OK if hot tenting is so great, why bother with cold camping style of travel? Well hot tenting, while luxurious, and sustainable regardless of weather, is more work, period. The hot tent and woodstove is heavy and takes up significant space on a sled. When travelling cold camping style, your sled and/or pack is lighter, and camp set up and take down can be quicker. Hauling a big heavy sled is very hard work, especially up hills, and so significant weight savings are sometimes an incentive for going lighter and cold style. You can dig out a fire pit area and get pots of hot water going quickly as the sun is going down, and then bask in the radiation of an open fire under the stars. You can hear all the sounds in the bush. There is no confining space, and you can get up and move around to work the kinks out from the day’s exertion. If the trip is short and the weather looks to be moderate – no rain in the forecast, and no deep cold, then it can be great. In fact most of my winter camping experience has been cold camping style, with the use of fire for cooking, warmth and drying out clothing while wearing it. Please see our Clothing Section for description and images on living close to open fires and the ability to stay dry and warm.
In cold camping style, there is no warm place to get inside, out of the cold and wet. Your skills and equipment become all important. This Section is predicated on using fire for warmth and drying. Extreme cold camping style with just a backpacking stove is common above treeline, and using igloos on tundra can be the best way to use shelters in extreme wind environments. But here at Winter-camping.ca, our site is dedicated to winter travel style in the trees using fire.
Entire books can be written on this topic. There are an almost infinite number of survival type shelters that can be made, depending on your snow and shelter material conditions. Snow caves, quinzees, branch and foliage lean to’s, etc., all have their place as survival technologies, but most of these take a great deal of time to construct and can cut into your travel time. In many areas, the snow is the wrong type for making snow caves. You may also not be allowed to cut live branches for lean to’s depending on where you travel.
This section will be discussing portable lightweight shelters: Floorless tents and tarps. The main function of these shelters is not warmth – its staying out of the wind, and snow, and maybe rain. Sleeping warmth is generated from body heat in your sleeping bag system.
As long as it stays below freezing, there is no need for a fabric floor in a cold tent. In fact a floor can be a liability since all the snow falling off your gear stays there. See above for the hot tent subsection “The Floor Covering” for a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of boughs and floor tarps.
You will need to have some waterproof and insulative barrier between your sleeping bag and the snow. Without boughs, I use a small polytarp on the snow on which I lay my sleeping pad. Since I am not standing up in the small shelter, slipping is not an issue. I also use a bivy bag over my sleeping bag, so if snow comes in contact with the bag, especially underneath where it can melt, there is no issue with getting the bag wet.
There are several commercial brands of single pole conical tent which have guy lines for pulling out sagging sides and securing in the wind. You need a base under the pole to keep it sinking into the snow, and they need a few snow stakes to pull out the bottom. They also have a sod cloth for piling snow onto to seal the sides and weigh then down. Pictured in the photo is a Mountain Hardwear brand “Kiva” tent, rigged in shallow snow. Lightweight perforated aluminum snow stakes (long style) are available after market from SMC http://www.smcgear.net/ which are sold by several manufacturers, or you can make your own stakes, or use stakes cut from the bush. If you plan on using perforated aluminum stakes, make sure you fasten a strong, colourful cord on top to help find them in the morning, and to pull on because perforated really anchor themselves into the hard set up snow.
Since I try and place the Kiva tucked into the bush out of the wind, I sleep with the door open to let the moisture out, which reduces the frosty snow on your face when you touch the inside! The Kiva is rated for 4 people, but I have found it’s comfortable with two, and a tight squeeze for three with the center pole. I also use a bivy bag, so I don’t mind having the end of my bag sticking out the door to make room for a third buddy inside, and it allows more room for your face against the tent wall. The advantage of a zip door tent like the Kiva is that if it should rain or turn into a nasty blizzard, I can close the door. With a suspended external ridge line, the tent can be rigged without the center pole, which will allow its floor space to become larger, making more room possibly to squeeze a 4th person in.
On a budget and can’t afford a winter tent? If you have a tarp you can get by and with good rigging skills, travel in style. Bring lots of guy lines and long ridge lines to suspend the tarp without poles, although you can cut poles from the bush as well.
Baker Style Reflector Tents:
A winter camping buddy had a canvas shop make him a 5×7 Baker style tent (the style Bill Mason used) out of polytarp material, so its is waterproof in case it rains, and its lighter than canvas. Its so light that its easy to rig the ridge with a line between two trees, and he cuts 2 poles or uses his skis to reinforce the two ends. He builds a snow platform and cements in a bench log for sitting on the bench, and then builds a fire in front. It big enough for two (sleeping head to toe), and we have done an 8-day trip with it, and he solo trips with it. It’s a great rig for combining the reflective heat of the fire with a simple, light weight, easy to rig shelter…..but there is always a down side to every design.
Because the fire is so close and the shelter is polytarp material, sparks and embers from the fire will and do burn holes in the roof. So he carries duct tape for patching. Embers will spit right out of the fire into the shelter, and I have a very expensive good down bag in there! We let the fire burn down at night and pull the flap down so its no worries at night. But in the morning or evening when the fire is roaring, I bring a small polytarp to wrap around my bag to arrest an ember should it shoot in.
The other problem, common in all cold camping styles, is that the wind will move the smoke around, sometimes right into the Baker, so you can’t always sit on the bench. Be prepared to move around. The pull down flap, which doubles as a canopy during the day should it rain or wet snow, protects you from smoke at night, and you let the fire die down anyways.
The reflective properties of the sloped roof behind you when the fire is going, allows you to hang gloves, mitts, boot liners etc., from the ridge line to dry. If you prepped your dry split wood, birch bark and spruce twig fire materials for a quick start up in the morning, you can pop out of your bag in deep morning cold, start a ripping “mushroom cloud” fire, and leisurely get dressed in the intense heat!
2.2 Open Fires:
The art and science of fire making and tending is one of life’s great pleasures to participate in and learn. It’s evolutionary, a feeling deep in your bones. I have never met a human being that is not fascinated by or drawn to campfire, and just watch people in the winter around an open fire – you see all of our ancestor’s behaviour and expressions in their actions. We humans really are beings of the fire.
When cold camping you will spend a great deal of time very close to the fire, so you will need the proper clothing which resists sparks and embers. Please see our Clothing Section for a thorough discussion of fire-friendly winter camping clothing. Wear anything synthetic by the fire, and its likely going to be melted and full of spark holes in no time.
The bigger the fire, the more wood it requires, which means more work for you gathering and cutting wood, and the further back you have to sit. Too small a fire, and you don’t gain the heating benefits, nor the drying functions for the damp clothing you are wearing, and everyone has to jockey for position. Even the most breathable clothing will be damp after snowshoeing and skiing, hauling sled all day and gathering wood and setting up camp. So the best fire is not too big and not too small.
Its most efficient to cook and heat water on the same fire that is warming and drying you. After cooking and when everyone is hydrated again, you can set your pots to the side, remove your grill, and then add wood to make the fire bigger for the final drying period, tall story telling, fine beverage sipping should that be your pleasure, and debating and solving the world’s most pressing problems.
You will burn a great deal of wood and its all labour intensive to gather, cut and sometimes split it. All your wood will come from above the snow, since below the snow, the wood is full of frost and often coated in ice. So you will be cutting poles standing above the snow.
Don’t cut all the poles into blocks of wood right away. Stack your poles close by, and every time you feel a chill coming on, get up and saw a block or two of wood, and spit it if necessary. This simple task will warm you right up. The wood heats you 3 times: when gathering, when cutting and spitting, and when burning. Don’t waste step 2’s warming effect. Cut blocks of wood only when needed and you’ll be warm day and night when in camp.
There are no rocks available in winter snow for supporting a cooking grill. There are several ways to support cooking pots: A grill with fold-up legs, a tripod with suspended pots or a suspended grill, a firebox, or a wooden crossbar pole from which to hang pots by wires, or long pot sticks jammed into the snow which suspend pots from wires. The latter two are the traditional methods, and poles can be cut on site meaning no extra weight to haul on the sled. But sticks and poles take time to cut and rig, are not the easiest thing to rig, the fire needs to be managed skilfully to place the heat directly under the hanging pot, and they occupy space around the fire. Simpler, or perhaps the modern lazy man’s way to cook is with the former options of metal grills, tripods and boxes. However there is no free lunch, and these must be hauled on a sled, adding significant weight.
My current platform of choice is Coghlans’ fold up self supporting grill. It’s somewhat heavy but it is of good wide size for a big warm fire, strong enough for 3 pots of water, and easily pulled off when the cooking is done to allow for a bigger fire. We have been hauling this grill for years, so it’s a fine choice, and the only self-supporting brand I know of in its weight class.
I have never used metal tripods, but they are commercially available. I have found the commercial ones tend to be quite heavy, and the poles are long which is an issue for packing on a sled. The tripod legs also can be a hazard around the fire unless you are careful where you step.
There is a renewed interest in fireboxes. Their advantage is that the metal sides reflect heat in, making more efficient use of wood, i.e. you burn less. They also protect the organic soil layers from being burned. When using an open fire for several days in a base camp, you can burn the organics down a foot (1/3 metre) or more, and must use lots of water to extinguish creeping peat fires. The metal floor of a firebox can prevent the soil burning issue.
However there are several disadvantages to fireboxes. The very properties of containment and reflection suppress the radiating heat which is needed by everyone around the fire for drying out. A big firebox which provides a big surface area fire will also be quite heavy, and someone has to haul that thing on a sled. Designs which require the grill to hold the sides together don’t allow the grill to be removed for stoking up a bigger after dinner drying fire.
Perhaps someday someone will design an affordable, big, lightweight firebox with a removable grill. Maybe titanium is part of the solution, but that significantly increases costs. The lightest, strongest grill that I am aware of is made of thin tubular stainless steel by Purcell Trench Grill. http://www.purcelltrench.com/ The company will manufacture custom sizes. If someone could mate these superb grills with a fold out leg and lightweight box system, we might have the ultimate cold camping fire cooking and heating platform.
In the absence of a firebox, one has to dig out a fire pit in the deep snow, down to the ground. Where conservation land use allows, I also cut green shrubs into blocks 2-4 inches thick to line the base of my fire pit. They will dry up and burn through, but they slow down the burning of the organics in the soil.
No Trace VS Conservation:
Cooking with open fires in winter is not “no trace”. You cannot pick a site with convenient bedrock base, and fire rocks are not available But your campsite will be tucked into the bush out of the wind, in places where summer travellers will never camp because it’s too thick and buggy. They will be using the open breezy scenic areas for campsites in summer.
The more relevant concern is conservation and relative ecological impacts. In the Boreal forest for example, it is born and cycled by fire. A micro small fire scar in deep bush in Canada is not an ecological conservation issue. The forest stand stand you are camping in was all charcoal a relatively short while ago. In fact if you dig a soil pit in the Boreal you will almost always find layers of charcoal from past forest fires. Southern forests are also cycled by fire but in longer intervals, sometimes many hundreds of years, They are also cycled by windthrow and other disturbances. But again, the scale of your campfire is negligible to forest ecosystem functions. In fact the nutrients made available through burning a small patch will provide a rooting zone for new trees and shrubs and herbaceous plants. So your micro disturbance is not a conservation concern.
Winter campers need to spread themselves out in time and space in order to find places with dry standing dead wood in small convenient diameters. This simple wood supply requirement alone will ensure sites do not get overused. “Overused” is not even relevant in the Boreal since the forest stands eventually burn up and collapse in heaps of debris, or if missed by fire, die and blow down in their short life cycles, creating a fuel load that eventually will burn.
Keeping the above ecological realities in context, use an ethic which fits the terrain and ecosystem you are in. “No trace” simply is not possible, nor right in winter camping in deep cold in our northern bush. You won’t last long with that inappropriate attitude, and people in the north would have died out long ago if they followed that. Instead they travelled and lived in winter practicing respect to the land and the trees, and we modern winter campers need to use that same respectful ethos. Make sure you put your fire out and saturate the ground around. Monitor any organic burns and wet down the soil with snow and water as you live by your fire, and you and the environment will be just fine.
One other important winter traveler’s ethic related to firewood. Even if you think you may never be there again, and that the chances of someone else finding this spot in the middle of nowhere tucked into the bush are nil, always stack your leftover wood up above snow line. Lean your poles, both firewood and tent/tarp poles, up against a tree, and the cut blocks up on some debris. You never know – you or someone else just might be back and that gathered wood will be available. A weary winter traveller chilled to the bone just might follow your snowshoe trail a month later and as the sun is going down, be helped by that gathered wood. It is a great, great privilege to be able to travel across the land in winter, picking your own campsites and gathering wood to burn. Many people in the world cannot do this. We in Canada are so fortunate. Those poles of dead wood took many decades to grow, and we burn them for a few hours of heat. Never waste wood even if you are surrounded by it. The winter spirits will smile on you.