AAR: Introduction to winter camping in Minnesota
Location: Wild River State Park, MN
Date: 03JAN14 through 05JAN14
What was planned?
An intro to 'winter camping basics' course, as well as a bit of fellowship. The goal was to introduce two guys who had never experienced winter camping to the basics and teach them about the gear/equipment needed, skills/tips dealing with extreme cold, and what to expect and what to plan for while out winter camping. Because this trip involved some new folks we decided to keep it close and camp out at Wild River State Park, which would allow the new guys to simply hop in their car(s) and head home if they suddenly decided this wasn't for them or if they had a catastrophic gear failure. Additionally we decided to hot-tent it also purely since some winter gear can be quite expensive and this would allow the flexibility of simply throwing more logs in the stove to keep warm through the night if need be. The basic itinerary was to setup camp Friday evening, do a day trip for Saturday with either xc skiing or snowshoeing, and pack out Sunday sometime.
What actually happened or occurred?
Friday night we arrived at Wild River State Park around 4pm, we had roughly 45 minutes of light left to clear the ground of snow and setup the tent with 3 guys before the sunset. We accomplished setting up the tent just in time for dark and drove back into town to meet our 4th party member for dinner at a local restaurant in North Branch. We almost ate dinner in town first then setup camp, however I'm glad we didn't - lesson: use all available daylight while you can. That evening we hung out in the tent keeping nice and warm (down to our long johns) we went over some basics tips and tricks that night such as a hot water bottle in the bottom of your bag and played some games (farkle - my favorite winter hot tent camping game) until around 11pm.
Saturday we awoke to temps in the single digits, got the fire going, made breakfast (coffee, bacon, and eggs) and eventually emerged from the tent somewhere around 11am. We headed to the rental facility where our 2 newer members rented xc skis. We went back to camp and headed out on ski from there. The day was cut short due to a gear failure with one members rental boot. No big deal, we adjusted and headed back to camp. We made an outdoor fire where we cooked up some brats and beans for lunch. We hung outside most of the evening until after the sunset. We cooked some steaks, mushrooms and fried apples (sautéed with fireball whiskey) outside before finally retiring inside the tent for the evening. Again, we shared stories and finished our farkle tournament bracket. The temperature forecast was -22F for Saturday night so everyone took care to double up on layering if need be and ensured additional layers were within reach if need be - the last think you want it so be looking for your hat or extra socks at 3am in the dark.
Sunday morning, everyone made it through the night just fine even if some people did finally resort to sleeping with socks on. Our newcomers were mildly surprised at how well and warm they slept even though the temperature dipped quite low that night. We again cooked up a hearty breakfast and finally started to pack up all our gear and the tent sometime just before noon. We bundled up with some extra layers and decided to make a short trek snowshoeing down to the river and back. Again, one party member had a catastrophic gear failure with his snowshoes rendering them unusable. One team member decided to snowshoe while the other three of us decided to forgo our snowshoes and simply walk through the woods without them. The air was quite cold with the wind-chill well into the negative double digits - it was really cold. It was one of the few times I had to completely bundle up leaving no skin exposed to the air (my nose and mouth). We eventually made it to the river, snapped some photos went over some brief terrain navigation lessons and all decided to bushwhack our own separate ways back to the trail. It was interesting to see what everyone thought was the "best" route to take back, be it easiest terrain or most direct with rougher terrain. We all made it back to camp, shared our goodbyes and put this adventure into the books.
What was right or wrong with what happened?
The first night one guy inquired about a "fireguard duty" and how we were working out the shifts to keep the fire going through the night, I laughed and told him if he wanted to keep the fire going all night he was more than welcome to - after looking at me puzzled then a bit alarmed he ended up sleeping just fine even if the fire did eventually die out. We're all capable of a lot more than we think we are, this is not limited to simply sleeping in cold weather. While I myself have a -40F down sleeping bag that cost 2 arms and 1 leg I assure you this new guy slept just fine in the 2 sleeping bags he borrowed from a buddy and put inside one another - lesson; nice gear is awesome but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you paid for it, it matters that it works.
One guy suffered a gear failure of his [rental] XC ski boot; it was worn out and over sized causing his ankle to continually roll. Big deal? not in our situation but if he had rented gear then taken all this out to the BWCA for a week-long trip and this was his main mode of transportation he would've been screwed. lesson - doesn't matter if you own it or if you rent it, test everything before you need it when it really counts.
Another guy brought some new boots that appeared great - the problem is they were a little too small after he tossed on some thick wool socks and they were a bit stiff. The problem with stiff boots is that if your feet and toes do not articulate the blood doesn't flow as well and thus you end up with cold toes. You want to ensure that footwear is large enough to allow for additional layering of socks, if it’s too tight and the socks get squished you lose the insulating value of them. Also you want to make sure your toes can articulate well so that they promote blood flow and thus warmer toes. lesson; nothing more than wanting to promote Steger Mukluks and how awesome and comfortable they are.
Due to the relaxed nature of this trip we didn't really push an agenda, it was mostly about getting new people introduced to winter camping. We sat in the tent a lot, we ate a lot, didn't get out of the tent in the morning until late and thus we probably didn't get out and do as much as many of us would've hoped. Additionally camping at a state park is kind of lame (in my humble opinion) when your car is only about 30' away and you can drive up to the trail center to use their heated bathroom if you desire. Due to the luxuries offered there are a lot of things you're not forced to deal with, we accepted this as a trade off for having to deal with the harsher conditions of the true backcountry and potentially scaring anyone new away.
What can be done to make the process better?
While ultimately it’s a vacation, an agenda with a timeline may have got us moving out of the tent earlier in the day. Also if we had properly checked all gear prior to the activity we may have been able to stay out longer on Saturday and feel like we had done more. We ate like kings, I personally can't complain about sitting in my long johns and eating bacon all morning drinking coffee but everyone has different expectations as well. As we gain more new folks and do these 'intro' events for a weekend we build the base of people interested and willing thus allowing us to plan a trip geared for those with experience who want to spend a week out in the backcountry in the middle of winter. While I'm a fairly experienced winter camper I still had a great time introducing new people to the awesomeness that is winter camping.
I still like this way of introducing new people to winter camping, they get to see things in action and are able to gain trust in their gear with being able to sleep down into subzero temps while having the safety net of being able to hop in their car 30' away and drive to the trail center to warm up should the absolutely feel the need to and hate it. Thankfully everyone that attended was pretty hardy and resilient and likely didn't need that safety net at all. Winter is ultimately what you make of it, I see so many people cry and moan about the snow and the cold temperatures however I feel like if you start doing things in the snow and cold such as skiing, snowshoeing, camping or anything else it really is quite enjoyable out there. There is nothing like the deafening silence of the woods in the winter, the small amount of brightly colored berries that are still holding onto the trees in contrast and the occasional animal or bird you run across.
Weekend Winter Camping Trip at Wild River State Park in Minnesota [Video]