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With winter camping, there's a right way and a freeze way

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When it comes to camping, there’s no avoiding at least a little bit of misery. Between unpredictable elements, equipment malfunctions, wild animals and biting bugs, chances are good things won’t go smoothly all the time. I’ve backpacked in pouring rain using a garbage bag as a rain jacket. I recall one night huddling inside my sleeping bag sure I was about to get fried as thunder shook the ground and lightning lit my tent like an alien ship coming in for landing. Earlier that evening, a large moose had waded across the lake with her baby, walked right into our camp and proceeded to charge me and six fellow campers, even after we all hid behind the same tree like a bunch of goons in a silent movie. This is the kind of misadventure I can get behind. In my experience, the miserable (and frightening) moments pass, the sun comes up, everything dries out, and eventually you find yourself contentedly sitting around a cozy campfire, feeling grateful.

But then there’s winter camping. Winter camping is something I never really believed in. I knew people did it, but I couldn’t fathom the appeal. Why would you purposefully spend days in freezing weather with no reprieve? Why not just rent a Forest Service cabin and get the most out of the season? Surely it was a masochist’s sport, if not pure affectation.

The first and only time I camped in winter was in 2006, when I was a graduate student in the University of Montana’s environmental studies program. I had spent my whole first semester in warm classrooms, writing papers and discussing policy. It was a lot of indoor time, and I liked that. But I needed a few extra credits, so I signed up for a field study course during the winter break. I would learn about animal tracking, carnivore conservation projects and winter ecology. I was ready to be outdoors. I was sure I could handle it. I had grown up backpacking in Montana’s wilderness. I’d be ahead of the curve.

The winter field studies course was taught through Northwest Connections (now called Swan Valley Connections), an organization focused on the confluence of local knowledge and conservation science as a way to preserve the landscape and livelihood of the Seeley-Swan Valley. Our class lived for two weeks in a cabin that was rustic, but quite comfortable. We spent hours learning to read topographic maps. We stomped around in a nearby field drawing marten tracks in our journals and studying the needles and cones of conifers. In the evenings we made dinner together while a John Prine album played in the background and then capped off the night with drinks around a roaring fire. It was really nice. But a week into the course, the spell was broken: We were told to prepare for three nights camping in the snow. We assembled our backpacks, strapped on snowshoes and began the trek from Lindbergh Lake into the snowy beyond.

As we trudged through the deep snow, my backpack rubbing a raw patch on my hip, I pushed back my gnawing concerns. The sun shone on the sparkling landscape, where we saw several types of tracks—snowshoe rabbit, squirrel, coyote—and eventually caught a glimpse of a marten popping in and out of the snow drifts.

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On Jocko Ridge we unhooked our backpacks and surveyed our surroundings. I’d worked up a bit of a sweat hiking in, and as I stood there, finally at our campsite, I could feel my skin ice over.

One of the winter field studies leaders, Steve Lamar, instructed us to pack down the snow with our snowshoes so we could set up tents and a kitchen area. And as we worked, he reminded us not to let our bodies overheat or underheat. The whole time we worked, I remember feeling greedy for just a little more warmth, so I’d move a little faster and let myself sweat, then regret it every time I stood still.

I paid special attention to Lamar’s request that we drink lots of water. Normally I’m not especially good at staying hydrated, but the specter of hypothermia compelled me. When we finished setting up, we ate some food, drank more water and then, though it was still early evening, I crawled into my sleeping bag next to my two tent mates just to fight the chill. I was on the edge of warmth as I drifted off to sleep, but then the nagging feeling of needing to go to the bathroom woke me up. I climbed out of my sleeping bag and zipped open the tent to air so frozen I gasped. I slipped my headlamp and snowshoes on and followed the same packed-down trail everyone else had been using to go relieve themselves. And then I had to get up two more times that night to do it again.

There were a few people in our group who already had winter camping skills, and their annoying Boy Scout fervor made it clear that they were eager to use them. Others seemed to be taking the challenge in stride. And then there were a few of us who were counting the minutes until we could get off the mountain. The second night, when we built a bonfire, we got to bask in a wall of heat, though I could still feel the chill on my back. As a tribute to winter, someone read passages from Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, and it, like the fire, was temporarily comforting: “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it.”

That’s a great idea, in theory. But as I downed more water and headed to my cold tent, I wasn’t at all sure that, for me, winter was the right time to give myself up to the landscape. As for winter camping, I never did it again.

I hadn’t thought much about that trip until recently, a decade later, when the topic of winter camping came up and I said, “I’m glad I did it, but I’d never do it again.” But then I started wondering if maybe I’ve missed something—if I had, unlike Barry Lopez, been looking at it from just one angle. So, I decided to talk to people who love winter camping as much as I loathe it.

First I tracked down Lamar, who has since retired as an instructor at Swan Valley Connections. I hadn’t talked to him in a decade, and he didn't remember me, but he was enthused to talk about winter camping.

“I think people need to realize that even though they’ve done a lot of camping in the summer, winter camping’s a whole different activity,” he told me. “I always enjoyed camping in the wintertime. You get to see country very few people see. You get to see tracks—sometimes lynx and wolverine. I did a lot of camping in the backcountry, and for weeks didn’t see another soul. And that’s a pretty special experience.”

Lamar has a charming drawl and a laid-back demeanor, but his teaching style is no-nonsense. He’s been winter camping for 40 years, and most of his experience relates to survival strategies in the double-whammy of winter and wilderness. Talking with him brought back memories of all the tips and tricks I’d learned, which I’d let the miserable moments overshadow. We learned how to stay dry and what materials to avoid (cotton), how to bury our water bottles upside down in the snow to keep the lid from freezing and the water from turning to ice. We learned to add hot water to our water bottles and put them inside our sleeping bags at night. And we learned Lamar’s No. 1 message: Drink lots of water to stave off hypothermia and eat more food than usual to help keep your body warm.

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Plus, he added, “I think attitude is important,” and I felt like he was speaking to the younger, more cynical me up on Jocko Ridge. “I’ve been in some tough conditions winter-wise, but if everyone kind of stays positive and takes it as a challenge and decides to have a good time no matter what, that makes a huge difference.”

The next person I talked to was Missoula-based photographer Chris Chapman. His Instagram is full of enticing all-season shots, but his wintry Glacier Park landscapes are particularly striking. There’s Lake McDonald shimmering with ice crystals and reflecting white peaks in the distance. Mammoth Hot Spring swirling with steam and snow. A midnight shot of stars glimmering above fog layered on a frozen landscape. And the photo that most caught my eye: a tent nestled in the snow with smoke curling from its chimney.

The wood stove is a winter camping game changer, but Chapman didn’t start out warming his toes in the lap of such luxury. In fact his first winter camping experience turned into a near-death scenario. It was 1992 and he was in photography school at the Brooks Institute in California when a friend from Maine called him up. He wanted Chapman to join him in summiting California’s Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, which rises on the boundary of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest. And he wanted to do it in the dead of winter.

“He was really into Maine winters and snowshoeing,” Chapman says. “So when he asked if I wanted to go, I said, ‘Sure. I like winter!’”

Of course liking winter and camping in winter are two different things, and Chapman soon found that out. The pair set up a base camp where they spent the first night, waking in the morning to 14 inches of fresh snow. They packed up their gear and snowshoed to the trailhead, a spot to which you can drive in the summer, but that takes several hours to reach in five feet of snow.

“By the time we got up there, I was so dehydrated,” Chapman says. “I hadn’t eaten enough, I hadn’t drunk any water. I was starting to lose my shit. I was getting hypothermic to the point where I was sweaty and starting to feel warm. And then I just lost all ability to take care of myself.”

Chapman remembers wanting to curl up and go to sleep, which is dangerous when you have hypothermia. His friend kept him awake, set up their tent and stuffed Chapman into a sleeping bag, then gave him food and water.

“I woke up the next day to another couple feet of snow, feeling good,” Chapman says. Renewed and ready to go, the pair walked for two minutes before Chapman’s friend fell sideways and disappeared into a puff of snow.

“All I could see was his hand, and I’m like, ‘I think we’re done here.’ And we went back down the mountain and gave up on that.”

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“Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it.” —Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Chapman’s next major foray into winter camping was a journey into Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley with his brother on a quest to take photographs. They wore Sorel boots—a proper form of footwear for your average winter activity but, as it turned out, inadequate for the winter adventure they had taken on. A few days in, the temperature dropped to 40 below, and all the sweat in their boots turned them into ice blocks. That chilled-to-the-bone iciness crept into their bodies and even their campfire couldn’t warm them.

Adjustments to equipment and clothing have brought Chapman much closer to a kind of winter camping that not only spares him the misery (and potentially fatal consequences), but is, in fact, pretty comfortable. For one, he’s traded in the Sorels for a pair of Steger mukluks made by an Arctic explorer out of Ely, Minnesota. They’re made of moose hide, and are both warm and breathable. They are best in dry winter environments.

But the key change for Chapman was switching from cold camping to hot tenting. He uses a light canvas tent made by Ellis Canvas Tents in Durango, Colorado, outfitted with a wood-burning steel Kni-Co stove with an attached tank for heating water. The whole kit takes about 10 minutes to set up, and he’s used it to camp comfortably in Glacier when the temperature was 20 below outside the tent, and 65 degrees inside. The technology frees him up from worrying about breaking a sweat.

“Sweat freezes and it makes you all the more cold, but knowing that you have a warm base camp to go into and dry out, you can just go for it during the day,” Chapman says. “It’s a setup I can take in my canoe, in my car, I can tie it onto a toboggan and pull it into the backcountry with skis or snowshoes. It’s definitely a bulkier, heavier setup. But once you get to camp and set it up, it’s cush.”

My brother, Leif, got into winter camping after reading a book called Snow Walker’s Companion: Winter Trail Skills from the Far North. It was written by Alexandra and Garrett Conover, two guides who specialize in traditional snowshoe and canoe trips. For his entire adult life, Leif has been cultivating survival skills, like starting winter fires with a bow drill in the backyard while the rest of us sprawled on couches inside the house drinking beer like college kids are supposed to do. (Though Leif did that, too.) Among our group of friends, Leif was considered to be the person you want to be hanging out with when the apocalypse comes. So it was no surprise to any of us that after reading the book, he contacted the Conovers to see if they needed an apprentice. That’s how he ended up on a 60-day, 400-mile winter trek across Quebec’s frozen George River and into the remote reaches of Labrador.

That was in 2002, and at the time I thought it was cool that Leif was having this extraordinary excursion, but it definitely didn’t appeal to me. I assumed there must be a heavy dose of misery involved, which, in my imagination, could easily turn in a Shackleton situation complete with runaway ice floes and hunger so fierce you might eat your dogs. My suspicions were confirmed when Leif returned and showed us photos of his six-person crew wind-whipped on the snowy tundra. He’d gotten frostbite on his face (superficial damage, but still!) and there was also footage of him after he fell into a hidden pit in the snow. He was lucky. It was a dry air pocket and his companions pulled him out.

I knew he’d enjoyed the adventure, I just didn’t know how. So recently, I sat down with him over a cup of coffee and asked him.

He told me the crew took everything they needed with them—no caches—which they pulled on toboggans and sleds. The Conovers had learned how to camp from old-timers in Maine and from indigenous Canadians who live in wintry conditions. Everyone wore layers of wool and breathable wind-proof materials that have worked for ages for people who live in cold climates. Setting up camp required some labor: cutting down poles for the tents, chopping firewood, chipping ice for water, laying boughs on the tent floors to create insulated padding. They dug a hole in the snow for the wood stove so the heat would rise into the tent.

After all that work was complete, Leif’s version of winter camping starts to sound pretty luxurious. It took just 15 minutes after starting the fire for the space to get warm, and eventually it was a toasty 80 degrees inside the tents. They cooked a type of bread called bannock on the stove every night, along with a one-pot noodle or lentil dish. And for breakfast, they fried the bannock dough in bacon grease to make savory donuts. On layover days, they’d turn one of the tents into a private bath with a hot water tub that turned the space into a steam room filled with the smell of pine boughs.

“I was rarely cold,” Leif says. “On a cold night you might wake up and feel cold and move around for a minute to get warm. But I slept very well.”

Sure, there was that frostbite and the fall into a hole, but for Leif those were small matters in the scheme of a pretty spectacular—and comfortable—adventure. And what he learned on that outing, he brought back to Montana. Now, his winter outings always include a sled and a wood stove. He tells me you can pack the sled with far more items you’d ever be able to take on a summer backpacking trip: bottles of wine, board games, meats and cream, musical instruments, even a chair.

Isn’t that called glamping? I tease him.

“It’s traditional,” he says. “People have been living in these winter environments, trapping and hunting and exploring, for hundreds of years. They’ve developed these methods and tools that are necessary to do the type of work they need to do. And that turns out to be a really comfortable way to go out in the winter.”

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“It’s definitely a bulkier, heavier setup. But once you get to camp and set it up, it’s cush.”

Which is a pretty convincing case for winter camping. With the skills I learned 10 years ago, I know how to survive in the cold. But the promise of a warm tent filled with wine and board games is just the kind of vision that might lure me back out onto the frozen landscape again.


Winter camping takes know-how, or at least good cold-weather sense, no question, but there’s also no getting around the difference that proper gear makes—the difference between a why-the-hell-did-I-do-this nightmare and a night, or nights, to remember.

The internet is full of must-have winter camping checklists and hacks—have fun with those YouTube winter bushcraft videos—but whatever else you may want and need to have along, here’s our highly selective and entirely non-exhaustive list of winter camping necessities for when you want to leaven your cold with at least a modicum of comfort.

Tent

This is the biggie, of course. Chris Chapman alternates between 10x10 and 12x12 versions (dude’s got a family) of the Prairie Tent, made by Colorado-based Ellis Canvas Tents (elliscanvastents.com), with a stove jack. It’s made of relatively lightweight water-resistant 7 oz. canvas, sets up fast with three external poles (or without, if you’ve got a tree to hang it from), and has tons of headroom.

Alternately—and arguably better for setting up in deep snow due to its internal frame, Minnesota-based Snowtrekker Canvas Tents (snowtrekkertents.com) makes a full line of winter-camping tents out of the same 7 oz. canvas.

(It should go without saying that these aren’t backpacking setups, but we’re going to say it anyway: These tents are for walk-ins, canoe-camping, horse-packing and car-camping.)

Stove

You can’t hot-tent without a stove, and plenty of companies make them. Chapman camps with an Alaskan Deluxe Package from Oregon’s Kni-Co Manufacturing (kni-co.com), a 32-pound set-up with a 5-inch stovepipe and mountable table and water heater. He says it toasts his tent right up.

Wood and an axe

Sure, you could scavenge, and go right ahead if you’re into fiddling with downfall that’s probably wet. But since weight isn’t much of an issue, we recommend just taking dry wood with you. You don’t have to try to prove anything. You’re just trying to start a fire. And you don’t need us to tell you how to find an axe.

Socks

Not to sound like your mom here, but get yourself some real socks. Thick, warm, wool socks. Your sock needs will depend on how long you plan to stay out, and the stove is magic for drying wet socks, but still, take as many pairs as you can carry. Nothing changes the tenor of podiatric pleasure like warm, dry socks.

Hot chocolate

This should require no explanation.

A book

Or a game. Depends what kind of solitude you’re after and whom you plan to enjoy it with, but either way, the stove requires only so much feeding, and it’s going to be a long, dark, cozy night. Enjoy it.

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