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From the January/February 2017 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Let’s face it—winter camping has some initial challenges, but the rewards are silence, serenity and having big places to yourself. Create active daytimes with hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, then be prepared for winter’s long nights with good lighting gear to illuminate camp. Breaking into winter camping isn’t hard, but you’ll rely on good gear and solid skills. Here’s a few basics.
Pick a winter night with low wind and moderate temperatures. Use it as a shakedown to gain skills and work out any kinks. Then gradually master colder conditions as skills build. Novice winter campers should find a nearby park. “Go close in case you have to bail out,” offers Marshall Toms, an avid winter camper and manager of Jax Outdoor Gear in Ames.
Get the right tent
Typical summer tents with large mesh windows won’t cut it in the winter. A three-season convertible tent has smaller windows and beefy poles to hold snow loads, says Toms. You’ll want a roomy tent to store gear, extra clothes and to stand up easily—you’ll likely have more tent time in the winter.
Toms advises using a small, easy-to-store backpacker shovel to clear a place to pitch the tent. With heavy snow and frozen ground, regular tent stakes are useless. Use heavy triangle stakes, snow flukes or heavy nail stakes to penetrate frozen ground. Make a deadman anchor by filling plastic grocery sacks with snow and burying under packed snow. Tie stake-out cords to the anchors.
The Three Ws for Winter
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” says winter enthusiast and avid skier Tom Wilton of Polk City. He says to dress in layers to regulate body temperature and moisture. This is vital when skiing, hiking and snowshoeing. Remember the Ws—wicking, warmth and wind/water. A wicking layer, such as polypropylene long underwear, wicks moisture from the skin to prevent clamminess. Next, wear a warmth or insulating layer such as fleece or wool. Top it with a wind and waterproof outer shell of GORE-TEX or other breathable, waterproof fabric. Layering allows complete control over temperature to prevent excessive sweating and subsequent chilling after a workout.
Hooded mummy bags hold warm air better than their rectangular counterparts. Good bags have draft protectors along zippers and collars to ward off cold. Increase bag warmth by adding a waterproof, breathable bivy sack ($100), which adds 10 degrees to any bag. A silk liner ($40) adds 10-12 degrees. “The silk liner saves you from washing your bag over and over,” says Toms.
With bags, there are two ways to go—synthetic or down fill. Down is lightweight and compressible, but loses insulating ability when wet. Synthetic choices include Hollofil, Quallofil and Polarguard. “Polarguard Delta mimics down for compressibility. PrimaLoft is comparable to the loft of down,” he says. (Price range $180 for synthetic to $250 for down rated to zero degrees.)
Even a great bag is useless without good protection from the ground. Choose closed-cell foam sleeping pads with a high insulating value to prevent heat loss into the frozen ground. Most campers double-up on ground pads to stay toasty.
Light Up the Night
Ward off long, dark nights with good lighting. “A lot of different LED-based lights are getting brighter and better,” says Toms. “If sitting around a lot at night, take a Coleman propane lantern” and plenty of fuel for outside use. LED headlamps, lanterns and flashlights work great in the tent. Ensure you have plenty of batteries and keep spares warm in internal pockets. Headlamps are a must for night skiing—at least on moonless nights.
Top 7 Snow Camping Tips:
1) Do a few jumping jacks before bed to rev up some heat. (But don’t get sweaty.)
2) Avoid sleeping with your face in the bag. Breath moisture decreases the bag’s insulating ability.
3) Double up ground pads. Use two, full-length, closed-cell foam pads to insulate you from the frozen ground.
4) Keep a whisk broom in the tent to brush off snow from boots and clothes after entering and sweep the snow outside. Use broom to whisk out frozen breath crystals from tent walls and ceiling in the morning.
5) Keep toes snug by adding a bottle filled with warm liquid to your sleeping bag near your feet. Make sure the lid is well sealed.
6) Pack plenty of extra fuel. Cooking and boiling will use far more fuel in the winter.
7) Put your boots in a stuff sack and put them under your bag near your feet or in your bag to keep them from freezing.
8) Not all state parks have water available during winter. Check with the park, bring your own water or melt snow.
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