Originally, a couple of friends and I had planned to meet up in central Iowa and do some light winter camping. Unfortunately, the forecast for Saturday night was for the weather to turn very cold, very quickly. The temperature was to drop to the low single digits and not warm up on Sunday. I wasn’t quite seasoned enough for single digit temperatures. With that news, the weekend trip was rescheduled, as an overnight trip wasn’t worth the long drive. I still, however, had the camping itch, and needed to scratch. With a significant snowfall in the forecast, I set my sights on a short overnight trip at one of Afton State Park’s backpacking sites.
Since I was going solo, I wasn’t in any hurry to get out there. I took the drive across the metro and pulled in to the parking lot at Afton about 9pm. I grabbed my pack, donned my headlamp and took to the trail. The half-mile hike from lot to site, felt a bit longer due to the several inches of snow on the ground. The trail staircase descent into the valley was a little sketchy, especially with 30 or so pounds on my back. I was surprised to find another group of campers in one of the first sites. They were far enough off the trail that I don’t think the noticed me. I hiked back a bit farther in to the backpacking area, grabbed a few chunks of firewood, and picked a site that would hopefully provide some shelter from the north wind.
I made a meager attempt to start a fire, got it going, and turned to set up the tent. I cleared a patch for the Big Agnes Madhouse 3 and set it up in record-slow time. I was in no hurry and was enjoying the evening. Also, working tent stakes into frozen ground is a pain. Just as I finished securing the rain fly on the tent, a pack of coyotes across the river let out their super creepy, cackle-howl thing that they do. You have never had your skin crawl until you have heard coyote calls in the middle of the woods at night. It sounds like an insane woman screaming… no offence to screaming insane women.
So, I then turned back to my poorly built fire, which had extinguished. I poked at it for a minute and then decided that I would rather hunker down in the tent and make some hot chocolate. I climbed inside my new winter sleeping bag and fired up the stove. I have had the Primus EtaPack Lite for about a year now, and have become a big fan. My old stove (long-term borrowed from my brother) was a multi-fuel, bottle and pump, MSR WhisperLite Internationale. I opted for the convenience of a canister style stove, which is especially nice during longer winter boils and melting snow. I will admit that it isn’t quite as efficient as white gas, and you have to orient the canister upside down in the winter (make sure to use an butane-propane blend), but the ease of use is worth it to me. However, if I was going on a long trip, the WhisperLite is bombproof and can run on most liquid fuels.
I used to make due winter camping with my 35 degree down sleeping bag and a cheap fleece summer sleeping bag from Wal-Mart as a liner (on top of a thermally dense sleeping pad). I decided to get an actual winter bag and picked up a Mountain Hardware Switch 5 from my favorite local deal provider: Thrifty Outfitters, part of Midwest Mountaineering. It’s not the most packable bag around, but it’s not bad. I think I’ll be picking up a compression sack so this thing doesn’t take up so much space in my pack.
One unique feature of the Switch 5 is an expandable baffle that runs most of the length of the bag. This can be used to expand the size of the bag, or also lower the thermal rating of the bag. I started out with the baffle open, but I got a little too cool in the middle of the night. I zipped the baffle closed and snugged the neck baffle and hood up, and I was surprised how big of a difference that made. I warmed up pretty quickly and was very comfortable. It was easily warm enough for the night temps in the lower teens and the size was great for me at 5′ 10″, 165 pounds. Also in the picture above is the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core sleeping pad. It’s the most comfortable pad I’ve ever slept on, and packs down very small.
I woke up to a windy morning and a snow peaked tent. Cracking yourself out of a warm sleeping bag is one of the hardest things to do while winter camping. Here’s a handy tip: bring along a disposable or easily cleanable bottle for you to do your midnight *ahem* business in, and save yourself that cold night trip to the tree next to the tent. It may sound gross, but I assure you it’s awesome. Back to the matter at hand: getting out of bed. Keep a few of your clothes in the sleeping bag with you at night, that way in the morning you have a warm layer to put on before you put on a cold jacket and frozen boots. Also, keep the stove nearby so you can still be in your sleeping bag and lean into the vestibule and make yourself a hot morning beverage. It makes getting out of the tent slightly less annoying.
With the campsite packed up, I grabbed my proton pack on my back and I split. (That’s Bobby Brown, folks.) The continuing storm had already dumped around 8 inches of snow and continued to pile up. Drifts on the hike out were knee-high in some spots; I was glad that I packed my gaiters. So there it was, my night in the woods. Not too crazy of an outing, but fun night out and good little gear test.