Camping in below zero temps: Why some say it’s an ‘invaluable experience’
FARGO — Ask most people when camping season is, and they'll probably tell you May through early October. But to a growing community, these people are missing out on a significant, magical and character-building season to camp.
"Every time I go camping during the winter I learn so much, improve skills and develop friendships," says Jon Walters, the 29-year-old founder of Nature of the North, a community organization dedicated to promoting outdoor adventures, interpersonal connection and character-building experiences.
Walters first experienced winter camping during his childhood when his dad took him to one of their favorite camping sites in northern Wisconsin.
"It was so cool to experience the exact same place in a different way," he says. "I built snow forts where I used to build stick forts. We drove out onto the ice where we used to fish."
From these experiences and his nearly 12 years in the Boy Scouts of America, Walters founded Nature of the North in April 2016. Around that same time Walters' love of winter camping bloomed.
"I was asked if I wanted to go to a ice-climbing festival in Sandstone, Minn., and I was like, 'Heck ya!" he says. "Then they explained this would include winter tent camping — at that point, even though I had never gone, I thought, 'why not?' "
Walters says the conversations he had around the campfire in frozen terrain were invaluable.
"Despite the challenges, I was really able to learn about people's lives while camping at the Sandstone Ice Festival," he says.
Different season, same rules
Many of the same safety rules apply to camping whatever the season, but a person will need to take extra precautions in freezing temperatures, Walters says.
"If you've never been winter camping before, you should try it out with a group or in a friends' backyard before you travel to a park or winter activity event," Walters says. "This way you can go back inside if you feel too uncomfortable."
And although there isn't exact temperature guidelines, Walters says it's best to go when it's freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) or below.
"I really like to go when it's 0 to 10 degrees. Then everything feels solid, so you don't have to worry about any slush or disturbing nature," he says.
Before going down to the basement to dig out the camping gear, consider the following guidelines for building shelter, cooking and sleeping below zero.
Layering is key for shelter
The first rule of protection against the elements is shelter, but shelter starts way before the tent is staked.
"Your outfit is the first shelter you have," Walters says.
Living in the upper Midwest you might think that dressing for the weather is second nature but, in fact, layering is an exact and necessary science for any outdoor winter activity, including camping.
"You'll probably be going with someone who has a nice tent or has tarps and can build a fire," Walters says. "But no matter your experience level or what you're doing, everybody should know how to layer."
Layering is a technique to moderate body temperature as you move about camp and the weather changes throughout the day.
"Moisture is your enemy in winter. As soon as you start to produce moisture inside your layers, you are going to freeze," he says. "The key is being able to expel moisture and heat quickly."
Three layers will usually maintain a safe temperature and allow for heat dissipation during most of the winter.
- Base or wicking layer is the first layer and keeps water-retaining material like cotton away from your skin.
"The base layer holds in the heat and is able to keep moisture and heat away from your body into the other layers and eventually out into the world," Walters explains.
Sometimes called the wicking layer to refer to its absorption properties, Walters says this layer is primarily for moisture management. Synthetics fabrics or Merino Wool is best for your base layer clothing.
"After the base layer, I usually wear all zippable clothing so I can expel heat quickly when I start to feel myself warm up," he says.
- Warmth layer traps heat by keeping air close to the body. This layer insulates through heavy duty jackets, vests and pants.
- Wind-blocking or shell layer is the last and very thin outer layer. "This layer doesn't need to be very big or bulky and it doesn't need to create heat," Walter says. Lightweight rain jackets and pants are usually used to block weather like snow or wind. "These three layers should be adequate until about zero degrees," Walter says. If below zero, then use what Walters calls a "monster layer." "Sometimes I have a wool blanket around my shoulders like a cape," he says. "It just helps to keep the moisture out."
Walters recommends generating heat naturally through exercise before leaving camp. This way a person can assess their baseline temperature, and then either remove or add layers.
"The key is that you should be cold for about the first 10 minutes of any adventure," he says. "You'll warm up, but you can also come back to camp to get more gear if you need to. You should always bring extra layers in your backpack."
Matches, kettle and simple ingredients
Moisture may be your enemy during the winter, but warm water is necessary for camp life.
"Having readily-available warm water is needed to do almost anything while winter camping," Walters says. "I've used it to cook, make coffee and while sleeping, I've used a warm water bottle to stay warm."
In colder temperatures, our bodies burn a higher amount of calories to stay warm. Pack matches or a lighter in a waterproof container along with ingredients for hearty, yet simple meals like vegetable stew or ramen noodles. Walters also recommends packing extra high-protein snacks like Clif bars. During winter camping, always pack an extra day's supply of food.
Hot water and wool
Sleeping during winter camping might sound like a nightmare to most, but Walters has memories of a cozy, peaceful night's sleep.
Colder temps call for a four-season tent; this style of tent will most often have double-walls and thick poles. Ask about the average time it takes to pitch the tent if borrowing or purchasing it. During winter camping, the best tents are durable and easily constructed.
Be selective about the area in which you pitch a tent. Avoid low areas and seek natural windblocks. The tent entrance should face downhill, according to TheClymb.com, because cold air can flow into a tent that is facing uphill.
Extras like plastic tarps, bivy sacks and reflective blankets are also recommended in REI.com's "Ten Essentials Checklist" for winter camping.
On the bottom of the tent floor, Walters lays a wool blanket. ""Wool blankets are amazing, even if it's wet it will still keep you warm," he says.
The wool blanket absorbs any excess moisture from the ground before a sleeping pad is laid.
Before crawling into the sleeping bag, drink warm liquid or do jumping jacks so you are already warm when you cover up. Walter says to always fill up a plastic water bottle with warm water.
"Place the water bottle between your thighs and this will warm your femoral artery and keep your blood moving," he says. "During the night you'll usually get warm and kick this bottle down to your feet which will then warm your toes."
Keep layers of socks on your feet. Depending on the temperature, consider keeping your boots on.
Despite the sub-zero temperatures, Walters says there is no substitute for winter camping.
"The mindset you gain after winter camping is really invaluable," Walters says. "Now, I think, 'I can deal with this current situation in my life because I've slept in a hammock in 20 below.' Things don't seem as complicated anymore. "
'Knowledge over gear'
Walters says the most important thing to remember is "knowledge over gear." People do not have to break the bank or be extreme adventurers in order to tent camp during the winter. Instead, it's all about preparation and determination.
To find affordable equipment items, Walters recommends borrowing, shopping at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis or searching items online and in thrift stores.
This winter, Walters is trying to spread his below-zero camping knowledge through workshops which include layering, shelter needs and techniques, winter fire starting and maintenance, sleeping below zero and tips for success.
Those in the Fargo-Moorhead area can attend the next workshop from 10 a.m. to noon on Feb. 24 for $15 at Creative Plains Foundation, 18 Eighth St. S., Fargo. Check out Nature of the North's Facebook page for more information.
Winter camp and watch snowkiting
Walters says one of the most exciting opportunities to winter camp is just around the corner at the 14th Annual Mille Lacs Kite Crossing, the nation's largest snowkiting festival near Onamia, Minnesota, March 2-4.
"All these sailors in Minnesota got tired of waiting around for summer to use their knowledge of the wind," Walters explains with a laugh. "So they started to snowkite."
The sport emerged during the early 2000s, but has steadily been gaining popularity. Similar to its warm-weather counterpart — kiteboarding — snowkiters harness the power of the wind with large kite-like sails to glide over the ice.
This year Walters is inviting those who want to experience the sport and try their hand at winter camping to join him by signing up for the adventure weekend by finding Nature of the North's event on Facebook. Attendees can sign up to enter a snowkiting race or watch the events.
"Every year I go and try to set up a teepee near the finish line so there can be a gathering space for both attendees and racers," Walters says.
Walters says the festival gets more exciting each year, and just watching snowkiting is exhilarating. Direct questions can sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.