Ode to a Hot Tent
The Boundary Waters is synonymous with “canoe country” — a place to paddle, portage, and swim. We can lounge on a rock face like a happy turtle by day and fall asleep to the call of loons by night. With a paddle in hand, a person can spend a lifetime of summers exploring the lakes and streams. As magnificent as spring, summer, and fall are in the Boundary Waters, most of these lakes are iced over from late November to early May.
And the iconic loon? Well, they spend more time in Florida than Minnesota.
What about the rest of the year?
Some of my best Boundary Waters outings have been in the depth of winter. Snow cover allows excursions into rarely explored wilderness nooks. Wooded hillsides that are impassible in summer due to downed trees, thick brush, or insects become much easier to navigate on snowshoes. You can head into back bays, tamarack swamps, bogs, and follow the smallest of streams to little ponds that are normally unreachable by canoe.
The snow is a storyboard of those who have passed before you. I have often followed moose and wolf tracks, trying to decipher what they were up to on their travels. Bedding areas, signs of feeding (broken branches or fur from a kill), and scat fill in details to the story. Moose, wolf, otter, and mink are common sights. One year, wolves brought down a deer right outside our camp. Even when I haven’t seen these winter residents firsthand, I have known they are out there. On a memorable outing we crossed wolf tracks, only to observe they had crossed back over our trail later in the day while we were out.
I have slept in snow shelters and basic three-season tents, but about 20 years ago I rented a Snowtrekker tent for the first time, and it changed how I went winter camping.
Snowtrekkers are “hot tents” made in Wisconsin, and one of a number of brands of hot tents used today. The most common hot tents are essentially large canvas wall tents with wood-burning stoves. Newer equipment includes ultralight synthetic tents and titanium stoves. Old and new styles both have their benefits. Each can easily be packed on a sled and pulled behind snowshoes or skis.
From a purely practical standpoint, the heat from even a small wood burning stove will easily warm the tent interior to 70 degrees in winter. Granted, I have overnighted at -40 degrees, and the tent was certainly less than 70 degrees inside, but cozy nonetheless.
The hot stove also allows you to cook great meals right on the stove top, so there is no need for backpacking stoves and white gas. Finally, the heat inside the tent will dry out damp gear so that in the morning, rather than frozen boot liners and a sleeping bag filled with condensation, your clothes are warm and dry.
Along with comfort and convenience, a hot tent becomes a little cloth cabin in the woods. The winter sun rises late and sets early in an inversion of its summer schedule. A hot tent provides a refuge from which to explore the wilderness at night. Rarely would I venture out after dark in a canoe in the summer, leery of rocks and mosquitos.
Winter is the opposite. I like to turn off any light in the tent, acclimate my eyes to nothing but the flickering light of the wood stove. Once my eyes have adjusted, I head out into whatever light nature provides. On a moonlit night there is plenty of illumination to guide me as I snowshoe along the shadowed shoreline. Even better yet are those cold, clear nights without a moon, when the dry Boundary Waters winter air brings out the best of the stars, and a hike to the middle of a lake offers spectacular views of a sky unaltered by civilized glow. Here, the silence is just as rare and precious as the starlight. Very few places offer such an incredible combination of stars and silence.
After a nighttime excursion I bring in a final load of firewood for the evening and hang up any clothes to dry. Then it is time for dinner, maybe a drink and game of cards. Resting on sleeping pads or lightweight chairs, the tent becomes a home for a night or two before packing up and heading home — or to the next lake. A depression in the snow is all that remains when we leave. Even that is wiped free with the next snowfall.
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