I'm a person that is always cold. I can often be found indoors in the winter with a hat on and of course I sleep cold. When I lived in BC, the only winter overnighters I went on were ones that involved a nice warm hut at the end. So of course I had never been proper winter camping.
Since moving to Halifax, I have not been able to do any snowshoeing since it hasn't snowed enough locally. Also, the colder east coast weather had tricked me into thinking that I was tougher now when it comes to cold. So this year I was determined to do some Maritime snowshoeing. Greg and I decided to head to Fundy National Park in New Brunswick during our Reading Break since they actually have a bit of snow there. I called ahead to try to book the cabin they have there, but it was full up. Also, it was 7.5km of snowshoeing or skiing down a road that is only a trail because it is not plowed in the winter. Not my idea of a good time.
So instead our plan was to head to one of the backcountry campsites open in winter. We chose an easy 4km hike in to a campsite on Tracey Lake. First, however, I would need a warm-up, introductory night of snow camping. The car campground at park headquarters accepts winter campers and provides a heated washroom building, running water, and a kitchen shelter with a wood stove. It sounded perfect.
When we pulled up on Thursday afternoon it was a beautiful sunny winter day. There wasn't that much snow at the campground since it is quite close to the ocean, so setting up a tent with not enough snow to use snow stakes and ground too frozen to use regular pegs was a bit of a challenge. We managed in the end though.
After a massive high calorie dinner and dessert, we went to bed to spend my first night snow camping. I had borrowed a -20 MEC hybrid sleeping bag and a foam pad to put under my thermarest so I was prepared gear wise. Laying in the tent reading by headlamp I commented to Greg that the -18ish temps were really not that bad, and I wasn't lying. Inside our four season tent, all bundled up, I was quite warm.
I woke up the next morning to find that the ceiling of the tent was snowing on me. Despite our best efforts at venting the tent, the amount of frozen condensation on the tent walls was huge. Thankfully, we could use the heated kitchen shelter to dry out our stuff and pack up. I discovered that snow camping is a bit like beach camping - on a beach the sand gets into everything you bring, no matter how much you try to prevent it, while snow camping the snow gets into everything, but then melts and makes everything damp.
By lunch time we were ready to head out on the trail for our first backcountry night. Having survived my first snow tenting, I was still quite apprehensive about sleeping out in the backcountry since I was afraid I would get cold and wet and not be able to warm up. Plus, my pack was full to the bursting with all my insulating layers, the least compressible sleeping bag of all time (okay, I'm sure my childhood Canadian Tire sleeping bag was worse), a huge amount of calories in food, and 2 liters of water that I was trying to keep from freezing. All for one overnighter. My pack was the fullest it has been since my not so ultra-light trip on the WCT three years ago!
The hike into the campsite was a breeze though, even with the huge packs. The flat trail through the forest didn't really afford any views and was thankfully over quickly. It also was easy enough that we didn't sweat, which is a good thing since that will make me unbearable cold quite quickly.
Once we got to the campsite we found we had our own private picnic table and outhouse. The snow was about knee deep - much better for using snow stakes. We quickly stomped out a platform for the tent and got it set up. After it was set up we noticed that despite having a rather malleable medium to work with, we had still built our tent platform on a slope! As avid Holmes on Homes fans, we were a bit embarrassed.
After pitching the tent I started to get incredibly cold so, I put on all my layers and crawled into my sleeping bag. Some quality time with the Gear Guide issue of Backpacker and a mug of tea helped the situation immensely and soon I was up helping Greg make a huge dinner of backcountry bangers and mash.
With dinner finally done and cleaned up, it was time for bed at 7:30 since there wasn't really anything else to do and it was quite cold. We tried reading for a while, but even with gloves on it was too cold to have any part of our bodies sticking out of our sleeping bags. We had to resort to playing word games with our sleeping bag hoods done up so tight that they resembled blow-holes.
Finally we fell asleep. This time I tossed and turned quite a bit and didn't find the sleep nearly as peaceful. Like a lot of women, my feet get quite cold at night, and even with my boot liners on, they were freezing. Of course Greg was up a few times, thrashing around to put more layers on when he went outside to pee. As usual, I toughed it out, preferring to risk kidney failure than exposure to the cold!
In the morning we dealt with the same routine of snow inside the tent, but also snow outside the tent. Packing up was rather laborious as it was snowing and we were trying to avoid getting snow into everything. The walk out was as uneventful as the walk in. When we got back to the car we found that our planned lunch of cheese and sausage was still frozen solid, and we were forced to thaw it out using the heating vents in the car.
After lunch we headed down to another part of the park to do a short snowshoe to a geocache along the Dickinson Falls trail. It felt like a nice way to finish off winter - to spend some time in some actual snow and to finally get out on our snowshoes.
There has been plenty of talk on CT about intro winter camping and I'm glad I tried it. I used lots of the tips I found here and found my first winter camping (sans hut) experience to be relatively painless. That said, I was really surprised by how much work winter camping is. You have to carry so much more stuff. You have to constantly worry about keeping things from freezing so you can eat and drink them. You have to think about not getting things wet so you can stay warm. You have to find some way to kill time once it gets dark. All in all, I'm glad I've winter camped now, but I have to say, it is a lot more fun if there is a nice warm hut to hang out in!