The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 26: Really Cool Camping, part 1

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Getting into a winter wilderness is a skill you can easily warm up to. This week on The WildeBeat; part one of Really Cool Camping.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number twenty six.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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MIKE CLELLAND: Winter is an amazing and unbelievably beautiful time of the year. I just find it more enjoyable and more beautiful than almost any other time of the year. You're going to be in places where very few people visit that maybe the same beautiful national park that's very crowded in the summer will be almost completely empty in the winter. And the ability to play in the snow is something that I never got over as a little kid. And here I am, all these years later, still playing in it.

STEVE: That's Mike Clelland. Mike is a winter camping instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School. He's also the illustrator and co-author of, "Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book." This the book is aimed at skiers. But the last half of it is my favorite beginners' guide to camping in the snow.

The first skill to learn is staying warm during the day. Mike recommends a well proven layering system.

MIKE CLELLAND: The cold is a very serious hazard. It has the potential to kill you. So going out and winter camping is something you definitely need to be prepared for, and that turns into a bigger backpack, and carrying more gear. You would have your base-layer, next to your skin. And any of the modern acryllic long underwear would do that. What that does is it actually draws the moisture away from your skin. And that moisture you'd be creating in the form of sweat, and any time traveling in the winter, you burn a lot more calories, you're working a lot harder. You would have the potential to get cold just from your own sweat if you stopped exercising. So the layers next to your skin would be there to transport that wetness away from your body, and then hopefully to get it to evaporate out through the fabric. And the next layer out would be an insulating layer. On a typical cold day here where I'm cross country skiing that insulating layer might just be a thin, expedition-weight polyester pull-over. And your wind layer. And often times in the winter here I'll just use a simple, cheap, nylon wind shirt. In a very cold environment you don't have to worry about rain falling from the sky and getting you wet, so you just have to worry about shedding some of the snow, and some of the wind. And then you would have the big parka you could put over everything. And that would be a guarantee of being insulated. Because hanging out in the winter time is really hard. You need to remain active, or have a lot of clothes. And they do make wonderful, great-big pants that you can put over the whole thing, very similar to the way you would put a great big down parka over your ensemble, you can put a great big insulating pair of pants over it. And usually they have full side-zips, so you don't have to take boots off, or anything. There's so much amazing, high-tech camping gear, presently and not all of it that expensive.

STEVE: You mentioned synthetic or acryllic fabrics for that base layer. What about natural fibers, like cotton or wool or silk, for example?

MIKE CLELLAND: Well, the acryllic fabrics do an amazingly good job at insulating when they're wet. Even if you get wet, you can exercise a little bit, and you can retain your body heat. But a fabric like cotton dries very, very slowly. And there a little attage that says, "cotton kills in the winter." And that's a little bit of an exaggeration, but you don't want any cotton layers next to your skin, because it would remain wet and wouldn't transport the wetness away from your skin. But wool is a wonderful fabric. You know a wool sweater works great. And then a lot of people will choose to use silk long underwear, instead of a polyester long underwear, and it has the same properties as the polyester.

STEVE: Now I think the thing people are most worried about getting cold are their extremeties; their hands and feet. And we haven't mentioned those yet.

MIKE CLELLAND: The same system applies for your hands, where you would have some sort of base layer, something that would be touching your hands. And that, often times, is just a thin glove. And then an insulating layer would often be a polyester-pile mitten. And then a wind-layer would be some kind of nylon fabric to go over that. That's the one thing I actually take a lot of when I go camping, or even just out touring for the day, is I take a lot of extra gloves. Because, if you're digging in the snow, or playing in the snow, or skiing often times involves falling, and so your hands will get snowy and wet. And I've experimented with a lot of gloves, and none of them are perfect. So your hands are going to get cold and wet. And then it time to just change into a dry pair of gloves. So I take extra gloves. And then, same for your feet where you would have a nice, thick pair of socks next to your feet, and then most modern winter boots would have an inner layer, and often times that's some sort of foam layer, and then they would have a hard plastic outer shell, or a leather outer shell.

STEVE: So we're now well-dressed winter campers, and we've skied or snowshoed our way out to a campsite somewhere. Let's pick a winter campsite. What are you looking for there?

MIKE CLELLAND: You would want to think about the temperature. So you'd want to think about where the sun is setting and where the sun's coming up. That morning sunshine is a beautiful thing, and if you put your camp somewhere where the sunshine's not going to hit you, it's very, very hard to get up in the morning. And then, cold will sink. So you want to make sure you're not in a low zone. You don't want to sleep in a depression. You don't want to put a campsite in a low gully where the cold air is going to sink. So, if you can, find a hilly terrain, and put yourself up on a bench. And often times that takes a little bit of thinking, you don't want to be on a high mountain pass where howling winds are going to make you cold, but you want to be up off the valley floor so you can stay warm. Where the cold air won't sink. I've played around with thermometers, in the winter, and you can easily get a twenty degree differential between a small, little gully and the hillside right next to it. You know, within a three minute walk of each other.

STEVE: Twenty degrees? That's like a hundred dollar difference in sleeping bags. Anything else you're looking for, for that site?

MIKE CLELLAND: You also want to make sure you're not near any hazards. And the one main hazard in a mountain environment in the winter would be avalanches. So you'd want to be well clear of any terrain that could produce an avalanche. And that involves steep, snow-covered terrain.

STEVE: I think that most people would assume that they're going to need some kind of really sturdy winter tent to go out snow camping, and that's a pretty expensive item.

MIKE CLELLAND: The tents that I've had the best luck with in the winter are the simple pyramid, where they have a single center pole, and then it stands upright like a pyramid. And then there's no floor at all, you would just sleep on the snow. In the winter you have the ability to dig down, into the snow, and make the floor drop down like a little basement. You would dig out the floor on the bottom, and then just go in with your snow shoes, or your skis and just tromp down the floor. And then the surface of the the floor would get very firm and very hard and would be no problem to walk around in. And then instantly the roof gets much taller. You can stand up inside. And I found those to be extremely comfortable and extremely warm and quite quick to set up. If you are camping in the winter you have the choice of some kind of shelter, like a tent, or building your own shelter, like an igloo or a snow cave. And a snow shelter would be significantly warmer in the winter, obviously more time-consuming to build, but much, much warmer than a nylon tent. Snow shelters are really fun to make. So that should almost be your goal if you're going oout to go camping and camp in a snow shleter. A snow shelter for one or two people, you can knock those out pretty quick. I've made those in less than an hour. But it's usually with someone who's made them before. Don't go out and try to make your first snow shelter if it's getting dark out. You'll want to plan well in advance.

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Next time -- part two of Really Cool Camping.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number twenty six. Thank you for listening.

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