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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.