I love camping – any chance to go into the woods for a few days and disconnect is OK by me. And yet, the few times I’ve been winter camping, it’s been in a yurt. Not quite glamping (*shudders*), but going up for a weekend and staying in a yurt is the equivalent of renting a really tiny cabin with a separate cabin a 20 minute walk away that has the toilets. Don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent – go up to Algonquin in the winter, stay in a yurt, spend your days playing in the snow, skiing, snowshoeing, building a snow fort, maybe sit in a chair on a frozen lake, extra chilly beer in your mitt-clad hand, watching the sunset. Camp in the winter. Whatever gets you out there, whatever extras you need to take, bundle up for the cold and go.
And, when you are given the opportunity to spend a weekend learning wilderness survival skills in the winter… also go. Just… bundle up wayyyy more.
Doodle, Gwynn and I went up near Bracebridge near the beginning of March to participate in an Intro to Winter Camping and wilderness survival clinic organized through the Muttley Crew Meetup Group, a weekend at a private camp where the dogs could be off-leash at all times.
Leaving the balmy +5C temperatures of the city, I was pretty sure I had seriously overpacked on gear for keeping warm.
Arriving in the -10C temperatures, in the woods near Bracebridge… I was glad I’d packed so many sleeping bags.
By the end of the evening, there were 7 people total, and 7 dogs. Two very large german shepherds, a Bermese, an enormous labradoodle, a Great Dane, Gwynn, and one wee little white dog. Gwynn looked like a small dog compared to all but the little one.
We lucked out, in finding ourselves with a group of dogs that all played nicely together. No ganging up or bullying, all the roughhousing was very clearly being enjoyed by all parties, and all in all, the dogs were great. It was like the most ideal version of a dog park visit, ever.
On to the winter camping and fun! Before I start with that, though, I want to make something clear – I am not a professional (in anything related to camping, winter, or survival), and I’m not writing a how to winter camp blog post.
We packed my regular three-season tent and put a folded tarp underneath the tent. According to one of the leaders from our trip, the winter camping tents are slightly better at releasing the humidity from sleeping, but aren’t really all that necessary for a few days of camping in the winter.
We packed three regular three season sleeping bags (not down… and not at all compactable… oldschool Coleman sleeping bags), and the heavy old down sleeping bag my mom kept of her father’s. We layered one coleman bag underneath us (on top of sleeping mats) and two on top, with the heavy down bag on top of all that. Clearly, this method of keeping warm wouldn’t work if we weren’t camping within a five minute walk of our car, but for a drive-up and camp situation, it worked. If I were to go on an interior trip in winter, I’d be buying or renting a good quality four-season bag that would compress down small and light.
We couldn’t get Gwynn under the blankets. I think that’s very much dependent on the individual dog, whether they’re cold or not. Gwynn in March is Gwynn pre-hair-cut, so, frankly, sleeping on our legs, outside of the warmth of sleeping bags, was probably the most comfortable temperature of sleep he’s had since January. The Great Dane would burrow under blankets at night, and had a coat on during the day.
Our first night was not pleasant at all. We didn’t bring all our sleeping bags in that night, and Gwynn’s curling up at the foot of our bags successfully pulled off most of the heavy-duty bag, making it hard to stay warm.
I find it just about impossible to sleep if my feet are cold. Even with a fresh pair of wool socks (you want to change your socks every day and evening, even if you don’t change anything else – the socks compress down in your boots and absorbe humidity, so they’re less effective by the end of the day), wasn’t warming me up enough to get to sleep. It went down to -16C, and I swear, I woke up every fifteen minutes. Lesson 1: Even if you feel fine now, bring extra warm stuff down to your tent for bed anyways! Next time I winter camp, I think I’ll layer a tarp on top of my tent right from the start, and not feel any qualms about extra extra sleeping bags.
One of the other women there gave us the wonderful gift of HotHands hand warmers on Saturday morning, though. They were magical, and made a huge difference on our second night out. It went down to -20C, but we were able to get under the covers and spark some initial heat with hand-warmers between two layers of sock (they say not to have them directly against skin if you’re not paying attention to them), slept soundly and completely restfully through the night. Getting warm at the beginning of the night – even doing some jumping jacks and jogging on the spot before getting into the tent – is a good way of ensuring a warm and restful night sleeping outdoors. If we’d had more nights sleeping there, we might also have had to worry about the condensation buildup in the sleeping bags (damp bag = less warm).
Sit tight, and I’ll be back in a few days with tales of the wilderness survival side of our trip!