Tag Archives: camping

Out See Go: Winter camping on the horizon

By Chris Engle, contributor

About eight years ago I bought my first axe. Technically it was a three-quarter axe – a lighter and more compact version of a standard one – but well suited for camping and backpacking for its portability.

I got it at a farm and home store, where burly lumberjack and contractor types usually come to replace their Carhartt overalls when they wear through their old ones with hard labor. These kinds of guys can sand wood with the rough palms of their hands. My fingers mainly punch keyboard keys and are baby soft. I typically don’t belong in these kinds of stores.

When I brought the axe to the register the young female cashier turned it over and read the label out loud, which I had really, really hoped she wouldn’t do.

“Boy’s axe?” she asked. Sensing my embarrassment she pulled out a black Sharpie, popped off the cap and crossed “boy’s” off the label. Now it was just an axe. A man’s axe, for chopping down trees and building houses and grooming.

That winter, before I even got to try it out, the axe fell into the snow when my sled tipped over just a few minutes into a winter camping trip. I didn’t realize I had lost it until the next day and, by then, fresh snow had obscured the previous day’s tracks and further buried my beloved boy’s axe. I mean man’s axe.

My friend and I got through the camping trip just fine without it but, in the middle of the Pigeon River Country State Forest in the middle of winter, fire is essential and anything that makes it easier to gather fuel to feed a fire is too.

With winter on the horizon I thought the time was right to share a few tips and things to bring if you’re thinking about planning a winter-camping adventure of your own. The sport is more popular than you think and serves just as well as summer camping when it comes to making lifetime memories.

Know your limits

In good health, gentle terrain, a light pack and comfortable shoes, an experienced backpacker can hike 10 miles a day without issue. Winter, however, brings a number of new challenges to deal with.

First and foremost, you’ll be wearing and carrying more clothes and gear and possibly wearing snowshoes. This equals added weight, faster exhaustion and lots of sweating. Dressing in layers is essential in regulating your body temperature and keeping your clothes from soaking up too much sweat. Once you stop or the sun goes down, that sweat is going to evaporate and/or freeze which can dramatically increase your chance of hypothermia. Take breaks to catch your breath and cool down during your hike, and consider investing in non-cotton underclothes.

The best way to know your limits is to keep your hiking distance short. You will not be able to cover as much ground as you do in summer, plain and simple. Establish a base camp within a mile of your starting point then, if you want to explore further, take day hikes from camp. It’s a good way to discover things you’d otherwise miss by just charging through the woods from point A to point B.

Hydrate

Think about the breath you see coming out of your mouth in cold weather. That’s water vapor leaving your body and it must be replaced. The low humidity of winter air pulls a lot of moisture from your skin and lungs, and wind speeds up this process. Sweat from the added exertion of moving through snow or pulling a sled also speeds up dehydration.

Start your journey with plenty of water and consider camping near a source of fresh water, like a stream or frozen lake (and bring a boy’s axe to chop through the ice). Melting snow in a pot over a fire or stove is a long, tedious process and eating handfuls of snow is a bad idea.

Bring meals that will increase your fluid intake. Canned soups are good for short trips; dry soup mixes are lighter weight for longer journeys, and both will help replenish your lost fluids and electrolytes. Not to get too graphic but if your urine is dark yellow – or if you’re not peeing at all — you need to drink water.

Tea is a good use of water you boiled to sterilize it. Limit your alcohol consumption. Don’t bother with beer – it’s heavy and too much work to keep it from freezing, just trust me on this one.

Cook something

Don’t forget why you are camping – the experience, right? Nothing amps up a camping experience like a good meal, so take advantage of the fact you’re camping in nature’s refrigerator and bring along some raw meat to grill over the fire. A venison steak from this year’s buck or some fresh fish skewered on a roasting stick may be your best memory of the whole trip.

And again, anything that requires boiled water is a good thing to eat.

If you don’t have a camp stove, pick up some cans of chafing fuel – these are the little burners you see under food pans at catered events (sometimes called Sterno). A six-pack of chafing fuel costs $10 at Gordon Foods. Each burns for six hours and is reclosable with a twist-on lid. You’ll need to devise some sort of stand for your cooking pot and that’s what wire coat hangers are for.

There’s also some awesome YouTube videos on how to build your own camp stove from empty pop cans. This one is my favorite.

Bring bug spray

Hahaha, just kidding. There’s no bugs.

Fire and shelter

Stash lighters and matches in your pockets and throughout your gear. That way if one gets wet, there are backups.

An axe – full size or otherwise – or a saw will help when it comes to gathering dry wood and dead branches. A sled is good for towing loads of wood back to camp and for all other uses.

I’ve used both tents and tarps for shelter. Don’t expect these to keep you warm – that’s all up to your sleeping bag and bed roll. Get off the snow the best you can and bundle up.

I’ve heard of people building snow caves to sleep in at night and the insulation factor of snow is actually pretty good. It’s definitely something I’ve wanted to try.

Winter is long here in Northern Michigan so you might as well find something to do with it. Happy camping!

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, stay-at-home dad and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Me and my dog at Section Four Pond during a July 2009 hike with friends.

Out, See, Go: Adventure is subjective

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

A friend of mine works for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. His job is to four-wheel and backpack his way up Colorado mountainsides and clear trails with his chainsaw. On his days off, he posts pictures to Facebook for every 14,000-foot mountain he summits in the Denver area. He’s at 24 and counting.

Another buddy in the Forest Service – coincidentally they’re both named Eric – has fought forest fires on an island in Washington’s Puget Sound. He and his fellow firefighters spend days at a time living in the backcountry working 14- and 16-hour shifts digging trenches and bulldozing fire breaks in the trees. They sleep in tents and eat out of cans and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

I, on the other hand, feel like I live on the opposite end of the high-adventure spectrum. I’ve rarely wandered outside of Michigan and have never left the country. I didn’t go to a university where they offered rock climbing or backcountry canoeing as electives. I regret that I’ve never seen Yellowstone National Park or the Appalachian Mountains but it doesn’t mean I never will.

Even so I’ve still taken some really great camping trips with family and friends and some of my best memories come from time spent in the Pigeon River Country State Forest with the two Erics.

I hiked the Shingle Mill Pathway with Eric Collins – “Colorado Eric” – and another friend Nathan in July 2009. We took our time covering the 12-mile loop.

The first day we stopped at Section Four Pond, an emerald-green sinkhole lake once stocked with trout. We fished for an hour in the hot sun before a thunderstorm rolled in and, for the next 20 minutes, it rained harder than I’ve ever seen before. We took shelter under overhanging branches – I chose to sit in a patch of poison ivy.

Once the storm passed Nathan caught a beautiful little rainbow trout that glimmered in the sunshine like a piece of silver jewelry.

That night, by the fire, Eric unpacked a small Rubbermaid container with all the fixings for three smores. He recited a line from “The Sandlot” as he assembled his sandwich of chocolate and marshmallow.

“First you take the graham,” he said. “You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the mallow. When the mallow’s flaming, you stick it on the chocolate then you cover it with the other end.

“THEN you stuff,” he said, taking a bite. We were rolling laughing with his ridiculously spot-on memory of the 90s movie.

MY FIRST TWO winter camping adventures were shared with Eric Dasso – “Washington Eric” – at Cornwall Flooding in the Pigeon River forest.

On the first trip we spent over an hour chopping through two feet of ice with a hatchet to try and catch a meal of panfish. Our cone-shaped hole tapered to just a couple inches wide when we finally broke through the bottom. Maybe it was all that chopping which scared the fish away but we never even got a bite.

That night our tarp shelter crinkled in the wind so much that we hardly got any sleep.

On the second time out I had a 30-minute lead ahead of Eric snowshoeing through the woods to our campsite. The sun set, it got cold, my sweat froze and I got nervous. My snowshoe caught a hidden branch and I fell. My bag chair, camera tripod and sleeping bag came loose from the straps of my pack and sank into the snow. I was miserable and it was the scariest moment I’ve ever had in the woods.

I collected my things and eventually made it to camp in the dark. I had time to build a fire and dry some of my clothes before Eric finally showed. He had reluctantly followed my tracks into thick tag alders knowing I’d made a wrong turn. Instead of taking the correct route, he pursued me to make sure I was OK.

Now there’s a friend.

THAT’S what these kinds of trips are good for. Whether it’s one night or 10, special bonds form when you spend time together in the outdoors.

Another friend of mine, Alex Code, has climbed rock cliffs in at least six states and met his girlfriend on a month-long canoeing excursion they were leading together in Canada. They had 20-some college freshmen tagging along as they paddled from lake to lake, spending as much time on the water as they did on shore.

He taught one girl, who had never canoed before, how to hold her paddle sideways while portaging over a bog so that it would stop her fall if she were to break through the floating mat of moss.

Another student ran screaming into the woods when the constant swarms of mosquitoes caused him to crack the first night.

He’s spent the night on a rock ledge jutting out from a cliff face and resumed climbing the next day.

Alex told me these stories Saturday while we fished together on Manuka Lake. This was no high-adventure trip, just a short drive and a very short walk onto the ice where we caught a couple bluegill and a bass.

I told him about a five-day hike I took along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula – my longest and greatest backcountry trip ever but a cake-walk compared to his experiences.

“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said. “I love that place.”

— Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.