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Winter camping as emergency preparedness testing

The author's boot liner and sock dry out over the fire after becoming soaked in a river crossing.
The author's boot liner and sock dry out over the fire after becoming soaked in a river crossing.
Donald Alley

Back in early January, my winter camping group had decided that this past weekend (Feb 22-23, 2014) was to be the weekend we set aside to make our annual outing. Some of the parameters we chose were that we would use only what was in our vehicle emergency kits, and no pre-made shelters (such as a tent). Winter camping is reviled enough by most people just based on the cold. Removing the prospect of a tent drove it right into the realm of “That is ridiculous!” for most.

Camping partner Jason excavates snow to make a quinzee.
Donald Alley

As the weekend approached it was very clear that the weather was not going to be on our side. It was going to be too warm. It sounds odd to say in a winter scenario, but the melt-freeze situation of temperatures hovering around the freezing point is arguably more dangerous than constant temperatures of -10F. The snow would be melting, meaning we would be getting wet. As the water gets into clothes, it will fill dead air space and allow excess heat to escape. Also factor in that most winter gear is made for the 10F-30F range with only mild exertion. The constant adjustment of shedding and adding warmer layers can begin to take its toll, and if the camper begins to be too relaxed in remaining vigilant about body heat, clothing can become saturated with sweat. Wet clothing is far harder to keep warm than dry clothing.

We hiked into the property, where the snow was well over 2 feet deep in places. This was heavy exertion, and more properly accomplished with snowshoes or skis. Without ensuring boots and shell pants were effectively sealed, this stuff would get into boots and up pant legs very quickly. Without snow floatation (skis or snowshoes), the sleds two of us were using became liabilities as they moved across deep footprints in the snow and failed to stay situated.

At a point, there was a small stream crossing. The stream was narrow, about three feet wide, but it was equally deep. Short enough to risk jumping over, with enough depth to incur a dangerous penalty if the jump failed. Our first team member, Jason, tried the ice. It was just thick enough to hold him in the center, but I saw it flex as he put weight on it and crossed. Marty took a giant leap across, and made it, but exposed the fact that what we thought was the bank was really just a snow drift. Next was Rich, who jumped across and confirmed Marty’s discovery the hard way. He went through the thin ice near the bank and got a leg soaked.

Finally, it was my turn. After seeing that the snow hid dangers about the ice and river, I opted to go up a ways and cross at a point that some trees had fallen across. The snow was exceptionally deep in this area, and some points were about 3 feet. I was exhausted by the time I got there.

One of the things I had brought was a plastic snow shovel. It is in my car on a typical winter day, so it was fair game to bring. With the improvised shelters we had planned to make, it might come in handy. It did at this crossing as well. I was able to shovel the snow off the branches and logs and had a more clear understanding of the nature of the area I was crossing. Unfortunately, clumsiness took over where intelligence left off. As I was crossing, my heavy boot slipped off the log, broke through the ice, and into the water. The cold water. With my pack still on (this was a mistake), I was not readily able to get out, but did manage to pull myself out enough to get free. My right leg was completely soaked.

After throwing some essentials across, including my sleeping bag, I managed to get across on the second attempt. Sleeping bag is a primary shelter form and I did not want it getting wet. With it being 33F out and going down to 14F, I knew the timer had started. We had to get to camp before my foot froze up. Luckily the heavy exertion of walking through knee deep snow was going to generate the body heat to keep me warm for a while.

We eventually made it to the designated camping area and scanned the trees for widow makers. Finding none, we got to work collecting wood. With 4 people working, a decent wood supply can be generated pretty quickly. In Marty’s words “Figure out how much wood you’ll need, then double it, then double that.” THe fire started very quickly, and soon was a proper, stable burn.

I took off my boot and sock, only to find that the outside air seemed warmer that the wet boot. I used a sled to keep my foot off the ground and wrapped my foot in the sleeve of my fleece jacket. Since we were using vehicle kits only, I tried to stay true to the clothes I would have, and one pair of Smartwools was all I brought. It was time to rethink that.

I was able to set my boot liner and boot on some branches upside down so the excess water could drain out. Of course, wringing everything out as much as possible was done first, but the liner and boot were still dripping wet, and would remain so for another 2 hours. I got a spare sock from Jason, thank goodness, and a dry warm foot was achieved in a little over an hour.

While I was tending to my sodden footwear, Rich and Marty were busy creating a shelter from a tarp. A fallen tree provided the frame necessary, and some quick machete work made the tree a great anchor for an A-frame type tent. One end of the shelter was sealed with snow while the other was closed up with a smaller tarp.

Jason set his sights on something bigger. One of us had sent out a youtube video on making a quinzee, and he had to try it for himself. Building a decent snow pile is intensive work, and not necessarily beneficial if the shelter would only be used for a night. If it was a multi-night stay, the effort put into a quinzee would be well worth the comfort it brought.

This is where the sleds came in handy. While most Americans think of the sled as a toy, their usefulness in winter utility is astounding. The sleds were used as winter wheelbarrows and snow was moved from further off to bring in to build the quinzee to a proper size. This task would have been tedious without the sleds.

Once the pile was built up and allowed to sit for an hour, it took about another hour to 1.5 hours to hollow it out. It was slow going, and the sleds again proved useful both as a creeper (the thing with wheels one uses to roll under a car when working on it) as well as a way to pull out snow that had been removed from hollowing out the huge pile.

Eventually, the quinzee was large enough on the inside for Jason to sleep in. The down side was that he was soaked from the effort of making it. He tied off a line near the fire to get his clothes aired out.

One of the shelters I wanted to make was a pine tree shelter. This is finding a pine tree with wide base branches, the kind you see in a clearing more than the super tall pines with few low branches. If one digs under the pine tree, there is usually a substantial hollowed out area where the snow was not able to fall. This has the added benefit of having a pine needle floor to sleep on rather than packed snow. Unfortunately, so much of my effort was spent with my soaked footwear I didn't get a chance to explore this properly.

After settling in for the evening, making dinner, and again finding more wood, it was eventually time to get off to sleep. I think I turned in first. I was using a Therma-Rest “Luxury” model, which is the self inflating mattress that has about a 3” thickness when lofted. Atop that I added my Z-Rest. In this order, more of the Z-Rest’s air pockets would have been allowed to trap air. Had I put it down first these air pockets would have just been displaced with snow.

The night was cold. It got to 14F, and my bag was rated for 10F. I am a cool sleeper and tend to take away 10F on the bag’s ratings, and this night proved accurate. It was chilly most of the night through. The tarp-shelter did a great job in blocking most of the wind, and the climate was easily ‘survivable’ with this gear.

My camping partner Rich has the -30F rated Gore-Tex bivy that is common in military surplus. These are indeed advertised as -30F with no sleeping pad needed. He reported he would have liked a sleeping pad, and while the night was survivable, he was cold. Marty used a sleeping bag, with a tarp and his cover-alls as a pad. He reported being cold at night, and did not sleep well.

The quinzee proved its superiority. In fact, Jason reported the interior snow was melting, and he was concerned about soaking in the shelter. Admittedly, the quinzee was small (about 1.5 man capacity) and he didn’t hollow it out as much as necessarily possible, but the fact that it was so warm in the shelter he was getting melt was telling. In future endeavors, it may be wise to use the sleds as an initial base to lay the pads and mats down on when sleeping in such a structure to create an effective barrier between the sleeper and any snow melt.

Getting up in the winter is always a challenge. The challenge becomes readily accepted as bladder capacity is reached. The secret is getting up and getting moving quickly. Getting busy doing something, even if it just walking briskly for a few minutes. In this case, we all had survived the night, so tearing down the tarp shelter and getting packed up was the activity of choice.

I had initially had things stowed on my sled, but the previous day’s difficulty towing it through deep snow and footprints convinced me to get everything on my backpack. It was a bit challenging, because it was a new pack for me and I still don't have a well thought out gear placement methodology with it, but eventually everything was in it or lashed to it.

The walk out was uneventful, and on a more established train requiring less exertion on the way in. With dry boots and feet, the sun shining, and the prospect of returning to civilization, the walk was fast and easy.

Lessons learned:

  • Walking through deep snow is physically taxing. In a real survival scenario, stick to trails, roads, or game trails that require far less effort.
  • Water crossing is always dangerous. Take all the precautions you can.
  • Water does indeed debilitate in cold weather.
  • Every task is more challenging in winter. Do not set your sights too high on goals when every action is harder than it is in the comfort of a house or in the summer months.
  • Quinzees are excellent shelters and great investments in energy if a multi-day stay is required, but are very time and calorie intensive.
  • Sleds are excellent tools in the right circumstances.
  • Snow shovels make poor walking sticks
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