Winter Camping – Wilderness Survival

I know my last post on winter camping might have lead you to believe that our trip was mostly ‘being too cold and then fixing it’, but that was only really our nighttime routine.  We did tons of other things.  Like roast marshmallows… and pee in the woods.

Our instructor for the weekend has tons of experience teaching wilderness survival skills.

After breakfast we started off with a hike in the woods.  When asked what we needed to bring with us, he smiled and said, “oh, nothing.”

It’s lucky one of the other women ignored that and grabbed her hiking bag, since, once we were far from our tents and cars, he told us to make a fire.  With what we had on hand.  Lesson 1 – even if you’re just going for a short hike in the woods, bring your first aid and basic survival gear.  Matches come to mind.

We got a decent fire started in about 20 minutes of work, including brief periods of shooing flammable dogs away from the fire area.  About half of that time was gathering, and half was getting the fire going steady.

our fire turned out pretty well, in my opinion

our fire turned out pretty well, in my opinion

Our fearless leader then gave us instructions to gather a variety of different sizes of kindling and wood divided into piles.  Once we had the appropriate piles of wood, had a fire twice as hot going in under five minutes, using a fire steel and the back of his wicked looking knife.  We then got to use a fire steel and a striker to start our own fire.  Lesson 2 – weirdly, the back of a good quality knife works WAY better as a striker for the fire steel.  Also, the super cheap Canadian Tire fire steel is, well, super cheap, and less effective.

various sizes of twig in different piles... so you're ready to keep the fire going once you've got the tinder lit

various sizes of twig in different piles… so you’re ready to keep the fire going once you’ve got the tinder lit.  His kind of fire might have been faster… and much much  higher… but it wasn’t as pretty.

He showed us how to determine if branches were already dead, what types of trees had excellent sap for burning without harming the tree, and how to collect tinder from birch trees without killing them.  I’m not going to lecture you or anything, but don’t peel the bark off a birch tree!  How would you like to have your skin peeled off?  The little dried scrunchy bits are easy to crumble off the tree without exposing any of its under-layers to the elements, and highly effective in fire starting.

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Gwynn stole the tupperware of example tinder he’d brought… mmmm… plastic

We learned about a few different types of shelter, some of which are good for a short-term survival situation, and others of which would be better suited to a situation in which you might be stuck for a while.  We also learned how to tell what direction is north using the sun, and a few ways to ensure that, while walking without a trail, you continue to head in a straight line.

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We had a lesson in making emergency fire-starters as well.  Apparently the key is to take Starbucks straws.  They are, according to our skilled survival guide, the ideal diameter.  The firestarters, though – you cut about an inch long piece of straw.  You grip near the end with a pair of needlenose pliers, and melt the end to seal it.  You then take a small piece of cotton ball and mix it lightly with some Vaseline, stuffing it into the open end of the straw.  Seal the other end of the straw, and you officially have an easy-start fire-starter that you can pack in any coat or pocket.  All you need to do to start it is slit the side and pull a small piece of wick out – the entire thing will take over a minute to burn, enough time to light a proper fire.

We made a tiny Quinzee hut – large enough for one person, somewhat uncomfortably tucked in.   The snow that we had was all quite solid and packed down, so it was hard to get a very big pile of snow created.

When I crawled in (feeling horribly horribly claustrophobic, Gwynn tried to follow me in.  That caused me to basically freak out, because... well... TOO SMALL A SPACE, you can't come in too!  HELP!

When I crawled in (feeling horribly horribly claustrophobic, Gwynn tried to follow me in. That caused me to basically freak out, because… well… TOO SMALL A SPACE, you can’t come in too! HELP!

Doodle is considerably braver than me... and Gwynn joined her comfortably and with a look of smug satisfaction

Doodle is considerably braver than me… and Gwynn joined her comfortably and with a look of smug satisfaction

The entire trip was a great learning experience, and a ton of fun – I’ll have a lot better idea of what to do next winter for some camping.  highres_215673252

Winter Camping

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. 

we couldn't get a very clear shot of the canvas tent all lit up at night,  but it still turned out pretty fantastic

we couldn’t get a very clear shot of the canvas tent all lit up at night, but it still turned out pretty fantastic

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.

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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.

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Gwynn and one of the German Shepherds, Sabre, had a bit of a romance all weekend – Sabre would follow Gwynn pretty much anywhere, and I think he’d have followed him into our car at the end of the weekend if he could have.

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.

our great dane buddy needed a bit of extra help keeping warm, but she still had a great time out there.

our great dane buddy needed a bit of extra help keeping warm, but she still had a great time out there.

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.

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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.

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under this blanket was the great dane – the shepherds were shocked EVERY SINGLE TIME the blanket moved, unable to remember that she was under there.

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).

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Sit tight, and I’ll be back in a few days with tales of the wilderness survival side of our trip!