What I learned from winter camping/bugging out

I’ve been camping (backpack camping, not car camping) for about 10 years now. I do it anywhere from one to a few times a year, depending on the opportunities I have and my desire to be uncomfortable.

Every time I go camping with my backpack I’m also doing a mock bug-out. In my mind, camping is more training than fun. I don’t actually enjoy being cold, wet, and sleep deprived all that much, and despite having some pretty decent gear, that’s the inevitable state I end up in. There are highlights of course, like the beautiful views, sitting by the fire, and enjoying a meal after working hard for a few hours, but overall, camping is not a particularly fun experience for me. I find it valuable because discomfort is valuable, and also because when I do return to civilization (my home), for a few days I feel incredible gratitude for all the things I don’t have to work hard for. I don’t have to spend hours gathering firewood, making a fire, and cooking my food – I can just grab something from the cupboard and heat it up. I don’t need to build or setup my shelter, I just go to my bed. Things that are are easy at home and often taken for granted are hard in the wilderness. Running water, a warm, indoor toilet, my shower… these are all great things.

But this year, the contrast was much greater. This year, I went winter camping with my wife in late November in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. There was already snow and ice on the ground. The temperature at night dropped to 27F and it snowed several inches that night. Here’s what I learned:

Lesson 1: Bring warmer shoes than you think you’ll need

We had only had a couple of weeks of snow, and the temperatures were hovering around freezing. I thought to myself – I’ll bring my waterproof boots with some thick wool socks – my mukluks would just look silly. I was wrong. My feet were freezing anytime I wasn’t actively moving (and half the time that I was). I should have brought my mukluks. Nobody cares how silly you look in the woods.

The fact that I was relatively comfortable in my boots on short hikes did not translate to them being warm enough camping overnight.

Lesson 2: Everything freezes

And I mean everything.

The first thing you might think of is water. It seems obvious enough, but the implication is – you’re not drinking the water you gathered the day before until you make a fire and melt it. I filtered and boiled some water, went to bed, and woke up the next morning unable to drink it. Fire is now more important than during any other season. Gathering water is a pain, too. Water that isn’t moving freezes. I had to find a stream to get access to water that wasn’t ice. Of course, you could always melt the snow around you, but that requires even more fire (and time).

Then the things you wouldn’t think of: My gloves froze. When I put them on after some time, I had to really work them to get my dexterity back. My protein bars froze. My chocolate froze. I had to heat those up to not be biting into a rock.

Something else to consider: your water filter will freeze. If it’s a Sawyer filter, or a similar one, you can’t leave it in your backpack once you’ve used it. Even just one use means there is water inside the membrane that will never fully dry out, so if it freezes, the water expands, cracks the membrane, and the filter will no longer work.

I recommend getting a ziploc and storing the filter inside the ziploc, in an internal jacket pocket close to your body. Your body heat will keep it from freezing, and the ziploc will keep your jacket dry.

Lesson 3: The water bag the Sawyer mini comes with sucks

Sawyer makes some pretty cool filters. One of those, the Sawyer Mini, comes with a small collapsible 16 oz water bottle that you’re meant to fill up with water, screw the filter on, and then squeeze it either into your mouth, or another container.

Good luck with that.

I spent half an hour trying to get that tiny collapsible water bottle to work. It simply wouldn’t accept more than about 1-2 ounces of water. After being rolled up in storage (which is how it comes) for about a year, nothing I did would expand the bottle. I tried blowing into it to blow it up, submerging it and waiting for it to fill up with water, waiting for a stream to fill it up. Nothing. When I tried it at home with the sink faucet directly above it and the bottle being vertical – then it filled up. Hardly a realistic situation to run into in the woods. Luckily, I had a backup 70 oz Platypus collapsible water bottle that worked just fine. Unluckily, I had to walk half a mile back to camp to retrieve it from my main pack, and then back to the stream again. Practice with your gear before you trust your life with it! This is why training with your stuff is so important.

Lesson 4: Get waterproof everything

I had waterproof gore-tex winter gloves and they were AMAZING. I loved them. I was able to submerge a water bottle in a stream and not get ice-cold water to freeze my hands. I was able to dig around in the snow and handle wet things, all while staying warm and dry. You don’t want cold hands: cold hands means reduced dexterity, and, eventually, it could mean death.

I had waterproof socks (similar to boot liners). When my wife’s boots, which aren’t waterproof, started getting soaked early on, I gave her the waterproof socks and they kept her feet dry for the whole trip.

Your extremities need to be kept dry, especially in the cold, or you’ll risk loss of dexterity and eventually frostbite.

Lesson 5: Leather gloves are your friend

The waterproof gloves I mentioned above have leather on all the contact points, so I was able to use them to process firewood – but you can also just bring a pair of leather work gloves that you can slip on for that task. Bottom line is, you don’t want to be dealing with ice-cold wood (and possibly scrapes and cuts) without gloves. Protect your hands.

Lesson 6: Plan for everything taking much longer

It took us about 2 hours to hike 3 miles with the full weight of our backpacks and one measly 22 rifle shared between the two of us. That doesn’t sound very fast, does it? We were going uphill a lot of the time, but the real killer was the snow and ice. Walking through snow without snowshoes really slows you down and burns more calories, and walking over ice without crampons will make you walk slowly and doubt your footing.

We got to camp around 4pm, with about half an hour of daylight left. I went to get water from a stream half a mile away (it was the closest one to camp that didn’t have dodgy looking water), and my wife started collecting firewood. We went to bed after midnight. It took us 8 hours to collect water, collect firewood, start a fire, melt/purify water, bushcraft a cooking setup to hang a pot over the fire and some ribs we brought in, cook our food, eat, and set up our shelter. We were working and being active almost the entire time. By the time I got into my sleeping bag I was exhausted.

Why? Because everything in the cold takes longer. There are tasks that just can’t be done in gloves, so you’re constantly pulling them off, doing a task, then getting cold and putting them back on. The reduced dexterity and all the clothes getting in the way will slow you down. Then there’s the fact that making a fire in the cold, wet snow is much harder. You’ll need a fire platform and more patience than usual. Cooking and boiling water takes longer because everything is frozen to begin with.

Now that we’ve had some practice, I’m sure next time we’ll be more efficient, but we’ll never be as efficient as we are in the summer. Guess what though? If you have to bug out, you don’t get to choose the season.

Lesson 7: Get crampons

My wife fell twice on this trip. Luckily, I didn’t fall, but I had a few close calls. Ice is not your friend. Get crampons. We ordered some and they’re on the way now. You don’t want to be bruising yourself or worse, breaking bones and twisting ankles when you’re out in the woods. That stuff can really get you in trouble.

Lesson 8: Stuff you didn’t think of will rust

I brought my Ruger 10-22 with me in case I saw a squirrel (I didn’t). I left it in the snow next to my sleeping bag overnight. It also snowed and sleeted while we hiked. When I got home, the outside of the barrel and various other parts of the gun were covered in rust spots. Clearly, Ruger did not make this rifle for outdoor use.

I think it’s easy for people to baby their guns without really even realizing it. They keep them at home in a safe or in a holster on their hip and under their coat. They take them to the range once in a blue moon, usually indoors or when the weather is good, and their guns never experience exposure to the elements. I had gone out hunting for squirrels many days this winter, but I’d always go in good weather, because why would I go in sucky weather, right?

But going out in bad weather is important, because if you really have to bug out, you don’t get to choose what the weather will be like. Ruger make their barrels out of a steel that clearly has no corrosion resistance and don’t coat them in anything corrosion resistant either. At least not their standard 10-22s. That’s disappointing. I could of course sand the barrel down, remove the rust, and then coat it, but really, if it has this much rust after just 18 hours of exposure to water, it’s a bad product. I’ll need to replace the barrel (if anyone has any recommendations I’d appreciate them).

This made me wonder what other metal objects I have that could rust. My knife is made of stainless steel and did fine despite being wet a lot. Bottom line is: find out what metal your guns and knives are made out of, and go test them out in bad weather. You might be surprised by just how shoddy some of those materials are when exposed to a bit of moisture.

Lesson 9: Your sleeping pad might suck

My wife’s inflatable sleeping pad, which had done just fine on every camping trip so far, was a complete failure in the winter. It turns out that it couldn’t hold her weight (150 lbs, not a lot) and collapsed too much in the mid-section, exposing her to the cold ground. We had to layer spare clothing and sitting pads under that area to get it to be warm enough, but even then she was cold. Make sure your sleeping pad is warm enough, and if you have an inflatable pad, bring a backup closed cell foam one, because if your inflatable one pops, you will not be a happy camper.

Lesson 10: Sleep deprivation makes you colder

Maybe it’s just me, but when I don’t get enough sleep, I have to really layer up. The less sleep I get, the colder I feel. It’s like my body just can’t generate the heat it normally can when I’m well rested. This is also true if you don’t get enough calories. Eventually your body just reduces its heat output. What that means is: try to make yourself comfortable enough to get enough sleep, eat plenty of food, but most importantly, bring extra layers. However warm you think you’ll be, you’ll probably be colder than that.

I’ve been on multi-day trips before where I’d start with a few layers extra in my backpack, and by day 3-4 I was wearing all of them. Even though the weather hadn’t changed, my body needed the extra warmth due to lack of sleep.

Lesson 11: Get radios

Where we went camping, we already had no cell reception at the trailhead where we parked our car. There was no way we were going to have any cell reception in the mountains, either.

At one point, after we got to our camping spot, we separated as I went to gather water half a mile away and my wife stayed to prepare wood for the fire. I ended up struggling a lot more than I expected due to the aforementioned issue with the Sawyer filter collapsible water bottle, and it would have been good if I could have told my wife I’d be late. Or, what if I had gotten injured? Or what if she had? Without cell service, radios are the next best thing. Get some.

Summary

To summarize… winter camping is harder, more dangerous, and more physically taxing than camping during any other season. Winter is survival on hard mode. Hopefully some of these lessons will help you out, but the bottom line is: you need to go out and experience it for yourself. Inevitably, you’ll run into issues I didn’t due to different location, different you, and different gear, and without practice, you’ll never know where your weaknesses are and what needs work and improvement.

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