“The trail is un-groomed—no one has been out there all winter—and the snow is pretty deep”. Those were the words the park ranger told me when I inquired about camping at their lone, backpacking site.
I’d decided to take a weekend and go winter camping and backcountry skiing. Then I upped the ante by planning to go solo and ultralight. Two things I’ve never done. Although I love camping with ‘less’, this would truly be less. My goal was to select from the gear that I own, but still stay light, warm and dry.
Being that I needed a good base of snow I searched weather data online and choose a region in northern Wisconsin—Copper Falls State Park. There was a backpacking site a couple of miles outside of the main park area that was along the North Country National Scenic Trail system. The trail system covers seven northern states and is 4600 miles long. I would be enjoying just a few miles of it.
After consulting the map, I headed down the trail. While the trail was deep with snow, there were just enough signs to mark the direction. The area is hilly, filled with white pine, aspen and deep gorges. As the sun was setting I located the backpacking site and began to set up camp. The Bad River flowed about thirty feet away, partially open and was flanked by 150′ red sandstone cliffs. The gentle sound rushing of water over stone would be a nice backdrop for sleep. After setting up my bivy within a cluster of spruce, I set out to collect twigs for my stove. I brought along a twig burning stove to cook with and melt snow for water—I didn’t want to risk wet feet by attempting to collect river water when I didn’t feel confident about the thickness of the ice. After a dinner of black bean chili, I clean out the pots with snow, cashed my food bag and kept the stove stoked for hot water. When it got dark a couple of raccoons created quite a kerfuffle across the other side of the river. Unfortunately, they kept it up most of the night.
Tired and ready for bed, I filled my wide mouth Nalgene bottle with boiling water, set it at the foot of my sleeping bag, took off one layer and hit the sack. According to my thermometer the temps dipped down to zero. My ‘bedroom’ view through the spruce was a brilliant starry sky and I felt warm and content. After a comfortable, but wakeful night, thanks to the ‘coons, I awoke to the sounds of coyotes yipping at 6:30. The sky was lightening and I was just cool enough that I no longer wanted to stay in bed. While I had the option of hot oatmeal, I decided to keep it simple and eat a energy bar. Being that I brought so little everything packed up quickly and in less than a half-hour, I was back on the trail.
Unlike other seasons, I enjoyed complete solitude in this state park. I could have been in a wilderness, miles from nowhere. Parks are underutilized in the winter months and they provide a unique beauty not often experienced by others. As the sun came up I walked along 100′ gorges of frozen falls, icy mounds and red sandstone. Animal tracks crossed my trail and I identified, raccoon, coyote and fox.
Although I am not an expert and I didn’t stay out in the woods for days on end, I felt like it was a successful adventure and a good introduction to more ambitious trips in the future. For those who want to try it, I’ve included details on my layering and packing systems. While I might have done some things differently, I was happy that it didn’t cost me more than a tank of gas and a camping reservation.
How I did it.
Stay warm, don’t sweat. .
When I skied or hiked, I had two, light wicking layers on. I never took off my Smartwool mid-weight base layers. Over my bottoms I had thin, micro-fleece ski pants. On top I had a poly-blend, long sleeve running shirt. I try to minimize sweat, and although it seemed a little unavoidable, I tried to give myself enough time to dry out before going to bed.
Vapor Barrier System.
When I was less active, and temperatures began to drop, I utilized the vapor barrier layer system recommended by adventurer, Andrew Skurka. Vapor Barriers are non-breathable and trap moisture, thus minimizing evaporative heat loss. Skurka uses VBL’s as articles of clothing. I went the po’ girls route. Vapor systems that I found on the market are expensive, and before spending the money, I used what I already owned. Somewhere I read about someone using plastic found around the house. So, I started to dig out non-breathable materials like bread bags and vinyl gloves. I wish I had learned about VBL’s sooner. I was surprised at how much warmer I felt with them and am convinced that they are effective pieces of ‘gear’ to have for cold-weather adventures.
My layers, in order of how I wore them:
Feet: breadbags, Smartwool socks, boots. (Brought along xtra pair of dry socks for bed.)
Legs: Smartwool mid-weight baselayer, rain pants, fleece pants, ski pants
Torso: Smartwool mid-weight top, garbage bag, poly-blend long sleeve zip top, Nano-puff, waterproof shell
Hands: vinyl gloves, mid-weight fleece gloves ( I brought along a down pair as backup)
Head: wool-blend, fleece lined hat, waterproof shell hood
Face: mask as back up (never used)
If you want to learn about the theory and application of VBL’s from Andrew Skurka, go here.
My base weight was just under 10 lbs. and I brought along 3 lbs. of consumables. I may have been able to lighten my sleep system, however I wanted to use what owned.
bivy: 32 oz.
0° bag: 3lbs. 12 oz.
30° down bag: 2lbs. 13 oz.
pad: 31 oz.
pack: 8 oz.
sacks (2): 3 oz. each
mini-light: 1 oz.
twig burning stove: 7 oz.
2.2 liter pot with lid and handle: 15 oz.
first aid: 2 oz.
repair kit: 3 oz.
fire starter: 1 oz.
lighter: 1 oz.
knife: 7 oz.
hand warmers (4 pairs): 4 oz.
compass: 1 oz.
water bottle: 2 oz.
extra socks: 2.5 oz.
extra gloves: 5.9 oz.
extra hat: 2.5 oz.
total: 153.9 oz. or 9.6 lbs.