ELY, MINN. - Camping beneath the winter sky offers an opportunity to experience untold treasures. Enjoying them is merely an adjustment to weather.
Erik Simula is a winter wilderness guide from Finland, Minn. Bud Ahrens is the winter program director at Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely. Both offered some basics for winter camping to help make those adjustments comfortable and affordable. Whether in the wilderness or at a state park, if you’re new to winter camping you can often start by using the gear you’ve got.
“You learn the most early on. The main thing is to get out and try it,” Simula said.
Warmth and dryness literally start from the bottom up — with footwear. Snow, water and sweat contribute moisture that can freeze inside boots overnight and feel like cold concrete in the morning.
For optimum insulation, Ahrens recommended interior boot layers that include liners, insoles, a minimum of one pair of socks, and plastic bags or other moisture barrier to cover them all. He also carries a backup set in a plastic bag.
Similarly, Simula suggested changing into camp boots in the evening, then removing the liners from the first set and drying them by the fire.
Upper-body moisture and temperature control are other keys to staying warm. Non-cotton layers are important while you’re active during the day, Ahrens said. A lot of heat is lost through the head and neck. Therefore, thin layers like a balaclava, a neck gaiter or a wool hat can be easily removed to lower your body temperature. However, a down coat or heavy wool sweater is good in the evening after you’ve slowed down. In extreme cold, cover your face and hands, and wear a shirt that’s long enough to stay tucked in so no skin is exposed.
Simula emphasized fabrics that wick moisture away from skin. He also prefers pants that are baggy enough to allow airflow and help ventilate sweat. Wind pants are particularly beneficial for blocking moisture and wind.
While high-tech sleeping bags might be worth considering, Simula and Ahrens use a sleeping system that incorporates multiple bags and ground pads. Simula often doubles or triples sleeping bags inside each other, and stacks two or three ground pads between him and the snow. He then lays a thick wool blanket over the ground pads, puts down the sleeping bags, and finishes with another wool blanket or folds over the blanket from underneath.
As protection from snowfall, tarps are often the shelter of choice. Ahrens said with tarps there is no trapping of breath, while tents will freeze it and trap it. If breath doesn’t have an exit, it’s going to accumulate in your tent and sleeping bag.
Campsite selection, setup
Summertime campsites are often established to offer cool breezes and keep bugs at bay. But Simula said the opposite is true in winter. “You want a secluded type bay so you have good wind protection.” A campsite in the woods provides shelter and the trees are ideal for tying down tarp ropes.
If trees aren’t available, Ahrens suggested bringing shovels and making wind blocks with the snow at hand. He also likes a location that faces east where the sun will hopefully shine first in the morning and warm the site sooner.
Food, fire and water
In keeping with the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace,” Ahrens said Outward Bound campers build their fires on lake ice. For efficiency, they separate fire from ice with a steel fire pan that rests atop old, punky logs and prevents the coals from dropping into snow.
He noted that lighters and stove fuels don’t work well in cold temperatures. So campers wear lighters on key cords around their necks to keep the lighters warm against their skin. As a precaution, they also take good matches or another source of ignition.
Finding firewood above the snow line can also be difficult in winter. Ahrens said they search for “dead, down and dry.” They don’t harvest wood from trees that are standing.
Food for winter camping should be a constant source of calories that generates warmth. As opposed to cooking several meals per day, Ahrens said he prefers a “squirrel bag” for nibbling. The bag contains high-calorie foods like gorps, cheese, meat and granola bars. For heavier meals that have been prepared in advance, he favors dropping in high-calorie extras like cream cheese whenever possible.
Simula suggested warm tea, oatmeal or a pasta dish. Though he keeps his diet simple, he does not recommend just a quick dry meal, then going to bed. He uses evening as leisure time, builds a fire and dries out clothing.
Hydration keeps internal body parts functioning. Ahrens said even if you’re not thirsty, you must drink. That water also is likely to freeze, so you’ll need a good insulating container to make water remain liquid longer. Before bed, he pours boiling water into a bottle and stows it inside his sleeping bag for extra warmth.
Melting snow is just one method of obtaining water. Simula reminded campers to carry an ice chisel for breaking through lake ice to the water below. However, as a way of constantly creating drinkable water that stays fluid, he gathers additional snow each time he drinks, compresses it and puts it in a bottle that he keeps next to his body throughout the day.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.