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The Globe and Mail - Travel
F-f-f-fun? Winter camping is hard, painful and darn cold, LEAH McLAREN discovers. So where do all those warm gushy feelings come from?


2604 words
27 January 2001
The Globe and Mail

All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

BURK'S FALLS, ONT. -- Winter weather, even for hardiest Canadian, is a temporary experience. From December to March, we spend the majority of our outdoor time moving from one heated structure to the next.

During the Canadian deep freeze, there are only two essential states of being: we are either inside, or on the way to being inside. Skiers move from the chalet hearth, to the slopes to the apres ski hot tub. Even rodents appreciate the pleasure of a warm den in the black heart of January.

Now imagine what the cold weather would feel like, even for a couple of days, if there was no inside. This, in a nutshell, is winter camping.

You already know it's cold out there. But take it from me -- a girl who has been there and done that -- at 5 in the morning, swaddled in a mummy bag, with only a tarp between the tip of my nose and the northern lights, it is colder out there than you could ever imagine.

One hundred hours outside in January causes a physical and psychological shock to the system.

Less a sport than a challenge, winter camping is the ultimate do-it-yourself survival project for today's adventure-seeking recreation hounds. Think of it as essential Martha Stewart: This winter, why not save on heating bills by making your own internal furnace? To this extent, the winter camper's challenge is simple: stay alive by generating your own heat.

It's a challenge more and more of us are taking up with each passing cold season. With eight expeditions to the North Pole planned this year alone, winter adventures are growing increasingly popular among die-hard outdoorsmen and women. The question is: Why?

Before heading out on a four-day, three-night Outward Bound winter camping course, I spoke to two friends who have voluntarily undergone days at a stretch in the sub-zero no-inside zone.

"It's really neat," said my pal from high school. "You basically spend all your time and energy trying to get warm."

"Don't forget to put your toothpaste and your lunch and your flashlight batteries in your underwear so they don't freeze," said another, "and bring lots of wet naps."

Wet naps?

"For bathing."

Obviously I was psyched.

Day One

On the four-hour bus ride due north to Burk's Falls I throw up. No one sits beside me, thankfully. Even in my bus-sick state, it's easy to pick my fellow winter campers out of the crowd of small town folks returning home from the holidays. Mine are the slim people with flush cheeks in primary-coloured Gortex things bought from Mountain Equipment Co-op. We are, clearly, city people travelling north for a weekend camping trip. Which, in my nauseated haze, seems perfectly normal -- until I look out the window and notice the waist-high snow drifts sutured with barbed-wire fencing. I remember: it's bloody winter outside.

Our instructors meet us at the base camp. Both are young women, 26, smiling and slight. Kat, who appears to be the more senior course "instructor" (although this is never made clear) is a short, round-faced woman who gives off an air of patience and McGyver-like authority. During the trip she sings more than she talks. Kendall, on the other hand, is bubbly and revealing. By the time the fire is lit we know all about her: born in Toronto, boarding school in Connecticut, Bennington College for fine arts, a job as an animator in Montreal and now, a job leading year-round trips into the Canadian wilderness.

"Winter courses are the most exciting. I can't wait to get out there," she says breathlessly as we spread out our gear on the floor for their approval.

Despite dropping $200 at Mountain Equipment Co-op the night before, I don't own half the necessary high tech winter camping garments. If Kat is dismayed she doesn't show it. I will just have to borrow. We all tromp over to the gear shed and when no one is looking I stuff my parka pockets with extra gloves, toques and knitted balaclavas. I'll return them of course, this is just in case of an emergency cold snap.

We will spend the first night at base camp just few hundred metres from the buildings before setting off in the morning. This seems comforting, until it dawns on me that proximity to heat has no correlation to actual warmth. If anything, looking at a heated building from the outside only makes you feel colder.

We light a fire, and put up our shelter. Not a tent, but a tarp. A single blue tarp strung between trees to keep snow from falling on our faces.

Dinner is wolfed down standing up around the fire -- "Mexican" rice and bean goop -- glancing, from time to time, toward the tarp. That, goes my mental loop, is where we are going to sleep. I cannot believe that is where we are going to sleep. That cannot possibly be where we are going to sleep.

The truth comes into sharp focus after dinner, after the "pee and poo" lecture (I resolved not to)when we watch Kat do her "sleep warm" lecture. It takes our instructor 45 minutes just to show us how to strip off a few layers and get into our sleeping bags. A usually simple act like getting into bed is, as I will find out, just like everything else in winter camping: a process consisting of slow, involved steps, weighed down by the complication of endless layers and gadgets, all of which are totally necessary, assuming you aren't interested in hypothermia.

So, after a short jog to generate body heat, I inflate my Therm-a-Rest and get into my bags. Top gloves into my pack pocket. Parka folded up as a pillow. Unzip one bag. Unzip the second. Take off boots and place top openings under Therm-a-Rest to make sure no snow gets into them during the night. Take off wool socks and put into pack pocket. Remove liner socks and stuff up the legs of my long underwear for safe keeping and replace with dry liner socks for sleeping. Remove day toque and push to bottom of bag. Put on sleeping balaclava and night toque. Wiggle down into bag and spend 10 minutes zipping zippers and tugging at toggles until only a nose remains exposed for breathing purposes. Try to sleep. Lay awake chilled and unable to sleep.

Tomorrow morning I will find out that almost everybody else had trouble sleeping, but for now I believe I am alone. How many hours pass, as I shiver and gnaw on a half-frozen peanut butter Power Bar? At some point, I must fall asleep because I wake up, just before dawn, to a sound of mass destruction. A terrible creak and split. Later, over breakfast, Kat tells me it was the sound of the lake cracking in the extreme cold. The temperature in the night drops to minus 25 C.

Day Two

The mornings, I soon find out, are the worst. Against my will, I am forced to evacuate my sleeping bag -- a soft, hot, restful space -- to confront the frigid glare of day and give myself over to an eternity of hard work and suffering. This what it must feel like to be born.

After a breakfast of very cold cereal, we pack our stuff into a van and drive to the trail-plaited spread of Crown land where we will live for the next three days.

In the van, we strain our faces toward the heater, urgent for its stale, dry breath. The low grade horror of the situation has started to pull the group together, causing us to tell stories and jokes for the sake of distraction. Names get attached to faces as personalities emerge.

So, what of these people who have paid almost $500, taken time off work and left their friends and families, to spend a long weekend scraping frozen mucous from their upper lips? Specifically, what is wrong with them? As it turns out, not a thing. Despite their strange idea of fun, winter campers are eerily normal. The group ranges in age from mid-20s to mid-40s and is dominated, as Outward Bound's winter courses usually are, by men.

Here's the cast of characters: There is Ron, a soft-bodied traffic-light specialist for Durham Region; Kevin, a software company VP who mentions his vegan girlfriend a lot; Stacey, a receptionist at a car dealership in Gravenhurst who is restless in her role as wife and mother; Steve, a good-natured engineer who runs marathons; Carl, a playground equipment inspector who's wife bought him this trip as a Christmas present; Tim, a college chaplain at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who grows blueberries in his spare time; Chris, a nerdy computer programmer who is obsessed with Outward Bound trivia, and Angela, a dogged Ryerson journalism student who, against my advice, followed me here for her class project.

The day is beyond beautiful, dead clear and shimmery, the temperature perfect at around -7 C. We ski hard for three hours yanking gear-ladden toboggans behind us -- a pack of clumsy sled dogs. Lunch is a sweat-soggy bagel pulled from our underwear.

At the campsite, our real work begins. I opt to cut wood and end up spending an hour hacking impotently at a dead maple. Steve snowshoes by with a thicket on his back and notices my struggle.

"Let me try," he says, and gives the trunk a firm push. It upends easily from the root.

That night we boil premade lasagna in a Ziplock bags. It is the best thing I've ever tasted. The temperature hovers around -12. I keep my fleece layer on and sleep like a dead thing.

Day Three

In the short breaks between wood chopping and sock drying, we sit around the fire and talk about the weather. Today is not good: relentless drizzle and temperatures above zero. The January thaw is upon us, which is bad for winter camping, as dampness is more likely to chill you than the colder, drier stuff.

Despite the poor conditions, we manage to make a small snow shelter (known as a quinzhee). It's hard work, but surprisingly simply -- just like building a snow fort as a kid: make elephant-sized pile of snow then dig out the middle. In the evening, to warm up, we crawl in and light tea candles. Everything sparkles, it's like sitting inside a disco globe.

All day long I resist the urge to rip off all my clothes. I haven't worn the same pair of underwear for this long since, well, never, and I'm starting to forget what my body looks like. Strangely, there are no bad smells. I take this as an ominous sign.

In the evening we sit around the fire and get high on dark chocolate. I'd sell my dog for a hot toddie right now, but Outward Bound forbids such indulgences.

One by one we go around the circle and talk about why we came out here. For most of the guys it was a physical challenge. But Tim, the tall, kindly chaplain, makes a speech about how proud he is of Angela. Plagued by severe heartburn, unable to ski or snowshoe well, carry heavy loads, engage in strenuous activities or eat much for fear of provoking one of her many food allergies, Angela is the weak link of the group. Her fragile presence pulls everyone together. Stacey reveals that she has made a decision to stick out her marriage. Kendall tells us what a great group we've been. We all join hands and commune with nature. It's positively Oprah-ish. I am close to tears.

Day Four

We rise early, pack up and ski back to the van in less than half the time it took us to get to the campsite the day before yesterday. Winter camping is old hat now. I don't mind that my gear is wet, or my left liner sock is missing, or my bra is moulded to my rib cage, or the fact that a spoon, four batteries and half a kilo of trail mix has been lost somewhere on my person. I am going inside.

When the first group reaches the van, kindly Tim the chaplain skis back half a kilometre to pull Angela's sled for her the rest of the way. In the van we sing along to The Doors on the local oldies station. Base camp is a stampede to unload gear and get into a hot shower. Standing in line for the bathroom Stacey turns to me.

"I haven't wanted to get naked this much since my wedding night," she says.

I couldn't agree more.

Outward Bound's four-day winter camping trip will be offered again in December 2001 and January 2002 (approx. $425 plus gst). An eight-day dogsledding trip out of Thunder Bay is offered in late February 2001 for $1,095 plus gst. For details on Outward Bound Canada programs, go to or phone (888) 688-9273.