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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

What do you need for winter camping? The right mental attitude, good physical condition, gear to match the elements, and the ability to plan and adapt to rapidly changing conditions. © Jim Bishop
What do you need for winter camping? The right mental attitude, good physical condition, gear to match the elements, and the ability to plan and adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

© Jim Bishop

December 2001

When the woods turn white

Winter camping isn't crazy; you just have to be more prepared.

Natasha Kassulke

Plenty of places to go | You've got to prepare to stay comfortable
Gear up for winter warmth | Winter shelters – make them tough enough
Traveling to camp on snowy lakes
Winter camping in Wisconsin State Parks and Forests

You'd think they'd know better. It's winter. The camping gear is supposed to be packed away. Instead of travel plans that include the surf, a flight and a tropical night, this group dreams of hard turf, long nights and perpetual white.

David Benish, a DNR parks and recreation specialist, says these "hard-cores in the outdoors" make a compelling argument for winter camping in Wisconsin.

"It's quieter to camp in the winter," Benish says. "Plus there is a better chance that you will get the spot that you want. There also are lots of activities like cross-country skiing, or visiting a park with frozen waterfalls or ice-sculpted beaches that you can only do in winter."

I've got all kinds of reasons to camp now, says Jim Bishop, DNR public affairs manager in Spooner. "For starters, you don't need raingear. There are no bugs. No need to refrigerate your food. I have the woods to myself. And I usually lose weight.

Plenty of places to go

Whenever you decide you're ready, the welcome mat is freshly shoveled. Bonnie Gruber, a DNR parks program and planning analyst, explains that state parks and forests are open year-round, but not all offer winter camping. Each property is different and not all the buildings are clustered so they could be heated economically to support winter use. "Most flush toilets and shower buildings have to be drained and closed to keep pipes from freezing," Gruber says. Some parks still maintain a water supply for campers in the headquarters building, and are open to the public all winter. Of course, outdoor recreation is spectacular this time of year.

Among the most popular state properties for winter camping are the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Northern Unit, which attracted 835 campers last winter, and the Kohler-Andrae State Park, which drew about 820 campers. Devil's Lake State Park followed with 752 campers and Mirror Lake State Park with 748.

What's their winter appeal?

The Kettle Moraine State Forest-Northern Unit features 23 miles of cross-country ski trails and 60 miles of snowmobile trails. Kettle Moraine-Southern Unit offers 30 miles of cross-country ski trails, 56 miles of snowmobile trails and wildlife viewing areas. Devil's Lake State Park provides 16 miles of cross-country ski trails plus ice fishing. The Kohler-Andrae State Park offers cross-country skiing, sledding, tobogganing, snowshoeing, hiking and beach combing. Many people visit Kohler-Andrae in the winter to explore the ice-encrusted shoreline sculpted by wind and wave into frozen creations. Winter also is an ideal time to observe wildlife such as deer and birds that call the park home.

Mirror Lake State Park provides 19 miles of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing and wildlife watching. Governor Dodge State Park is home to 18 miles of cross-country ski trails and maintains flush toilets, water, tables and grills all winter. It also has a 15-mile snowmobile trail, two lakes for ice fishing, an ice skating rink on Cox Hollow Lake, sledding and tobogganing.

You've got to prepare to stay comfortable

As an avid outdoorsman and an assistant scoutmaster, Jim Bishop loves the unique challenges of winter camping. The coldest conditions he has camped in?

"Minus 40," he beams. "That was in northern Minnesota. It was quite a treat, but I wouldn't recommend it for most people."

Bishop especially appreciates that in winter it is easier to see and track wildlife, one can walk to spots (like lakeshore caves) that are inaccessible in summer, and you can extend the camping season.

He recommends winter camping with groups of friends in case trouble arises. He recalls one harrowing trip on his own when he plunged through the ice up to his knees. He was wearing snowshoes and had to pull himself out of a muck-bottomed lake and roll out of the water. Luckily, he still had a fire glowing at camp and quickly stoked the coals to get a hot fire that dried his clothes. Keep a fire going and cut plenty of wood if campfires are allowed where you camp, Bishop says, and keep a stove handy.

"Winter camping requires four things," he says. "The right mental attitude, good physical condition, gear to match the elements, and the ability to plan and adapt to rapidly changing conditions."

Winter camping requires more gear than other seasonal camping, but Bishop says it is easy to carry. He also travels to campsites on cross-country skis and snowshoes pulling a toboggan or sled.

"You can even set up a tent on a lake," Bishop says. He enjoys combining ice fishing, hockey (bring a shovel, puck and sticks), wildlife watching, and hiking (bring a lantern and candles – night comes early) with his camping experience.

"It's a great time for storytelling," he says. "And if you play football in the snow you'll have a softer landing."

Gear up for winter warmth

Here are Bishop's tips for food, clothing shelter and the few extras that can make winter camping special.

Cold weather dining: While appetites generally decrease during winter activity, the body's need for food increases.

"You can just about double your usual caloric intake," Bishop suggests. "For instance, winter camping is the only time I eat bacon because I need the added fat content. I've lost three to five pounds winter camping."

The reason for the weight loss? Your body is working hard to keep warm and you are constantly burning calories in gathering wood, hiking through snowdrifts, skiing, building a shelter and more. Bishop's winter camping breakfasts include hearty grain cereals like oatmeal and bran cereals, hot beverages, cheese, meats and other foods higher in fats to provide added fuel. When you are engaged in outdoor activities in the winter, take along dry foods (pasta, rice, noodles in broth) baked goods (brownies, cookies), or freeze-dried foods that will help you stay warm. During an active day, he munches on trail mix, jerky, candy bars and dried fruits. For dinners, plan a good mix of proteins, vegetables and carbohydrates to hold you overnight. Jim likes stews, rice casseroles, pasta or tin foil wrap-ups of meat and vegetables that can be cooked over an open fire.

You've heard the advice "don't eat the yellow snow?" Well, it's best to avoid eating any snow. As in the summer, your water supply in the winter should be purified. Snow can be melted on a fire or camp stove to make drinking water. By volume, it takes about 10 quarts of snow to make a quart of water. You'll need water close at hand at all times, Bishop says. Winter air is so dry, you need to realize you are in a desert-like climate, he says.

Carry a water bottle next to your body. Your body heat will keep it from freezing. Jim enjoys steeping a tea bag in a hot cup of Tang for a sweet tea.

He offers tips on extras to pack-in. Carry extra batteries for cameras and flashlights and keep them close to your body so that they stay warm. Keep your pocketknife on a string. If you drop it, it won't get lost in the snow. Pack a small foldable saw for cutting firewood. Remember that it is easy to get windburn and sunburned in the winter, so wear protection on your face and lips.

Dress for success: Staying warm in the winter means effectively layering clothes. Air trapped between layers slows heat loss and gives you the flexibility to add or shed clothing as the temperature and your activity level change.

Clothes also should fit properly but not too snug; too tight, and your clothes reduce dead air space restricting body movement.

Clothing material is important too. Wool absorbs moisture, yet still insulates and is fairly wind resistant. The disadvantage is that wool can absorb so much water that it becomes heavy. Pile or fleece fabrics often insulate as well as wool, they hold less water and dry quicker. The downside to pile? Wind can cut right through it, so you'll need a light outside layer on top that acts as a wind shell.

Polypropylene is a synthetic fabric that does not absorb water. In fact, this fiber moves the water vapor away from the body to reduce evaporative heat loss. Feathers also efficiently insulate for very little weight. But down can mat down as it absorbs water and some people are allergic to it.

Cotton clothes are poorer choices when you are exercising outdoors in winter. Cotton wicks water, but unlike polypropylene, cotton absorbs this moisture and is tough to dry.

You can lose a lot of heat (up to 70 percent) from your head. So hats that both warm you and wick moisture away from your head are essential. In windy conditions, a facemask can prevent frostbite, so pack one where you can get to it quickly.

Mittens are warmer than gloves because your fingers tend to keep each other warm. Wear a softer inner mitten with a wind-resistant, waterproof outer shell. Consider packing gloves for those activities that require more finger dexterity.

Bishop also packs in chemical heat packs (12 per day per person) that can be slipped into gloves and boots to stay warm. He also sleeps with a hot water bottle in his sleeping bag.

Boots also should be comfortable and broken-in. Boots that are too tight restrict circulation and your toes and feet will get cold. Boots that are too loose slip on your skin and may cause blisters. For cross-country skiing, pick a boot that offers ankle support. Gaiters are essential for keeping snow out of your boots and pants, for snowshoeing or hiking, consider insulated boots. Army surplus stores offer boots rated to -20F and lower. Beware of boots with exposed wool felt liners. Breaking through a frozen stream can soak the liner and exposure your feet to dangerous windchills. Carry an extra set of liners.

Most mountaineering boots have a plastic shell and the inner boots are made with wool felt or a closed cell foam insulation. These can be warm and easily used with ski bindings, crampons and snowshoes. Depending on the inner boot, you may need insulated overboots to add enough insulation to keep your feet warm.

Mukluks are one-piece moccasins that reach to the knee. They are used with felt liners and wool socks. The mukluks serve as high gaiters. They are flexible and breathable. They work with snowshoe bindings and can be used on cross-country skis with special bindings. They are comfortable, but are not waterproof.

Your sock system is critical. Layering works best. Start with a thin polypropylene liner sock next to your skin to wick moisture away, followed by one or two pairs of wool or wool/nylon blend socks. Make sure the socks aren't too tight or they will constrict circulation and increase the chances of frostbite. Keeping your feet dry is essential to keeping them warm.

Sleeping bags for winter camping should be rated to temperatures below those you will likely experience. The bag should be a mummy style bag with a hood. If the bag is too big, you will have large spaces for air and you will be cold. Use a camp pad or mattress to insulate against underlying snow.

Winter shelters – make them tough enough

If you are winter camping in a park, tents can provide quick winter shelter, but not just any tent will do. Your summer tent is designed to shed water, provide a bug barrier and stay breathable. Winter tents need to be strong enough to withstand wind and snow. The tent should have a roofline to allow snow to fall off and it also must have a rain fly. Condensation inside tents is a concern year-round, even more so in winter. As you breathe, you release humid air into the tent and the moisture condenses as ice. A frost liner inside the tent allows moisture to pass through. A ground sheet is recommended to protect the tent floor. Brush all the snow off your clothes and boots before getting into the tent to reduce condensation.

When choosing a campsite, avoid open areas where wind creates drifts. Also avoid really low areas where cold air settles. South-facing sites will direct more sunlight on top of your tent and keep you warmer longer. Before you pitch your tent, use snowshoes or skis to compact the snow under your tent site. Consider building a snow wall four-feet-high or so off the windward side of your tent to provide some shelter.

Snow mound shelters offer good winter protection, but building them requires experience. Be safe – never build a snow shelter alone. © Jim Bishop
Snow mound shelters offer good winter protection, but building them requires experience. Be safe – never build a snow shelter alone.

© Jim Bishop

Building an igloo is also fun if the snow has the right consistency to pack into blocks and you have some time to kill. To build an igloo, cut snow blocks and let them sit at least a few hours. Stack rectangular blocks (24" by 18" by 6") in an ascending spiral. Once the first row is laid in a circle, start shaving off the tops of the blocks at a gentle angle as you form the second layer. As you add blocks, you are creating a ramp that adds blocks in an upward spiral. Once the structure is complete, you can pack loose snow into the open joints.

Bishop contends other winter shelters offer even better protection from the elements than a tent or igloo, but they involve much more effort than merely hollowing out a snow pile. They are engineering projects aimed at fending off the Arctic weather. Only build a snow shelter with experienced campers and never build one alone.

"Every time I've built one I've done it with a friend. If it collapses, there is someone there to quickly dig you out," he says. Building snow shelters can take four to five hours – two hours to dig and form it, then another two hours or more for the snow to set.

To build a snow mound shelter, use an upright marker such as a ski pole or ice ax to mark the center. Tie a cord to the marker and scribe a circle in the snow with a radius of at least 9-11 feet. You'll need a few good shovels to pile loose snow within the marked circle but don't compact the snow. When the mound is the right size and shape, do not disturb it; allow it to compact naturally. Chances of collapse are reduced if you let it settle for at least two hours.

After the snow hardens a bit, you are ready for digging. The entrance should be away from the prevailing incoming weather and the entrance should slant upward so the door is below the sitting level. Otherwise cold air from outside will keep seeping and settling into the shelter. From the entrance point start digging a tunnel about 36 inches in diameter toward the marker. Measure the wall and roof thickness by poking a stick through. You will need walls that are at least 12 inches thick at the bottom tapering to 5-8 inches at the top. When the dimensions are right, remove the marker, trim the interior and create a roof vent.

Traveling to camp on snowy lakes

Crossing ice and snow on a lake raises safety questions whether you are traveling on foot, snowshoe or ski.

Remember this rule: Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky.

To determine where and if to cross ice, watch out for areas where rivers or streams join lakes or ponds. These areas are likely to be thin. You can test ice by using ski poles and tapping in front of you. If you suspect that the ice is thin, take a path around the area. When you think you have reached a safer spot, chip a small hole to determine ice thickness and condition. Spring-fed waterbodies tend to form less stable ice. Logs, rocks or anything else sticking out of the ice picks up heat from the sun that can melt ice surrounding the object.

Ice that appears gray to white with a pebbly surface may contain air bubbles that weaken the ice. Water on top of ice is dangerous since water is heavier than ice. Water that leaks through ice can create fractures known as honeycombs, and no matter how thick the ice may be, honeycombed ice can give way.

Beware of dark patches and discolored snow over ice, which may signal that there is water or slush underneath and that the ice is thin. Avoid areas where snow looks dark and slushy.

Ice jams often are found downstream of rapids, which may indicate that the area upstream may not be safe to cross because it is underlain with fast-moving water that keeps the ice thinner.

Ice will support your weight better if you're on snowshoes or skis that spread your weight over a greater surface area. If traveling in a group, have people spread out over the ice to displace the total weight over a larger area. As a guideline, one inch of black or white ice will probably hold you. Two inches is safer, and six inches will hold a moose.

For details about winter campsite reservations, visit Winter Camping in Wisconsin State Parks and Forests.

Natasha Kassulke is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.