Into the Wild is the story of a young man who—spoiler alert—dies in the wild. (It’s the same tale, book or movie.)
Because of this young man, Christopher McCandless, there is now something called the McCandless effect. It involves people who are not properly prepared, and wander out into the woods and get lost, hurt or worse.
With that in mind, please treat this story as only an introduction to winter camping, not an all encompassing ‘how to.’
While winter camping may not be for everyone, I recommend trying it at least once. It is the purest form of outdoor experiences. One has to be in tune with their body, mind, and surroundings.
Nothing quite compares to the absolute silence of camping in the cold during the most misunderstood season. There is a tranquility that is incomparable to the still of winter. It is both an experience and a state of mind. Meditating on a mountainside has nothing on meditating in the middle of a frozen lake while the natural world sleeps all around.
I was a wilderness guide for several years. In the summer, there was mostly canoe and hiking trips. In the winter, it was cross country skiing, dogsledding and, every once in a while, winter camping. Of all the experiences I’ve had in the outdoors, winter camping is the most challenging.
Plan an activity
One always needs an activity while winter camping. Mainly because standing around in the snow decreases life expectancy quite rapidly. I would cross country ski as it was a great way to get around the terrain.But first, there was a house that needed building.
Start the house
A quinzhee (or quinzee) is a pile of snow that you hollow out and sleep in. Basically, one piles snow about five feet high, jams a bunch of arm length twigs in it, then goes for a boot on your skis and looks for a nice place to have lunch while the night abode settles.
Traversing the bush on skis in the winter is a completely different experience than hiking in the summer or fall. The trip is smoother and less jarring. Everything looks the same when covered in snow, but it is so very different. It is bigger, exaggerated, like it is proud of itself for existing in this extreme. It looks comfortable and cared for, like looking at a sleeping child.
Start a fire
I always had a fire with lunch. Huddled at the edge of the forest, looking out at a lake and gathering wood was like a ritualistic celebration.
For the most part, my trip mates and I would silently sip our stew or soup or hot chocolate and stare out at the frozen lake hypnotized. There wasn’t a lot of talking on these trips actually. Nervous people would sometimes banter on, but as they got comfortable, they would become introspective. The stillness of it all has that effect—even on the most chatty high school kid.
After lunch, we would continue on back to the camp. A quiet sobriety took hold as we floated back to where we started. Watching the sun cross it’s apex one would start to anticipate the cold night. At this point, one’s body is tired from a day’s work, yet there is still much to do. This is the tough part, especially if it is storming.
Build your house
Digging out a quinzee is fun but one has to be aware that if they are going to get wet, this is the time. Taking shifts with the other people in the group is a good way to keep everyone in check, and to get everyone involved. After all, this will be home for the night.
Using the sticks as a thickness guide for your walls and roof (stop digging when you find a stick), you will hollow out your structure. When it is done being hollowed out, it will resemble an Ingloo. Inside, it is very quiet. Like a tomb. But I never said that outloud. People get a little weird about that.
Then a tarp is thrown in and spread out, add some sleeping pads, then unroll the sleeping bags and jam them inside. I’d usually dig some holes in the sides and light some candles. You know, for ambiance (and warmth).
Look at the stars
Right before bed, have another fire and another snack. This is a great time for stargazing. The clarity and depth of the night sky is enough to paralyze the mind. I’ll never forget those nights as the moon, the stars and satellites are all at their most defined. I would usually feel selfish—like the stars were all for me. Like nobody had ever seen them before. It is hard to explain.
Then one crawls into the snow house, leaving the boots at the door —because that’s good manners—and into a sleeping bag. Shoulder to shoulder the trip mates lay, keeping each other warm. There are attempts at conversation, but usually people are asleep as soon as they zip up.
Morning comes. After a few self inflicted slaps to the face and the corralling of bravery, one throws on as much clothing as they can—as fast as they can—and do the day all over again. Breakfast never tasted so good.
To Pack: Clothing
You are outside, in the snow, for a long time. Period. This means having to stay dry. If you get wet, you’ll get sick or worse. One doesn’t want to get sick and be a burden on your trip mates, this is a recipe for danger. So, what do you pack?
• Base layers (underwear): Synthetic clothing is great here. You need something that dries fast but can also wick (pull water) away from your skin. Merino wool and other less abrasive wools are great for this. Also, don’t worry about getting stinky. You’ll get stinky. But you’ll be warm and comfy.
Socks are in the same boat as your base layers. Also, remember to change your socks when you can because blisters are killers. While winter camping, you constantly need to be moving in order to keep warm. A good base layer is a great building block for this.
• Secondary layers: These are layers that can be added or removed depending on how warm/cold you are. Again, wools and synthetics are the best way to go here. Never, ever, wear cotton. The saying ‘cotton kills’ is very true for winter camping. Cotton just stays wet and cools the body making it burn unnecessary calories that would be otherwise used keeping you warm. Two secondary layers are recommended for the torso, one for the lower extremities.
• Outer layers: Toque, gloves, boots, facemask (if windy) and that type of thing. Gloves and boots should be waterproof and easily removable. Gloves for manipulating gear and whatnot, boots for putting on cross-country ski boots or other types of activity based footwear. Remember, boots work better the farther they keep you off the ground. Warm and frilly faux-fur around your calves means nothing if your feet are too close to the earth. Your jacket should be wind and water resistant. A shell is excellent in these occasions.
I will reiterate that it is imperative to talk to an experienced winter camper. This isn’t anything to be taken lightly.
• An odawban is basically a gear sled that you drag behind you while snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. You can carry your food and supplies with you. Also, if someone were to get hurt, this works great as a makeshift stretcher. Remember, just because it is big doesn’t mean you should over pack it. That makes it a burden.
You can always snowshoe while winter camping, but I prefer cross country skiing.
• Avalanche shovels are great for digging out your quinzee.
• Smaller backpacks for taking emergency clothes and snacks are great for day excursions.
• A leatherman multi-tool is also something I recommend.
• Try to prep every meal before leaving on your trip when you can. Stews, chili, hearty soups—these are all great options. While you can try to make meals from scratch when outside, it is much easier to just thaw a meal in a pot rather than thaw all the ingredients in order to prepare them.
• If you are packing snacks, remember that foods with fat in them don’t freeze as much as low-fat options. For example, breaking your teeth on a frozen apple is a pretty big bummer compared to having to overly masticate a chocolate bar.
• Bannock (white or whole wheat flour, baking powder, sugar, lard and water or milk, mixed and fried in a pan) with high energy foods thrown in are a great one-pan-fry breakfast. Chocolate chips, raisins, nuts—that type of thing. Pre-bagged mix will make this a lot easier.
• Plan your meals depending on your trip length. My trips usually involved two nights three days. This means a lot of bannock and stew. If the bannock from breakfast was frozen by lunch, then simply dipping the bread in hot soup is a simple solution.
Tips and tricks for staying warm
• 80 percent of your body heat is lost through the head—so keep the noggin covered, or uncovered if one is overheating.
• Pee your way to warmth! Your body burns calories keeping your urine warm in your bladder. Save those calories for yourself by peeing regularly.
• Chocolate is a great boost of calories, but not healthy over the long term. Proteins are where it’s at.
• Understand your body. If you are sweating, then it is too late (not really, but close). You need to know when you are getting too hot in order to de-layer. You want to regulate your body heat and keep yourself functioning at optimum levels.