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Contents

Introduction

The following article is not intended to be a guide to winter-camping, rather it is the summary of about a dozen overnight winter treks I've undertaken throughout Manitoba. The information here intended only to enlighten the reader about the inherent complexities that arise while trying to plan and undertake winter camping trips in this province.

Sunrise while winter camping in Manitoba.

It is important to understand that winter-camping is usually undertaken more for a challenge rather than for enjoyment. You'll end up losing many of the qualities that make backpacking an enjoyable sport in the summer when attempting it during the winter. There is never really a point of “rest” during the process where you get to lay back and relax after a hard day’s work. You need to constantly remain active just to keep yourself warm and when you do finally get to lie down, you are stuck in the dark for up to 16 hours before it is light again. This is just one of the many issues which seems to have eluded me when I first took up the activity, partly because so little information is available online about hiking this province during the winter (perhaps for good reason!).

In the following article I will attempt to shed some light on some of the less obvious facets of Winter Camping in Manitoba, and hopefully provide some guidance and warning to those who are considering a winter hike of their own.

Warning

Extreme cold occurs frequently throughout prairie provinces during the winter. Temperatures can drop by over 40°C overnight, making winter-camping a risky sport in Manitoba. It is important to understand just how easily things can go seriously wrong when undertaking a backpacking trip during the winter. Consider the following situations which are (quite) likely to occur:

  • your car doesn’t start upon returning from your trek;
  • your snow shelter collapses;
  • markings are buried or entirely plastered over with snow such that the trail is lost;
  • you can’t make it to your destination at the rate you are moving;
  • you break through the ice during a lake crossing;
  • you lose sensation in your feet and just can’t seem to get them warm again;

If you plan on going camping in the winter you must be honest with yourself and decide whether or not you are willing to accept these sorts of situations. I do not honestly believe that winter backpacking is a safe (or sane!) activity to undertake in Manitoba during the colder months. In my mind there will always be a substantial amount of uncontrollable risk that comes with participation in this sport.

Winter Gear

When winter camping, you have the option of either building a snow shelter or bringing along a four season tent and an excellent sleeping bag. With temperatures dropping into the -30°C and -40°C range overnight, however, it is unlikely that you will be able to keep warm enough in a conventional sleeping bag/tent arrangement. That is unless, of course, you are willing to drop a swimming-pool-full of money on an expedition grade tent and mummy bag.

Winter camping requires a large amount of bulky gear and heavy clothing just to “comfortably” make it through the night. In addition to the standard list of backpacking equipment that you might bring along on backpacking trip in the warmer season, you will also require:

Transportation

  • sled
  • snowshoes
  • ski poles

Clothing

  • winter jacket
  • boots (Sorrels or better)
  • hat
  • neck warmer
  • extra fleece jacket
  • sweat shirt
  • several pairs of warm socks†
  • snow pants
  • 2 pairs of warm mitts (gloves aren’t warm enough)

Shelter

  • tarps (one 8’ by 8’, another smaller one)
  • shovel(s) (one metal for carving snow)
  • synthetic mummy bag rated to at least -15C
  • thick insulated sleeping mat

Cooking

  • butane stove (propane won’t work)
  • matches (lighters don’t work in the cold)
  • additional fuel (at least 3x as much as you bring in the summer)

Essential

  • saw (for emergencies)
  • a couple of garbage bags (they come in handy)
  • headlamp

Optional

  • ski goggles
  • extra battery (for jumping your car)


Luckily there are also a few things you can leave behind which become pretty much useless due to the cold weather. Included are items such as:

  • water bottles - They freeze shut; bring a Thermos instead.
  • tents - You won’t need this if you plan on building a snow shelter.
  • rope for hanging food - The bears are all in hibernation by this point.
  • blister kits - Unlikely that you will get a blister while wearing insulated boots.
  • water treatment - You’re going to be boiling water from clean snow.

You may also want to bring a cell phone or camera with you, but keep in mind that the batteries don’t work very well when they are cold. You’ll need to keep them in a pocket if you expect them to work after a few hours. Lighters undergo the same problem. In either case, I cannot stress enough the need for a good shovel, saw, large tarp, warm boots, clothing, and serious gloves.

Bringing a Sled

The seemingly only reprieve provided by a snow covered landscape is a simple means of moving equipment over gentle terrain from one point to another using a sled. The vast majority of trails in this province are level enough that you can easily pull a sled behind you. Consider also the fact that frozen lakes and streams provide an alternate (if not risky) means of getting around some bothersome obstacles - like whole trails!

Pulling a sled with gear through low branches.

The method that has worked best for me so far is to buy a normal plastic sled, drill some holes in it for a handle and then thread this through with rope. Tie a knot at the end of the rope where you plan to pull on it and attach this to a small backpack using a carabiner. Your gear should be bagged before it is put in the sled since it tends to pick up a lot of snow along the trail. The gear must also be lashed down to the sled (using rope/bungees) so that the whole arrangement can be easily picked up and lifted over fallen trees and what not. It will also save you from the annoying situations that occur when your bags slip off of the back of the sled every five minutes or so.

Method of Travel

Snowshoing along a wide, packed trail in Riding Mountain Provincial Park.

Manitoba tends to get a fair amount of that light fluffy snow which gives away easily under the foot. This means that skis are relatively useless for trail breaking because your feet will end up submerged in snow for the majority of the trip. Snowshoes are probably your best bet and the larger the shoe the better for the kind of snow we get here. Snowshoes play a very important role by keeping your feet up and out of the snow, which in turn keeps them dry. Modern snowshoes come equipped with crampons attached to the bottoms that keep you from slipping down hilly terrain and also provide traction when pulling a sled. Ski poles are always a necessity.

Shelters

In the following section I will refrain from selling any one shelter as ideal for the Manitoban setting and instead focus on explaining the benefits and drawbacks of each type of snow shelter. Note that I have not included the igloo in the list below as I feel that it is not a viable construction due to its reliance upon the availability of densely packed snow or ice and the requirement of specialized tools and training to erect.

Quinzee

A quinzee is essentially a pile of snow that has been left for an hour or two to harden before a cave is dug into it. It has the advantages or requiring the fewest tools; however, it is very difficult to dig out a quinzee without getting yourself wet. Quinzees require a great deal of energy and time (up to 4 or 5 hours) to erect, and they also require a large amount of available snow.

Keep in mind that light, fluffy snow makes the job of building a quinzee much more difficult because it does not compact well. This results in a lot of extra shoveling and some unnerving digging. It is also quite possible that your snow shelter will collapse in upon you while digging it out (it happens!) especially if you don’t let the snow set for a few hours before you begin digging.

A two-person quinzee snow shelter.

In order to build a quinzee:

  1. Pile up snow to about the height of 4 to 6 feet and with a diameter of around 8 to 10 feet. Notice that this is an enormous amount of work, especially if you are using a small collapsible shovel.
  2. Let the snow settle for about 1 to 2 hours. The weight of the piled up snow will compact the snow lower down and cause it to soften and bind together.
  3. Begin digging a cave into the pile and keep tossing the snow you dig out back onto the top and sides of the structure. Laying out a tarp will help keep your knees dry once you’ve attained a kneeling position. Try to keep your entryway as small as possible. You can use a sled to both catch and push out snow to a partner as you dig.
  4. Once you are happy with your structure, use the handle of your ski pole to push an air hole through the roof. This is necessary so that moisture in your breath will have a place to escape.
  5. Lay down a tarp inside the quinzee and place your sleeping gear on it. If you want some extra insulation from the ground, you can stick a layer of spruce bows under the tarp.
  6. When you go to sleep at night, pull a backpack or a garbage bag full of loose snow in behind you to seal off the entryway. Make sure that you leave a small gap so that fresh air can get in.

Overall quinzees are a good snow shelter, but they are impractical because of the amount of energy and time required to build them. The snow trench shelter below tries to avoid some of the pitfall of this shelter. Make sure that you have practiced building a quinzee at home before you rely on one for survival.

Snow Trench

Branches, tarp, and ski poles supporting the roof of a snow trench shelter.

The snow trench is a very good shelter for Manitoba because it can be built using a relatively small amount of snow and you don’t get soaked while building it. Essentially, you pile up a bunch of snow and then dig out an open trench in the middle of the pile. Using a tarp and some branches you can construct a roof and then toss some snow on top.

This structure still requires quite a bit of work to build, but much less time and effort than is required to build a quinzee. One of the pitfalls of this structure is the requirement for a fairly large tarp and a number of branches. It also does not scale up very well to larger groups, necessitating a second shelter for anything more than two people.

To build a trench shelter:

  1. Start off just as if you were building a quinzee -- begin by piling up snow to a height of about 3 feet and a diameter of about 8 to 10 feet.
  2. Wait about ten minutes for the snow to settle.
  3. Dig out a trench from the pile that is about 7 feet in length (more or less depending upon your height) and anywhere from 3 to 6 feet in width. The width of the trench will of course depend on the number of people you plan to sleep in there and the amount of space that they require in order to feel comfortable. Be sure to leave enough space so that your sleeping bags will not be touching snow and get wet. Pile any excavated snow onto the sides of the structure to make it a little higher and thicker.
Diagram of a trench shelter top down.
  1. Place a number of crisscrossing branches over the top of the structure to form a lattice structure that is capable of holding the layer of snow you will be piling onto the roof. You can use ski poles instead of branches for a one-man structure so long as you won't be needing the poles until the following morning.
Diagram of a snow trench shelter with branches over the top.
  1. Lay a large tarp down (8’ by 8’ is good) over the entire structure and pile snow onto its edges so that it is drawn taught. Begin tossing snow onto the roof and edges until you have about a 6 inch layer of insulating snow.
  2. Once you are happy with your structure, use the handle of a ski pole to push an air hole through the roof of your structure (below the tarp). This is necessary so that moisture in your breath will have a place to escape.
  3. Lay a smaller tarp down inside the structure and set up your bedding on it. If you want some extra insulation from the ground, you can place a layer of spruce bows underneath the tarp.
  4. When you go to sleep at night, pull a backpack or a garbage bag full of loose snow in behind you to seal off the entryway. Make sure that you leave a small gap so that fresh air can get in.

Tent

Tents are not a very realistic option during the colder months of a Manitoban winter; however, at the beginning and end of the season when temperatures are warmer they do make adequate shelters. In the event that the temperature drops much lower than anticipated, you can always pile snow around and up onto your tent in order to provide a little extra insulation. Note that it is very difficult to retrieve your tent after you have done this, as the tent tends to melt into the snow and then freeze. Also, the inside of your tent will get very wet from the moisture in your breath and you may find that the tent freezes solid within a minute or two upon leaving. This can make it very difficult and frustrating to roll up and pack away.

Additional Resources

Food

Cooking food during the winter takes a long time. You will usually begin by boiling some water, which entails refilling the pot several times with fresh snow. The process of bringing just a litre of water to a boil can take as long as ten minutes and use up a substantial amount of fuel. Thus, it is imperative that you bring enough fuel with you. Pack at least three times as much fuel as you would normally use in the summer for a winter excursion.

Outdoor activities during the winter can be very strenuous. Our bodies are capable of burning off an amazing number of calories after only a single day of winter backpacking. You will need to bring enough food to replace the energy you lost from trudging through deep snow, pulling a sled, building a shelter. On top of this our bodies requires a large amount of fuel just to keep us and our extremities warm. This process continues even after we have stopped moving and putter about camp. It is a good idea to pack enough high-energy foods to battle a ravenous (4000-5000 calorie) appetite.

When selecting meals to bring with you, keep in mind that foods with absolutely any liquid in them will freeze solid. Mars bars, for example, are just about impossible to eat once they have frozen due to the caramel content. Plain chocolate can still be snapped apart and eaten when frozen. Foods like pasta are good because they start off completely dry and provide a lots of energy in a warm meal. Remember that dry foods like pasta cannot be eaten in an emergency situation, so it is advisable to bring at least a few foods that can be eaten cold. It is also a good idea to cut margarine or butter into everything you cook to up the calorie content. The best meals for winter backpacking include lots of hot water in the final preparation, like soups or stew. These take a lot longer to cool off than something like regular, strained pasta.

Example foods for winter camping:

Dinner

  • dry pasta + dry soup mix + hunk of margarine
  • frozen prepared stew
  • freeze-dried meals

Snacks

  • nuts
  • solid chocolate
  • cereal
  • pre-cubed cheese (it freezes)

Breakfast

  • oatmeal
  • cream of wheat

Another factor to consider is where you will be cooking and eating your meals. It is usually best to cook outside of your shelter if you can, but in an emergency it is possible to cook inside. This tends to lead to a lot of meltage and from my experience this will melt a hole of sizable girth right through your roof. It is important to leave the entryway to your shelter completely open during the process, as burning fuel releases poisonous carbon monoxide.

Sleeping

When camping at times around the winter solstice (usually Dec. 21st or 22nd) you may be stuck in a sleeping bag for up to 16 hours. Even if you do manage to fall asleep right away that still leaves a good four or five hours to kill before it is light out again. This means that you need to eat a large meal before you go to bed and bring some extra food into the shelter with you to munch on throughout the night. It is also a good idea to fill a thermos with hot water so that you can have a sip or two if you get thirsty. Eating high-fat foods before hitting the hay is highly recommended as it helps you keep warm throughout the night.

It is often very difficult to fall asleep in a snow shelter when you are stuck in a mummy bag. Move around too much to one side and you will end up against a wall of snow and your bag gets soaked. On the other hand you feel like you need to stretch, but you don’t want around too much because you'll roll of your mat and end up cold. The result is often a long, drawn-out feeling of being trapped in an uncomfortable position for what seems like eternity.

Remember to bring a shovel into the shelter with you when you go to bed just in case you need to dig your way out in the morning. Take off your boots at the entrance, but leave the felt linings on your feet and wear these to bed. Your boots will freeze solid from trapped moisture; however, this will help keep a portion of your boots warm for when the time comes to put them on again.

Ice Crossings

The thousands of lakes and rivers that grace this province provide ample opportunity for ice crossings. Usually by mid-January most of our lakes and rivers have a sufficient layer of ice to support a deer. Nonetheless, there is always the very real possibility that the ice may give away under you for any number of reasons. This has unfortunately happened to me before and I can attest that it is not very much fun.

If you do break through the ice, throw your arms over the nearest section of ice. Kick with your legs and try to push your torso up and on to unbroken ice. Keeping your arms flayed out to distribute your weight over the ice. Next, move your arms towards your hips and then begin to slug your way fully onto the ice (think seal). The most important thing to do after you get out is to find a stable position on the ice or shore and replace every piece of wet clothing that you are wearing as quickly as possible. Consider bringing a second pair of insoles for your boots, because boots like Sorrels are utterly useless once they fill with water. In a pinch, you can put on all of your dry socks and then wrap these in garbage bags. This can act as a temporary replacement for lost insoles.

Needless to say, I’ve done a bit of research on ice conditions since the incident and found some useful information at this site. Basically, what it boils down to is that the thickness of ice is greatly diminished as a result of water that flows beneath the surface. This means that it is important to avoid narrow sections of rivers and outlets from lakes where water currents are likely to be the greatest. Also avoid sections with slushy ice and areas with reeds and cattails, as these are likely to be thin too.

Other Tips

  • A good rule of thumb for winter backpacking is predict how long something will take and then double that estimate. Even something as simple as cooking a meal can turn out to be epic in scope.
  • Trail heads are rarely plowed so you should plan on digging out a parking space for your car.
  • Traveling in a group is highly recommended for these sorts of adventures.
  • Hiking boots are not a realistic option for a Manitoban winters. You need a boot with an insulated lining that can be easily removed.

Footnotes

Socks make very decent gloves in a pinch.