Connect to the cold: Why you should consider winter camping

Crooked Lake
With a little preparation, winter camping can give you a chance to connect to a quiet, serene outdoors and quick access to some of your favorite winter activities.
Chris Gibbs for MPR News

Looking for a new challenge to face outdoors? Consider camping in the winter.

We’re not kidding.

“Some of the rewarding part of it is the challenge. And I enjoy a good challenge,” said Kurt Mead, an interpretive naturalist at Tettegouche State Park. “Cooking and preparing food when it’s cold is a different matter than when it’s warmer. Keeping yourself warm and dry for an extended period, you’re talking days, is a bit of a challenge. But if you’re mindful about it, you can make it happen and enjoy it.”

If you’re a fan of activities like ice fishing or cross-country skiing, winter camping gives you a chance to set up a base camp to enjoy your favorite cold-weather venture within minutes.

Another perk: Steve Piragis, co-owner of Piragis Northwoods Company, an outfitter in Ely, Minn., said the woods are uniquely peaceful in the winter, because there aren’t a lot of other campers around.

“There are a lot of animal tracks that you would never see in the summer time — wolves, otters, fox,” Piragis said. “And for me, it’s just getting away from civilization. One thing I love to do, it’s almost a spiritual experience, is walking around a frozen lake with the stars blazing and maybe even the Northern Lights.”

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Sound like a good time to you? Here are some techniques and advice for taking on the challenges of winter camping.

Consider your shelter

Camp on St. Ignace Island
You have choices when it comes to tents, but you can also use the snow around you for shelter.
Chris Gibbs for MPR News

While there are many options when sheltering yourself from the cold, we’ll focus on two very different approaches.

If you have the time, and can find plenty of fresh snow, Mead suggests trying to build a quinzee or a snow shelter.

“The insulation of the snow, combined with a body or multiple bodies in this snow cave, can keep you quite warm,” Mead said.

You start by making a very large pile of snow. Next, you dig the base of your shelter down to the frozen ground. Then start piling snow back on top of the frozen ground. Mead suggests building a 12-foot diameter by 6-foot high pile of snow.

Before hollowing out the snow in the shelter, place a number of sticks into the snow pile at about the same depth, at least a foot deep. When you start to hollow out the snow from the inside, the sticks in the snow will give you an idea of where to stop so you don’t create a weak spot in your shelter’s ceiling.

“After you have it piled up, and you’ve got those sticks in, it’s a good time to go take a snowshoe hike, or maybe grab a meal or something else. Once it sits for a couple of hours, it becomes rock hard, that’s called sintering,” Mead said.

Piling the snow causes the snowflakes to create a slight bit of heat from friction. That heat melts the snow by just a bit, allowing the snow to pack down and refreeze, reinforcing the snow pile.

Then create a small entrance hole and hollow out the pile.

“You end up with an insulated snow shelter. I’ve been winter camping in a structure like this where it’s 10 below outside, but inside it’s about 45 degrees,” he said.

A second option is to use a large canvas tent. These winter tents tend to have more room to move than a quinzee and can include a small wood stove within your tent. It also allows you space to do a number of activities, like cooking and drying clothes, within a heated shelter.

With a canvas tent, you’ll likely want to portage in your equipment and supplies using a large sled. Piragis said he likes to set up a base camp, always returning to the same campsite rather than moving around.

“It’s a little bit more weight, and may be harder to get everything on a sled. But it sure is a lot more comfortable, especially at night.”

Both approaches have their drawbacks and advantages. The quinzee takes time, energy and strength to build, and while you have a shelter, you might not have a lot of space to move about, depending on how big you piled the snow.

Alternatively, canvas tents also take time to set up, and can be fairly expensive. However, many outfitters, like Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, Minn., Hard Water Spots in Sandstone, and Piragis in Ely provide tent and wood stove rentals. Costs to rent a tent with a stove can range from $75 to $100 a day depending on the size of the structure and stove.

A third option, Mead said, is using a standard “four-season” nylon tent — though it may not be as warm as the other options.

Whatever shelter you use, make sure you have a cold weather sleeping bag, and possibly more than one layer to help stay warm all night.

Late winter offers easier trekking

Hiking through the park
Be prepared! Nothing ruins a camping trip like wet socks.
Jeffrey Thompson for MPR News

When you decide to go winter camping is up to you, but Piragis said for beginners, it’s better to go later in the winter.

“March is a good month. Usually, there’s a bit of a melt down event. So it’s easier to hike, easier to snowshoe or ski. In the middle of winter, the days are short and super cold. It’s just not as enjoyable to me as it is in March,” Piragis said.

And if you’re hiking or cross-country skiing around water, there’s a good chance that the ice is still solid compared to early in the winter. And it decreases the chances of stepping through soft snow and into swampy wet spots hidden below. Nothing ruins winter activities like wet socks.

A few more pointers

Staying hydrated is important on long camping excursions, cold or warm. But your water bottle won’t freeze in the summer. Mead said you should keep a wide mouth water bottle in your backpack or close to your body when you can, and store it upside down. That prevents water from freezing in the bottle’s threads, and every time you flip the bottle for a drink, it helps keep the water moving, slowing down the freeze.

Dry clothes provide warmth, so finding a way to warm damp clothing and dry them is key. That could mean having a system to leave clothes near a camp stove or campfire (without catching fire). Piragis suggested drying boot liners inside the sleeping bag while you sleep.

“If it doesn’t get dry and warm inside your tent, you can put some stuff in the bottom of your sleeping bag and that’ll keep it warm and dry it out overnight,” he said.

One advantage of winter camping is the natural refrigeration that’s not available during the summer. That opens up a lot of options for food you can bring with you to camp.

“It’s the only kind of camping that you can throw a quart of Haagen-Dazs in your backpack and eat it two days from now. I’ll sneak something like that in and on day two pull it out and say ‘Hey, I’ve got dessert.’”

Want to give it a try?

Frost River
Don't let the weather keep you from adventure.
Chris Gibbs for MPR News

Piragis says it’s worth having a guide with you, at least for the first day or two to get you started. Some outfitters offer a guide to help you get started for around $250 for a day.

“If you’re camping for four days, maybe you don’t need a guide for all four days, but at least have a guide who can help you set up, and make sure you know how to keep the fire going and keep the tent warm,” he said.

Mead also suggests a few practice rounds by testing equipment in your own yard if you have the space.

“If it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and something’s not working for you, it’s an easy out.”

Kurt Mead will host a Winter Camping 101 workshop Saturday, Feb. 1, at Tettegouche State Park, which will cover camping tips and how to build a quinzee snow shelter. While the workshop is one day, you can decide to sleep in the quinzee overnight after making it. Register in advance by calling 218-353-8809 or emailing

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