Winter camping is not something I would invite someone to do. It’s one of those things that for some strange reason you have an interest in, or that for plenty of good reasons you don’t. It’s a different kind of fun. Actually fun might not be the right word, though depending on the trip there can certainly be joy inducing moments. Reward may be the better term. There is challenge in encountering the elements and taking care of yourself in demanding conditions. Everything moves at a slower pace. Tasks must be completed with deliberation. One must constantly evaluate and deal with fluctuating circumstances. It is rarely ‘go go go;’ it is often ‘stop and fix.’
Some examples: You must not, obviously, let yourself get too cold. You should do your best to leave your gloves on, which turns easy jobs into tedious chores. As long as it’s not really really cold, it’s probably okay to cheat every now and again, but exposing hands to frigid wind and/or touching metal (think setting up a tent or using a stove) can quickly escalate into severe discomfort and potential risk. You must also not let yourself get too hot, which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. You want to avoid heavy sweating, which means delayering for movement and regularly changing into dry clothing, especially socks. This generally means taking off clothes in the cold before you start moving, and as soon as you stop in order to put dry layers on. Neither a particularly inviting occasion to get naked in icy temps while surrounded by blowing snow. You must also make sure to consume lots of calories and liquids, preferably hot. This means keeping things from freezing solid, and eating when you might not want to, and heating water, and cooking food, all of which require attention and time. You must make sure not to clumsily spill boiling water on yourself in spite of bulky clothing, or dump dinner on the ground. You must be methodical and organized and proactive. You must deal with wind, and snow, and darkness.
The rewards then: The satisfaction of self-preservation. The snug feeling of being properly layered and tucked into a sleeping bag while the wind howls around you and snow piles in drifts against the side of the tent. The knowledge that after you’ve finished dinner for the night and made all the preparations for bed there is absolutely nothing going on for the next 12-14 hours. The sleep. The enjoyment of having miles of wilderness all to yourself. The light and the landscapes. Moments of intense quiet and stillness. Guiltlessly eating as much chocolate as you thought to bring.
I recently spent a few mid-February days and nights in Denali National Park. I won’t bother with the specific logistics, but things are going on in the park this year which shaped the route I traveled, a 30-mile figure eight from the Savage River over to the Teklanika drainage and back. I hiked the main park road, which is closed in the winter, on the way out, and was able to hike and ski along a sled dog trail on my way back in. The only people I saw in the backcountry were a group of four rangers and their sled teams who packed the trail while patrolling. I went up and over a couple passes from one drainage to the next, and crossed a few frozen rivers, exhilarating moments for one unaccustomed to the practice. Caution is advised, as while there could be several feet of ice up top, current still runs underneath. A mishap could easily prove fatal, though iced over waterways have been utilized as winter travel routes for centuries.
The trip provided the opportunity to optimize winter gear options, and to experiment with using a toboggan to transport it all. Officially known as a ‘pulk,’ I was able to put one together with a sled I found at work, some webbing and carabiners I had at home, and two lengths of PVC pipe which provide stability and prevent the sled from sliding forward into your ankles on the downhills. The day before I left, my boss excitedly presented me with a harness (actually designed for pulling one of these things) he happened across at an outdoor store. Thanks Sid. The set-up had its challenges, especially since I packed the sled like someone else was going to be pulling the 100+ pounds on there, but proved to be an efficient tool in the end.
The weather was a mix of everything. Wind, cold, blowing snow, spots of sunshine and warmth, a serene winter scene of big falling flakes on the last morning. Temperatures ranged from negatives to high 20s. I spotted one snowshoe hare and stood very close to a large bull moose grazing in a snow drift. I also saw tracks from all sorts of other animals, including one large wolf print. It was all about exactly as I was hoping for, and probably the perfect amount of time to hang out down there.
Again, I wouldn’t try to convince anyone who wasn’t interested to experiment with tent camping in the winter. It was hard enough to convince myself to go with the thermometer reading -30° the morning I drove down (it was up to zero by the time I started walking, however). A more popular option would be to utilize one of the amazing huts—equipped with wood stove, kitchen, beds, etc., available to rent all over the state. But I enjoy seeing what life must have been like not all that long ago, and what Iditarod mushers and arctic explorers and all sorts of other crazy folks do or did on a regular basis. It’s also remarkable to experience natural environments as they exist as a whole. To know the forces which shape and define them. Furthermore, it’s nice to rethink what’s important in life for a while, to shift focus from the irrelevant to the most basic. A cup of hot tea, a warm sleeping bag, a long night’s sleep, and a good bar of chocolate.