Winter Camping In The Sub-Arctic
"Am I ready?"
Before winter camping with Outdoor Adventures or on your own, make sure you are comfortable being outside in the cold for many hours somewhere locally. Head out on the UAF Trails or elsewhere on skis or snowshoes with a friend or two, extra clothes, some snacks and water. If you cannot or have not spent five or more hours outside being active in the winter you should reconsider going winter camping! It takes some practice to figure out what to wear and how to stay comfortable in the cold – this is better done near town rather than in the wilderness!
"Will I Freeze to death?"
Yes, if you do not dress warmly, do not keep moving, do not eat constantly, and do not drink enough! Your body generates heat only as a byproduct of metabolism. So if you are not moving, you will need several warm layers, warm boots, a good hat and mittens to stay warm. At night this means you will want a warm sleeping bag so you don’t have to shiver all night to stay warm. A (non-leaking!) hot water bottle, insulated with a shirt or sock will help keep you even warmer. At night you also need a thick, full-length sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground.
Our bodies are ~70% water – we need water to move, water to think, water to stay alive! It is a challenge to stay hydrated when you are active in the winter. The air is very dry – you loose about a liter (~1 quart) of water a day just breathing. You may not realize you are thirsty and your drinking water may freeze solid!! It is essential that you protect your water from freezing and keep drinking all day long! You should carry and drink two liters during the day and at least one liter in the morning and one at night. A lightweight thermos is a fantastic way to carry some or all of your beverages. A plastic water bottle can be wrapped in foam or in the warm down or fleece jacket that is at the very top of your backpack.
Winter camping is a lot of work...
Sorry if you did not know this already, but winter camping in Alaska is not for the lazy. You will have to prepare a spot for your tent i.e., pack a platform, or dig a spot, build a snow wall if its windy or you may even want/need to dig a cave (remember as a kid you did this for fun). After the tent is erected and packs unloaded, it is time for the main task of the evening – melting snow/preparing water.
Since it is often too cold to hang around outside, you may need to violate common sense and the stern warnings of tent manufacturers and cook inside of the vestibule of your tent. Yes this is dangerous so you need to know what you are doing (please ask for help if needed)! Always light the stove away from the tent and always keep a close eye on the stove! A stove stand helps stabilize the stove and pot and also makes it possible to throw the stove from the tent in case it malfunctions (no joke). When melting snow, you need to prime the pot with water or the snow will burn to the bottom of the pot (yes snow can burn). Our dry snow will soak up water so you will likely need at least half a liter of liquid water. You can collect snow in a (sleeping bag) stuff sack and leave this near the the door of your tent – because once you crawl inside, you won’t want to go back outside and you will need more snow/water. With a dipper cup you can scoop snow from your stuff sack and later scoop boiling water from the pot into your mug – without needing to lift up the hot, steamy and heavy pot.
All food should be instant – requiring only boiling water. A recommended appetizer is a mug of hot soup to re-hydrate your body, followed by dinner – with lots of added meat and cheese for energy. You should wash down dinner and clean your mug with a cup of tea, hot cocoa or whatever your heart desires.
In the morning you will need to get up, start the stove (away from the tent) and start melting more snow for breakfast, drinks and to fill your water bottles for the day. This can take awhile, but you can begin to pack things up while the stove is running.