Winter Camping in Subarctic Temperatures

Winter Camping in Subarctic Temperatures

 

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.

 

Sleeping bags in the subarctic

 

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.

 

Night in subarctic

 

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.

Fishing in the subarcticWe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Increase your calories – Your body’s caloric needs increase in cold temperatures, so make sure that you’re eating calorie dense foods, and often.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

Inside tent during subarctic camping

 

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.

 

making fire in the subarctic

 

Winter Camping in Subarctic Temperatures is something you should experience!

Growing up beside the Assiniboine and Red Rivers and spending summers on the shores of Lake of the Woods, Stephanie has fostered a connection with diverse water landscapes which has largely influenced her academic and career paths, as well as her interest in photography.

She is passionate about living adventurously in the backcountry, seeking calm moments on the water, and telling inspiring stories through photography from within the four corners of her home province. She loves to share images and videos of her adventures in the hopes of encouraging others to get outdoors.

26 thoughts on “Winter Camping in Subarctic Temperatures

  • July 30, 2020 at 5:57 pm
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    You actually make this look doable and, gasp, fun, lol! I don’t know how long I would last doing a trip like this, but will definitely pin your tips for future reference 🙂

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  • July 28, 2020 at 9:34 pm
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    Wow! This is really daring. I, for one, am not a fan of the cold. I honestly cannot imagine myself camping out in winter.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 7:37 pm
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    Oh my goodness, I wish my body could handle something like this! I have an autoimmune disease that makes dealing with the cold too hard on my body, but this looks like so much fun.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 7:07 pm
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    Woah I wouldn’t have thought to camp in the actual winter but now I’m curious on how we’d do. My husband and I love the cold but man idk if we’d last before going to find a cabin to rent lol. This looks extremely peaceful though.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 5:35 pm
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    It looks amazing what you’re doing. I don’t think I could handle it since I hate being in the cold for a lengthy period of time.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 2:30 pm
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    What an adventure!

    I once experienced something similar while mountaineering in Mexico, we were there attempting to reach the Orizaba Sumit. We had awful weather when we finally got to a safe area to camp right before entering the last glacier. Thank god and the engineers for the cold weather equipment we had.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 1:30 pm
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    I can’t even imagine trying to do this! It would take a lot of preparation and care to stay healthy and safe. We have recently been watching a show called “Alone”, and season 7 takes place in the arctic. The contestants are dropped off in a remote area and have to survive. Cold weather is not my thing, but I applaud those who can do it!

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  • July 28, 2020 at 12:53 pm
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    That is some kind of extreme camping you did. I don’t think I could last a day in that kind of temperature. Maybe my sons would find this exciting though.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 9:26 am
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    Wow, this looks so cold but at the same time an unforgettable experience, I would love to try at least once!

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  • July 28, 2020 at 5:57 am
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    Yeah. Nah…but more power to you, sis! I barely like the Northeast winter decked out in my thickest Canada Goose coat, thermals, ear muffs and lined boots, now add camping in the dreary snow and ice! God bless your fortitude, that’s for sure. I’m a sun and sand girl all through! Lol.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 2:19 am
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    Woah, this would be testing my body’s mental and physical abilities! I’m so not a winter person but the views of waking up amidst snow seem so beautiful!

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  • July 28, 2020 at 1:47 am
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    Wow! What an experience this would be! I’ve only tried camping in the warmer months.

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  • July 27, 2020 at 9:48 pm
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    I like camping, but I don’t think camping in sub-arctic is for me. Not even winter camping. I can’t imagine pitch a tent in a weather like this, and also if I have to use the bathroom. But I enjoy reading your experiences. I know for sure it’s the best time to eat all those chocolate covered nuts. lol.

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  • July 27, 2020 at 7:48 pm
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    Wow! Must have been amazing experience!

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  • July 27, 2020 at 4:08 pm
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    Ugh!!! Not snow camping! I participate in a three-day backpacking trip every year in the Eastern Sierras (California) for an outdoor class I help teach. It’s always SO COLD but I’m definitely going to try some of the tips you mentioned in your post. Venting the tent makes such a big difference!

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  • July 27, 2020 at 3:03 pm
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    I am definitely not ready for winter camping, it’s too cold for me. During the low temperature season I feel like a lizard, hibernating.

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  • July 27, 2020 at 10:28 am
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    WOW, do I have a lot of respect for you! I’ve only been camping a few times during Winter, but over here in Australia, there are very few places where it snows – and I certainly didn’t go camping in any places where it DID snow 😅 This really looks like such an amazing experience though, and such a story to tell too! You certainly sound like you’re living life to the fullest, that’s for sure.

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  • July 27, 2020 at 8:43 am
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    The only time where I have camped in winters is during my hike in the Himalayas. Other than that time I have never camped in winters especially snow. This looks very cold and like an exciting adventure that I would love to do someday.

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  • July 27, 2020 at 7:11 am
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    I can’t imagine myself in that situation, of course it’s very cold. But actually I was very excited to do nature adventures like that. Maybe one day I will do it.

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  • July 26, 2020 at 1:28 am
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    I’ve always been interested in doing something like this, but I don’t know that I actually could bring myself to do it. However, it seems like such a peaceful experience. Sitting by the fire in the snow looks absolutely dreamy. That was an interesting point about venting one’s tent, I had no idea. I would have woken up as a human popsicle.

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  • July 26, 2020 at 12:13 am
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    I started to shiver just thinking about camping in sub-arctic temperatures. I am a wimp and can’t imagine trying this. I am sure that layers and the proper equipment help with the cold. But I might need a catheter installed to deal with the middle of the night bathroom run!

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  • July 25, 2020 at 5:23 pm
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    Hi Stephanie,

    ouf, that’s an amazing adventure. Well, at least for you, I would never dare to do it. I love camping in tropical climate but never when its cold. Congratulations that you made it!
    But it is interesting to read that it is doable as long as you go prepared. I still prefer my +30 Celsius than -30 degrees Celsius. 😉

    Chris

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  • July 24, 2020 at 11:04 pm
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    You’re very brave!! I don’t do cold weather. I’ve tried, and failed! I think I might be solar powered because I need the sun. But it looks like an epic adventure. I didn’t even know that camping in the snow was a thing .. but I’m glad to see you have a camp fire, that’s the best thing about camping .. and it makes the adventures seem very primal.

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  • July 24, 2020 at 6:17 pm
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    I am not a fan of cold weather, but that looks amazing!! What an incredible camping trip. Thank you for the helpful tips to stay warm and actually enjoy that snowy landscape. Definitely a cool post (pun intended, I know I am shameless).

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  • July 24, 2020 at 4:09 pm
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    Good Lord this looks FREEZING but so beautiful!! I don’t know that I could handle camping in this cold of weather, but love the idea of it! I’m right there with you- during the day I would be fine but I would definitely be a little fearful of the night time.

    Reply

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