Friday, January 18, 2013

Winter Camping and Hiking

There's a dusting of snow on the ground, and just like the first couple days of this week, I've got camping on the brain.  It's been years and years, but I have several very fond memories of camping in the snow. 

Yesterday I talked about managing a campsite, and all of your supplies around the site.  When it comes to winter camping, everything has to be taken up a level.  In the winter there's an added variable that even if you do everything else right, can hurt you.  Of course I'm referring to the cold.

Our bodies are heat producing machines, but without the proper gear you can find yourself in a world of hurt very fast.  My very first experience winter camping is good evidence of this.  The very first trip I can recall was a late winter campout that was actually in someone's yard.  That yard happened to be about 50 yds off of Lake Erie, but all the same we did actually have a warm house to escape into should we find ourselves in trouble. 

We had an old 8 person tent, so we dug down into the snow to reach the frozen ground.  After placing a large tarp on the ground, thus began our insulating process.  Really that's the best way to approach any cold weather outing:  Layers of insulation.  So what is insulation?  Sounds rhetorical right?  Understanding how insulation works, and what makes for good insulation may save your life someday.  Insulation must work to capture heat.  That heat may be generated from a fuel source, like an electric heater or even a propane lantern.  Or that heat may be from your own body's metabolism, breaking down food to fuel your body.

Our tarp on the ground helps to create layers of air pockets.  Trapped air is actually an enormously efficient insulator.  If you have a down jacket you know what I mean.  The downy goose feathers trap a layer of air around your body, which is heated by your body, thus keeping warm air closer to you. 

After staking the tent down the remaining steps of pitching a tent are familiar to the rest of us.  Now even though snow is frozen water, it actually serves as a fine insulator, helping to keep body heat in, just witness igloos and other shelters that are actually built exclusively of snow.  We used the snow we removed from the bottom to begin to pile up the sides of the tent.  This was just a nylon tent, so it's not going to bear the weight of a lot of snow, just enough to firm up the bottom of the tent. 

Our next layer of defense was to place a blanket down under our sleeping bag.  It might seem to make more sense to layer a blanket within the sleeping bag, but remember that sleeping bags are built to keep your body heat in, so in this case the folded blanket serves a better insulating factor outside the bag, insulating us from the cold ground.

Now speaking of how the sleeping bag works.  A sleeping bag has layers of insulation to hold warmth in, but if you pack layers and layers of clothes on your body before you crawl into the bag, you are working against the design of the bag.  To some this may sound crazy, but I've done it for years, and never had an issue.  I cut down to the gym shorts, and maybe a tank top.  I've slept outdoors in sub 50 degree temps in a sleeping bag and nothing by my skivvies, and woke up warmer and more comfortable than people who were wearing half the clothes they brought. Remember that the bag was built to hold your heat in, allow the bag to work, by letting your body heat up the air space within the bag and you'll have a more comfortable night's sleep.

Now after having that wonderful night's sleep, you came to camp to explore, right?  Hiking in the winter woods is simply magic.  I've been to areas, where I've hunted and hiked for years and years, but once the snow flies, it's a different world altogether.  Thriving out in that world takes preparation, but can be done very comfortably. 

First is to fuel your body.  When cold, your body will burn calories 15%-20% faster than normal, so you've got to feed that furnace with high quality, slow burning fuel.  Think complex carbohydrates.  Grains like oatmeal, and grits are a great choice particularly because they are warm entering your belly giving you a great psychological edge.

Next is your choice of clothing.  Bundling up like Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story is tempting, but 100% the wrong idea.  You're trying to go for a hike, right? So you body needs to move.  Then once it is moving, your body is going to generate even more heat and just like in the tent you have to manage that heat.  Some heat you need to contain, while other heat you need to dissipate.  Here I like to let my body do the instructing.  When too warm, I want layers to remove.  Then if I cool off I can replace those layers.  That's why I always dress in layers.  A tight fitting base layer that will help to move moisture away from my skin and evaporate without cooling me off.  Next a looser, insulating layer, like synthetic fleece or wool.  Either choice will capture warmed air and hold it close to your body.  Finally your outer layer.  All this layer needs to do is to keep the outside, out.  If it's raining or snowing you want your outer layer to shed that precipitation as quickly as possible.  That outer layer doesn't need to be highly insulated, just moisture resistant.

Following this formula, I have comfortably spent hours out in the exposed elements.  While tired at the end of the day, I've never found myself in a compromised situation.  Now don't let the cold temps scare you off, get out and explore, you never know what you may find.

Happy Exploring.
Scott M

No comments:

Post a Comment