Hike date: Thursday, January 15 – Friday, January 16, 2015
Location: Superior Hiking Trail (Lismore Road Parking lot to White Pine Campsite)
Distance: ~1 mile out and back

I am very happy and pleased to go out into the winter for another winter overnight camping trip. I wanted to venture out last year, but didn’t have the gear that I needed and found it hard to plan a night that would be favorable between the big snowfall and extreme cold temperatures of the 2013-14 winter. This year, however, has been pretty good for hiking and running on the trails. With little snow and mild temperatures, it makes planning for even a simple overnighter much easier.

The funny part about winter camping is the fine line between an enjoyable experience and being miserable. I want to go, but then I think of how cold and wet and difficult it can be. Cold hands, cold feet, frozen water, and hard ground. Then, the roaring fire and eating delicious food and drinking a cold beer is so fun! Yet the feeling of hiking back to my car, loading it up and getting back home into the warm shower is glorious.

Either way, Nick expressed his interest in joining Diamond and I for an overnighter. We spontaneously picked a night where the temperatures were nice and we had compatible schedules. Thursday night, we had a 14 hour window to do a quick night out, essentially to test gear and get a little taste of the winter camping lifestyle. We left at 7pm in the pitch dark. The White Pine campsite is about a 20-minute drive from home and the hike out is around one mile, making it a perfect site for the application.

The previous weekend, I scored a -30 sleeping bag from Goodwill for $8.99 and a kid’s sleeping bag that seemed to fit Diamond perfectly for $1.99. My bag is a huge synthetic cold-weather bag that probably weighs over six pounds. The tag claims five pounds, five ounces, but I attempted to weigh the bag packed into a compression stuff sack and the scale read over seven pounds. Either way, it is really, really huge and much warmer compared to anything else I have.

The puny one-mile hike in went by in a flash. It was easy walking despite the night and the stars were fantastic. The temperature was warm during the day and perhaps 25 degrees when we left the vehicle, and the overnight low predicted to get as low at 5 degrees. When we arrived to the site 20 minutes later, we set down our packs and let Diamond roam the campsite. We agreed to start a fire first thing, so after gathering some tinder, kindling and bigger logs for fuel, I started a fire. The birch bark started right up and my kindling took well. Meanwhile, I could hear Nick chopping on a fallen log nearby. After I got the fire going to where it would sustain, I continued to gather as much wood as I could. The light from the fire was very helpful in orienting, and I never really thought how exploring for dry wood could leave either of us lost in the dark not 100 feet from the campsite without the guiding light from a fire.

After building up a hearty light and heat source, Nick and I set up our tents. A quick glance over and the fire waned out. The next half hour was spent either stoking the fire or setting up for the night’s sleep. Finally, around 8:30pm, we felt set up enough to eat! I brought munchies and chili, Nick brought brats and buns, and we both brought a few beers. While Nick prepared the meat, I threw on a bunch of sticks and logs and got the fire nice and hot.

The beer was fantastic. The brats were better. What a great night! Clear skies, a roaring fire and some delicious food is what winter camping is all about. We were dry, warm, and content. Diamond’s blinking light would periodically appear out of nowhere, and suddenly beg at our heels for a small bite of brat.

The night was mediocre. The bag was really warm, and big enough to where I huddled underneath it to shelter my face from the cold. Diamond was zipped in to her new sleeping bag for a third of the night. Then, she was all the sudden restless and crawled out. For a few hours, she laid on top of the bag, nestled against me until I felt her shivering. After a slight struggle, I managed to zip her into my big bag. That was not the most comfortable of sleeping arrangements, but it is how we spent the rest of the night. When my alarm went off at 7am, I questioned whether I slept at all.

We hastily packed up camp and left. My water bladder, as well as my water bottle, was frozen solid, which meant that I wouldn’t get a morning drink and that I only drank beer during our trip. Talk about a waste of weight! The hike out took 15 minutes and we were back to civilization in no time.

I think that relying on melted snow is the key. I still haven’t found a good way to melt snow and I desire to get the proper equipment and technique. A lightweight pot would be nice, and I’ll keep searching for a cheap aluminum one. Diamond is still a hassle at night, but I’m sure she is like me–sleepless on one night out.

Nick and I are already planning another overnight trip, but hopefully bumping it up to around 20 miles. I’d really like to do a two-night adventure in below-freezing temperatures this winter, but we’ll see how things pan out.

Key Gear:

  • Gander Mountain -30 sleeping bag
  • Eureka! 2-person tent
  • Gander Mountain self-inflating sleeping pad
  • CCF sleeping pad
  • The North Face Banchee 65 pack
  • Bent Paddle Venture Pils

Hike date: Saturday, December 6 – Sunday, December 7, 2014
Location: Superior Hiking Trail (Normanna Road Parking Lot to Fox Farm Pond Campsite)
Distance: 8.5 miles out and back

“As I sit in my sleeping bag with 5 shirts on, Diamond shivers behind me where my head will ultimately lay for the night.” – trail journal.

Ever since I first became suddenly enamored with backpacking, hiking and camping late summer 2013, I’ve wanted to try camping in the winter. It just seems like the hearty Minnesotan thing to do. Obviously, one cannot just pack up and hike out. This winter, I finally amassed the necessary gear to safely make a winter excursion. Keeping a keen eye on the forecast, December 6th was looking like the perfect weekend to dip my toes in the winter backpacking game.

I knew I had to work Saturday morning until noon or so, and the rest of the weekend would be wide open. The forecast was calling for sunshine in the mid- to high-20’s and nights in the teens. With a 20-degree sleeping bag plus a warm bag liner, that temperature range was perfect. Any warmer and the snow gets sloppy and everything’s wet. Initially, my biggest concern was daylight, since the sun sets at around 4:20pm in early December in the northern reaches of Minnesota. That limits my hike time substantially compared to September, where I could hike until 7pm and still have plenty of light to set up camp.

I hit the road around noon and got to the Normanna Road Parking Lot, which is on the outskirts of Duluth due north, around 12:30pm. I had a thirty pound pack, snowshoes and trekking poles. Most of my clothes were packed away because it was pretty warm and I didn’t want to get all sweaty hiking out. Latched to my waist was Diamond, who was carrying a 5 point pack with her sleeping pad and food.

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I figured that the third campsite northbound from the trailhead was between 7 and 9 miles away, and we could make it before it gets too late to gather enough wood and set up camp in the light. The hike in was truly beautiful–I caught myself bellowing to Diamond, “BEAUTIFUL! JUST BEAUTIFUL!”. As well, the hike was pretty easy going, not too much up and down. We were going through forests, across recently forested land and along the scenic Sucker River. I probably switch this opinion with every change of the season, but I think winter is my favorite time of year to be out in the woods.

I thought the first campsite was around 1.5 miles in, and we reached it after 30 minutes. I was pleased with 3 miles per hour and we kept trucking. There was about 4 inches of snow on the ground, so the snowshoes weren’t necessary to float on the powder and I would have been pleasantly snow-free without them. They were very clutch, however, on the uphills and downhills when I could really utilize the crampons. So I was happy about having those babies strapped on my feet, but the trekking poles were a different story. I had never tried using trekking poles, and I doubt I really will use them again except perhaps during a long multi-day trip where my legs could potentially give out. The poles got in the way and were cumbersome, but handy for poking Diamond in the butt from time to time.

In the trees behind a small bluff, it appeared as if the sun was setting at 2:20pm. I got a little anxious to get to the site at this point, maybe two hours in, especially because we hadn’t been to the second campsite (the Sucker River campsite, which I had stayed at before). I knew our campsite was right past a spur trail to the Sucker River Trailhead, which was a half hour or so past the Sucker River campsite. After passing the spur trail, my spirit was lifted and we were excited to arrive at our destination. Well, I guess I can’t speak for Diamond because she is always excited when we’re on the trail!

Almost immediately after the spur trail intersection, there was a big sign describing the strategic logging operations in the area (cutting down old, decrepit trees to make way for a young, healthy forest) that overlooked a vast, frozen beaver pond. Our campsite was called Fox Farm Pond campsite, so I kept a sharp eye out and figured we were very close. We circled the beaver the campsite trailpost was on the opposite side.

It was a short hike off of the main trail to get to the fire pit and tent pads, which were pretty close to a landing onto the beaver pond. It was 3:30pm–the hike in took almost exactly three hours. After plotting the route ‘ex post facto’, our hike was 8.5 miles, which comes to 2.83 miles per hour. Not a bad pace.

Below is a picture looking back onto our campsite’s spur to the main trail.

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What an awesome site for winter camping! I let Diamond off the leash and we explored a bit looking for firewood. It was intriguing to walk across the frozen pond to the beaver den, on which Diamond was climbing and digging her nose into and investigating like a caged beast let loose. I gathered some prime pieces of firewood by snapping off dead, barren trees from their icy foundation in the middle of the beaver pond; prime firewood inaccessible during any other season.

After gathering enough wood to last for at least 3 hours, I set up camp. Below, I snapped a picture while facing the beaver pond. Note the dead, barren trees sticking out of the pond’s icy surface.

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I started with a fire. I had a lighter and used a punky piece of bark as a base. I found some dry, peeling birch bark and used a ploofed-out cattail for tinder. I carefully sorted my kindling in order to capitalize on a hot flame from the quick-burning birch bark. The cattail nearly exploded! I had a roaring fire in no time. With the tent set up and my snacks on hand, I felt a little overwhelmed with how the sun was nearly below the horizon. Night was certainly setting in.

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I put a garbage bag over Diamond’s small square of foam sleeping pad and settled next to the fire. My shoes and socks started steaming like a huge pot of vigorously boiling water. I took my shoes off and realized that my merino wool socks were soaking wet. I changed to a dry pair and put my shoes back on only to find out that my soaking wet shoes left me with another pair of soaking wet socks. An ember landed on my technical wind layer, burning a small hole into it and I noticed it was pitch black. Diamond was barking at me and I started to question my life’s choices. Why was I out here? My basement is dry and warm and I can sit on a couch.

After eating a bunch of snacks, and attempting, with no avail, to dry some of my wet items and melt snow for the dog, I figured we could go into the tent. She was shivering and trying to move snow out of the way to curl up in the leaves. I gathered some of my items and retired to the tent for the night. Once in the tent, Diamond went straight for my sleeping bag. I guess a 2×2′ foam pad isn’t as attractive as a big puffy sleeping bag. I put my stove an arm’s reach outside of the tent’s zipper and boiled two cups of water for my freeze-dried chili. I started to write in my trail journal as the food was cooking and began to feel pretty cramped and claustrophobic with Diamond hogging my sleeping bag. I couldn’t organize all of my crap. Having a lot of gear is nice, but sometimes is overwhelming! More benefit for going minimalist, I guess.

Once I scarfed down the chili, I wrapped up my journal entry and laid down to sleep. That is easier than trying to get comfy enough to read and write. I turned my lamp off at 8pm. It seemed like I didn’t even sleep, although I think it was more like sleep for an hour, wake up, go back to sleep for two hours, and repeat until 7am the next morning.

I let Diamond out of the tent in the morning to go pee and of course, she wants to play or run around like a nut or something. She was wining as I was rolling up my pad and bag. I stuck my head out and saw her with my shoe, frozen solid, swinging it around in a circle like a bucking bronco. Nice.

I quickly packed up and we hit the trail. I felt good despite the crappy sleep and rock hard ice shoes. I told Diamond that we should really try and push it and hike out fast. It was a beautiful morning, but perhaps a bit colder and windier. Either way, the hike out was equally stunning with Diamond and I completely immersed in the white, quiet and solitary landscape. On a small overlap section with the North Shore State Trail (a snowmobile trail that intersects the Superior Hiking Trail countless times), I came across a couple of fat bikers eating breakfast. They looked like they were on a bike overnighter. We arrived back at the car, 100 feet after passing a girl and her dog who asked about hunters. She was the only person I saw on the Superior Hiking Trail the whole weekend! No hunters, no nobody, except those bikers. We made it back after almost exactly three hours again.

For next time, we need to find out a comfortable sleeping arrangement. I may experiment with making a light and packable dog bed, or just purchase a cheap sleeping bag that I can cut in half and sew back together. Also, I need to figure out how to melt snow. My melted snow tasted like a burnt stick. Either way, the two-day excursion was extremely enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Key Gear:

  • The North Face Cat’s Meow 20-degree synthetic sleeping bag
  • Eureka! 2-person tent
  • The North Face Banchee 65 backpack
  • MSR Pocket Rocket stove
  • Dion Snowshoes
  • Hand-knit merino wool hat
  • Mizuno Wave Kazan trail runners
  • Gander Mountain self-inflating sleeping pad
  • Closed-cell foam sleeping pad

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