Jan 20, 2014 at 10:10 am #1312261
AAR: Introduction to winter camping in Minnesota
Location: Wild River State Park, MN
Date: 03JAN14 through 05JAN14
What was planned?
An intro to 'winter camping basics' course, as well as a bit of fellowship. The goal was to introduce two guys who had never experienced winter camping to the basics and teach them about the gear/equipment needed, skills/tips dealing with extreme cold, and what to expect and what to plan for while out winter camping. Because this trip involved some new folks we decided to keep it close and camp out at Wild River State Park, which would allow the new guys to simply hop in their car(s) and head home if they suddenly decided this wasn't for them or if they had a catastrophic gear failure. Additionally we decided to hot-tent it also purely since some winter gear can be quite expensive and this would allow the flexibility of simply throwing more logs in the stove to keep warm through the night if need be. The basic itinerary was to setup camp Friday evening, do a day trip for Saturday with either xc skiing or snowshoeing, and pack out Sunday sometime.
What actually happened or occurred?
Friday night we arrived at Wild River State Park around 4pm, we had roughly 45 minutes of light left to clear the ground of snow and setup the tent with 3 guys before the sunset. We accomplished setting up the tent just in time for dark and drove back into town to meet our 4th party member for dinner at a local restaurant in North Branch. We almost ate dinner in town first then setup camp, however I'm glad we didn't – lesson: use all available daylight while you can. That evening we hung out in the tent keeping nice and warm (down to our long johns) we went over some basics tips and tricks that night such as a hot water bottle in the bottom of your bag and played some games (farkle – my favorite winter hot tent camping game) until around 11pm.
Saturday we awoke to temps in the single digits, got the fire going, made breakfast (coffee, bacon, and eggs) and eventually emerged from the tent somewhere around 11am. We headed to the rental facility where our 2 newer members rented xc skis. We went back to camp and headed out on ski from there. The day was cut short due to a gear failure with one members rental boot. No big deal, we adjusted and headed back to camp. We made an outdoor fire where we cooked up some brats and beans for lunch. We hung outside most of the evening until after the sunset. We cooked some steaks, mushrooms and fried apples (sautéed with fireball whiskey) outside before finally retiring inside the tent for the evening. Again, we shared stories and finished our farkle tournament bracket. The temperature forecast was -22F for Saturday night so everyone took care to double up on layering if need be and ensured additional layers were within reach if need be – the last think you want it so be looking for your hat or extra socks at 3am in the dark.
Sunday morning, everyone made it through the night just fine even if some people did finally resort to sleeping with socks on. Our newcomers were mildly surprised at how well and warm they slept even though the temperature dipped quite low that night. We again cooked up a hearty breakfast and finally started to pack up all our gear and the tent sometime just before noon. We bundled up with some extra layers and decided to make a short trek snowshoeing down to the river and back. Again, one party member had a catastrophic gear failure with his snowshoes rendering them unusable. One team member decided to snowshoe while the other three of us decided to forgo our snowshoes and simply walk through the woods without them. The air was quite cold with the wind-chill well into the negative double digits – it was really cold. It was one of the few times I had to completely bundle up leaving no skin exposed to the air (my nose and mouth). We eventually made it to the river, snapped some photos went over some brief terrain navigation lessons and all decided to bushwhack our own separate ways back to the trail. It was interesting to see what everyone thought was the "best" route to take back, be it easiest terrain or most direct with rougher terrain. We all made it back to camp, shared our goodbyes and put this adventure into the books.
What was right or wrong with what happened?
The first night one guy inquired about a "fireguard duty" and how we were working out the shifts to keep the fire going through the night, I laughed and told him if he wanted to keep the fire going all night he was more than welcome to – after looking at me puzzled then a bit alarmed he ended up sleeping just fine even if the fire did eventually die out. We're all capable of a lot more than we think we are, this is not limited to simply sleeping in cold weather. While I myself have a -40F down sleeping bag that cost 2 arms and 1 leg I assure you this new guy slept just fine in the 2 sleeping bags he borrowed from a buddy and put inside one another – lesson; nice gear is awesome but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you paid for it, it matters that it works.
One guy suffered a gear failure of his [rental] XC ski boot; it was worn out and over sized causing his ankle to continually roll. Big deal? not in our situation but if he had rented gear then taken all this out to the BWCA for a week-long trip and this was his main mode of transportation he would've been screwed. lesson – doesn't matter if you own it or if you rent it, test everything before you need it when it really counts.
Another guy brought some new boots that appeared great – the problem is they were a little too small after he tossed on some thick wool socks and they were a bit stiff. The problem with stiff boots is that if your feet and toes do not articulate the blood doesn't flow as well and thus you end up with cold toes. You want to ensure that footwear is large enough to allow for additional layering of socks, if it’s too tight and the socks get squished you lose the insulating value of them. Also you want to make sure your toes can articulate well so that they promote blood flow and thus warmer toes. lesson; nothing more than wanting to promote Steger Mukluks and how awesome and comfortable they are.
Due to the relaxed nature of this trip we didn't really push an agenda, it was mostly about getting new people introduced to winter camping. We sat in the tent a lot, we ate a lot, didn't get out of the tent in the morning until late and thus we probably didn't get out and do as much as many of us would've hoped. Additionally camping at a state park is kind of lame (in my humble opinion) when your car is only about 30' away and you can drive up to the trail center to use their heated bathroom if you desire. Due to the luxuries offered there are a lot of things you're not forced to deal with, we accepted this as a trade off for having to deal with the harsher conditions of the true backcountry and potentially scaring anyone new away.
What can be done to make the process better?
While ultimately it’s a vacation, an agenda with a timeline may have got us moving out of the tent earlier in the day. Also if we had properly checked all gear prior to the activity we may have been able to stay out longer on Saturday and feel like we had done more. We ate like kings, I personally can't complain about sitting in my long johns and eating bacon all morning drinking coffee but everyone has different expectations as well. As we gain more new folks and do these 'intro' events for a weekend we build the base of people interested and willing thus allowing us to plan a trip geared for those with experience who want to spend a week out in the backcountry in the middle of winter. While I'm a fairly experienced winter camper I still had a great time introducing new people to the awesomeness that is winter camping.
I still like this way of introducing new people to winter camping, they get to see things in action and are able to gain trust in their gear with being able to sleep down into subzero temps while having the safety net of being able to hop in their car 30' away and drive to the trail center to warm up should the absolutely feel the need to and hate it. Thankfully everyone that attended was pretty hardy and resilient and likely didn't need that safety net at all. Winter is ultimately what you make of it, I see so many people cry and moan about the snow and the cold temperatures however I feel like if you start doing things in the snow and cold such as skiing, snowshoeing, camping or anything else it really is quite enjoyable out there. There is nothing like the deafening silence of the woods in the winter, the small amount of brightly colored berries that are still holding onto the trees in contrast and the occasional animal or bird you run across.Jan 20, 2014 at 12:32 pm #2064609
Hot camping is a great way to introduce people to winter camping. People who aren't experienced in cold weather camping tend to find it hard to fathom the idea that camping in winter is even possible, let alone that it can be comfortable and enjoyable. Doing a nice, relaxing trip is a great way to break them in, build skills and show them what winter can offer.
Once they know the joys of hot camping and starting dialing in their gear and skill sets they can branch out into more ambitious trips if they want.
Thanks for the report.
TravisJan 20, 2014 at 1:57 pm #2064626
@sharaldsLocale: Gallatin Range
I approve of bacon cooked over a tent stove.Jan 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm #2064661
Being less discriminating than Sam … I approve of bacon cooked.Jan 20, 2014 at 7:38 pm #2064715
@jedi5150Locale: Central CA
Thanks for the trip report. If the Sierras ever actually get snow this winter, I'm going to give winter camping another shot (tried it twice so far with less than ideal gear).
I like your style of using an area with easy bail-out options should the need arise. I did the same thing my first two winter camping trips. Particularly being solo, I wanted to increase my safety margin to nearly risk-free, and it helped with my peace of mind.
Let me ask you about boots. How do you keep your boots from becoming "iron maidens" of frozen rock in the morning? I know that some folks sleep with their boots on, which makes a lot of sense to me in a synthetic bag. I plan on getting a down bag for my next sleeping bag, and I can't think that ice and snow covered boots would be a good idea to sleep with inside a down bag. One solution I tried was putting hand-warmers in the toes of the boots in the morning before I put them on. That actually helped a lot, but I'd prefer to find a solution that doesn't require hand-warmers.
Speaking of footwear, I've got to agree with you about mukluks. I lived in Canada for a couple years and even with typical Sorels my feet and toes were frigid in the winter. Finally I picked up a pair of cheap USAF surplus mukluks and my feet and toes were happy ever after. I couldn't believe how much warmer the relaxed fit and style of mukluks made my feet compared to winter boots.
Last lesson I learned was that gloves suck. Once my hands got cold there was no warming them up again, unless I got inside a heated vehicle or building with gloves. Mittens are the only way to go when it gets really chilly.Jan 21, 2014 at 12:11 pm #2064872
@sharaldsLocale: Gallatin Range
I agree with Jim and rephrase my original statement. Bacon is good.Jan 21, 2014 at 1:03 pm #2064896
Doug, in regards to keeping my boots from being frozen in the morning I generally take 2 approaches. If I'm hot-tenting I will take the wool liners out of my mukluks in the evening and hang them up high in the tent as shown in this photo (I do it with other gear as well). I wear down booties in the [hot] tent in the evenings.
If I'm cold camping I try and bring a second pair of wool inserts with me to rotate out. The biggest key is getting them as dry as possible before bed which will keep them from being "iron maidens" but they're still quite cold and even a bit stiff in the morning regardless – you just gotta hop in 'em and run out to cut some wood to warm them up.
In addition I've taken an extra precaution and wear what Steger calls their "Camuks", they're ugly as sin and only come in a mossy oak's type of camoflauge pattern primarly designed for hunters however where they differ from their traditional mukluk is that in lieu of a traditional moose hide foot they rubberize the moose hide. These are supposedly the same style that Will Steger wore on his Antartica expedition. I swear by them and the only time my liners have gotten wet was when it was particularly warm out and they wet out from sweat, otherwise I also take care to wear a sock liner and the thickest wool socks that Smartwool make and also rotate those out throughout the day as they get wet. I hope that helps.Jan 21, 2014 at 1:36 pm #2064910
@jedi5150Locale: Central CA
It does help, thanks Joshua. I no longer own my old mukluks, I pretty much only wear Danner boots now, but I'm just starting to get into winter camping. The downside is that Danners don't have removable liners. Then again, cold where I camp is more like 10* F and above, not like when I used to live in Canada, or where you're at. So regarding regular hiking boots I'm still in a bit of a quandary. Most of my Danners are either the 8" style or 10" like my Ft Lewis model. I'm toying with the idea of getting a shorter 6" pair and using gaiters, to make them smaller and easier for if I decide to wear them in the bag. Every little bit helps size-wise.
I should add that I don't hot tent (don't own a tent or stove capable of it). So unfortunately the hanging option is out. My feet and toes comprise 90%+ of my cold weather problems, whether it is sleeping, hiking, camping, or any other outdoor cold activity. I have fairly poor circulation and my feet are always cold at night, and once they get cold, there is no getting them warm again. During the day, when I'm active, my Danners keep them fine and warm throughout the day.
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