Active Outdoors: Playing in the freezer
Even though the temperature was near zero, the wind was light and we didn’t have any trouble keeping warm while climbing the ridge to our campsite. But notice the “puffy” jacket easily accessible as soon as we stopped. (David Shedd/EasternSlopes.com photo)
This roomy tipi from Titanium Goat weighs less than seven pounds with the woodstove and stovepipe! It makes a cozy camp even when the temperature is sub zero. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
No sooner had the weather wonks started intoning phrases like “Arctic Blast,” “Deep Freeze,” “Coldest Weather of the Winter” and “Dangerous Wind Chills” than the emails started flying as my buddy David and I eagerly began planning an overnight to test some new cold-weather camping gear for EasternSlopes.com. You need real cold to adequately test sleeping bags and pads rated to zero or below!
We were being promised daytime highs in the single digits and nighttime lows below zero. Perfect! Wish we had a month of it! But you just know it’s gonna go and get warm again (Bah, humbug!), so we just had to get out and enjoy it while we could.
Okay, I want you to know that we may be nuts, but we aren’t crazy. Cold like that can be unpleasant (to say the least) if you aren’t properly prepared, and we were, by definition, not properly prepared. We hadn’t actually used some of the gear we were relying on to keep us warm and safe. Therefore, we didn’t know for sure that it worked. We had only the manufacturer’s word to go on, and that’s not the same as having used the stuff ourselves.
Really, it’s not all that different from going winter camping for the first time. You don’t go heading for the highest peaks of the White Mountains (or even the Greens or the Berkshires) to test out gear in conditions that can alter your life if you make a mistake. Our campsite is only a mile or so from the road. If something goes seriously wrong, we can bail out quickly.
The day actually felt warmer than promised, perhaps because the spot where we camp is in the sun and well-sheltered from a northwest wind (one of the reasons we go there). We got the tent and stove set up, wood supply in, and our sleeping bags and pads rolled out and still had time for a hike in the afternoon.
Because we were testing new sleeping bags and pads, we took a proven shelter, a Vertex 6.5 tipi made by Titanium Goat (titaniumgoat.com). This little gem holds two people and winter gear, weighs less than seven pounds, including the tent, stakes and a clever little woodstove and stovepipe. Yup, it was way below zero outside the tent, but we ate dinner in our shirtsleeves.
Once the stove went out, it got cold in a hurry, but we were snugged into new “Dri-Down” zero-degree rated mummy sleeping bags from Sierra Designs and Kelty set on top of insulated pads from Thermarest and Klymit.
We thought we’d be okay, but, of course, we had a backup plan if the bags couldn’t handle the cold. As it turns out, it got down to 11 below; I wore two layers inside my sleeping bag and stayed pretty toasty all night. David, who sleeps warmer than I do, tried the same but ended up having to take off a layer.
If worse had come to worse, we’d have relit the stove and taken turns staying awake to keep it going. We had enough wood inside if we needed it. In the morning, I sat up, lit the stove while still in my sleeping bag, and dozed until the tent was warm. By the way, the tipi and woodstove were set up in the backyard before this trip to make sure everything was there and worked properly, and the gas stoves we cooked on were tested after spending a night in the freezer.
The spot we camped is open to the sky, and on a clear, sub-zero winter night like last night, the stars seem so close you feel like you are part of them.
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
The freezer challenge
Winter camping is a lot more pleasant than anyone who has never tried it could imagine, but there are challenges. Oddly, staying warm, even in a “cold camp” with a regular tent, not woodstove-heated tipi, isn’t the biggest of them.
Deep snow can make it really tough to break trails, move around and set up tents. On this trip, we didn’t even really need snowshoes. We did use a shovel to dig out and flatten the snow where we pitched our tent, but it wasn’t a big deal. However, we always take into account the snow depth (and any that might fall when we are out) when we plan a winter trek.
The real challenge in winter is water, and that challenge flows in two directions. One is keeping it out of your clothing and sleeping bag from sweat, melting snow, or condensation from your breath. You don’t want to get wet in the winter. Period.
The second challenge is getting enough water to cook and to drink to stay hydrated. Many water sources are frozen in the winter. The place we camp has no water – we have to rely on melting snow, which requires a pot and more fuel than you think. You can’t just carry water with you in large quantity because it freezes too quickly. We always carry a small stainless-steel vacuum bottle of hot water because melting snow is much easier if you have some water to start. At night we refill that with boiling water so we have it for morning. We also each carry a standard Nalgene bottle in an insulating sleeve. We filled them with hot water last night, drank most of it in the night, and found ice forming in them this morning.
One of the reasons David and I are so eager to do as much camping as possible this winter is that, from March 1-3, we (along with our lovely wives) are presenting a weekend seminar on comfortable lightweight winter camping at the annual “Doe Camp” put on by Vermont Outdoors Women and the Vermont Outdoor Guides Association (voga.org) at the Hulbert Outdoor Center (alohafoundation.org/hulbert). Stay tuned for more details.
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)