The Adventure of Winter Camping; Taking it to the Next Level
Lorrie is the owner of MRACX
An Outdoor Health and Fitness group based in Toronto Ontario.
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Something changes inside me when I’m in the woods. My mind becomes silent, my worries dissipate, I can immerse myself in the moment. I see a lot of things I would miss while hiking in the city; that woodpecker hiding on the other side of the birch tree, the snail crossing the trail after a rain, that raccoon sleeping in the treetop, the whispering of the long grass in the wind. It’s as if removing myself from the big lights and the big city, transforms me. The quietness of nature, the sky exploding with stars, the excitement of each day being a new adventure, and the escape from the everyday grind resets my brain, my perspective, and my energy.
While I can always rent a campsite, complete with electricity and close to other people, my favourite way to camp is backcountry. Backcountry camping means there aren’t any designated campsites, no running water, no showers, no toilets, and most of the time, no wifi. It’s just me and the great outdoors. Backcountry camping also gives me the opportunity to explore remote areas that can only be accessed by foot. Like an explorer in uncharted territory, I am filled with awe and inspiration, excitedly anticipating what lies around the corner.
Up until this year, I’ve limited my backcountry camping to summer and fall. This year I decided to take the experience further and try winter camping. A group of people were also experimenting with backcountry camping in a winter setting and I decided I would join them. Most of the preparation is the same. Sure, the nights are cold, so a few extra measures need to be taken. I’ll admit, I was nervous, just as I imagine anyone trying something new would be. I wasn’t certain that all my camping experience and wilderness training would be enough to prepare me for winter camping. I also don’t really like the cold. Am I crazy? Why would I ever embark on this seemingly mad excursion? Well, when you’re an adventure seeker, like I am, and you’re always looking to try something new, this seemed like the natural next step.
I sat down and took inventory.
I have all the basic gear:
● Stove & fuel
● Cooking utensils and cookware
● Solar charger (solar shower, too, but I won’t be showering outside on this trip)
● Water filter
● Sleeping bag
● Smell proof food storage bags
● Rambo knife
What do I need to add to this list for winter camping? My tent is a 3 season tent, so it’s not really designed for really cold weather, but I wasn’t prepared to purchase another. Who knows if I’ll ever do this again. I did some research on the internet. I viewed YouTube videos and read many blogs, and found some information that helped me prepare properly.
In the summer I use yoga mats and wool blankets on the bottom of the tent as a cushion. I could still use those for winter, but it won’t be enough for warmth. Insulating the tent is what is required. So, I grabbed as many cardboard boxes as I could find, cut them down flat, and layered the bottom of the tent to about 5 cm thick. I placed 2 yoga mats over that and 2 wool blankets over that, and then my sleeping bag. My tent is small, so I didn’t need as much insulation as someone who had a larger tent. You will need to ensure the entire bottom of the tent is covered with your insulation. Emergency blankets can also be used to help insulate and/or line your sleeping bag. Snow can also be used as insulation around the outside of your tent, just make sure your “snow walls” are about 3-4 feet away from your tent.
Condensation!! What? Well, that was a wrench I didn’t consider. We all know what condensation is; where water vapour becomes liquid. This will happen as the air is cooled. My warm body and breath will create the vapour that will be cooled by the freezing temperatures. If I don’t offset this, my tent will “rain” inside and all my items will be wet. A wet sleeping bag will never keep me warm. How do I equalize the temperature inside and outside of my tent? Opening the vents on the tent, removing the rain fly, and opening the “screen windows” anytime you’re not in it, is a good starting point. Sleep with a hat on and don’t cover your mouth, especially don’t put your whole head inside your sleeping bag. To keep clothes dry and warm, dry bags are a good option; the ones with the roll down tops. I could even put my sleeping bag in there during the day. If it does get wet, I can lay it over the tent to air it out while the sun is still shining.
Next, what will I eat? Will my food freeze?
Yes, food will freeze if it’s cold enough. So, planning a menu around that is more difficult than planning a summer menu. I’m also hypoglycemic, so I need to ensure I have enough food that is calorie dense and will stabilize my blood sugars over a longer period of time. My body will need the energy of digestion to keep warm.
I decided to go with simple items, some of which I even pre-prepared at home to cut down on working outside, gloveless, in freezing temperatures. Since I never want to carry more than I need, I had to calculate my daily calorie usage (based on planned activities) and my daily calorie requirements (based on my weight). I don’t get too precise about this, at least not like some. I know that I need to eat every couple of hours and I know what portion sizes I generally eat at those times, so, I based my supplies on that.
● Nuts, seeds, dried fruits
● Granola bars
● Quick cooking oats - not just for breakfast; and the nuts, seeds and dried fruits can be added
● Sandwiches; to be made from already roasted chicken (No tomato or lettuce as the water content of these foods make them the first to freeze. Neither taste good once thawed and soggy, so I opted to go without)
● Dehydrated foods; these can be found at camping stores for about $10 a piece. I find that quite steep, so I choose to go to the supermarket and grab packaged soups (foil packs) and other things similar like rice or pasta - all that only require the addition of water to make a complete meal.
● Coffee is a must for me and I take milk in my coffee. Thankfully, there are packaged coffees now (individual serving sizes) that contain the milk and sugar right in the pack.
● I’m also a carnivore. I need my meat, and it helps keep my blood sugars level. I grabbed some pepperoni sticks, some sausages that easily cook up in my pan, and bacon to add to sandwiches and serve with my morning eggs.
Ok. Have I forgotten anything? Gear - check. Food - check. Safety - not checked.
Safety in winter has some overlapping considerations with summer, but there are some differences. Hypothermia, different wildlife, shorter days, possible blizzards. My internet research specific to the area I was going to provided me with information on the wildlife I would encounter. I also watched the weather forecast, and I had extra clothing in the event it got wet in the snow and I needed something dry. I also tossed in a clothesline in case I needed to dry things by the fire. I can’t control the weather, and it’s always changing. Extra clothes help. Shorter days means setting out sooner to hike so I reach back before dark with enough time to cook in the light. A fire will provide some light, but often not enough to really see what you are doing. Lanterns and flashlights can help, but they never replace the sun.
I’m finally ready to head out.
I quickly realize, as I’m setting up my tent, that I never considered the ground would be frozen. Yup. Obvious. But a big oversight on my part. Ok. How am I going to keep my tent from flopping over or falling down? It’s not like I can use the pegs to poke in the ground. Sheesh… I feel like an idiot. Good thing I can improvise. I look around for some rocks. (I saw others had brought dumbbells with them and used those - genius). Luckily, I was able to find some rocks. And luckily, my tent can somewhat stand on its own without the spikes.
Accessing water was a little tricky, too. Big bodies of water are frozen. Smaller streams and rivers had currents, keeping the water cold but not frozen. Often I just grabbed some snow and melted it in my pot. It was enough to ensure I always had water.
Washing was another challenge. Washing my body, that is. I usually bring biodegradable soap and use my solar shower, or jump in the lake. Neither of those were an option on this trip. I resorted to heating water for face washing and teeth brushing only. Five days without a shower. Five days of always being dressed in wool socks, slippers, boots, snow pants, a jacket, hat and mitts and layers underneath it all proved to make moving around a little harder; something else I didn’t really consider before heading out. I admit I was happy when I returned home and could shed the layers and take a long hot shower.
Overall, the entire trip went well. There were others with me on this trip, as I’ve indicated earlier. I’ve often camped on my own, but I was happy for the company on my first winter experience. We kept ourselves busy with hiking and skating during the day. I had brought my cross country skis and snowshoes, too, but nobody else had those items with them, so I didn’t get to those activities.
We started fires from the moment we were awake until we went to bed (as long as we were on the site). The conversations, laughs, jokes, and dancing kept us warm and took our minds off the cold. We cooked and ate together, we sang songs and told stories by the campfire; just like any other camping trip. These are the things that make memories.
The last day of the trip was the most challenging. We were all prepared for everything, except the temperature drop to -35 degree Celsius, excluding wind-chill in the middle of the night. I’d have to say, I’m not sure if anything could prepare us for that. I had seen some die-hard winter campers with fantastic winter tents; complete with propane stoves and pipes for ventilation outside of the tent; designed for cooking and warmth. Those were the only campers we woke up to that day who weren’t sleeping in their running cars.
Despite all the great things that happened that week, many that were with me on that trip said they would never do it again. They were happy they tried it, but the cold made a lot of regular tasks a lot more difficult, and it was too much for them to handle. While I’m not convinced I’d jump at the chance to do it again, I won’t say never. The first time for anything is a learning curve. Each time you get better, learn what to do differently, and it becomes easier. I’ve learned that through my many years of summer camping. I expect that if my type of adventure comes along in the form of another winter camping trip, I will be there.