winter camping

9:53 p.m. on September 4, 2008 (EDT)
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Greetings from northwoodsfamily. I am looking for help locating appropriate winter camping gear. I live in the northern upper penninsula of Michigan and my wife is a "cold camper" but would like to join me on winter expiditions. The problem is: our winter is a little more severe than most. A lot of gear reviews associate winter camping with 20-30 degree weather and what I would consider a "sprinkling" of snow. We live in an area where snowfall may reach 200+ inches per year, and winter temperatures in our particular area are below 0 degrees for weeks at a time. The below 0 degree temps have run well into April. I am most interested in information specific to sleeping pads and mats that will keep my willing wife warm and comfortable for at least 2-3 days. I am building a hot tent and stove to ease the pain, bought her down booties, a boklava, but in my experience an improvement in her sleeping gear would a big difference. Thanks for your help.

11:47 p.m. on September 4, 2008 (EDT)
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Hi, northwoodsfamily. Being a small-framed, female and very cold sleeper myself, it took me a while to get the right gear and start enjoying winter camping! Here's what made the difference for me... a prolite 4 sleeping pad (women's model) OVER a Z-rest pad, a sleeping bag rated for 10 degrees cooler than a typical winter's night in Thunder Bay, and expedition-weight wicking long underwear from MEC. Also, since one layer usually doesn't cut it, I add my insulated hardshell pants, a wool sweater, wool toque/beanie, wool mittens, wool socks, and the felt liners from my -40 Sorel boots (which also means the boots are a bit toastier in the morning). Also, a good hot meal and a high-fat snack before bed keep my metabolism going, and during a particularly frosty night (-30*C or lower), I'll heat some water and put it in my Nalgene as a makeshift hot water bottle. Oh, one more thing, I find cuddling up to a willing male is also a surefire way to stay warm. ;)

2:50 a.m. on September 5, 2008 (EDT)
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As NLees says, a double pad is a good idea. There are also down filled pads- a bit heavy, but I know someone with one and he swears it's the best.

If you don't have a bag yet, there are many good low temperature bags. Unfortunately, the best ones are quite expensive. Look at the websites for Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends, Integral Designs, Mountain Hardwear and Marmot, among others. Given your conditions, I think I'd be looking at at least a -20F down bag if she is a cold sleeper, but Bill and some of the other posters with more experience in very cold weather might suggest an even warmer bag.

You can get synthetic winter bags, but they are bigger and heavier than the down bags.

4:21 p.m. on September 5, 2008 (EDT)
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The only difference I would note is with NLees recommendation of wearing expedition-weight clothing. I've read and discovered myself that wearing multiple layers of silk-weight clothing is warmer in the long run and also allows you to regulate your body temp better.

Other than that, I use both a ridgerest and a basecamp pad under my synthetic sleeping bag, which is rated for 0, and I sleep pretty comfortable.

I also use heated Nalgene bottles for when I take my kids winter camping with me, and put them in their bags before they get in.

6:32 p.m. on September 5, 2008 (EDT)
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Coming from a country that has reputation for winter and snow (Norway) I know a bit about it. The trouble in winter is that you need more equipment, and you must know how to handle it. It is possible to carry all things on your back in winter, even on a several days hike. But the weight will probably be close to 30 kilos on each person.

The solution is a pulk. I have a dog to pull the pulk, those who have not must pull it themselves. See pictures here of harness and shackles. Most of the people that come here in winter from central Europe uses pulks. If you walk with snoshoes there is no extra things you need. Using skis (better) you may need skins at least on icy conditions and in steep uphills.

For underwear I use this If it gets colder I have two sets of very thin wool underwear. Better to have two thin sets than one thick. Gives you better regulation of warmth, and you are also sure to have at least one dry/clean set to take on closest to your skin. Brynje is fantastic warm. On a trip last winter I used only this and a softshell over in -10C with a 10ms wind.

We have mostly gone on hut-to-hut trips in the winter as the huts are plenty, cheap and nice. We take the tent along for safety only. I have used tent some 10+ nights on winterhikes, and would use it more if I could persuade my wife. She has vetoed it in the winter, but after the trip this summer to Kebnekaise I'm sure she is more positive. We use the downfilled Exped mats, best I have tried.

The most cozy winter accomodation (apart from a good hut) is a snocave. Temperature does not drop much below -1C even if it is -30c outside. And the silence is wonderful. But it is 3 hours hard work to make a good cave for two. If you stay more than one night on the same spot it is a good idea if there is a useful snowdrift to dig in.

Many good points and ideas from NLees. I use to add a good warm cap. You loose much heat from the head, and this might in fact keep your feet warm!


8:34 p.m. on September 5, 2008 (EDT)
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Good advice from everyone. Since Otto is from Norway, he is using the term pulk, which may be unfamiliar to North American readers. A pulk is just a sled made for towing by a person and carrying your gear and/or the wee ones. The best are the purpose-made ones from Scandinavia, but there are excellent purpose-made ones from the US.

Otto's advice about using a sled is right on the mark - it is much easier to haul all the gear needed for winter in a sled than on your back.

But you don't have to have the purpose made ones, which are quite expensive. There have been several discussions here on Trailspace about modifying kiddie sleds by adding aluminum or PVC pipe towbars. You can get along with a tow rope between you and the sled, if you have a partner following behind to keep the sled from over-running you on downhills. On Denali and in Antarctica, that's what we used most of the time (look at my article on Antarctica in the News forum here on Trailspace to see photos of our sleds). On month-long expeditions, I have started out with up to 150 pounds total (a month's worth of food weighs a LOT - 2 pounds per day x 30 days is 60 pounds, plus add the stove fuel, expedition tent for that severe blizzard, and your cold-weather clothing, double sleeping pad, and -40 deg bag (-40F and -40C are the same temperature, since that is the crossover for the two scales).).

Otto's snow shelter is a good idea, though I have to disagree on the length of time to build one. First timers often take 2 hours per person capacity to build a properly shaped snow shelter, whether snow cave, igloo, or quinzhee. Experienced people can do a perfectly fine one in a half hour or less per person capacity. Learning the techniques to speed things up is crucial, and it is worth taking a workshop from someone who really knows how to build one.

To expand a bit on Tom's comments on temperature ratings to look for, unfortunately there are no standards for rating the temperature of a sleeping bag. Plus, how comfortable you are depends on your personal metabolism, how recently you have eaten, how fatigued you are, and a number of other variable factors. But the most consistently and conservatively rated bags are ones by the manufacturers that Tom named - Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering, Integral Designs, and a European manufacturer I forget at the moment, but kutenay can add, with Mountain Hardwear and Marmot close behind. There are other brands that some posters on Trailspace swear by, that I have found to be much colder to sleep in.

10:02 p.m. on September 5, 2008 (EDT)
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We use the term "slede" (sledge) for a device where the cargo is lifted up from the ground, usually by two skis. Picture here The term pulk is used when the cargo is floating on the snow. See the first link in my last reply.

There is a standard for rating sleeping bags here in Europe Bill. It has the curious name EN 13537, and I have seen bags falling from -20c to -5c on the comfort temperature. Unfortunately the US producers do not comply to this. Here it is mandatory.

The test is quite extensive with a doll with sensors all over and a controlled heat generator inside. I've heard it costs 4000 USD to test a bag. The test has different indicators for males and females. You see a ring with arrow pointing up for male, ring with cross pointing down for female. I found the list of one company here, Bergans. As you see, the Senja bag had before a comfort temp of -14C. Now with EN13537 it is -1c for wimen. Quite a change don't you think.

12:23 a.m. on September 6, 2008 (EDT)
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Otto, hello again. Thanks for mentioning the EU bag standard. MacPac, the NZ company, had its bags tested and their website shows the range for each bag. While I agree with Bill that temp ratings are only a guide, at least with the EU standard, you can compare bags from different companies because they have been tested the same way.

I have a pulk I made from a kid's sled, some fittings and pvc pipe from a home store and some hand tools. I clip it to my pack waistbelt. I have pics posted on the Lightweight BackpackerĀ in the winter forum. I saw almost exactly the same set up-even the same pulk, on Club Tread posted last year by a member named Hikerboy. I think his pics are still up on that site. He put small stabilizing fins on his, which mine lacks. Excluding the two caribiners I use on the waistbelt, the whole thing cost me around $40, maybe a bit less.

9:54 a.m. on September 6, 2008 (EDT)
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Here in the States, Marmot and REI are both moving toward the EN 13537 (European Norm) standard. You can find ratings for Marmot's bags on their web site, and REI will start publishing EN rating their above-zero mummy bags in the spring.

More info on the standard here:

2:17 p.m. on September 6, 2008 (EDT)
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I've done a bit of winter backpacking in the UP and I like the sled Idea as well. In fact it was suggested to me on this forum a while back (thanks Tom D and alan!).

A kids sled would work fine and save you some money. Or you can try the "dead sled" at is what I went with. It was made for hauling deer out of the woods, but it works just fine for gear and has all the straps already attached. The nice thing about a small rollup sled like this is for steep hills or thick brush, you can roll it up and attach it to you're pack. Also, I don't like to drag a sled behind me if I'm walking near any drop offs as they don't always seem to track directly behind you in other than flat ground.

3:00 p.m. on September 6, 2008 (EDT)
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the kiddie sleds that are used for hauling gear in Alaska mountaineering, Antarctica, and backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the US are basically a plastic tub. My understanding is that a number of years ago, when people began to use these, a couple of manufacturers in the US and in Finland began making specially reinforced versions and adding rigid poles, with the Finns borrowing the term "pulk" from the Laplanders, who had made something similar for centuries. Like most legends, there is probably a small element of truth and a large amount of fiction and embellishment to this story.

In any case, the modified kiddie sleds are tubs that sit on the snow, not on runners (like the Eskimo dog sleds) or skis. They are much lighter than sleds on runners, though they do not track as well. I have one that I have been using for over 20 years. At a total of $15 for all the parts, it is a lot cheaper than the $500 and more that a professionally made pulk costs. Not as elegant, but it works just fine.

WISam, a lot of people get some half-inch aluminum angle and pop-rivet two pieces full length to the bottom of the kiddie sled to provide better tracking. And some people add a "brake", copied from the professionally-made pulks.

On the CE standard for sleeping bag ratings, there is a lot of argument going on as to the reality of the ratings that you get from them. The positive side is that the test is consistent. The downside is that it does not match real-life conditions very well, since individuals vary so much in their cold tolerance, not only from person to person, but from night to night. As Tom noted, it is a guideline, not a guarantee that matches everyone.

4:53 p.m. on September 6, 2008 (EDT)
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Yes one does not have to buy the expensive pulks. Here we have had pictures of a diy modification of the Paris pulk. They are strong and will be cheap. The downside is they are harder to pull in loose snow, but on hard icecrust they are almost equal to the others. The worst contitions for using pulk is when the hill slopes sideways to your direction. Then the "tubs" slide down if they have no steering finns.

I agree that the EN 13537 standard is only a guideline, but it is a consistent test that lets you decide on a more real basis. The old "comfort" rating was more or less a misleading indicator of what the producer thougt they could get away with without beeing sued for false advertising.

2:24 a.m. on September 7, 2008 (EDT)
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Here are a couple of pics of my sled. It is made in Canada and I got it at Sports Authority, a chain store here in California.

Here it is fully loaded. A big hard to see the sled. The bag is just a big duffle bag. The strange looking things on the bag are my gaiters opened up to dry out.

This one was taken before I bought the big duffle. As you can see, I'm not all that big, so no way I could carry all my stuff in a pack. Also, this was a quite warm day in Yosemite.

5:23 p.m. on September 7, 2008 (EDT)
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I found this link in english to a diy project to construct your own pulk, mainly by using the cheap and robust Paris board. Btw I know three lads form Norway used Paris pulk on a trip across Greenland. If it takes such conditions it certainly is sturdy enough for camping on mainland USA. The site has som instructions for building snow caves as well.

On another site in norwegian I saw the same project, and the total cost ended up at half of what a new complete pulk costs.

I'm including some nice pictures from a forum where a family built a snowcave in their yard for their children to sleep in. They started by compressing the snow by walking, then showelling a pile and pressing it down all the time.

When digging out the cave they inserted branches so they did not dig too much. Roof thickness is 20inces, at the bottom the double. The whole process with the showel took 6 hours.

Some will say "crazy norwegians" but my opinion is: lucky children! They both slept soundly the whole night. Outside temp -6C, inside -1C.

7:26 p.m. on September 7, 2008 (EDT)
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Otto -
In North America we call that type of shelter by its Inupiat (Eskimo) name - quinzhee. Although it takes longer to build than an igloo, you can build it in almost any snow conditions (igloos, built with blocks cut from the snow, require just the right range of temperatures and just the right amount of snow). In our winter camping classes, people have built them for up to 6 people. But then the inside temperatures get up to +1 or +2 C, so they can be damp and the walls start sagging after one or two nights. 2 to 3 people is the ideal number for extended stays (or else very cold outside temperatures).

10:30 p.m. on September 9, 2008 (EDT)
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Thanks for the info:

I use sleds and I have made pulks from cheap kids sleds and they work great. I am considering purchasing a sled from Black River Sleds this year as I like the set up and integrated approach. Thanks for the info on layering. I am an old school Finnlander (a few generations off the boat and believe it or not of laplander decent.) and I love the bite of winter. My wife, unfortunately, does not. She does, however, like spending as much time in woods as I do. I am a lucky guy (if only I could get my kids away from the computer and in the woods, all five).
I will be purchasing an exped mat for her, and I will be purchasing a -30 sleeping bag to help her out. I have had difficulty locating adequate closed cell pads. I would like to find a pad an inch or better to break the cold. The best I have found locally is 3/8 inch.
I did find the european and US standard information interesting and I will be spending some time researching further. I typically use down bags although I find them prone to moisture despite precautions. She has a Mountain Hardware zero bag which she states is not enough despite many layers, down boots, baklava, etc.
I have built and spent time in snowcaves but find them clausterphopic and time consuming. When I camp in the thick of winter I find energy conservation and minimal persperation a priority and as we are in our 40's we don't have the reserve that I am accustomed to (age, age, age). In my younger years my buddies and I would head out with a sleeping bag and an ax, and we would camp in a shelter constructed of deadfall pine.
The last winter trip my wife and I took consisted of miles and miles of snowshoeing before reaching a camp site which caused my wife to nap heavily right after setting up the tent. Yes, she changed into dry clothing per my advice before crawling into her sleeping bag. She is a trooper and in good shape but struggles to keep up with me. She is an enthusiastic participant in all things outdoors and I want to keep her comfortable and my #1 adventure partner. Thanks to all for your expertise, and I am glad I have found the Trailspace Forum.


8:31 p.m. on September 12, 2008 (EDT)
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Pelican makes quite a nice ice sled, we got it from Sears Canada last year for the cheap price of around 30 bucks, well worth it!

8:35 p.m. on September 12, 2008 (EDT)
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I think you may look to "Roots" if you have that outlet where you are. I remember seeing a closed cell sleep pad of this make at I believe Walmart or Canadian Tire. It was black and I'm thinking an inch thick. I use a Pacific Outdoor Thermal air mattress with a closed cell pad on top. My bag is a -18 down mummy. I live in Nova Scotia Canada where the snow is very wet and had some issues with down and moisture so I got a Penguin overbag from MEC. This will add extra warmth and will prevent heat loss due to moisture that my down bag may collect on the outside. I was pretty warm last winter without the overbag so it will be extra toasty this year! I do feel for your wife because I sleep cold as well but the mattress plus the pad on top seemed to work well! Good luck, I hope you keep her warm and in the woods with you this winter!

7:45 p.m. on October 5, 2008 (EDT)
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I'd HIGHLY recommend "Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book". It's 90% about winter camping, not skiing. (They have a Telemark book about skiing.)

As a former (10 years) Nordic Ski Patroller and U.S, Army ROTC winter survival intructor I can say without reservations that this book is THE best single book I've ever read on he topic. It's thin but over 50% of the info is in Mike Clelland's illustrations & notations. The illustrations help you retain the large amount of info crammed into this book. By reading it you'll get a lot of tips on winter gear so you'll have a better idea what you NEED vs. what ads tell you you "want".


1:29 a.m. on October 8, 2008 (EDT)
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Hey Eric, I didn't realize you were posting here. I must have been asleep or something. Actually, I just skipped over those threads you were posting in. Good to see you here. (I know Eric from TLB where he has been an active member, so be nice to him.) :)

6:21 p.m. on January 2, 2009 (EST)
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u might want to get a -20 down bag and get a vapor liner the feeling of it is wierd at first but it adds 15 degrees to a bag and will keep the bag dry on long trips. asolo tps 520 keep ur feet warm it cold weather

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