On Winter Camping
Whenever I tell someone I’m going winter camping they usually tell me I’m crazy. Ether that, or they ask me just what can be fun about sitting out in freezing cold weather. A common question is, “just what do you DO all day?” To the uninitiated, the concept of going camping in the wintertime conjures up images of sitting, huddled up and shivering, while snot freezes in an icicle on the end of one’s nose. However, by the time you finish reading this little introduction I am certain that even if you don’t rush our and purchase a load of winter camping gear you will still think it sounds like a great thing to do.
First of all, the main premise of my winter camping has always been that I love being out of doors and that camping makes it possible to be out 24 hours a day. The camping is not an end in itself; it is merely the vehicle that allows us to enjoy being outside. The next thing to understand, is that when we winter camp we are just about never cold. I dislike being cold just as much as the next person and so I plan my winter camping activities to prevent that from happening. So, keep in mind two things: never cold and enjoying the great outdoors.
So, where does the heat come from?
After 30 years of winter camping I am only aware of two heat sources: fire and metabolism. In a way these two are really the same i.e. the release of stored chemical energy in the form of heat. When one is moving about, snow shoeing through sparkling powder snow or carrying nice dry maple logs for the evening fire one’s metabolism is kicking out more than enough heat to keep warm in even the severest cold snap. So much so in fact, that we have to be careful not to break out in a sweat and dampen our clothing. Then, when you stop moving, all that wonderful heat production slows to a stop. Before long you feel a chill as your heat loss surpasses your heat production. Quite simply, you have begun freezing to death.
Ideally, as you enter the initial phase of death by freezing you are standing next to a reassuring pile of birch bark and dried twigs with a match in your hand. Next to you there is a pile of kindling and a much bigger pile of dry logs that you just spent the past hour or so sawing and hauling into camp. The fire you are about to build will release massive amounts of stored chemical energy. Most will be given off to the surrounding air space but a tiny fraction of it will shift the heat production and loss equation back in your favour. You are now smug in the knowledge that you will keep on living as the fire begins to kick out serious heat.
After an evening of pleasant conversation and plenty of good food, perhaps a belt of scotch or three it is time to leave the fire’s life-sustaining circle of radiant energy and go to sleep. Obviously, if you were to simply lie down in the snow at minus 30 you would shift the heat equation disastrously in the grim reaper’s favour. Instead, you will crawl into an expensive down sleeping bag whose insulating properties will shift the equation such that heat loss is reduced to low enough levels to maintain all bodily systems. At this juncture you are either quite satisfied with your expensive purchase or you deeply regret saving 50 bucks by getting the cheaper but lesser rated bag. And there you have it -while winter camping you have of 3 ways of staying warm: 1. move, 2. sit by fire, or 3. get in sleeping bag.
Now that the question of keeping warm has been dealt with the next question is what do you DO all day? Let me present you with a typical day in the life of my winter camping buddy, Dave and myself.
Near dawn: Wake-up time, bladder’s full. I unzip my bag, sit up and put a down parka over my thick fleece shirt. Then I stand up outside of the tent or the makeshift lean-to we constructed and put on thick felt liners. Depending on the bladder situation I either relieve myself right away or start a fire. Let’s say that I managed my fluids perfectly and my bladder can wait. I walk over to the fire pit and stir the ashes, which exposes some live coals. Over the coals I put birch bark, small twigs and dead conifer branches that spent the previous night under a nylon tarp in case of snow. Down on hands and knees I blow life into the coals. Usually, within seconds I have a 5-foot wall of deliciously warm flames going, beside which I get dressed before taking care of the full bladder.
Breakfast: Remember, we are out there to enjoy nature so breakfast is spent in leisurely repose as we admire the surrounding forest and watch the boreal chickadees and nuthatches as our day begins to unfold. We like to rake fresh hot coals out from the main fire and lay a grill overtop. Water is boiled for coffee while sausages and extra thick bacon sizzles and spits. At this time the map is brought out and the day’s wanderings are planned.
This is what a typical planning session sounds like:
Me: “How about taking yesterday’s trail as far this valley and then following a bearing of 140 until we can see these cliffs. From there we can go over the top of this hill, drop down to the marsh that shows on the map here and pick up the drainage to the lake. At the west end of the lake we have a mile of bushwhacking and we’re back at our beaver pond with plenty of time to get wood.” Dave: “Sounds like a plan.”
On the trail: With pockets stuffed with food a-plenty and a map and compass we spend at least 6 hours wandering through beautiful and inspiring country. We are always amazed at how much incredibly varied terrain can fit within such a small area as viewed on the map. For us these hours are the most fulfilling and significant part of the entire trip.
Back at camp: There is work to be done. Depending on how cold it is we spend an hour or two cutting firewood and carrying it into camp. We usually put some creamy soup onto the coals that are still alive from the morning fire and this soup cooks and thickens as we do our lumberjack routine. By the time we are all set with enough wood for an evening’s fire darkness is stealing rapidly over the land. Black spruce and white pines are silhouetted against the dark blue sky. The fire is rejuvenated and we sit back against the snow bank that surrounds our living area and greedily consume a pot of hot soup before clinking our scotch filled metal cups together in a salute to an unforgettable day spent in winter paradise.
The fire: The fire is fed from the large pile of 4- foot long logs. We usually lay about 6 logs in an open vee configuration not unlike the prow of a barge and continuously fill the inner space with firewood. The backlogs that constitute the vee become a wall of flame that throws a wide radius of heat and light. This allows us to sit barefoot as the meat cooks. After we have eaten our ration of one pound of steak or lamb chops each we usually stroll down to the water hole we chopped previously and fill up.
Water: It is very important to gauge one’s water intake. The fine line between waking up at 2am with either a raging thirst or an unavoidable need to pee seems to be very fine. The basic rule of thumb that works for us is to drink some water during the evening but much less than we think we really need.
Turning in: You’ll know when it’s time to hit the hay. Whatever clothing you don’t wear to bed or use as a pillow can serve as insulation if you place it underneath yourself. The large quantities of meat you feasted on while reclining before the roaring blaze will help warm you and your frigid sleeping bag. Digestion of protein is a heat releasing chemical reaction.
This cycle of wake-eat-explore-cut wood-eat-sleep can go on for as long as one wishes or until one’s food supply runs out.
Needless to say there is more to successful (i.e., enjoyable) winter camping than presented above. For those all-important tricks and tips there is no shortage of how-to books available. What I have presented here are the methods my partner and I evolved through trial and error while winter camping in Canada. Our only goals were to achieve maximum comfort and pleasure while minimizing discomfort and suffering.
Forty degrees below zero and gear considerations.
Global warming notwithstanding it is a distinct possibility that today’s winter camper may encounter cold as severe as negative forty, that mythical meeting place between Celsius and Fahrenheit. It so happens that my winter camping partner, Dave, and I became experts at camping out in these temperatures. One might want to enquire into the sanity of engaging in such an endeavor but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this essay. The happy truth is that camping at negative forty can be a lot of fun. As I like to explain to my friends, it’s a lot like regular camping only colder and with no bugs.
Sleeping bag: no doubt about it, you need a serious, high-end, expensive, state of the art etc. etc. sleeping bag. This is not a piece of gear to try and save a few bucks on, trust me on that.
Sleeping pad: carry a Thermarest or see “shelter” below.
Heat: all you really need here is a good buck saw, not the type they sell at camping stores which are too small, but a nice 24-30 inch saw that is sold at stores that also carry cement mixers, sledge hammers and electric garage door openers. Just to play it safe you should carry a spare blade and whatever tools are required to change it.
Shelter: this is debatable but my partner and I quit carrying a tent, years ago. In remote Canadian wilderness we cut saplings and make a lean-to that we fill with balsam boughs for bedding. In higher-use areas this of course is unthinkable. In our case we prefer the lean-to because at minus forty, the lining of any tent is going to become so thick with frost that the slightest tremor will set off a snow shower that will land all over your precious bag and on your face.
Locomotion: snowshoes permit multiple layers of socks and warm footwear more readily than cross-country skis and boots. Of course, double plastic ski boots with warm inner booties will keep your feet warm but we have always settled on lighter and less expensive footwear.
Food: we have always relied on the simple equation of (1) x (x) x (y)= pounds of meat, where x = the number of people and y the number of days. Simply put, this means one pound of meat per person per day. This we augment with copious amounts of bacon and sausage for breakfast and chocolate, nuts, dried fruit and cured sausage meat while on the trail.
Wind: be careful here and watch each other faces for frostbite. A simple scarf or a neoprene face-mask is indispensable when crossing windy lakes or while up on exposed ridges or summits.
Heat: either keep moving or build a fire. Otherwise, you will need to be inside your high-end sleeping bag.
Where to go.
Now that I’ve sold you on the idea of going winter camping and your basement is full of fancy new gear I should point out that you need to read a good “how-to” book. Unlike my friends and myself you might want to go out with someone who has some experience already. Maybe you can even join a club. Don’t neglect to use the Internet as a source of information and potential partners.
Our most important criteria in selecting a region to go camping are fires and snowmobiles. If we can’t have fires or if there will be snowmobiles in the area it’s out of the question that we will go there. There are several reasons for not being able to have fires, the most important one being that they might be illegal. If you are going to be in a park check, not once, but twice as to their legality. Another reason is that there might not be any trees. Swampland, open prairie, high elevations etc. are to be considered with great caution.
As for snowmobiles, I happen to dislike the noise and smell and the citified atmosphere they bring so easily into remote areas. Actually I don’t so much dislike them as despise them but that’s another story. I remember we were planning a trip north of Montreal and Dave who doesn’t like long drives wanted us to try and find an area closer to town. There was a likely looking area visible on our map so I phoned the nearest town to inquire. It turned out there was a snowmobile motel right where we thought of camping! Ways to avoid running into snowmobiles include consulting provincial and state trail maps, staying well away from size-able towns and phoning the town hall and inquiring.
Accessibility. Using detailed topographic maps we have always looked for the smallest roads that look important enough to be plowed. If the topographic maps indicate that there may be a few dwellings along a small road or if it connects eventually to increasingly important looking roads then you might be in luck. Once again, a phone call to the nearest town will confirm this for you.
Campsite selection- what to look for. So, if by now you have found a region that is free from the infernal combustion engine (Oh, I almost forgot. Don’t forget to check for logging activity) and can be reached by car you are ready to drill down deeper and select an area where the camping will be good. For this you need to scrutinize a large-scale topographic map. Either a 1:50,000 or greater will do the job quite nicely.
Sitting at home you will need to try and mentally transport yourself to a deserted lake or marsh, perhaps the wind is picking up or a few snowflakes are falling –get the idea? Your priorities are simple and will include the following 4 elements.
Protection from the wind. Forget about the nice exposed flat rocky area with the sweeping view down the lake. You want good forest cover where the wind won’t blow. This is easy, if it’s green on the map it’s forested.
Firewood. In dense forest it can at times be quite a chore finding adequate wood within a reasonable distance of your campsite. We look for indications of marshland bordering on forest. On the map most streams or small rivers have little swamp symbols alongside them and the colour (ie. white, not green) may even indicate an open area. Nine times out of ten Mr. And Mrs. Beaver will have dammed the flow and all of the trees that form a border between open water and forest are standing, dead and very dry.
Drinking water. You can always melt snow but this is a tedious chore so if your marshy area near the forest is close to a lake then it is worthwhile to chop a hole in the ice from which to draw your cooking and drinking water.
Interesting country to explore. Hopefully you be able to spend your days exploring the surrounding countryside. Look for an abundance of geographic features such as hills, lakes, swamplands, whatever you think you will want to explore. Experience is a big help in this regard.
I have outlined one method for selecting a base camp. You may prefer to break camp and change locations every day. Your research will vary accordingly.SHARE