Last week I began the tedious timeline of winter camping. Some read it as if it were a horror story. I can feel them cringing yet somehow they didn’t look away because I got plenty of aghast comments. Other hardy winter lovers read it almost nostalgically; reminiscing over their own adventures in hardship. Then there are the people who’s eyes brighten with naive interest and then narrow as they ask specific questions. I can see the gears turning. It’s both heartwarming and terrifying that I might inspire some to take on these challenges.
The story started at 2am, and last week left off at about 11:45am as we were finally pulling our pulks away from one camp to find another. It was slow but fairly easy. That day there were no portages. The ice was thick. The sun was bright. The wind in places was uncomfortable but manageable. We’d stop in wind protected spots to adjust layers, drink our warm water, snack out of our lunch bags (oat buckeyes, salami, cheese, date rolls, unwrapped candy bites), and pee.
Apparently somewhere in here Annalesa quietly got her tongue stuck to her metal zipper pull. Later around the fire she explained; her hip was hurting from the previous day of snowshoeing and “I sometimes stick my tongue out when I’m concentrating.” And that’s why her tongue hurt now. Which we all got a lot of giggles out of. Winter camping provides so many opportunities to laugh at yourself.
We started considering camp spots. Our first choice turned out to be windier than ideal. Moving on we ran into overflow (wet slush over the ice, but under the fresh snow). Looking for spots we kept checking the map and the ice and snow conditions.
We finally found a good place for camp. We unloaded the pulks. These are the tasks that get done:
- Find what will become firewood. Preferably a standing very dead (and dry) spruce. Saw it in to manageable pieces and haul it back to camp.
- Decide the layout of the new snow home. Wind direction and protection is key to picking where the bedroom and kitchen will be and which way they will face.
- Start shoveling the home! The bedroom floor gets packed down and ~2′ walls are built up around where the tarp will go. The kitchen gets shoveled down to bare ice. The stove will go on bare ice so it will be level and not sink unevenly into snow. The fire will also go on the ice. The firewood chopping area needs to be large and adjacent to the kitchen. The chopping (as opposed to sawing or breaking) area needs to be shoveled down to bare ice. It’s also nice to have in mind where the processed firewood will get stacked. In all the shoveling of spaces and paths, the snow gets piled where the benches will be built.
- Firewood needs to be processed. Branches are broken off of trunks. Anything too big to be broken (including the trunk) get sawed into ~1.5′ segments. Then trunk segments get split.
- Snow benches and kitchen shelving get built. From the mounds of snow they get compressed and shaped with our z-rests and shovels. I’m very particular and proud of my bench construction. They need to be sturdy of a comfortable height and the right distance from the fire. Other than when we lay down to sleep it’s the only thing that gives us rest. I also make places to stage cooking, food, cups etc. Another nice addition is well placed trivets (sticks) so pans can come off the fire and be raised off the ice or snow and be conveniently placed so we don’t trip on them or can put them down while multi-tasking. This all takes considerable time.
- The ice hole needs to be chopped. This needs to be a couple hundred feet awayfrom camp. Sometimes the water will come gushing out of the hole and create some overflow which if it were near camp would be really sad, because then you’d have to move camp (which happened to Will’s brother). The ice hole is made with a spud bar (which is a heavy metal ice chisel) and with the 2′ thick ice could take 30min and get you perilously hot.
- The tarp roof needs to be put on the bedroom. With the snow structure already done, the tarp gets propped up by ski/trekking poles (or sticks) and deadman anchors to tie it nice and tight. Ideally wind direction and the chance of snow fall have been taken into account to get the angle of the tarp just right.
Phew! Through out all that work we were eating and drinking. But we were still very hungry. With all the critical tasks done we can start the fire (on the fire pan propped up on logs) and get some appetizers going. We threw a bunch of pizza rolls, stuffed nachos, and beef taquitos into the fry pan with butter and Annalesa got those frying. Will got water over the fire with the tripod and I unpacked and laid out the sleep systems.
When the appetizers are done we all finally sat down to rest and eat. There is nothing so satisfying as an infusion of hot food after a cold day of eating cold food. It’s also such a pleasure to have fried greasy food put directly into your leather chopper.
We got out headlamps in preparation for dusk. I changed into my nighttime puffy layers and headwear. I was then wearing: A fleece onesie (with quick relief flap), puffy pants, overpants (to protect puffy layer from fire sparks or branch tears), two mid layer jackets, an expedition weight down coat (sadly without a hood), a seriously fuzzy hat (plus a hood from my mid layer), a wool buff, and my anorak. If I was feeling extra chilled I’d take my thick wool blanket-scarf and wear it like a bath towel wrap under my over pants. Nothing like needing to function at -5ºF to throw vanity into the wind.
Water had been boiled, the stove deployed, and I started dinner. It’s really just thawing/frying something tasty and greasy then adding and rehydrating something starchy. For example frozen refried beans with precooked bacon chunks in bacon fat and seasonings. Cooked that until it wasn’t frozen anymore. Then added dried scalloped potatoes and just enough water to rehydrate them.
While I was cooking dinner the fire and firewood was continually tended to. Water bottles were refreshed and drank.
After dinner we tidied up camp so if it snowed overnight we wouldn’t loose things. We took care of personal needs like reducing “AHI!” syndrome (Acute Head Itch) by brushing our hair, or for Will his de-iced mustache. I washed my face with witch hazel soaked cotton pads (that I keep from freezing in a breast pocket). It’s amazing how satisfying its is seeing how much dirt can come off your face.
Then we enjoy our hot cocoa spiked with whiskey. By the way, around -20 whiskey starts looking like caramel. At -30 it becomes an ice slushy.
Then we brush our teeth. It’s the little things that keep you feeling human out there.
There was finally nothing left to do. We snugged up around the fire and began the feet drying process. I took one boot off and put my clean dry wool sock in my anorak pocket. I took off the plastic bag VB (pronounced Veeb) and put it in my day pack pocket. My sopping wet foot and silk liner sock instantly started steaming wildly. We started the roasting foot/sock process. It does seem like how you might roast a marshmallow. Not too fast, not too slow, contort yourself to try to get all the angles. We all had slightly different tactics. I liked to roast my socked foot for a bit before taking the sock off. Then I’d alternate resting my hot bare foot on my boot while drying my sock, and resting my sock while drying my foot. When it would be almost all done I’d put the sock back on to finish it off. With one foot totally dry. I’d put my wool sock back on, and back in my boot and start the process for my other foot.
In the meanwhile Will got the last water boiled just in time for hot water bottles to be ready just as all the feet were dry. It was then time to get in to bed. I’d re-inflate my dying therm-a-rest. Made sure my inflatable camp pillow was set up. Slid my boots off and took off my over pants and placed them neatly at my head. With my bottom half ready to go then I’d squirm into my liner bag (hot water bottles already in there) and get that situated in my down bag. Then I took off my choppers and put them in my bag. Took off my anorak and put it under my day pack. Took off my big puffy coat and stuffed it between my liner bag and down bag. Put on my extra puffy hood over my soft fleece hood and two wool buffs (one around my neck, one for over my eyes and nose). Then I squirmed down into both bags and lined up my wool blanket scarf (nicknamed The Yeti or The Yak). This was to help prevent me from breathing into my sleeping bag and yet still create a buffer of breath warmed air because I can’t stand directly breathing freezing air all night. At this point Will had been cozied down for what seemed like ages and was throughly flabbergasted with all my trashing.
Finally I was down and fished out the voice recorder hanging around my neck and we all reported the comedy of the day. Such as, that morning I couldn’t understand why I had written “Into the noodles” on the bag of granola. Annalesa explained to me that I had really written “Into the woods” and apparently I was loosing my mind.
“Into the noodles!” had become our rallying cry throughout the day.
Then we all passed the fuck out because winter camping is damn exhausting. Until 2am when I had to pee because I always do… and that’s where the cycle starts all over again.
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Maybe it is because I am a nurse, but I seem to be obsessed with toileting in the wild.
There must be a better way for you to pee at 2 AM.
What if you ate more salt? Would you have a little healthy water retention?
What if you drank more in the morning and less in the evening?
I can’t really imagine being properly hydrated (which is also important for saying warm) and not having to pee for 10+ hours. Annalesa preferred to hold it until 6am, but that’s my least favorite time because it’s the coldest point of the day and at that point I’m already struggling to be warm I wouldn’t want to loose any more heat by getting out of my bag. Will manages to pee without leaving his sleeping bag, but that’s not an option for me.