5 Winter Camping Lessons

As Will and I are getting ready for our ninth winter camping adventure in mid February, I should share a story from once upon a time… 

In February 2020, right before the end of the world as we knew it. Back when you could sit elbow to elbow at a bar, try a friends beer, and share close quarters with someone outside your own household… Will and I took a dear friend Glen on his first winter camping experience.

It was fantastic.  It was almost easy.  I don’t know if winter camping can ever really be Type 1 Fun considering how much work it is and how much opportunity there is for things to go wrong. Yet Will and I have built up enough experience and have our systems so dialed that things went a little too well.  I was afraid that after all our warning Glen of how challenging winter camping would be that the experience went too smoothly to impart any valuable lessons.  

Hahaha! How foolish of me! Of course there were lessons learned!

Lesson 1 – Everything takes longer.

Partially because of the snow and your mittens and all the extra gear.  Always on day one when you’re transitioning to trail life.  Certainly when it’s a new experience.  Everything takes forever.

Glen took his first steps on trail when his ski binding got maddeningly stuck.  Ten minutes after finally getting moving again he took his first (of many) snowy falls on a portage.  An hour later his z-rest (sleeping pad) escaped from his pulk (sled) and we all backtracked to rescue it.  Nine years ago when Will and I first started winter camping we were a comical mess of falling down with things flying off our pulks.  We were stopping ALL THE TIME to reattach gear and get our skis back underneath us.

Until you have specific experience, plan your time and distances conservatively.

Lesson 2 – Deprivations become luxuries.

Ahhhhh, the luxury of sitting.  On anything.  Even when, or especially when it’s a bench you labored to craft out of snow.  It might be of questionable height, and have no back support, or arm rests, and be uneven, but when you’ve been moving constantly for eight hours and it’s all you have it might be so delightful you lay down on it and hug your flask of whiskey.

Ahhhhh, the luxury of hot food.  After snacking all day on partially frozen bites of cheese, sausage and chocolate, putting hot soft food to your cold lips is heavenly.

You’ll never be so satisfied as you can be when you have so little.

Lesson 3 – Travel as a team.

While we all have different preferred paces, in the backcountry in the winter we stay together.  It’s supper important to watch out for each other and communicate.  Minor irritants that you ignore in the city or on summer trips can become major hazards in the winter woods.

I saw that Glen’s waist band of his pants were wet with sweat.  We stopped so he could re-layer set up to dry out his back.  I was slowing down and feeling tired and crabby.  It was an early indication that I was getting cold and hadn’t had enough to eat or drink.  We stopped to help me re-layer and refuel.  Both of these situations seemed minor at the time, but if they had been ignored could have snowballed (ha ha) into serious safety problems.

When the conditions are challenging and the stakes are high, community teamwork is far safer than competitive individualism. 

Lesson 4 – Things change.

The forecast is rarely 100% accurate.  We set out for a mild day but then a strange strong south wind made us work harder to find a protected camp spot.  We set up a really snug camp spot just in time for the wind to die down.  

You can only plan so much. And even those plans will have to change. Which is why sometimes the best plan is “Have fun. Don’t die.” The best plans keep you from dying. The best trips have some Type 2 Fun where things are miserably challenging at the time (but there’s no major permanent damage like death) and make a great story later.

Lesson 5 – Know when to GTFO!

Whether you’re a polar explorer or just weekend adventure seeker, sometimes the most important thing to know is when to Get The Fuck Out!

Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.  But it’s just as important to know when it’s not worth it to stick it out.

On our 5th morning we were getting blasted by wind and cold.  Doing our normal 3 hour morning of fire, boiling water, breakfast, teeth brushing, pooping, etc was just not worth it.  We had gone to bed knowing that this was a possibility, so we were prepared for a Voyager start and got out of camp in just one hour.

Have plans and procedures for a variety of situations. It’s great to have all the leisurely comforts available but it’s just as important to quickly shift gears so mild inconvenience doesn’t become absolute train wreck.

After the crazy uncertainty in so many facets of life in the last year, Will and I are so grateful to be able to continue our tradition of winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Hopefully come March I’ll be regaling you with this years adventure stories.

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