Winter Camping in the North
On the days where many cozy up in front of the fire with a hot toddy or snuggle in bed all day watching the snow gather peacefully on their windowpanes, there are cold weather adventurers with other plans. They don’t shy from the blistering chill—they meet it by pulling on layers upon layers of thermals and zipping their down coats up to their chins to hike out into the wilderness. Although Minnesotans have learned to appreciate the (seemingly endless) nine months of winter, many of us stick to the traditional outdoor activities we were introduced to as children. We may have braved the bitter cold in order to trade in stir-craze for the excitement of skiing down steep slopes in fresh powder or snowshoeing across vast frozen lakes, there is more adventure to be had. To break out of that winter rut that consumes many of us, it’s time to bundle up and pitch a tent in the snow!
In the height of the winter, I stepped off down a trail with my snowshoes and backpack to seek out the adventures of winter camping. With the invitation of a friend came the opportunity to learn firsthand what made up the joys and hardships of winter camping; I wanted to understand how and why people become such diehard campers in subzero weather! With no better way to learn than to delve right in, a trip was planned up the northern shore of Lake Superior.
As an avid outdoorswoman, packing for summer camping trips was down to a science, but with temperatures dipping into the negative double digits all that I had known about camping was flipped upside down. Normally, backpacking is all about packing the lightest possible to avoid breaking your back while out on the trail, but with a solid snow pack, a sled would allow us to pack what we needed (and more!) without breaking our backs. Our tent resembled one that a furbearer might have used in the early days of America’s colonization. Made of thick canvas, our wall tent was outfitted with heat resistant gusset for stovepipe, so that a small wood stove could heat our tiny new abode. With the sled packed to the brim, we rigged up some straps to pull it as we went, with a friend in the rear to help push up steep slopes.
Being out on the trail was about all about efficiency. It was about learning how to layer so that you wouldn’t ever over heat or freeze at any exact moment. It was about knowing that cold air sinks, so finding the highest point in the area would keep you warmest throughout the night. It was about accepting that this isn’t easy, but it was the challenge that made it worthwhile.
With intentions of hiking into remote campsites, we needed to pick locations that would provide us with an ample supply of wood to survive the night. Securing a campsite near large stands of hardwoods allowed us to find dead and down that would burn slow through the night. After exhausting the forest of its tinder, I was drawn to the setting sun on the shore to try my luck with driftwood. I’d come back to camp with weathered logs dragging on either side of me; I had succeeded and we would be warm tonight. My friend threw off his gloves and swung the hatchet in a fury haze until at least we both rested up against a pile of firewood.
Chasing the dwindling daylight, the short winter days left us barely enough time to set up camp. In the summer months, there’s time to explore the beaches, skip stones and drink whiskey aside a fire, which was now consumed by collecting wood, pitching a tent, and starting a fire. My hands would freeze within seconds after taking off my gloves in many attempts to tie a knot, as temperatures plummeted without the sun. In many moments, I became frustrated with the limitations of my body in the cold, but pushed through for the simple promise of warmth ahead.
With the sun far gone, head lamps on, we bid Lake Superior sweet dreams and zipped into our canvas tent for a long night. As the fire blazed, we kicked off our shoes and shed all of our layers. Our stove not only heated our little house, but would cook our dinner and I felt so grateful for the simplest things at this moment. If it weren’t for fire, we would have frozen into icicles, nights of -20 degrees are not for the faint of heart. Each hour the fire dwindled down and we would throw several more branches in, feeding our need for heat.
Through the night, the reality of the harsh winter proved strong as winds changed and blew smoke down our smokestack and into our tent. We awoke to tearing eyes and coughs; we would scramble up to rip open the vents in a fight for fresh air. Hours would pass and the fire would turn to smolders until we would awake from the cold seeping through all our layers and deep into our bones. The simple necessities of life were clear out there in the wilderness as warmth, food, and shelter solely consumed my thoughts throughout the day, and that felt good. To only focus on the trail in front of us, the bed of sleeping bags we would build and the chili we would cook in our cast iron seemed like enough, just enough to be happy and get us through.
Trekking back to the car with the fly-aways from my ponytail icing over from condensation in my breath, I felt tired, but had learned what I had come out here for. The diehard Minnesotans that seek to spend nights out amongst the snow are people that find peace in the simplicity of nature. We all find it in different parts of our lives. But from now on if you need to find me, I’ll be out amongst the snow-covered pines.