We’ve all been there, sitting at home beset on all sides by the winter menace. For years I’ve taken this as the way it is, grumbling at my lot in life until May when I can go canoeing again. This year though, the planets aligned and I was able to try hot tenting in the dead of winter.
Shane and I rented a Snowtrekker tent from Algonquin Basecamp, an outfitter in Kearney who really bent over backwards to help us have a good time. They walked Shane through how to put everything up nicely and threw in extra gear we might need (like a little shovel). All kitted out, we drove along Hwy 60 to the head of the Minnesing bike/ski trail.
The Minnesing ski trail is completely unmaintained, making it perfect for snowshoeing or more adventurous cross country skiing. As we were to find out, it has a lot of dips and streams throughout its long loops, making it exceptionally difficult terrain summer or winter. We each pulled one toboggan. Shane had one which has more contoured but without lashing points allowed things to fall out easily. Mine was longer and made of high-density plastic, but with no runners underneath it was prone to slipping off any kind of incline. I lashed things down rather loosely and off we went.
Initially, the going was easy (isn’t it always?) and we marvelled how much better it was to drag gear than carry it like we had in November. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as canoeing, but it certainly was smoother than hauling things around! About 20 minutes in though, we came across what we dubbed Calamity Hill. This steep-ish hill was where we cut our teeth with the sleds. They had a propensity to fall over, often into moving water, and we were very much unimpressed with this. We managed to man-handle our load past the rocks and up the hill where we rested and I re-tied all my knots so they were much more secure. I had the wooden box with our stove in it and the large Tupperware bin full of gear so lashing was fairly easy.
We hauled for the next hour or so, honing our skill getting through tight squeezes and along narrow ledges. The good thing about winter camping is that when you get tired you just have to get 30m off the trail and you’re home! We selected a small plateau that overlooked Canisbay Lake and started setting up camp.
First, we dug as far down as we could to avoid things sinking as they heated up. This also helped with levelling the floor off. The tent went up very easily over an A-frame pole structure, and we got things going inside to keep them out of the snow which was falling all day. We were cold, tired, and wet so we set about having a coffee. I had brought my MSR Pocket Rocket, and in the cold it did work, but just barely. The fuel was slushy and even at full tilt just managed to heat the snow to a low boil. Never really liked that stove, should have just brought the Whisperlite.
After a life-affirming coffee, Shane set about erecting the stove inside the tent while I trekked down to the lake to get some spruce boughs to sleep on. Even the small hills proved a strenuous exercise, but snowshoes really helped me out here. 1-2 inches of floatation vs 1-2 feet of tent-poling? Easy choice to bring them. By the time I brought back my first load, Shane had the stove all set up and ready to go. At the suggestion of the guys at Algonquin Basecamp, he had used provided wire to attach 4 sticks to the bottom as a means of stopping the stove from sinking into the snow. It’s hard to describe, but basically it was a set of snowshoes for the stove! There was still much to do though.
We both attacked the chore of bough gathering, before grabbing firewood. There was a large maple down near our camp, so we grabbed lumber from that, splitting what we could. Shane was the wizard of the fireplace that day, expertly stoking the fire and fiddling with the door to keep as much heat going efficiently while keeping the smoke outside (harder than it sounds).
We had lunch of grilled cheese on english muffins, and that really restored our depleted energy. Before long we had all the wood chopped up for the night, our bedding laid out, and a system to continuously melt water going. We could finally relax and enjoy ourselves.
Dinner that night was a pre-made stew from my pressure cooker at home which was already in a sealed pot so all we had to do was set it on the stove in preperation for dinner. We cleaned up dinner quickly and were ready for bed nice and early. The day had really sapped our strength. Our sleeping systems were in the same order (starting on the bottom): Snow, boughs, tarp, Thermarest, -20 sleeping bag. It was surprisingly comfortable and warm, I really enjoyed it. When I woke up the next morning, Shane had already gotten the fire going and my thermometer read 10 degrees above 0, better than some late summer temperatures.
Breakfast and coffee were nice to have in the tent with nothing to set up. Real bacon this time, none of that microwavable stuff! With our bellies full, we reversed the process of setting up (minus digging in) and before 11am we were on the way we came. I found the trip out very tough physically, but it got easier that closer we got to the parking lot as the terrain levelled out. Calamity hill was definitely easier to go down than up, but was still a challenge. It didn’t help that there was fresh snow everywhere, slowing down our sledging.
Looking back, we were very green and I think we were ambitious taking on the Minnesing trail. Next time I think we’ll take the railbed from Mew Lake campground for flat terrain to haul across. Also, everything takes longer in the winter. Gathering wood, cooking food, boiling water, setting up the tent…it all just takes so much out of you! I don’t want to make it seem like I didn’t enjoy it, I’m definitely going to go again, it was just significantly more work than I had expected.
Also, I have no idea why anyone would willingly subject themselves to a cold-tenting trip when hot-tenting is available. The extra size and work was definitely worth it to be able to cook, eat, and live comfortably in the tent. With the shorter days, you’d either be forced to have a gigantic fire outside for heat, or go to bed early and wake up late (and miserable).
I learned a lot in this short 24-hour trip.