By January, most campers have stowed their gear and simply dream of warmer nights by a springtime fire. But some dare to layer on the fleece, strap on gaiters and hit the snowbound trail. These hearty backwoods crusaders find winter camping a peaceful sojourn and a distinct challenge.
"You get to see all these pageants of nature playing out before you," says John Foote, an avid winter camper and former Madison resident now living in Green Bay.
One of the best things about winter camping, says Foote, is the heightened awareness he develops, especially after three or four days out. "You begin to feel more like just part of the ecosystem," he says. "It's a bizarre sensation, one that can't really be put into words."
But the wintry conditions can be dangerous. Winter camping requires extraordinary preparation and precaution.
"You have to be kind of neurotic about double-checking your gear," says Foote, 50, who has been winter camping ever since he learned the basics in a high school outdoor recreation class. He cites the Into the Wild story in describing the dangers of hubris and negligence. "You can die, quite frankly," he says, "but if you're thoroughly prepared, that won't happen."
What to bring? Proper clothing, plenty of food, shelter - and a clear head. "Staying warm is the most important thing," says Foote. "The two best ways to stay warm," he adds, "are to stay dry and well fed."
"In the cold, your biggest enemy is being wet," says Brigit Brown, state trails coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and another avid winter camper. "I try never to be sweating," notes Brown, 32, who lives in Madison but makes year-round camping trips up north.
Excessive moisture, usually perspiration, impedes a fabric's ability to insulate. That's especially true of cotton, which experts shun in favor of wool, fleece or breathable synthetics. Thin layers help to regulate body temperature: peel them off while active, and bundle up otherwise.
Since winter conditions can also be very arid, proper hydration is critical. "People think you don't need to drink as much water in the cold," says Brown, "but that's absolutely not true."
Keep drinking water close to the body so it doesn't freeze, says Brown. At night, keep it in your tent or sleeping bag.
She also recommends snacking. During the day, constant munching on small amounts of high-calorie foods (trail mix, jerky) is the best way to fuel a body working extra hard to keep warm. Meanwhile, beginning and ending the day with hearty, warm meals helps maintain the 5,000- to 6,000-calorie diet an average person should eat daily while out for extended periods.
As for alcohol: Avoid it. It distorts the perception of warmth and cold.
It's also wise to keep an eye on the sun. "You want to take advantage of the natural sunlight," says Brown of the shorter winter days. A headlamp, she says, doesn't always show the full terrain when it comes to selecting a potential campsite. A level area that also protects from wind is ideal.
When it comes to pitching a tent, "a snowshoe makes for a good shovel," says Foote. To protect against frigid nighttime temperatures, he says, dig a trench at least a couple feet deep, and then layer the ground with pine bows. This creates a cushion of air under the tent, and that protects against snow melt. For more comfort, use a small tent. It will be warmer.
Both Foote and Brown prefer what's called dispersed camping, which means they trek in the backcountry and pick campsites along the way. Dispersed camping is the antithesis of car camping, wherein campers simply drive in and set up.
Still, camping in state parks with dedicated winter sites is a good way for beginners to test the frozen waters. In southern Wisconsin, winter campers often take advantage of sites around Devil's Lake, Blue Mounds State Park, New Glarus Woods, Governor Dodge State Park and Mirror Lake near Wisconsin Dells. Black River State Forest is also "fantastic" for winter camping, says Brown.
Plans for longer hikes and multi-day excursions are more suitable for northern National Forest lands, such as the Nicolet and Chequamegon areas or the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Foote prefers the swampy bogs of these areas, places that are all but inaccessible during summer.
As in the warmer months, you also have to be mentally prepared to get lost, says Foote. "You may realize," he says jovially, "that six hours after you made a decision to go a certain way, it was the wrong decision."
But, he says, "You're not really lost. You're just not where you thought you were. How can you get lost if you have no place to be?"