I have been winter camping a handful of times and every. single. time. I hate it with every fiber of my body. People who love it will tell you it’s awesome and “not that cold” and so much better than summer camping because you can eat all the foods…okay, maybe. But, what they don’t tell you is that it’s approximately 4x more work than summer camping and “not that cold” is a very subjective term [shivering is “not that cold” compared to toes so frozen they ache for hours]. That said, I’m a very ssslllooowww learner and I went winter camping again last weekend. I hated it. To the point of tears more than once.
Remember those silly survey chains we used to send around in middle school when email first became a thing? There was always the “when is the last time you cried” question that had the most passive aggressive answers [“just now, people are so mean”]. Well, my answer to that question right now would be “last weekend, when I took my mountaineering boots off my frozen toes”. I got some serious quality time with my own version of misery but I somehow found enough patience to use it to my benefit — take a minute, collect yourself, address the issue, eat more, drink more, find an excuse to smile, move on. It worked, we all survived + many moments of hysterical laughter were found in our mishaps + misery. #realtalk
Yea, that was my last weekend…winter camping. Three full days in the backcountry with a group of about 15 people at varying levels of experience. So, to say the least, it was an experience. Again, a solid opportunity to take a deep breath + find patience while helping a few people experience the wilderness in ways the average person considers slightly insane. [spoiler: this time the “average person” may be right…]
Do I regret going? No…that “not that cold” selective memory has already kicked in.
Would I do it again? Yup…because I have another handful of people swearing they’ll show me how to enjoy it.
My most recent bout of winter camping came to me courtesy of an outdoor education course, one of many I’m taking this semester. Two weekends ago we spent Fri/Sat/Sun in the backcountry on a variety of day trips — snowshoeing, avy training, belaying, self arresting + more. Then this past weekend we went all out with a two night/three day winter camping trip to Mayflower Gulch, near Copper Mountain.
The game plan was to hike about 1.5 miles into the back country [but very close to some rather popular trails] where we would set up base camp complete with quinzee building + kitchen crafting on Friday, then spend our Saturday with hands-on mountaineering training + back country touring before heading home on Sunday.
Things did not go quite as we planned. We did hike in 1.5 miles…a trek during which our sled cracked down the center, while I was pulling it across an open meadow one post-hole at a time. Once we settled in on a base camp area we started digging out our quinzees [ie: igloo like snow caves]. Except, not, because the extremely warm, summer-like weather Colorado has been getting wrecked havoc on the snow conditions. Rather than compacting together it all just floated around. Nope, no quinzees were being built or slept in on night one; time for Plan B.
Out came the teepee tents + off we went to stomp down our new campsite. It was a relief to give our arms a break from all the shoveling but intentionally post-holing too its toll on our legs! We moved into our tents then started up dinner. Oh, dinner. The one thing that is actually great about winter camping — no wild animals, freezing temperatures + sleds to carry extra weight. We did not starve, that is for sure!
Our menu included chili + buffalo chicken dip, waffles + chicken + nutella + berries, chicken + bacon + avocado quesadilla and egg frittatas. Take that summer camping! Yea, winter camping kind of wins here. That food would spoil and/or attract way too many wild animals in the summer!
We kicked off our second day in the wilderness with a morning tour up and around the ridge above us. Honestly, I wasn’t super ecstatic about this because it meant we were going to be skipping our mountaineering training for the day — I was here for the mountaineering. But, I had no real room to complain. I was traipsing around in the snow, miles from civilization and getting credit for going to school. Most importantly, I wasn’t at work. So, up the mountain we trekked.
A few heavy clouds + hidden mountain peaks on the horizon had us turning around before we completed the entire ridge traverse, but the weeks of warm weather gave us some fantastic “real life” opportunities to look at potential avalanche slide fields in a very safe setting. The skinners [skis + splitboards] finally got a chance to use their downhill set up while us snowshoe’ers plodded down the hill, snagged their transition time as a chance to get a head start!
When we returned to base camp on Saturday afternoon we jumped right into digging out our quinzee shelters. In theory, leaving them sit overnight in the dropping temperatures would lead to enough compacting to make them safe to dig + sleep in. Turns out that was just a theory. With less than thirty minutes of digging warming up our fingers + toes it was decided, once and for all, quinzees were not happening this weekend! Back to the teepee tents we went.
At about this time those heavy clouds that were hiding the mountains from our ridge line view had dropped down into the Mayflower Gulch valley and started dumping massive snowflakes onto us. Time for another change of layers [seriously, you change layers SO MUCH when winter camping!]…I layered up my puffy gear with some legit rain gear. When it’s basically raining snow I don’t even bother with a standard winter shell; I got right for the rain gear! It was worth it, only my used + abused gloves got wet as we crawled around near our teepee tents digging out trenches for the snow that was collecting on our tents, making the already close quarters even cozier.
The second night in the teepee tent was slightly less miserable than the first night but I think that had a lot more to do with the fact I had given up on comfort than anything else. Well, that and the sound of snow on the tent that sounded a lot like a really light rain. It was kind of peaceful, once my toes stopped aching…
Our last day in the wilderness involved a lot of packing, an avalanche scenario with guidance from our instructor who is on the Summit Search + Rescue team and has actually run similar calls and the hike back to the car. Now, since our sled broke on the hike in we were sled-less on the way out. Typically not a huge deal, but when you pack extra layers + kitchen “basics” around the idea of having a sled things get tricky. The entire crew was amazingly helpful. A splitboarder drug his sled across the post-holing meadow with double the weight, then I took over for the final stretch. Teamwork at it’s finest, for real.
At the end of the weekend…I still hate winter camping. It’s cold, it’s miserable, it’s wet, it’s unpredictable and the learning curve is steep. Yet, if someone actually follows through with their “it’s not that bad, let me prove it” promises I’ll take them up on the offer. I really want to see someone prove me wrong — I want to experience the “fun” side of winter camping, darn it!