Outdoors column: Winter camping and staying warm while sleeping

Looking out my office window at this view hardly puts me in a mood for camping. If you decide to camp in the cold months, there are a few things you can do to stay warm. 

Looking back at my life, I realize that I have been very fortunate to spend most of my time outdoors for both career and personal recreation.

Mother Nature and her ever-present sidekick, Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame, have always been around and taking part in whatever proceedings I have been involved with. Hard as they try, they have not been able to stop me in my pursuit of all things outdoors.

I realize that most of the activities that caused me some form of bodily harm were self-induced. Some were actually described as “mind boggling acts of idiocy” by witnesses. None, however, come close to the idiocy of my going camping in the dead of winter.

I should start out by saying when I refer to “camping,” I don’t mean setting the brake on the motorhome and bumping up the thermostat a couple notches. I am referring to full-blown, sleep in a tent and cook over an open fire type of camping.

Over the Christmas break of my 11th year of life, and seemingly, my 100th year of school, a couple friends and I decided to go camping. A grumbling parent was enlisted to drive us up into the mountains, drop off our camping stuff and our scrawny teenage carcasses, and not return for three days.

Day one, nature saw fit to drop 2 feet of snow on us. This was mild compared to Day 2 when it cleared off and the temps fell below zero. We would have stayed close to the fire, if there were one. I had not yet mastered the skills of building a fire in 30-knot winds that don’t die down even with nightfall.

Bedtime was more misery because my little K-Mart cowboy sleeping bag was useless. That thing was probably good enough to lay on while watching cartoons in the living room, but worthless in the great out back.

By the time we were picked up, I probably looked like a young Jack Nicholson from the final scene in The Shining. The ride home, with a chortling parent who “drew the short straw” was humiliating, albeit warm by the car heater. I left the incident alive, and just a wee bit smarter.

Winter camping does not have to be a test of your misery meter. All it takes is the proper equipment, knowledge of how to use it, and a big dose of luck. The luck part is what has always eluded me.

Staying warm during the day is much easier than when you go to bed for the night. All of the activities that brought you outdoors in the winter, coupled with the right layered clothing and footwear, should be sufficient to warm you through an outdoor day. The problem arises as the sun begins to set.

There is an outdoor myth that you should not fall asleep in the cold because you will die of exposure. It is true that your core temperature does drop some while you sleep, but it is not a problem unless you are already suffering from hypothermia. If you get cold during your sleep, the shivering will wake you. In a survival situation, it is a mistake to avoid sleep in the cold.

The sleeping bag you bring is made to trap heat, but it does not create it. Just like a thermos, if you are cold when you climb into the bag, you will stay that way. The trick is to get warm before you climb into the bag.

To get warm before bed, you could sit close to the campfire, have a warm drink and snack, or do a few minutes of exercise. Don’t build up a sweat; just get the body warmed up.

I like to put on fresh clothes before climbing into the bag. Keep a set of long underwear in the sleeping bag that is reserved just for sleeping. I also keep a pair of warm socks and a watch type of beanie hat. Don’t over dress or sleep in the same clothes you wore all day. Wearing too many clothes compresses the bag and takes away the “fluff” and reduces the bags ability to trap heat.

Speaking of your sleeping bag, proper storage is essential. If you keep the bag all rolled up and compressed in the compression sack they come with, it will make your bag less insulated for the next time you use it. Use a large storage bag or hang it in the closet if you have room. A mesh laundry bag works well for storage.

Some people like to put a warm water bottle, wrapped in a towel, in the bag with them. I am not one of them. Once I had a bottle leak and completely saturated my bag. When I awoke in the middle of the night, I thought I had done something I had not done since I was 3. One of those air-activated body warmers on your chest would probably out do the water bottle.

Remember that the heat of your body warms the air space in your bag. You must have this air space, but too much space is a bad thing. If you are in a bag that is too large, try stuffing some loose clothes into the bottom of the bag to reduce the air space. This will leave less area your body has to heat.

Get something between your bag and the ground to insulate you from the cold. I have never been a fan of air mattresses. Every time I use one, it springs a leak or slowly loses air throughout the night so I awake on the ground. Look for a sleeping pad that has a solid closed cell type of foam construction.

Pads all come with an R rating which describes the pads ability to resist heat flow. An R- value of 1 means that it is fine for a sleepover for the kids while a R-value of 10 would be best for winter camping outside.

While we are discussing the right sleeping pad, make sure you choose the right sleeping bag. Obviously, your summer slumber bag will be useless come January, just as your winter bag would be a sauna bag during your July outing.

Bags come in several styles. Some are the “mummy type” which leave an opening for your face to stick out. These kind drive me nuts because of my frame, I can’t get out of them. I prefer the “open top” bags that allow more room for me to toss and turn throughout the night.

Bags today come with a temperature rating. Pay close attention to the rating of your bag and the expected temperatures on your outing. Bags that are rated for 32 degrees are probably acceptable for early fall camping, but will not hack it for January. Opt for a bag that is rated for much colder than you expect because you can always unzip the bag if you get too warm.

Before you hit the sack for the night, grab a fatty snack. Your body creates heat by metabolizing foods. Foods high in fat content take longer to metabolize, thereby creating more heat and for a longer time. You can go back to eating healthy in the morning.

There are several types of heaters you can bring into your tent at night but these come with a score of other potential problems. You must keep the tent ventilated, lest you succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning. You might also run the risk of burning down your camp with some of the liquid fueled heaters and a clumsy middle of the night episode. Personally, I would opt for leaving the heaters at home and bundle up in a proper sleeping bag.

I have since spent a number of unplanned nights in the wild. Once with my adopted dad, we spent a night around a small campfire during a raging snowstorm. He had killed an elk right at sunset. In the snow we could not safely make our way back to camp. We stayed put that night and shared elk tenderloin on an open fire.

The next morning, we awoke to clear skies and began our trek back to camp. While inconvenient, it was not miserable because we were prepared.

Winter camping on purpose is probably not something I ever want to do again. I may spend a few nights on hunting trips, but that is not in the dead of winter. It is fine for some people but I chose to sit this one out, leaving winter camping for the heartier souls. Maybe I did learn something on that winter campout as a kid after all.

Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email info@mcspi.org.

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