How To: Lessons From A First (Winter) Campout

Cold Comfort! A woodstove keeps Matt Marean warm as he packs up his gear after having survived his first night ever in a backpacking tent camp. (David Shedd photo)

My young friend Matt clearly needed a little time away from his parents. So my buddy David and I invited him on his first-ever backpacking trip. Sleeping out in a tent in the middle of winter with a couple of feet of snow on the ground expands your horizons and teaches you some valuable lessons—whether you recognize them at the time or not.

David walked Matt through the whole packing process, showing him what he needed and why. He let Matt pack his own pack—leaving room for common gear and food. Lesson: we are all essentially responsible for ourselves and we all need to carry our fair share.

We met for a HUGE breakfast. Like many teenagers, Matt wakes up reluctantly; his appetite wakes even later. I think he was stunned by the amount of food David and I ate so early in the morning. But calories you eat before you leave the trailhead are calories you don’t have to carry in your pack. Lesson: Sometimes, long-term benefits outweigh immediate desires.

At the trailhead, we shouldered our packs, strapped on snowshoes and headed out. Matt’s bindings gave him trouble so we stopped to readjust. Lesson: We all stick together and help as needed.

Many hands make light work! Matt and David pitch in to clear away two feet of snow from a spot to pitch their winter tent. (Tim Jones photo)

Our planned hike wasn’t long—a lesson David and I learned the hard way—and we all took turns breaking trail in the deep snow. When we arrived at the campsite, we all grabbed shovels to dig out the tent site and firepit. Then we set up the tipi, gathered firewood and got the necessary camp chores done. Matt took the initiative when he saw something that needed doing, and took direction when necessary. Lesson: First things first; if everyone pitches in, chores get done.

After lunch, I set up the woodstove and finished camp chores, while Matt and David took a hike to see some scenery. Lesson: Leave time for fun. I encountered a problem with the stovepipe that we eventually solved: Lesson: use your head(s) and don’t give up.

Warmth in the wilderness. With plenty of firewood and steaks to cook, David Shedd and Matt Marean can enjoy a warm refuge on a chilly winter backpacking trip. (Tim Jones photo)

Our evening was spent dreaming the campfire, cooking steaks, talking topics as large as our place in the universe (a natural topic with infinite stars overhead) and as small as how to keep a campfire going. I don’t know that any of us learned anything profound—but I don’t know that we didn’t, either. It was the kind of free-flowing conversation punctuated by natural silences that people can share when they aren’t bombarded by constant artificial images and noise. Lesson: sometimes it’s OK to just be in the moment.

David and I both slept well, cozy and relaxed in a familiar setting. Lesson: trust your gear. As always, we woke up occasionally, listened to the wind in the trees and went right back to sleep. Matt admitted he had trouble sleeping. He wasn’t cold as much as afraid of being cold. That’s not uncommon for new campers. Lesson: sometimes you just have to get through a bad night to reach a new day.

In the morning, the woodstove kept us toasty warm as we ate breakfast and dressed. Then we packed up, put on our snowshoes and hiked out. Matt took the lead and we urged him to range ahead and follow the trail on his own . . . If Matt learned any lessons from his moments alone, he didn’t say.

David and I are planning another winter overnight soon. We’re hoping Matt can join us. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Lessons  Learned Outdoors

I honestly can’t tell you if Matt learned anything from his quick overnight adventure with one man who is old enough to be his grandfather (that would be me) and one who is seriously involved with his mother and therefore a father figure by default. We tried to share a lot with him in a very short time.

I suspect he did learn, but it may take time for those lessons to become clear. That’s the way we all learn.

I can’t even begin to tell you all the lessons I’ve  learned from being outdoors over the years; Lessons about what’s really valuable. Lessons about what’s really necessary and what isn’t, about being alone and working with other people, who you can trust, who you can’t and what friendship really means. Lessons about planning and preparing, about  making good decisions and sticking to them, or about changing direction when circumstances changed, and about backing out when going forward would be foolhardy. Lessons about thinking my way out of trouble when trouble unexpectedly came to find me.

And that’s the big stuff. There were also simple little lessons about how good it feels to use your body the way it was designed to be used, how to take care of yourself day to day.

I know there are venues for learning life lessons other than getting active outdoors. But getting outdoors and doing things is so much fun! And it’s so easy and natural to learn in little steps along the way.

It takes one step at a time to travel a long trail, and life is a very long trail. Spending time outdoors is a natural learning process. Learn as you go from any source you can, and live your life as if it wasn’t a spectator sport.

Gearing Up

No one should ever use “I don’t have the stuff I need,” as an excuse for not doing something active outdoors. Not in this day in age. David and I had enough spare gear between us to outfit Matt. If we hadn’t, we could have rented what we needed.

Every cross-country ski area rents skis and most rent snowshoes. There’s a comprehensive list of resorts at the Cross Country Ski Areas Association (www.xcski.org) and you can get lessons as well. When summer comes, kayaks and bikes are easy to rent

If you have an EMS or REI store nearby, both rent excellent camping and mountaineering equipment at very reasonable prices.

There are also on-line sources for longer-term rentals at (www.lowergear.com) and (www.gogitto.com). They’ll ship whatever you need to your door. I’ve never used either of these so can’t recommend from personal experience but the websites look professional, the gear they are offering is proven, and the concept looks legitimate.

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.