A winter trip to the Boundary Waters requires a lot of work—a point that's underlined in our November–December story "When Heaven Freezes Over." When cold-weather camping in the wilderness area, supplies need to be dragged in by sled. Wood needs to be chopped to fuel fires day and night. Layers need to shed and added. The risks of camping in cold conditions, from hypothermia to frostbite, can't be ignored. "The consequences of failure are much higher at this time of year," says winter camper Dale Setterholm, who is featured in the November–December story along with a few of his friends. "So you have to be thoughtful about what you're bringing."
Hearty adventurers brave the elements because they say the rewards of winter camping are greater, whether that's watching wildlife or enjoying increased solitude. Setterholm and friends have been cold-weather camping in the Boundary Waters since the early '80s. Here, they share tips for enjoying a multi-night trip—because there's more than enough room in the one-million-acre wilderness for a few more winter campers.
Get Your Documents in Order
To overnight between October 1 and April 30, grab a free, self-issued permit at any Superior National Forest office or at any entry point.
If you plan on ice fishing for lake trout, pay attention to the season dates and purchase a fishing license and a trout stamp. Research the types of fish in each lake using The New Boundary Waters and Quetico Fishing Guide by Michael Furtman.
Pick a Starting Point
Select an entry point based on your sense of adventure and ability. Setterholm's team picks a remote entry point and they go over several lakes. The road that leads to their entry point is sometimes unplowed, which means tacking on miles of skiing. "It's pretty grueling," says Blane Klemek, author of "When Heaven Freezes Over." "But there are lakes that are close to the various entry points that do not take a lot of effort to get to." To find out about road conditions, call a local Superior National Forest office.
Check the Weather
Temperatures can stay below zero during the day and drop to 30 below at night. Wind chills often make conditions worse. Average winter snowfall is 50 to 60 inches. Check the forecast so you know what to expect.
- Dress in layers. One of the keys to staying warm in the winter is to stay dry. Peel off clothing when you are hot to avoid sweating. Add clothing when you are cold.
- Wear base layers made of wool or other high-wicking synthetic fibers. Don't wear cotton, which retains moisture. Bring extra layers in case you get wet.
- Bring mid-layers of fleece and wool.
- Waterproof, breathable pants and a coat will help protect you against wind and rain.
- Bring a thick, insulated outer layer, preferably a down coat.
- Wear tough, insulated, waterproof boots. Bring at least one extra liner and multiple pairs of wool socks in case your feet get wet.
- Wear warm gloves or mittens. England suggests thick leather choppers with two pairs of wool liners.
- Bring something for your noggin. "I wear a fur hat, and that's probably the last piece of equipment I'd give up," says Setterholm.
Choose Your Base Camp
When lakes are frozen, the Forest Service encourages people to pitch tents at least 200 feet from summer campsites, trails, and other campers. (For all of the winter rules, visit the Forest Service's BWCA Trip Planning Guide.) Setterholm and friends look for an opening on a north shore, which will help their site soak up warmth from the sun as it moves through the southern sky. Trees around their camp shield against wind. Some campers set up their tent on land. Others set up on the ice, so the winter sun hits them earlier in the morning—though there is a drawback. "If you've got your tent on the ice and one of those [cracks] occurs and it goes right through the bottom of your tent it wakes you up like a gunshot," says winter camper Dan England.
Sleep in Comfort
While several outfitters rent out large canvas tents that come with internal wood-burning stoves, Setterholm's group goes lightweight. They bring small, nylon waterproof tents. "The nylon is nice because it breathes," says England. "When you get in these big canvas tents, then you've got to worry about condensation."
Bring a sleeping bag that covers temps down to -40 and a sleeping pad that's insulated for use on cold surfaces. Wear dry clothes when you tuck in.
Accessorize, Accessorize, Accessorize
For firewood, bring a metal bow saw and an ax. For shoveling snow to make room for a fire pit or a tent, bring a small, collapsible shovel. Consider your entertainment. "I sometimes will bring a small pair of binoculars with me just to look for birds and other wildlife," says Klemek.
Ice fishing? Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters in Grand Marais has a video on the essentials.
Pack a first aid kit. Since cell coverage is limited in the wilderness, bring a satellite phone. Some outfitters, such as Piragis in Ely, rent them.
Choose Your Transport
Use cross country skis or snowshoes. Skis can be faster for routes that traverse large portions of lakes, but often have to be shed when traversing higher terrain. Snowshoes can be slower on ice, but are better for varied terrain. To haul gear, special sleds called pulks, which are rented by outfitters, can be dragged over the snow behind you. You can also build your own, like Setterholm, using instructions from skipulk.com.
Eat Your Heart Out
"There's a distinct advantage to winter camping in that you're living in a refrigerator," says Setterholm. "You can bring meat, butter, all that kind of food that you can't bring in the summertime, and really, you should, because what you're going to need is a lot of calories."
So you don't have to cut your cheese with an ax, bury your food in the snow to keep it insulated. Pack a large pot for boiling water, or pack multiple small microfilters for purifying it. Dry them well and store them next to your body in clothing to stop them from freezing. Keep enough water on hand to stay hydrated. Setterholm and crew stoke a fire morning, noon, and night. They cook everything they eat over it. If they're lucky, much of that is fresh, grilled trout.