Winter camping — not for everyone in these conditions!

winter camping

A bit of gentle advice on winter camping:  if it’s dangeroulsy below zero, don’t do it.

With the beginning of trout season, each year winter campers descend upon the frozen lakes of the BWCAW. There are a few common destinations from which to start a winter camping trek; East Bearskin is not the most popular winter camping entry (fortunately), but traveling from East Bearskin to Alder and beyond is one fairly well-used winter camper route. We see many campers go out in beautiful winter weather and in brutal winter weather. We also see them come back, sometimes after a superb trip and sometimes, in subzero conditions, with a great deal of pain and suffering, sometimes in excruciating pain and misery.  There are always stories from those challenging, bitterly cold journeys back. They are better stories a few years later, after the terrible memories have faded, but at first the stories are of an experience that felt like a near frozen death.

In the past few days, when our night temperatures were -15 to -25 below zero, there have been several groups that returned after one night with members of their party in agony.  One group had to leave all their gear in the BWCAW, a recurring problem now with winter BWCAW campers. (In this case, that may have been the necessary choice — they did need to get back to warmth. They may have saved their lives.)  Quinn and Landen, both young, strong, and in great physical shape, will go back this afternoon in -10.5 degrees temps and retrieve all the left-behind stuff. This isn’t a service we, or anybody else, offers. They’re doing it because they’re super good people. And also, because finding abandoned winter camping gear in the BWCA might send the next group of winter campers into an unnecessary fearful frenzied search for the “lost campers.”

Only the most experienced of experienced campers should be camping out in the cold weather we are dealing with now. The legendary camping guru Bear Paulsen spends a month of winter in the BWCAW.  That’s the kind of guy who can make it in -27 degrees.  The rest of you – possibly not the best idea. Winter camping has been romanticized in literature and magazine articles, but it’s a lot more difficult to stay warm in subzero temps than you can imagine back in your cozy reading chair at home. The guys who came back today stayed awake every minute last night feeding the fire, woke up at 5 AM to break camp, and appeared on our doorstep at 7:30 AM, frostbit and suffering.  It must have been a very difficult and worrisome night; we all thought it took a lot of fortitude to get back in the morning. That wasn’t the way winter camping is portrayed in the magazines and books, but it certainly can be the reality.

So what if your dream is to experience a successful winter camping trip? Many, many winter camping groups make fantastic winter memories; it doesn’t have to be a nightmare experience. How do you do that?  One basic piece of advice underpins all the other essential winter camping skills you should learn:  Plan your trip based on the weather, not on the days you were able to take off work.  If it’s way, way below zero or incredibly windy, go some other time.

We can’t stop winter campers from heading out.  No, we take that back:  once Bob refused to let a school group go out in the future from East Bearskin after one of these bitterly cold weekends.  The leader just took the kids somewhere else, but as a lifelong teacher Bob tried to discourage irrational leadership irresponsibility with kids when he saw it. Most of the Gunflint Trail businesses do not rent winter camping gear, even though many of the owners routinely winter camp. (Quinn has successfully winter camped for a decade, with no issues.)  Many of us intentionally choose not to rent gear that encourages winter campers because we don’t dare take responsibility for the huge risk created by inexperienced campers going out in rapidly changing winter conditions. There are few winter camping guides in our area for the same reason. If you do choose to go with a guide, make sure that person has a substantial long history of successful winter camping in all conditions.

Minnesotans are a hardy bunch.  We take pride in our ability to withstand temperatures that would demolish a Floridian in 10 minutes. But even the hardiest souls have their physiological limits in brutally cold winter weather.  Be smart about spending your nights in the BWCAW in the winter.  Look at the thermometer before you go and if the forecast is for incredibly frigid temperatures, there are all sorts of fantastic but less dangerous ways to enjoy our winter wonderland on the Gunflint Trail.

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