On New Year’s Eve of 2017, The Gear Guys thought it would be an awesome idea to spend the night in the middle of the woods while it was -5 without the windchill factor. Little did we know that it would turn out to be a slightly painful experience. This all occurred in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. We were pushing not only ourselves to the limit, but testing gear in extreme circumstances as well.
We set out at about 4pm in the afternoon and arrived at our campsite about an hour later. The hike to our campsite usually takes about twenty minutes but this trip took a lot longer due to towing a sled with a large filled bag tied to it through the woods. One of the lessons that we learned on this trip is that pulling a large plastic sled with a duffle bag tied to it using old clothes line is a horrible idea, although, we were absolutely amazed with the durability of this bag.
Another item that we found to be incredibly durable was the Ruger 10/22 rifle that we carried with us. It became covered with snow and ice but still was just fine after being wiped off (a full review of this will come later). When we finally arrived, we made quick work of setting up our Eureka tent (a review can be found in a previous post)
then went to work on trying to start a fire. This is where we first started to learn that winter camping is a lot different than summer camping. We thought that we prepared enough by putting tin foil down to reflect the heat and by gathering kindling and small twigs but we quickly learned that fires do not like to ignite when it is about 10 degrees. Eventually we were able to start a fire, although, it was not nearly as hot as we would have liked it to be. It took much longer than anticipated to heat up our dinner of brats and beans, and took even longer to get a much needed cup of hot chocolate. By this time it was well past sunset and completely dark, even though it was only 6 pm, so we pulled out our lantern (future review to come) and huddled around the fire to make s’mores for dessert. We learned that at night in the woods in the Upper Penninsula is a beautiful place as we turned off our lantern and enjoyed the beauty of the orange glow on the white snow that was all around us, and the absolute silence of the woods except for the slight crackling of our fire. It can be amazing how much light a fire may provide in the middle of the woods when there aren’t any street lights to overpower it. While the fire provided some warmth when huddled right beside it, the night quickly became frigid so we attempted to boil some hot packs in the fire, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to get enough heat to keep them hot very long. Something that is very important to keep in mind while winter camping is to make sure you don’t get so warm that you begin to sweat. If you sweat while outside in winter you are more prone to get hypothermia, as well as to just be much more chilled and unable to maintain body heat. Eventually the night became too cold to even enjoy sitting next to a fire so we decided to crawl into out Big Agnes sleeping bags.
We were very sad to discover though that our sleeping bags were bone chillingly cold since they had been sitting out in the zero degree weather for a few hours. When we were at the store a few days before our trip, we found the silver foil emergency blankets; we put these blankets inside of our sleeping bags to help reflect our body heat back at us. These blankets did help a very little bit; however, if you move around in your sleeping bag too much, they are very hard to recover with and may also tear. Unfortunately for this expedition we did not have the completely correct sleep system recommended by Big Agnes; our sleeping pads were not rated down to that extreme temperature and we also did not use a sleeping bag liner (although the liner is not required to give the sleeping bag its zero degree rating, it would help tremendously). Another Issue that we ran into with winter camping is the development of condensation in the tent which quickly freezes and covers everything inside of the tent with ice crystals. This issue though can be avoided. We had the rain fly on our tent because it had been lightly snowing nonstop for about two days at this point. When you have a rain fly on your tent you need to make sure that you have the ventilation openings open. If you think that sealing your tent will provide you with the extra needed warmth, you wil just end up sealing in all of the moisture in your tent from your breathing. Winter nights can be very long and painful, especially when it is your first night sleeping outside when it is -5 degrees. We found ourselves waking up at least once an hour, shivering and trying to force ourselves to go back to sleep and pray for morning. There was one time during the night that Gear Dad wondered to himself “Will we make it ‘til morning?”. Eventually (after looking at our watches about fifteen hundred times), it was finally morning, even though it was still completely dark out because the sun wouldn’t rise until about 8:15am. When we crawled out of our tent we found another difficulty of winter camping- our boots were like blocks of ice when we put them on since they sat outside all night long. Our gloves and jackets were also pretty cold for a few minutes. After putting on our ice boots, we were hoping to make a hot pot of coffee and some bacon but sadly our fire froze during the night, so we decided that it was far too much effort to try to build another. At this point we were freezing, our feet were ice, our hands were numb, and we were miserable. We knew what we had to do…pack up and run for our warm house. We took turns packing up, one would take his gloves off to pack the sleeping bags or tent while the other tried to warm up by moving around. We considered leaving our site to go warm up and come back later but decided to muscle through and finish now. Eventually we had all of our gear packed and tied to the sled again. After trying to pull the sled uphill and over fallen trees a short distance (it is totally uphill and through thick woods to get out of our campsite), we decided the sled wasn’t going to work, so we had to “leap frog” our gear (take some up and go back and bring the rest up) and carry our massive duffle bag together. There was one point when Gear Dad told Gear Son “ I’ll take this little stuff up the hill then come help you get the duffle bag up the hill”, but by this point, Gear Son was freezing and didn’t want to wait so he grabbed the massive duffle bag by one strap and dragged it behind him up the hill. After a little over half an hour we were out of the woods, but not home yet. Once at the road, we very quickly retied all our of our things to the sled and took turns pulling it down the road for almost a mile to reach home. We had never been happier to be home before. We were frozen solid. And ready for a hot cup of coffee.
We learned some very valuable lessons on this expedition. Winter camping needs to be planned out thoroughly. You need to have ALL of the necessary gear, you need to know how to make a fire with frozen wood, and you need to be prepared for anything. Also make sure somebody knows where you are, what you’re doing, how long you should be gone, and what to do if you’re late coming back. We found winter camping to be an amazingly beautiful experience; however, know that winter camping is a lot more work than summer camping. To fully enjoy winter camping, you need to enjoy the challenge of it. You’re not just simply throwing up a little tent or just putting you’re sleeping bag out under the stars.
There is a lot more work going into winter camping (even just considering the extra challenge of your body fighting to stay warm). We highly recommend trying winter camping, even if you try it in a slightly warmer temperature than -5 before factoring in a windchill of -30.
Overall, we loved the entire experience and cannot wait to see what this winter brings!