulate the bottle if you can: put it inside your sleeping bag, or consider using an insulated container (I think OR and Granite Gear both make them, or you can make one out of an old closed-cell foam pad.) Others can tell you what effect the cold has on filters; I don't have much experience below freezing, so can't comment intelligently.
"Warm enough" clothes and footwear are a given; I don't have the experience to presume to tell you what you'll need in the eastern mountains - others will have that knowledge. I would recommend that you take one or two more pairs of socks than you normally would; cold, wet feet are both horrible and dangerous.
Finally, I'd recommend that you build a safety margin into your gear kit. For me, in the flatlands, it works like this: My sleeping bag is rated to 20 degrees (conservatively, since it's a Western Mountaineering bag.) So, that's the coldest predicted lows I'll go out into. However, I'll also have down booties, down pants, hooded down sweater-jacket and down mittens to wear over my midweight wool longjohns, plus I can put on my rain suit, balaclava, stocking cap, and liner gloves if I need to. My sleeping bag has enough room in it that I can wear those garments inside the bag without compressing any insulation. So, if the lows unexpectedly drop below the projected 20 I'm planning for, I figure I'm OK to around 10 or maybe even 5 - which means a 10 or 15 degree safety margin.
As I said, this is intended as very general advice, a starting place from someone with limited experience in the conditions you describe. There are many others here who can give you much more well-informed and specific advice.
Loc: Milwaukie, Oregon USA
I agree with the information Glenn provided. If you expect there is a chance of temperatures being around 0 F I would recommend a bag rated for -20 F. If you are a cold sleeper like me, you can sleep with more of your clothes on. I was recently on a trip where it was 4 F and I was plenty warm in my -20 F bag.
Always where clothes in layers and keep in mind moisture control (sweat is your enemy). If there is a possibility of wet conditions then stick to synthetics and wool. Wool insulates when wet.
Another tip for water is to bury your water bottles upside down in the snow. Snow is a fantastic insulator and will keep your water mostly liquid. Tie a lanyard to the bottles to make finding them easier.
If it's not work I love it! Browse my adventures.
Loc: Milwaukie, Oregon USA
What type of tent do you have?
It depends on several factors. First involves snow load. If you are camping between storm events then your 3 season tent may work fine. Second is wind. If your trips are in areas without high winds your 3 season tent may work fine. I have used 3 season tents for winter camping on numerous occasions, but the conditions were ideal. I have also slept in tarp lean-tos during light snow storms and heavy rains staying comfortable in both conditions.
If it's not work I love it! Browse my adventures.
I just talked to my buddy - he was in the snowstorm that hit Grayson Highlands/Mount Rogers last weekend - bailed a day early (worried the roads might be impassable if he waited) - he took his three-season Hubba HP and said he had absolutely no problem with it. The snow started the first day, never stopped until he left two days later, when it was knee deep, so I think he had to deal with snow load. The tent walls are pretty steep, which may have helped keep it from building up too badly. Of course, MSR just discontinued offering the HP series in the US>
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
A good guide to winter camping is Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book (Amazon and other fine booksellers). About half the book is about camping, so don't be put off by the title.
Also, there are many online sites dedicated to winter camping. Use a search engine to find them.
The dividing line for me is snow/no snow. Snow camping requires a different skill set than non-snow camping and some different gear. For example, I do not go snow camping without a shovel-mine is a Voile Mini, but there is one by Lifeline for sale on Amazon and much cheaper than mine-Loomis has that one.
Also, unless you are on hardpacked trails or roads, take skis or snowshoes. I've used both. Snowshoes are easier to learn on-if you can walk, you can snowshoe.
Tent- a three season tent will work unless, as already mentioned, you are in heavy snowfall, where a three season tent might be fine, depending on the design, but in the wild is no place to find out it won't.
Bag and pads-I have a bag, overbag because my bag isn't a deep winter bag and I also have a BD Winter Bivy to keep my bag dry.
Stove-I have several. My Primus Micron canister stove will work down to about 15F at 7200 ft. Both altitude and temperature are factors that affect canister stoves. White gas will be more dependable, the exception being a Coleman Xtreme which uses a different canister design. That stove is no longer made and canisters aren't easy to find, but you may meet someone who has one.
If you look back through the winter camping forum. you may find some gear lists, but mine for example is for the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite in particular.
btw, you really don't need a parka like I am wearing in my photo with the big hood on it. That one is an earlier version of the warmest parka North Face makes.
Edited by TomD (01/13/1109:05 PM)
Don't get me started, you know how I get.
I friend of mine actually had a tent ripped apart in storm on top of the Smokies. He estimated the wind to be about 70 mile an hour. It can also snow as much a 3ft like it did last year. Study the forecast and study it some more and remember the wind is always much higher on mountains of that size. I've been on Mt. Cheaha at only 2400ft here in Alabama and saw winds at nearly 50.
As many have mentioned the tent choice really depends largely on two factors. 1) possible snow load and 2) exposure.
Outside of *Serious* wet snow dumps, a decent three season tent will be adequate - particularly if you don't mind knocking some snow off it at night.
Where you get into problems is heavy snow dumps in exposed sites. if you can always camp in a relatively sheltered location, you'll be fine. if you end up having to camp in an exposed location with no trees, then you need something like a more serious four season tent.
I find personally I make that decision based upon how *exposed* my campsite will be - as I know if the weather gets awful the tent will take a full force beating. Decide based upon your campsite locations and weather.
As for stove, if you are down to 0f - in such temperatures I typically only take a white gas stove. I am often melting snow for water, so I use a lot of fuel, and it's easier to carry that much in white gas than in canisters or other stuff. white gas also works waaaay better in cold than anything else. (I *DON'T* use white gas any other time of year) - the MSR whisperlight is probably the quintessential stove for this (and is still what I take in large groups) - if you have an old svea 123 and know how to get it going on the cold it's also a good choice.
as mentioned you will want more than one sleeping pad - many of us (including myself) use a blowup mattress like a big agnes air core which is then topped with a piece of closed cell foam (and if really cold sandwitched between two!) I use a ba aircore with a topper and bottomer of blue foam from wal-mart.
If you have a good winter rated bag, that's great, however if what you have is a three season backpacking bag, do not discount the possibility of taking *two* bags, just make sure the second one is big enough to fit over the outer one without compressing it. I do this (to this day) with a cheap rectangular synthetic bag from wal-mart, which goes over my good three season down bag in cold weather.
make sure you have enough water stored at night before going to bed to have breakfast and drinks in the morning, and bury your water in the snow to keep it from freezing. The other good thing to do with this is take at least one sturdy lexan bottle, warm up water at night and put it as a hot water bottle in the foot of your sleeping bag - will keep you warm and be liquid in the morning. this is one of the reasons I keep the old-scool heavy plastic lexan bottles around - I trust them to do this and not leak (I wouldn't do it with something wimpy like a pop bottle)