Late winter/early spring is a wonderful time for camping. Only fall is better. My buddy and business partner David Shedd and I recently received some production samples from several manufacturers which absolutely HAD to be tested in snow and cold before they were returned: two pairs of snowshoes from MSR , a new gas canister stove from Jetboil, two sleeping bags (one from LL Bean rated to 20 degrees, the other from REI rated to 25), a new backpack and an LL Bean 3-person dome tent. An overnight in the White Mountain National Forest, at a backwoods campsite we often use in other seasons but had never visited in winter on a night when the forecasted low was 20 degrees seemed like the perfect chance to test everything.
It had been a l-o-n-g time since I’d done a “cold” winter campout. As I explained in a recent article article on Warm vs Cold Winter Camping, there’s “warm” winter camping, in which you have an external heat source such as a campfire or woodstove, and “cold” winter camping where you only carry a cooking stove. I’ve owned a Kifaru Tipi for over 20 years. With woodstove, it weighs about 18 pounds and is a perfect “warm” camping setup.
With this setup available, I’ve gotten out of the habit of “cold” camping. But “cold” winter camping is a lot like three-season backpacking and David and I have done enough of that so a “cold” winter camp was no stretch.
We shouldered our packs for an early start; a good thing. The winter wind and snow had heavily damaged the familiar trail and we spent a lot of time finding ways around fallen trees. Winter trail travel with snowshoes and a pack can be very slow, even on trails that are normally well-maintained in the summer—a fact we learned the hard way a few years ago. We’re careful not to tackle too much trail between the car and the campsite.
By noon we’d reached the campsite three miles from the car and had the tent up with sleeping gear laid out inside. David had already set the tent up at home (wise with anything new) so we knew all the parts were there and how it went together. Trust me, you don’t want to struggle with a new tent in a wilderness campsite in the cold!
Then, we were off through the woods to test snowshoes. With highly variable snow conditions—deep in some spots, crusted in the shade and soft in the sun—we gave them a real workout on flats, steeps and sidehills. Just walking in the woods in winter on good snowshoes is pure pleasure.
After all that walking, a late afternoon nap seemed a perfect way to test sleeping bags . . . A little later, legs still snugged in the sleeping bags, torsos warmed with puffy jackets and heads kept cozy with hats, we sipped wine and played a game of cribbage. I lost., as usual. Gear notes: I have a folding neoprene cribbage board that adds almost no weight and very little bulk to a deck of cards. I got it at EMS years ago, they no longer carry it, and if anyone knows a source for these, let me know! On another note, the fingerless fleece Glacier Gloves designed for fishing are great for playing cards, cooking and reading in a winter tent!
Speaking of tents, the LL Bean Backcountry Dome 3 Tent performed admirably. At $329 it’s about half the price of some similar models from “name” manufacturers. It’s heavy at almost 11 pounds, but solid and stable; the 5-pole design should withstand a heavy snow load, though that will require more testing–it didn’t snow while we were out, darn it!. The dome design pitched easily with color-coded, shock-corded poles and well designed clips. Rated as a 3-person, it was luxurious for two, would fit three snugly. The extended vestibule provided protected cooking space and gear storage, yet zipped wide open on both sides for easy access. Good venting, good zippers, a full coverage fly, interior pockets, peak clip for hanging an led lantern, even a clothes line. The clips which hold the tent body to the poles were stiff and uncooperative with cold. mittened hands on a cold morning, so we just popped the pole ends out of the retaining grommets and slid the poles out instead of unclipping them. Workable solution to a very minor problem. Overall, this is a solid rendering of the classic dome tent design very functional and a terrific winter tent for the price.
Stew for supper heated quickly (a little too quickly, some of it burned–still tasted wonderful!) on the new stove. To see a full review of how it performed, go here. Then it was time to head out for a last look at the millions of stars overhead before giving the sleeping bags a more serious test through the 20-degree night. You can read the results of this test here.
No doubt about it, getting up in the morning is tougher in a cold camp without that woodstove to warm things up. But we had the Helios stove set up in the tent vestibule and enjoyed hot tea and a light breakfast while we were still in the sleeping bags. That makes getting up a lot easier.
Once moving, it took us less than an hour to break camp and hit the trail. With “cold” winter camping you can be on the move almost as quickly as you could in the summertime. By mid morning we were enjoying a second breakfast in a café.
They call it “cold” camping, but if you do it right with the right equipment, it isn’t . . . Try it yourself sometime.