by Dave Holden
The most important tool that you will bring with you into the wild – whatever the season – is your attitude. This becomes readily apparent when experiencing the unique endeavor of winter camping. For example, if you believe it will only be a cold, sloppy, uncomfortable and wet mess then that’s what it will be. On the other hand, if you walk respectfully into the woods, with an open mind, prepared with the proper tools (including the right attitude) and ready to work hard and learn what is to be learned in this most vast of class-rooms, you will find great joy, deep quietude and true peace.
Our great outdoors is in many ways a mirror for us to see ourselves. It reflects our true nature – which is not always what we expect. Many of us in modern society have learned (mistakenly, I believe) that the world revolves around us and that everything is for our use (or abuse). This self-centered attitude might work in the cities but wild nature will disabuse a person real fast of this falsehood.
It takes much work and planning to prepare for winter camping. You must be extra careful to use a check-list, to wear the right boots and clothing, to bring everything in with you that you will need and watch the weather forecast. Unless you are a novice and doing a first camp not very deep in the woods so you can leave easily if there is a problem (which is what I would recommend in that case), there will be no running back out to get something that was forgotten.
This is an endeavor where it behooves one to make no mistakes (or at least as few as possible) because there will be no one nearby to provide aid. I don’t recommend anyone camping alone in winter unless they are extremely experienced – an expert outdoorsman. At least two persons is optimal, to my way of thinking. You must carefully map a route to a camp-site, then hike, snow-shoe or ski safely to the correct location, leaving enough time to find the right spot for a tent or shelter, set up camp, prepare a meal and stay warm in our long, cold winter nights. Nor is it easy to get used to waking to a cold, damp tent and then starting a fire or stove.
One person might think this is all a recipe for disaster, but to another it is a path to finding joy and true liberation, to give one a challenge, making us think and work towards immediate – and very satisfying – goals. For to be in the winter woods is to feel, hear, see, sense and smell things not found anywhere else. Once you get used to it the feel of the cold, crisp air on waking among Balsam or White Pine is highly energizing. The sound of the Black Cap Chickadee as it calls “chicka-dee-dee-dee”, or the rustling of a Roughed Grouse among the Mountain Laurel – all magnified by the frigid air – is truly unforgettable.
The smells and tastes of even the plainest camp-fare are always magnified. Seeing the crisp whiteness of the untrammeled snow, except for the tiny tracks of Short-tailed Shrew or the bigger traces of Cottontail Rabbit or Grey Fox are not things you will soon forget. If you camp in the mountains, at some point you will experience the glory of the sun rising above the valley-clouds, making you feel “above it all”.
All of these things, plus the camaraderie of others makes the effort involved a joyous and rewarding one. Don’t get me wrong. Any outdoor activity should be taken seriously and prepared for accordingly. In particular, camping in the winter is a very thought-provoking procedure. You learn to be very methodical and over-cautious, thinking it all through. It is well worth it.