I want to set the record straight from the start. Though I live in Minnesota I am NOT a native Minnesotan, though I confess to having adopted the state as “home”. The locals consider me a bit strange, however, when I tell them that snow is a novelty! As a native of South Carolina, snow was a cause for cancelling school (always a good thing, right?) though the grownups seemed to sigh at the mess and the travel problems because roadway snow removal wasn’t even a possibility.
Nearly 20 years ago, I moved north to the Twin Cities and began my journey into real winter (defined as the season when the snow doesn’t melt…’bout 5-6 months of that here). We get a lot of winter in Minnesota so there’s plenty of opportunity to learn to use a snow shovel, run a snowblower, drive on slick streets, walk (and fall) on icy sidewalks and even get out for some cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. I decided that ice-skating was out of my league, so I’ve not pursued that sport at all, to the derision of my growing-up-playing-hockey neighbors.
Up until this year, I’ve let the serious winter snow and cold take me off the trails and out of the woods at night, a semi-hibernation so to speak. Part of that was logical since all my hiking and camping gear was oriented to warmer season weather, defined as weather warm enough to permit a tent stake to actually enter the non-frozen soil. Earlier this year, I made the leap from ground-dweller to hammock-hanger. What fun! What comfort! What a lot of new gear to buy/mod/play with!! I’ve learned from the Hammock Forums about underquilts and whoopie slings, weather shields, top covers, top quilts, amsteel, snakeskins, marlin spike hitches and well, you get the idea! I was managing all that quite well until I saw Shug’s videos on cold weather hanging, particularly the one where he and Kurt were out at -23 degrees F. I had never seriously considered such a thing, though winter “cold camping” wasn’t a completely foreign concept (for other people, of course!).
“Self”, I said, “you could keep having your hammock fun even when it’s cold. Like Shug! Like Kurt!” Yeah right, but then I began thinking through what it would take to actually deal with the cold. You know where this leads, right? Right! More gear!! We already know that most (all?) hammockers are gearaholics, so there’s no confessional value to that. Nevertheless, I’ll offer some of my winter gear acquisition “journey” for whatever value it may offer someone else.
What I already have that’s good for winter:
1. Tubbs snowshoes (the “Mountaineer” kind (9"x30”) made of aluminum and with a rubberized fabric decking and serious metal crampons underneath). I still remember my shock the first time I stepped off the trail with those in northern Minnesota and immediately went crotch-deep in the snow! So much for flotation, eh?
2. Sorel Caribou Pac Boots. These are big and heavy and have a removable liner (critical for being able to dry the liners for longer trips). FWIW, at temperatures above 15 degrees, my feet sweat too much in these boots, and I get cold feet as a result.
3. Wind Parka and Fleece Parka from Wintergreen Designs (http://www.wintergreennorthernwear.com/). These are GREAT garments for actually being active outdoors for long periods. They are a big part of my layering system.
4. Down Parka – "Baltoro" parka by North Face, an eBay special purchase at a great price. This is actually too warm for any active use even in Minnesota, but finds its value in what to wear when NOT active. I also have a Feathered Friends Volant parka with removable hood. The Volant is shorter than the Baltoro, but an equivalent level of insulation. It’s a superbly made garment, though its sizing runs small (my XXL is the equivalent of an XL in everything else I own).
5. Multiple sets of light to medium weight long underwear (various brands including Smartwool, REI and Patagonia, all good). These have been the foundation of my winter jogging outfits, cross-country skiing and most anything else in the cold.
6. Hats, gloves, balaclavas, mittens, ear warmers, face masks. I have too many of these to actually count by now, in all sorts of weights from serious Granite Gear Expedition Mitts to Dachstein Alpine wool mittens to polypro glove liners to fleece balaclavas to army surplus wool glove liners. My year-round jogging and walks around the Twin Cities lakes gave me lots of experience in juggling these in varying combinations.
7. Other fleece – vests, pullovers, jackets. This is pretty standard stuff, but enables good layering options.
8. Hammock - I have a Warbonnet Blackbird, supplemented with an OES MacCat Deluxe Tarp and a WB Yeti UQ.
9. Sleeping bag – I have a 35 degree WM Caribou and a 25 degree WM Sycamore. (http://www.westernmountaineering.com/) These bags are just super well-made and light for their rating. Western Mountaineering is pricey, but a good long term investment. All my sleeping bags were bought used on eBay for 50-60% of MSRP.
10. Sleeping pad – Thermarest NeoAir Large.
11. Various and sundry other backpacking bits including packs, hydration bladders, alcohol stove cook kit, rain gear, etc. appropriate for 3 season usage.
With that as a start, I began to confront what life at zero degrees F. or below would require.
1. Something to carry all the extra cold-weather bulk and weight.
2. More/better insulation for sleeping, both above and below the hammock.
3. Better tarp for dealing with wind. Wind chill is a serious issue and becomes a real safety concern at 20 degrees and below. I love my MacCat Deluxe, but the hex cut leaves the ends open to the wind.
4. System for keeping water liquid (not frozen). I already have Nalgene wide-mouth bottles, but have heretofore abandoned them in converting to lightweight travel.
5. Cooking system that works when canister stoves won’t light and alcohol loses much of its oomph. (AHA! I remembered that I have my trusty MSR Dragonfly from many moons ago before I knew how to spell lightweight! And I still have the stainless steel cook set for it!)
6. Tweaking of my clothing choices for active trail bashing (when you’re more likely to be sweating even at minus-a-bunch) and for being in camp with 16 hours of darkness when you’re standing/sitting/lying around.
7. Footwear tweaking – the Sorel Caribous are good for shoveling the driveway, but not so nifty for actually travelling any distance by foot. YMMV.
8. Food choices that won’t freeze and thereby become inedible. No more Clif Bars, f’rinstance.
9. Snowshoe tweaking – the Mountaineer (bear paw style) Tubbs are good, even necessary for icy, mixed snow conditions, and hilly trails, but not so great for deep snow on unbroken trail, and definitely at a disadvantage for lake travel. Northern Minnesota has great lakes in the BWCA for winter travel…think Ice Road Truckers on foot!
10. Tools for winter life in the snow. You know, things like a small snow shovel, saw, axe, nippers. Good for wood gathering, firewood splitting, etc.
You can guess what’s next. It’s my journey toward solving these winter requirements. But first…I needed to do some self-education.
1. Internet information sources
a. Snow Walker’s Companion (Garret and Alexandra Conover)
b. Paradise Below Zero (Calvin Rustrum)
c. The Winter Camping Handbook (Stephen Gorman)
d. Winter Hiking and Camping (Michael Lanza)
Part of what I’ve learned (broad lessons):
a. Winter Camping Symposium (see http://www.wintercampers.com/2009/08...ing-symposium/
) This annual event (last weekend in October) is fun and filled with seminars, presentations and workshops about gear, technique and how-to. For 2010, this event will occur at YMCA Camp Miller on the shores of Sturgeon Lake, south of Duluth, MN (date TBA).
b. Winter Rendezvous (Sawmill Park, Washburn County, WI, February 5-7, 2010).
c. Winter camping and travel (ski, snowshoe, skijoring, dogsledding) classes at Midwest Mountaineering (http://www.midwestmtn.com
d. Dogsledding and guided winter trips. e.g. www.dogsledding.com
1. There is no ONE solution to these questions or gear choice issues.
2. The biggest “problem” to manage is overheating! Overheating from being active while wearing more clothing than needed causes perspiration. Perspiration increases heat loss by up to 20 times and can make your time in the cold both miserable AND dangerous.
3. Don’t wear cotton next to your skin!
4. Many gear choices are dictated by where you travel (hills vs lakes vs mountains) and the weather. Even with that figured out, snow conditions can vary dramatically and wind can turn a pleasant day into a real struggle.
5. Winter campers around here (Minnesota, Ontario, Wisconsin) have a high proportion of “hot tent” campers who use toboggans to carry canvas tents, wood-burning stoves, cots and other sybaritic accoutrements that make camping a very manageable and even comfortable experience. With their 120 pound loads on sleds or toboggans, they tend to choose travel on the many BWCA lakes (fewer hills!).
6. Never take your safety for granted. Ice travel on lakes has a host of special risk factors that must be acknowledged and addressed. That’s worth a lot more attention, but I don’t expect to focus my travel on lakes. Consequently, I’ll table that topic for now.
7. The gear-suppliers for winter camping and travel are mostly cottage-industry players who actually make the stuff they sell and are happy to talk or email you about their gear. What’s more, they actually use their gear and are experienced winter campers.
8. Start small. Sleep in your backyard or a local park to test your insulation and sleeping gear. Fix a meal on your patio in the cold! Don’t make your first winter trip a week-long backwoods odyssey UNLESS you’re being shepherded by a knowledgeable mentor.
Here’s what I’ve been adding to my gear “closet”.
1. Load carrying: Ski Pulk – I found a 10 year old Granite Gear ski pulk, about 4 feet long (made by Great Outdoors, now owned by Ed Bouffard in St. Cloud, MN at www.skipulk.com) on Craig’s List. I bought it for a reasonable outlay and had to add a new waistbelt harness ($50) and aluminum fins ($15) (bought from Ed Bouffard). While this won’t carry the loads needed for week-long extended travel, it should be good for my weekend long outings. I expect to have a small backpack for a down parka and other “trail” items, but the ski pulk will haul all the heavy stuff.
2. Bottom Insulation for Hammock: Ah, yes. Think layers. I have a JRB MW4 UQ for as my “base” bottom insulation. I haven’t tested the low range for this, but something in the single digits should be reasonable. Additionally, I have (a) an Exped Downmat 7 DLX (R-rating of about 6), (b) Ridgerest Deluxe cut into two pieces (one for shoulders, one for feet and legs). All of that together should be good down to Shug’s legendary -23 degrees!! My 3 Season Yeti may have a role here as well, but I have to experiment to see what works.
3. Top insulation: I got another eBay bargain on a WM Antelope 5 degree sleeping bag. With the Sycamore (25 degree bag) as an additional top quilt, I think I’ll have plenty o’down to get to -20 or so. I’ve also added Paul Gibson’s BBO version of Fin’s top cover to gain a few more degrees of comfort and wind protection. (www.arrowheadequipment.webs.com ) At some point if I come across a minus-30 or minus-40 degree bag (used) that I can afford, I’ll probably buy one.
4. Winter Tarp: I’ve ordered a Winter Dreams tarp from Scott Littlefield at www.backwoodsdaydreamer.webs.com. With the ability to close the ends of the tarp to deal with wind, I think this is a good solution for me. Others are successful with DIY tarps (e.g. the Black Cat modded with doors), the Speer Winter Tarp or with Warbonnet’s Supertarp. Brian at OES is still in his R&D mode for winter tarps, but I have hope for his offerings in the future once he crawls out from under a crushing academic load this semester.
5. Keeping water from freezing. I have two Granite Gear insulated water bottle holders for Nalgene 1 liter bottles. Outdoor Research makes a similar product, but they can also be easily DIY-made from CCF and duck tape. I will also take both a 1 liter stainless thermos (from Nissan) and a 2 quart stainless thermos (from Stanley). Melted snow is heated to boiling before filling these, but 5 liters is a pretty good day’s supply. Helpful hint…store your Nalgene bottles upside down so that any ice that forms will be at the “bottom” of the bottle rather than at the lid.
6. Cooking System: I have the basics, an MSR Dragonfly stove with the Trillium base (to keep it from sinking into the snow), but I need to add fuel bottles for the heavy fuel consumption demands of both cooking and melting snow. I’ll have to experiment a bit to determine just how much fuel is “enough”, but experienced campers are suggesting 1-1 1/2 liters of white gas per day should be about right for a solo tripper. That seems like a lot, but I’ll find out, eh? My cookpots are bigger than needed for 3-season solo travel, but snow melting needs volume.
7. Tweaking Clothing Choices: I’ve purchased a canvas (!) parka from Kevin Kinney at Empire Canvas (www.empirecanvasworks.com). It’s virtually identical to his Arctic Anorak, but has a front zipper. It’s a product he doesn’t normally make, but he had one already made up from earlier production so I got a bit of a deal on it. As strange as it may seem, in severe cold, sub-freezing weather, cotton canvas is both highly breathable and wind-resistant, allowing water vapor from sweating to pass to the outside and form up as frost on the outside of the outer layer (where you want it). I can’t quite swing the cost of the coyote fur ruff for it yet, so I’ll have to make do without one for the time being. Real fur is expensive! For my legs, I purchased a pair of Cabela’s Legacy Wool Pants as an outerlayer over my mid-weight Capilene bottoms. My down booties (from Sierra Designs) will definitely go along and into the sleeping bag with me!
Additional “new” things to keep on hand for addressing very low temperatures combined with wind include a neoprene face mask and ski goggles. While not usually needed, these items can take care of covering the last bits of exposed flesh in challenging wind/cold conditions. My shorthand summary on this is that if you need these items because of the conditions, there isn’t a good substitute. And, as a footnote, the struggles of keeping my eyeglasses fog-free and ice-free in really low temps are epic! One winter travel instructor I know flat out doesn’t wear his eyeglasses below -10 degrees F. “Not worth the effort”, he says.
8. Footwear Tweaking: At the recent Winter Camping Symposium, Kevin Kinney had his full product line on display. I fell head-over-heels in gear lust for his True North Boots (http://empirecanvasworks.com/truenorthboots.htm). He’s making a pair of 20” high boots to my measurements. This will be a lighter (for sure) and probably warmer solution to footwear than my Sorel Caribou boots. The tall (knee-high) height will let me bypass the need for OR Crocodile Gaiters.
9. Food choices: This is an on-going learning process, but based on some recommendations from others, certain items are really handy and can handle the cold. Examples are Kit Kat bars and Oreos. One “easy” cold-weather food test is to put any snack or food item into your freezer overnight, then try to eat it while it’s still cold. That’s educational! Hot chocolate is a BIG plus (warmth AND calories, yum!)
10. Snowshoes & skis: For now, I’m bypassing the choice of backcountry skis. Since I expect my trips to be on hilly, non-lake terrain, skis would be a poor choice in woods and steep hills. Maybe someday. The key for any additional footwear is FLOTATION for handling the powdery snow typical of northern Minnesota. What’s on my wish-list for now is a pair of Faber Sport Tight Lacing snowshoes (16”x 48”) (http://www.fabersnowshoes.com/pls/pr...pe_acce=PUBLIC) with Work Harness bindings. Those will supplement but not replace my Tubbs snowshoes for some snow conditions where I need more flotation. Good backcountry ski solutions are few and far between for big guys like me (6’5”, 215 lbs) and require both ski/boot/binding combinations designed for the demands of backwoods travel. Most experienced users like the 3 pin Nordic bindings, but that requires matching boots that won’t work with snowshoes. You can also use Berwin bindings (http://www.akers-ski.com/Merchant2/m...Code=bcbinding) but that offers a bit less control of the ski and is reportedly more prone to breaking where the plastic bends. The skis that have caught my eye are the Karhu XCD 10th Mountain Division skis. These have full metal edges, a bit of camber and can handle varying backcountry snow/trail conditions. They are about the widest skis (flotation again!) I’ve found that are suitable for striding. Winter travelers on lakes prefer skis as the more efficient choice for travel, generally faster and less overall effort than snowshoes.
11. Tools for winter camping
a. Saw – I’ve added a Silky Saws BigBoy 2000 (http://www.silkystore.com/Catalog/Fo...ra-Large-Teeth
) to my gear. Big enough to really cut stuff, but still somewhat manageable in size. If you want the biggest, go for the Silky Katanaboy 500!! More power!!! I also have a folding Sven Saw that could go along.
b. Axe – I’ll take along a basic full-sized axe. I personally think short-handled axes or hatchets are accidents waiting to happen, but YMMV. I have scars to prove this point! Some like the newer Fiskars or Gerber axes, but they are pricey.
c. Shovel – I have a collapsible snow shovel with an aluminum blade that I bought from REI years ago. While this isn’t the model I have, this will give you an idea of something similar (http://www.rei.com/product/761271
d. More fuel bottles. I’ll need to carry enough fuel for cooking and melting snow. The “large” MSR bottle carries about 1 liter each (33 oz bottle with 30 oz of fuel). I’m guessing one per day but that’s to be determined.
e. My Ridgerest pad can serve as an impromptu seat or kneeling pad in the snow, keeping my butt and knees dry. Sitting on the loaded sled for breaks also works.
f. I’m thinking I’ll get a legal sized clipboard and use it as a cooking platform for the MSR Dragonfly stove. It’s big enough for the stove and the fuel bottle.
g. Candle Lantern: I have a one-candle version, but the 3 candle ones put out more usable levels of light for those long nights.
h. Thermometer: I have a pocket-sized thermometer for ski waxing guidance that’ll go with me. The fancy ones (like the Brunton ADC) don’t measure anything below -14 degrees (the batteries freeze), so expensive doesn’t mean good here. I may take a cheap electronic indoor/outdoor thermometer since I can keep the battery with the display with me where it’s warm enough to function. The remote probe can go outside where it’s REALLY cold!
i. Snowstakes: I’ve picked up a half-dozen of the SMC snow stakes (http://www.rei.com/product/358111
) that will work with my tarp in the snow. I think I'll need a few more than six, though.
j. Chemical hand-warmers and foot-warmers: I’ll take along some of these as “back up”, but I hope I won’t have to use them.
k. Yet to be determined if this is needed department
i. Silk sleeping bag liner. I can see the benefits of keeping your bag cleaner with these, but I’m a bit skeptical of the 8-10 degrees of additional warmth they promise.
ii. Hammock undercover. I’ve been thinking of a custom or DIY undercover of Momentum 90 fabric to go on the outside of the MW4 UQ for supplemental protection/coverage. Maybe. Paul Gibson has been trading emails with me about this. Maybe.
iii. Fixed blade knife. I know a lot of HF members swear by their choice of fixed blade knife for batoning of wood and other bushcraft uses, but I’m not sure this adds much to the capabilities of everything else to justify the expense and taking along one more thing.
Well, that’s it for now. It’s early November and the real winter isn’t here yet. I’ll do gear reviews and updates as weather and my outings permit.
Share your "journey" into winter! What works for you?