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Winter Camping 101: The Outward Bound Experience

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Just after the New Year, on the frozen and snow-covered January lakes of Northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I camped in a pristine, white wilderness for a week straight. The expedition, run by Voyager Outward Bound School of Ely, Minn., was to be my initiation into the winter-camping scene. Under the guide of three instructors, I set off with four fellow winter camping novices to dogsled, cross-country ski, camp, and generally embrace living outdoors in wintertime for a week of cold days and even colder nights. Here are a few tips I took away from my time in the frozen and beautiful North Woods. — Amy Oberbroeckling

Sun sets on a winter campsite in the BWCA; photo by Ben Elron

Dog as Copilot — Dogsledding is not a passenger sport. Outside of cyclocross bike racing, driving a sled is one of the hardest physical challenges I have ever experienced, including maneuvering top-heavy sleds around trees, through undergrowth, and up slippery hills on narrow portage trails.

Voyageur Outward Bound is home to 65 adorable dogs, all bred to live and breathe pulling. For our expedition, we picked a team of 11 eager pups to pull two sleds loaded with all of our camping gear, weighing around 400 pounds each! With dogsleds, winter camping is almost like car camping in that you get to bring along almost as much gear as you want without worrying about carrying it. The dogs are happy to help.

Hold on tight! The dogs are hot out of the gate; photo by Caroline Callahan

Set Up Camp Quickly — When we arrived at camp each evening we were tired from traveling all day. After finding a site protected from wind, we unharnessed the dogs and leashed them to a line where they could rest for the night. After the dogs were settled we all got to work, quickly unloading the sleds and setting up our camp, trying to beat the cold and the quick-setting sun.

Camper Shuinn Chang takes a break to pet Batman, one of the lead sled dogs

To get camp set up fast we divided up the tasks and gave everyone a job. Some worked tarps and tents, others went into the forest to collect wood to be sawed and chopped by hand. Another person went out and chipped a hole in the lake ice large enough to collect water. The chores kept us warm and provided the necessary fuel for our fire to cook food and help us stay comfortable through the night.

Sawing wood is a never-ending task on winter trips

Glove Treatment — Hands are hard to keep warm. This is especially true if your liner gloves get wet from sweat after a long ski. On my trip, by the end of a day of skiing my wool liner gloves were often soaked. A trick to dry them out: Put your wet liner gloves in the waistband of your long underwear while setting up camp. Heat from your core will let the wool dry out enough to pull them on once camp is set for the night.

The Outward Bound group outside the Musher’s cabin; Photo by Caroline Callahan

Food = Warmth — Our Outward Bound instructors were excellent cooks. Eating enough on the trip was never an issue. When winter camping, this is important because when you become cold, calories serve to heat you back up again. Eat hearty, calorie-rich food out there like nuts, granola, chocolate, peanut butter, and more for adding fuel to your internal fire.

Campfire apple cobbler, warm and waiting to be devoured; photo by Caroline Callahan

On our trip, breakfast and dinner were one-pot belly fillers like scrambled eggs and macaroni and cheese. To make more time for travel we skipped lunch. Instead, we packed “squirrel bags,” which are little snack-filled baggies with a random assortment of meats, cheeses, and crackers. We also ate “Flapper” bars, a dense and fatty Outward Bound creation with sugar and enough calories to get you through a day. We carried all the calorie-dense snacks in a front pocket of our anorak jacket for easy access as we skied and sledded through the winter woods.

Skiers take a snack break

Chisel a Hole in the Ice for Water — Instead of melting snow for water we simply chipped through lake ice. An ice chisel or “spud” tool could chip a hole about 5 inches in diameter though the ice with a couple minutes of work. The spud is a long steel tube with a heavy steel blade at the end. The weight of the tube drives the steel blade into the ice with ease. Fresh North Woods water beneath the ice is then unlimited for use in camp and as liquid for the next day on the trail.

Students chatting around the ice hole one morning

Plastic Bags and Big Boots — Wet feet are a recipe for disaster while out in the cold. To prevent this, Outward Bound provided us with vapor barrier liners (VBLs) to put on between our thin liner socks and thick wool outer socks, creating a warm barrier between the bag and our feet. We then slid our feet into the organization’s clunky “Mouse Boots,” which Outward Bound provided as our final barrier against the cold. The boots, originally designed for military use, weighed about 44 ounces apiece but shed away water and snow, keeping us warm.

“Mouse Boots” weighing in at 6 pounds

Insulate From Beneath at Night — One of the biggest concerns while winter camping is losing too much body heat during the night to the cold ground below. For this reason, sleeping pads are an essential piece of gear. They trap a layer of non-circulating air between your body and the cold ground. Eventually body heat warms this space and the trapped air becomes an insulator. Our sleeping pads were carried on the dogsleds so we were not concerned about bulk. We used two foam pads each. They were about half-an-inch thick, and one of them we doubled up under the core of our bodies to make it extra thick for extra insulation and warmth.

Go to bed Warm — Warming up around the campfire before bed feels great, but it does little to heat your body internally. In order to warm your core, run around camp a few times or do jumping jacks. Exert yourself enough to become short of breath and maybe on the verge of a sweat. This nightly routine got my blood circulating, warming me up before hopping in the sack.

The warmth of a fire to dry off socks at night; photo by Caroline Callahan

Sleeping Bag System — Staying warm at night was not as hard as I had anticipated. We paired a synthetic-filled outer sleeping bag with a subzero-rated down inner sleeping bag — cozy! Putting extra clothing layers in between both sleeping bags kept them dry and warm at night and made getting ready in the cold the next morning easier. For added warmth, every night we filled 1-liter bottles with hot water and threw them in the bottom of the bags, warmth seeping up from the feet as we fell asleep.

Winter camping does not have to mean being Cold! — After a week in the BWCA, I had learned the ins and outs. We were rarely cold for long out there. My instructors had a fix for almost any scenario, no matter if it was 30 degrees or below zero. With the right gear and the right skills, you can travel and live outside all winter long.

—Amy Oberbroeckling is an assistant editor.

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