Things I Learned Winter Camping Last year

With the 2nd annual Winter Camping Symposium coming up in a few weeks, I thought it would be a perfect time to give some advice to everyone and share the things I learned winter camping last year.  I have this habit, which is now just turned into my way of life, of learning things the hard way. I learn by trial and error and that is the first thing I want to help you avoid. The things I learned winter camping are not things you want to learn my way. Avoid these mistakes and you will enjoy winter camping a lot more! 

Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. – Rita Mae Brown

Lot’s off people share their winter camping advice and stories of their adventures online… Now it’s time that you hear ours lol.  We’ve been winter camping a handful of times, most of our stories are usually 3 seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall) and are usually canoe related. This past year, we went on two winter camping excursions.  The first one was New Years up at Mew Lake, which if you follow other outdoor bloggers in Ontario you will probably be familiar with. The second was a backcountry trip up near Kearney, ON with the boys from Paddle-In.com.  We have learned a few things… both about ourselves and about winter camping. 

On our New Years trip, we went up to Mew Lake campground in Algonquin Provincial Park.  We were able to borrow a Atuk hot-tent for this weekend which, I believe, is the only reason my wife agreed to go in the first place. After all, the weather was calling for a bone chilling -40 (plus or minus a few degrees) for the whole weekend.  We got up there on Friday night and we were staying until Monday. Should be fun! 

Things I Learned Winter Camping : 

  1. -40C …. Hot-tent or not… IS DAMN COLD TO BE CAMPING IN! 
  2. If you’re going to have a stove in your tent, spend the time and money to make sure it is the right one. The $80 stove available at Princess Auto that we were using, does not have a pipe damper and it is not air tight. If you are able to stoke and reload the fire each hour, you can get the tent quite warm. That is all you will get, ONE hour. This stove also has a 2 inch pipe off the top, the tent is made for a 6 inch pipe, not only will you lose lots of heat out of the hole but the pipe is where a lot of your heat actually comes from and the surface area of a 2 inch pipe just does cut it. Even with the conversions and extra accessories your nights will be pretty damn cold. 
  3. Food and drinks freeze much faster than you think. Even inside the tent! Bring whiskey or hard alcohol over beer. Beer freezes quite quickly in -40C. You will end up with at least 6 open beers in different stages of thaw, around the fire or wood stove all weekend. At normal beer drinking speed, your beer will freeze roughly halfway through. Frozen beer, as you can imagine, is very hard to drink. Whiskey will still freeze but it takes a lot more to make it happen. If you come out of your tent in the morning and the whiskey is frozen… You know it is damn cold! 
  4. Get Moving! Winter Camping in extreme temps calls for you to get moving. Always have something to do that will keep your moving and warm. Go for a hike or a walk, split up some firewood, do something creative or ingenious to make your camp a little better. Unlike the other three seasons, winter is not the time to stand or sit around with friends. (Seems obvious right? Well, this is more true than you think!)
  5. Cooking – Inside, on your stove. Always. While cooking outside is possible (Thank you Johnny Stinson for your propane stove!) because of the cold it takes much longer than we anticipated. 45 minutes to cook a pack of bacon is just unacceptable lol. Re-think your menu. Cooking over the fire in -40C… Your food will be cooked just before you go home for the weekend – At least that is how it feels. Bring ready made food. The easier and faster the better. At the very least bring some quick items that you can munch on while you wait for your longer cook time food.  If you are hot tenting, then you can warm up soups, pasta etc on the stove inside your tent which makes life much better.   
  6. Take, find or cut down at least three times the amount of wood you think you need. Period. There is nothing worse than waking up frozen in the middle of the night and not having any more wood to burn. 
  7. Winter Camping Is Expensive – I’m pretty sure I owe my wife a trip to the Caribbean for putting up with that weekend. Mrs ManCamping froze her ass off – Which is bad. Those who know me, know I’m quite the fan of my wife’s ass and I do not want to see it frozen off! 

Our second trip this year just happened this past weekend. A trip up to Coffee Lake near Kearney, Ontario. Matt and Sean from Paddle-In invited me to come along with them on a backcountry Winter Camping trip. Being the ones who always say that you don’t need to plan for 3 weeks to go on a 3 day trip, I couldn’t say no. I called up my buddy Brad and invited him and the trip was on. 

Matt and Sean headed our early on Friday to do the hike into Coffee Lake, I was waiting for Brad to get off work before heading up.  Our plan was to get up to the trail head and launch at night to do the three hour “hike & haul” to meet up with the other two. We would have arrived at Midnight. We have the lighting to keep us going and hauling in a sled and our gear along that hike would keep us warm.  We managed to get a message to Matt to let him know we were almost at the trail. His response – “Are you serious? … Sean is asleep and I am almost there too”.  

So now we need to make a decision. We have three options really:

  1. Go for it anyways and use our ManTracker abilities to follow their path to the camp spot.
  2. Camp out at the car and head in at first light. 
  3. Go find a warm hotel and head out in the AM. 

 

After weighing the options and realizing that there won’t even be a fire to guide us to the location and realizing that we are cold tenting this trip and won’t have the warmth of a hot-tent when we arrive, we chose to grab a warm hotel and head out in the AM. Not a good start to the trip. ManCamping is all about the challenges, but this one just seemed silly. No point in potentially getting lost going to an unknown location, in the middle of the night, in -15C. 

The next day we head back to the trail head. What was a 2km hike in, turned out to be about 6km since the road closed well before the trail head. lol. Seems like it was a good choice to do the hotel. 

 

Things I Learned Winter Camping:

  1. Cold Tenting sucks. plain and simple. The one night spent out there in a cold tent was probably one of the coldest nights I have ever had. We used up every hand warmer we had between the two of us to try and stay warm. Didn’t work. Here is why it sucked: Sleeping bags give you a temperature rating such a -7. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THE SLEEPING BAG IS GOOD TO -7C. What this actually means is the in -7C weather, you will have the worst sleep of your life, shivering, cursing every 5 minutes when you wake up, hating winter and more. It basically means that it will keep you alive for 8 hours at that temperature. Buy a better sleeping bag than you think you may need.  A good rule is to cut the rating in half. If it says -20C … it’s good for -10C. Mine was rated to -7C for this -15C night.Buy a closed cell sleeping mat. Those roll out foam mats or accordion style rectangle mats are the way to go. Inflatable air mats that you would normally use in any of the other 3 seasons won’t cut it in the colder temps. The air mats will feel fine for the first few minutes of your snooze, but the air inside will cool down quickly leaving you to sleep on a sub-zero icicle all night. Closed cell sleeping mats don’t allow this to happen. Closed cell sleeping mats will actually create a barrier between you and the cold. 
  2. A quick note on hand-warmers. They are amazing, but only for a limited time and for limited temps. Hand warmers are little sacks of magic that when opened and exposed to air will heat up and stay warm for a number of hours. You can use hand warmers to warm your hands and feet, toss them into a cold sleeping bag to warm it up before you crawl in and even use them to slow down the inevitable beer freezing. But they won’t keep you warm all night without the proper sleeping setup. I also have a zippo hand warmer that runs on lighter fluid. I’ve had lots of great experiences with it, although on this backcountry trip it didn’t work so well. It may have something to do with a bottle of whiskey and confusing it for a cliff bar wrapper. FYI – Cliff bar wrappers do not light on fire very well and it doesn’t keep you warm. The whiskey did for a little while, but the cliff bar did not. lol
  3. There is a reason why I paddle and I don’t hike very much. The hike in was 4km of uncleared road hiking and the from the trail head it was 2km of up hill hiking dragging a sled full of gear behind me.  (The hike out was down hill, but I was completely gassed. Out of energy and walking s…l…o…w) Traveling distances through the snow is slow. Very slow. It’s hard work to walk through deep snow without snowshoes. The hilly terrain and deep snow made it a few hours to get in. On the way out, it was snowing hard and we had to cover the same distance back out (also didn’t help that it was the morning after the cliff bar wrapper incident.) Make sure that you are leaving yourself enough time to cover the distance you have planned, have enough water in insulated containers so it won’t freeze and are prepared for the work load. Otherwise it turns into a death march. I did learn how far I can push myself to march though! 

Don’t make the same mistakes that we made. We have gained this important knowledge through cold nights suffering through.  Listen to us!!!! Or don’t. If you are reading the ManCamping blog then you are probably much like us and won’t listen anyways. Let us know your findings and how much you suffered. lol 

If you want to learn more and hear stories from other, more experienced winter campers, make sure to check out the Ontario Winter Camping Symposium happening November 24th in Waterloo.

 

 

2 Responses to “Things I Learned Winter Camping Last year

  • Wow, looks like a lot of fun! I`m still trying to convince myself to try winter camping!

    • You absolutely should! It is a totally different experience from the other three seasons. Some people like it, others don’t, but it is worth doing for the experience!

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