Our recent cold snap is but a weak sister to the polar vortex of 2019, when a prolonged, Arctic blast closed schools statewide for four straight days and the town of Cotton recorded a temperature of minus 56 degrees.
Bear Paulsen walked right through the heart of the polar vortex.
He hiked solo for 22 days across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, sleeping under the stars. He remembers a day when he celebrated a high temperature of minus 17.
He said he didn’t run into many people on his trek, just one of the many attractions that winter camping holds for him.
“There is no comparison,” said Paulsen of the incredible silence and solitude you can enjoy while solo winter camping.
As for the scenery: “Absolutely beautiful,” Paulson said. “It’s a magical time of year.”
Paulsen, general manager for Northstar Canoes in Princeton, Minnesota, is a well-known instructor for winter camping. He takes a 20-to-30 day winter camping trip each January, sometimes on his own, often with others. He’s been doing this since his first winter camping trip as a high school senior in 1988.
Paulsen learned how to camp in the winter the same way that Tom Koshiol of Paynesville did.
It was back in 1985 when Koshiol said he bit on a promotion for a “Minnesota vacation without mosquitoes” and joined a Wilderness Inquiry-led winter camping trip on the Kawishiwi River near Ely. Temperatures in the minus 20-to-minus 30 range made good on the promise of no bugs.
Koshiol so enjoyed the experience that the very next winter he and a couple of buddies returned to the north woods on their own. They had little in the way of equipment. Koshiol inserted one $20 summer sleeping bag into another $20 summer sleeping bag and called it good.
Instead of carrying tents, they piled snow and built snow caves or what are called "quinzhees” for shelter. One night they forgot to place a backpack to block their quinzhee entry. They woke up to a temperature of 15 degrees in the quinzhee, as compared to the minus 30 degrees outside the shelter.
He’s camped in that kind of weather many times. One time, camped on Dawkin Lake in the Boundary Waters, the cold snap made it too cold to even ice fish. The holes would freeze before the line could sink.
That’s the year Koshiol and friends introduced a newcomer from Spicer to the winter camping experience and worried how she would respond to the stretch of brutal weather they experienced. He was so impressed by her reaction that he wrote about it in an article published in the Boundary Waters Journal: “I would never have guessed,” she said, “that we could be this comfortable and have this much fun out here in this kind of weather. No one is going to believe me.”
Like Paulsen, Koshiol has introduced many nonbelievers to winter camping. “People always roll their eyes. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said Koishol of when he talks to some about winter camping. Yet he’s found that most of those who have taken him up on the offer of trying winter camping have enjoyed it.
Tom Watson is an award-winning outdoor writer living in Appleton. He has authored a number of “how to” articles about winter camping. He started winter camping while a Boy Scout with a troop in inner city Minneapolis. He said they didn’t even know that extending their camping season into the winter was anything unusual.
“We pitched our tents and basically camped in our riff-raff clothes,” he said, laughing.
By the time he got to college, he and his buddies were hiking into the north woods outside of Ely to sleep under the stars with nothing more than sleeping bags and a tarp. On their first trip, they attempted to make their own snowshoes out of birch limbs and string. It didn’t work.
A trip to town netted them each a pair of wooden snowshoes for $22 a pop, but the surplus store had only two bindings to sell to the three friends. Watson went next door to a shoe repair shop and bought a bag of leather scraps and made his own bindings.
One trip they enjoyed nearly a week of camping with day-time temperatures in the 20s and 30s. On one of their final nights, Watson snuggled up with his tarp and sleeping bag alongside a fallen log. A blizzard rolled in, smothered him in eight inches of snow, and plastered the laces on his boots on to a tree stump as if they were welded there.
Experiences like these are why Koshiol is the first to advise: “You’ve got to want to do it, want to be prepared (and) not go into it blindly.”
It is fun, but it takes the right attitude and equipment can matter. Yet it need not be expensive. All three of these winter campers found ways to translate their summer and fall camping gear for winter use to get started.
Koshiol and Paulsen still enjoy camping under the stars, but now also have plenty of trips under their belts where they’ve enjoyed the protection of four-season tents or better yet, tents equipped for wood burning stoves. Hot tent camping requires hauling a lot more stuff, pointed out Paulsen, but he said they certainly have led many into winter camping who would not otherwise do it.
All the same, the instructor urges those who want to winter camp to try it under the stars. It’s the way to learn: “Cold camping gives you the skills to survive out there,” Paulsen explained.
It’s not that hard to be comfortable sleeping under the stars in the winter. A closed-cell foam sleeping pad and sleeping bag (or bags) are all that is needed. “That way you see the world around you, experience the world around you. You don’t miss anything,” he said of cold camping.
He lies facing southeast and watches Orion march across the night sky every time he rolls over.
Enjoying the northern lights, the light of a full moon on a snow covered lake, or the stunning beauty of a white landscape under a brilliant blue sky are among the experiences these three men all cited in explaining their love for winter camping.
The Boundary Waters is their favorite destination, but they highly recommend winter camping visits to state forests as well as a number of state parks where winter camping is allowed.
Watson adds that camping during the shoulders of winter, at the season’s start or end, are his favorite times. “Boy, it’s a lot more fun when it is 25 above, that pre-spring (or) pre-thaw time of winter when everything is really nice and fresh,” he said.
In his classes, Paulsen said he emphasizes: Winter camping is possible without investing in expensive equipment. Attitude matters more than anything else.
And lastly, be active out there. It’s better to enjoy a snowshoe hike under a full moon or toss a lighted Frisbee with fellow campers than to spend hours just huddled around a fire wearing all the clothes you have trying to stay warm, he explained.
Being out there is what matters most.
“We are constantly becoming the sum-total of the events of our lives, and in my view, any time spent in wilderness makes a nice addition to that total,” wrote Koshiol for the Boundary Waters Journal. “For some reason, winter camping seems to weigh in just a little heavier than your average trip to the woods.”
For tips and how to information to get started, check out Watson’s website: www.tomoutdoors.com