Winter solo backpacking (Ultralight in the Nation’s Icebox) over 380 miles in just 16 days in northern Minnesota is really something! Andrew Skurka does do the dream and he leaves a trail that would be hard to follow. There is a lot of winter campers in Minnesota, but I have never heard of any of them doing what he has done. Probably too busy ice fishing.
Andrew Skurka missed the really cold weather by about two weeks. On Monday morning, Feb. 5th Embarrass, Minnesota registered forty-two degrees below zero. Which was almost twenty degrees warmer than their all time record of sixty below zero that they proudly share with the nearby town of Virginia. That is a bit nippy. No bugs.
“Never mess up, ever” says Andrew Skurka. He is exactly right; you could die out there.
So I have to question some of the choices Andrew made. What would have been the outcome of “cowboy camping” and not putting up a tent at forty below? At 59.5 degrees below zero? With the wind picking up and snowing sideways? To follow in the snowy footprints of those who lead the way we should be able to learn from them and maybe do things better.
Shelter: Tent staking in frozen ground? The good people at Kifaru have been using 40-penney nails to stake out their tipis on lake ice for years. Then they go inside the tipi and light their wood stoves. It must work, as there is a great amount of winter camping feedback on their huge web site from folks doing just that in Alaska, Russian Siberia and other equally balmy places.
Kifaru tarp/tipi and stove backpacking combos start at about three pounds and probably would come in at between 5.5 and 7.5 pounds for an completely enclosed tent set up for deep winter solo work. Subtract out the weight of all that fuel and the other stove that you would have carried for snow melting and cooking and just use some the gazillions of tons of BTUs that Minnesota provides for free in any of their forests. Minnesota is not above tree line. Total pack weight should remain about the same or close to it. Think about it-hot coffee and warm boots in the morning as you dry out your sleeping bag. And packing nothing wet and heavy.
There is less feedback information on their web site, but Titanium Goat backpacking tipi/stove setups come in even lighter by a pound or two than Kifaru. Their Vortex cylinder stove at less than two pounds is very interesting. So would be one of their tipis made with thermal/solar reflective Reflect-Tex fabric.
Clothing and footwear: My winter trip would begin in Ely-at least figurative. My first stop would be at Steger Mukluks to cut my boot weight down to about two pounds with a pair of their Artic or Yukon mukluks and have them show me how to use them with snowshoes and ice crampons. Then down the street to Wintergreen for one of their anoraks and some good advice on what other clothing works best for all the winter camping trips they outfit. Like how to protect your nose and face in truly artic conditions. A shakedown winter trip with Wintergreen or one of the other Ely winter camping outfitters might be a very wise way to begin. They are all into dog sledding big time but also speak backpacking.
Wintergreen has another store in Duluth, which is also the home of Empire Works, another good source of the kind of winter clothing/gear we need.
Vapor barrier liners (VBL): Here is where everyone lines up and chooses sides. I have no idea. Take your pick of the experts. Test it for yourself on that shakedown trip.
“Vapor barrier liners are essential for winter comfort and safety,” says Andrew Skurka and it seems to work quite well for him and many others. Stephenson’s www.warmlite.com would be a good place to start for more information on VBL.
“A Snow Walker’s/Winter Wilderness Companion” authors Garrett and Alexandra Conover compare it to living in a “a swamp” and opine that northern native peoples do not find VBL essential and have been doing quite well without it for the past ten thousand years. The authors also don’t trust zippers and non-breathable sil-nylon tents. They probably would suggest that you throw your ultra lightweight backpack onto a toboggan along with an Egyptian cotton winter tent and a really big air tight wood stove.
My own list of less than one-ounce winter gear: A plane ticket to Belize.