Winter Camping in Subarctic Temperatures: you can do this!
By Stephanie Woltman
While winter temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit for all of the Americana out there) and camping don’t regularly fall within the same sentence, this past February I wanted to challenge myself to experience this.
And what better time than a birthday where I would be transitioning into a new decade. My 30th birthday fell at the beginning of February and while my friends and I usually opt for a celebration at the cabin, I wanted to do things a little differently this year by experiencing winter camping in subarctic temperatures on a frozen lake.
My partner, Erik, and I have gone winter camping in the past but did so in the month of March when temperatures were warming and the snow around us was beginning to melt. Easily accessible public land for camping is rare in Manitoba, with it usually requiring a long hike or paddle into a campsite. I began to research some locations to find areas where parking was ample and located close to the lake shore, as camping on our frozen lakes is legally allowed. I ended up settling on Lake Manitoba which is the 14th largest lake across Canada and often looks like an expansive ocean on a warm summer day. However, in the winter, the lake is dotted with trucks, ice fishing huts, and bonfires to keep anglers warm, and the winds can be frostbite-inducing cold. The main problem with my plan was the fact that we only had access to one sleeping bag rated for winter conditions. I hopped online to see if any of my local gear stores were renting gear like this, only to find access to very basic camping supplies. Beyond that, borrowing winter camping gear from friends or acquaintances was also slim to none – as there is a very small group of Manitobans doing this type of activity, let alone in my circle of friends.
As I was struggling to come up with a solution to this problem, I recalled coming across a company called Big Sky Outdoor Rentals on my Instagram feed a few weeks prior. Whether it was fate or merely good timing, I looked up their website and to my surprise, they carried and rented out a variety of winter camping gear, including Marmot CWM MemBrain sleeping bags and a Big Agnes Flying Diamond tent (really great products for winter camping in subarctic temperatures). In a few short days after placing my rental order I would be receiving some serious winter gear and be on my way to preparing for a winter camping trip.
Although the sleeping bags were rated to -40 degrees celsius/fahrenheit, we were hoping for weather a little warmer than that. On the morning of the trip we woke up to temperatures of -21 degrees Celsius (-5.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Not particularly balmy but potentially manageable. After picking up snacks along the way, we set off on our three hour drive to Lake Manitoba. When we arrived we jumped straight into action, hiking our gear out to our potential camp spot. I had mapped out where we had planned to go beforehand based on a past winter snowshoe in the area. The area that I chose was nestled within an outcrop of limestone cliffs along the shoreline of the lake. The area was somewhat sheltered for being located on a wide open lake and also looked really picturesque. Once we had our tent setup we began working away at building a fire. Our ample wood and paper supply was nothing for the cold temperatures, which did however rendered our lighters useless. Our compressed gas stove was also struggling to produce any fuel. So as the fleeting bits of winter light began to disappear behind the horizon, we decided it was time to crawl into bed – hungry and cold. Once we were wrapped inside the sleeping bags, and after a few moments of thawing out, we decided we had to eat some calories before going to sleep. Throwing back as many chocolate covered almonds as I could stomach, I decided to call it a day.
Scared for the night ahead, I was preparing myself for a really poor night’s rest. Surprisingly though, I only woke up twice throughout the night – and never due to the cold. With no chance of making coffee in the morning we decided to quickly pack up camp and hop in the car to track down the closest gas station, and with a hot beverage in hand we were on our way home. Looking back at the overnight temperatures it had dropped down to -30C with the windchill. Yes, we had survived but we were no where near thriving.
We decided to make it up a few weeks later with another winter expedition to a different frozen lake here in the province. After driving only an hour and a half, we dragged our gear across the lake on a sled to another secluded spot. While the weather wasn’t mild that weekend, it wasn’t -30C. We invited our friend Bailey to join this time and had a lovely weekend. We went ice fishing, cooked dinner over a fire on the ice, and watched a movie before bed while bundled up in our winter sleeping bags (and yes – our iPad did survive the cold).
My takeaway from this experience will always be my own lack of preparation. Could we have brought matches and a liquid gas stove on our first weekend? Absolutely. But these are all lessons that you learn when trying a new activity. I’m very thankful though that we had the proper gear to help us survive the night and to make up for my own lack of preparation. Having learnt a few lessons along the way, these are my five tips to make winter camping more enjoyable:
- Layer up your sleeping pad – We brought radiant heat seats which help to reduce the heat loss from your body. Doubling up on another Thermarest, or sleeping pad, underneath you is another option to protect you from the cold ground.
- Increase your calories – Your body’s caloric needs increase in cold temperatures, so make sure that you’re eating calorie dense foods, and often.
- Layers – This should be a no brainer for any winter activity but is also a useful tip for winter camping. While extra layers are great for setting up camp, it’s best to layer down before getting into your sleeping bag. Sweating too much can cause you to get damp which is always a concern in colder temperatures.
- Hot water – I filled our insulated water bottles with hot water before leaving. Had we not done this we would have woken up to completely frozen ice-blocks.
- Vent your tent – Make sure that your vents are propped open before heading to bed to ensure that you don’t wake up in a thick layer of frost. As we breathe throughout the night, the condensation from our breath can build up on the tent walls, our gear, and our sleeping bags.
As you can probably tell, winter camping isn’t a leisurely activity that many actively pursue, myself included.
I cannot wait for my annual winter camping trip next year – rental gear, matches, and common sense in tow.
Winter Camping in Subarctic Temperatures is something you should experience!