Winter Camping in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota (Complete Guide)
Winter camping in the Boundary Waters is an unreal experience. It’s an outdoor adventure that few take advantage of. It’s almost as if it were a secret.
The iced-over lakes, the snow hanging in the pines and the serene quiet is simply stunning.
And you have it all to yourself.
Are you one of those people who spend a lifetime canoeing the Boundary Waters but have never seen it frozen? It’s estimated that only three percent of Boundary Waters visitors go during the winter. So, in many ways, it is something of a secret.
Like how European football is different than American football, winter camping is a different ball game than canoe camping.
In this guide, we’ll cover the basics, including shelter, clothing and food, to help get you situated and ready go out and explore this frozen wilderness for yourself.
Cold weather camping fundamentals
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of what goes into a winter trip to the Boundary Waters, there are a few fundamentals to understand.
- It’s cold up there. Really cold. This might seem obvious, but this simple fact will drastically change how you travel. For instance, instead of one sleeping pad, you probably need two. Same with sleeping bags (unless you invest in a bag that’s rated either -20 or 40 below). The cold also means you’re going to need to know how to manage layers in order not to freeze — or overheat.
- Stay hydrated. This is a big one that’s easy to overlook. Your body is doing a lot to stay warm and move, and even if you’re not sweating, it needs a lot of water to function properly. Even if you’re not sweating, be sure to drink at least two liters of water throughout the day.
- Eat more calories. Staying warm takes energy, so you’ll need to keep your body fueled by consuming more calories than you would on a summer trip.
- Darkness. During the month of January, you’ll only have about eight-and-a-half hours of daylight, which means two-thirds of the day will be in darkness. This is almost the opposite of those sun-drenched summer days!
- The right equipment is a must. This is true at any time of the year. However, in summer you can get by with the wrong kind of sleeping bag or last a week without a jacket to keep you warm. But your gear selection is critical in winter! Be sure you check and recheck your gear and consult with others before heading out.
- Safety! From frostbite to managing your body temperature, traveling in subzero temperatures presents all sorts of safety concerns. Many of these can be unexpected, such as overheating or negotiating open water when it’s -30 below outside.
If there’s one thing to remember about winter camping, it’s that you need more of everything.
More clothes, more food, more hot chocolate!
With these basics in mind, let’s dive deeper into these topics and get you ready to explore the Boundary Waters in winter.
Winter camping gear and clothing: How to layer and stay warm
Dressing for winter camping is not just about wearing enough clothes to stay warm.
It’s about dressing in a way that allows you to move between extremes.
You need to dress so that you don’t freeze while sitting still or taking a rest, and in a way that makes it easy to shed layers when you move and your body heat rises.
It varies from person to person, but the temperature extremes between rest and movement can be drastic. For instance, skiing in -20 temperatures will cause some people to sweat, even if they’re wearing only polypropylene and a windbreaker. Others need a full down jacket to stay warm.
If you aren’t prepared you can become extremely uncomfortable and overheated. Excessive sweating can cause you to become dehydrated or, because that sweat can work to chill you, hypothermic.
The inverse is also true: if you don’t have warm enough clothes, you will be cold.
So let’s look at a simple layering system to prepare you for these extremes.
Base layer to keep you warm – merino and beyond
Made from either wool (usually merino) or polypropylene, your base layer should snugly fit your body.
It works by both providing a layer of insulation and, just as importantly, by wicking sweat and moisture away from your skin. This prevents the chills from setting in and lowering your core temperature.
Essentially, your base layer functions as a second layer of skin, and many people wear their long underwear 24/7 during a winter camping trip.
And yes, things get quite ripe after a few days.
That being said, there are a daunting amount of long underwear brands and varieties out there. While it’s easy to get lost in the details, the most important factor to consider is the weight or thicknesses. Lightweight long underwear is for warmer temperatures and higher intensity activities, and heavyweight long underwear is for colder, more stationary activities.
The midweight option is the best bet for a “do it all” style of long underwear and in most cases, you can get by with this style.
Down puffer coats and cozy fleece — The insulation layer
The second layer of clothing to put on over your long underwear is the bulkiest and the warmest. It is mostly used for light activity or staying put, that is, when you won’t be actively generating a lot of body heat.
A note on materials: The most effective way to stay warm is not by simply piling on bulky items of clothing, it’s to trap the heat your body creates. It’s for this reason that down is so effective and popular. It’s lightweight and creates a sizable amount of loft that traps warm air that keeps you incredibly warm.
This insulating layer can be:
- Down jacket
- Heavyweight long underwear
- Any combination of insulating clothing
How you insulate will depend on several factors, such as how cold it is and what you are doing. Sometimes a large down jacket will do. At other times, you’ll want two fleeces. If things get really cold, you’ll need to double up with a fleece and that down jacket — maybe more!
And don’t forget to bring insulated clothing for your legs! A variety of fleece, even down pants are available for just that.
Hardshell, softshell, Gore-Tex and more
Your top layer is usually a ski jacket or Gore-Tex style parka. These come in a dizzying number of styles. Fundamentally, your shell layer should be breathable, windproof, and waterproof.
- Breathable. Condensation is a force to be reckoned with when you’re out on the trail in winter. If you’re moving, you’re sweating. You’re producing heat, and so, you’re producing condensation. And if there isn’t a way for your heat and moisture to escape, you’ll end up with a wet or frozen jacket. In turn, this will cool you down in a way that could become dangerous. Even a quality, breathable hard shell can lead to excessive condensation, especially in situations of extreme cold when you’re really moving. For this reason, you might want to check out a softshell style jacket, which might not be as waterproof, but will breathe better.
- Windproof. Nothing can suck the heat out of you like getting hit by a steady gust of wind! Wind cuts through fleece and wool like a hot knife through butter. But in this case it might be a -30 degree knife against your numb skin. A good shell will shield you from the worst the wind can offer.
- Waterproof. If it’s snowing, you can be reasonably assured that when that snow hits you, some of it will be melting. Yes, even in a snowstorm, you need to stay dry. Although a fully waterproof coat isn’t absolutely necessary (you’re not keeping out a torrential downpour) the advantage of having a waterproof, winter shell is that it checks all three boxes: It’s waterproof, breathable and stops the wind. There may be times when all you need is long underwear on top. At other points you may be bundled in several pairs of long johns, a down jacket and a shell. The beauty of the layering system is that it allows you to mix and match and adapt quickly to conditions and to activities.
Dogsleds, skis and snowshoes – how to travel while winter camping
One of the true joys of traveling in winter is that there are a variety of ways to travel through the snow. There is no perfect way to get from point A to point B. Conditions and personal preferences factor into how you’ll travel.
Let’s look at a few of them.
Snowshoe in the Boundary Waters
If there was such a thing as a “do-it-all” choice for how to travel in winter, the prize would probably go to the snowshoe.
First off, snowshoeing is relatively easy. If you can walk, you can most likely snowshoe.
Second, with a pair of snowshoes, you’ll be able to tackle portage trails, hills, as well as long expanses of lake.
Snowshoes may not be as fast as other modes of travel, but their versatility, ease, relatively low cost and functionality make them an easy all-around choice.
Ski the Boundary Waters
Is there anything more iconic than gliding through a winter wilderness on a pair of skis?
When it comes to making distance, and for the feeling of effortlessly gliding over the snow, it’s hard to beat skis.
However, even if you are an experienced skier used to groomed trails, there are some additional considerations to keep in mind before clicking into your skis.
One, the snow in the Boundary Waters can be deep, which is a whole other ballgame compared to groomed trails many of us have grown up on. Skinny skis will sink, and you’ll end up pushing through deep snow rather than gliding over it. For this reason, many invest in fatter touring skis that help them float over the deeper snow.
Second, skiing can be downright difficult on portage trails. Going up and down hills on a narrow path can be a real struggle in skis. Branches and trees that have fallen over the trail create some real obstacles, especially in deep snow. It’s much easier to use snowshoes on portage trails!
Hybrid Trek Skis
Newer ski/ snowshoe hybrid options, such as the Black Diamond Glidelite Trek Ski, have been catching on in recent years.
About half the length of a pair of skis, these hybrid skis are fat enough to keep you from sinking into the snow (like a snowshoe) and have griping scales that provide the traction needed for those climbs up a trail.
While relatively new to the market, many find these hybrid skis combine the best of both snowshoe and skis. Try them out and see for yourself why they are becoming more popular throughout the region.
Dogsled or dog skijoring
No piece of equipment, no ski or snowshoe, can compare to having a dog accompanying you on an adventure. From dogsledding to skijoring, there are multiple ways to team up with your furry friends and really make distance across the snow.
Now, most people don’t have ready access to a team of dogs or a dog sled, so if you want to try it out, contact Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge outside of Ely, Minnesota, which specializes in dog sled trips that can run anywhere from an afternoon to a week.
How to carry all that winter gear
Everything about winter camping is bulkier. Even if you try to go lightweight and invest in ultralight clothing, you’re still going to have more bulk to carry than in summer.
A large backpack is certainly an option, but it can be uncomfortable, and the sweat on your back can lead to chills and a lower core temperature.
For this reason, many opt to use a pulk.
A pulk is a sled you hook up to a harness or belt and pull through the snow. Using a pulk allows you to carry more, and not worry so much about bringing heavier gear. It also gives your shoulders and back some relief.
Our friends as Skipulk.com have a number of models available, as well as the hardware and instructions needed to build your own pulk perfect for winter camping.
Winter tents and other shelters
When it comes to hunkering down for the night, you five options for a winter shelter.
- Hot tent
- Four or three-season tent
- Winterized hammock
- Bivy sack or bivy shelter
- Snow shelter
Before we look at these various shelters, let’s quickly go over how to set up your winter camp for the night.
- Camp on the ice. Unlike in the summer, when you must camp in designated camping sites within the Boundary Waters, the best way to reduce your impact in winter is to set up camp directly on the ice.
- Create a compact tent spot on the snow. Do this by walking back and forth over the area where you wish to set up your tent, stomping down the snow so it is packed in and hard.
Now, onto those shelters.
Winter camping with a hot tent and a tent stove
By far the most luxurious option, a hot tent is essentially a large, walled tent — usually made of canvas — that also has a wood-burning stove in it. It’s a far cry from the nylon tents most of us are used to!
It’s also far more comfortable. Having a stove inside means the tent can get just plain toasty.
We’re talking 70 degrees and t-shirts during the dead of winter.
The stove can be used to cook food, and the heat it produces allows you to dry clothes keep those boots warm for the morning.
A hot tent functions as a kind of small, cloth cabin in the woods. It’s the pinnacle of wilderness luxury. It can be -20 below outside but inside you’re wearing shorts, playing cribbage and going to sleep knowing you won’t deal with frozen boot liners in the morning.
The two drawbacks are that most hot tents are bulky and not cheap. Because of their size and the amount of effort it takes to set them up, most people tend to use hot tents as a basecamp. That is, they set them up, strike out on day trips, then return to a big comfy tent at night.
But don’t let the cost deter you.
Rather than invest in one, you can rent a hot tent and a stove from the following outfitters: Sawtooth Outfitters (Tofte/ Northshore), Piragis (Ely), and Stone Harbor (Grand Marais/ Gunflint Trail).
For a more comprehensive account, check out the author Dan Pauley’s piece, “Ode to a Hot Tent.”
Hammocks and four-season tents
What about tents without stoves in them?
While 4-season tents are available, and have many benefits to them, you don’t necessarily need one for winter camping.
Of course you can still use one, but that tent you use in the summer months will work as well.
However, no matter how you slice it, tents are just not very practical in winter.
The big reason is that they stay cold.
While your body heat will help to slightly increase the temperature inside a tent, it’s going to be chilly in there.
What’s more, all that breathing you do is going to result in some serious condensation, which will freeze. Now you have a frozen tent fly that will be sopping wet if it melts.
Even 4-season tents have this problem.
For these reasons, many prefer to use a Hammock. For one, you’re off the ground, so it’s easier to retain your body heat. They are designed to breathe better, so less condensation, and the small, enclosed area is able to capture and retain more of your body heat.
Because of the challenges that come with a tent, many opt for a much simpler option: The bivy (short for bivouac). This method is simple, effective, and cost efficient.
To make a bivy, all you need is tarp, and not a fancy one either. It can be a regular old blue tarp you buy at a hardware store.
Lay the tarp out flat, place your sleeping pads and bag on top of it then wrap them all together like a burrito. You simply slip in and presto, you have shelter for the night.
Because there are no bugs out, you can finally, truly sleep under the stars.
You can also invest in a breathable, waterproof bivy sack. While substantially more expensive, these pack lighter and do a better job of keeping out the elements and their breathable fabric helps manage the condensation that accumulates at night.
No matter how you choose to bivy, you can add protection against the elements by setting a up tarp (just like you would in summer). You can also build a wind block by either setting up your pulk or building a snow wall to keep the wind off your sleeping area.
Speaking of building structure out of snow, this leads to the other option.
Primitive winter camping: Build your own quinzee shelter
The über traditional way of sleeping out in the cold is to build your own shelter, often called a quinzee.
This is done by shoveling snow into a big pile with enough room for two to three people to sleep in the shelter. Let the snow settle for at least 90 minutes. Then you dig out an entrance and hollow out the larger interior space. Dig all the way down to the ice.
You want the walls of the quinzee to be between one and two feet thick. To ensure you don’t dig through the walls when hollowing it out, place a few sticks (one to two feet long) in from the outside. These will help guide you and tell you when to stop.
Shape the walls and flatten out the floor.
Once you and your partners get into the quinzee, your body heat can make the shelter surprisingly warm.
Quinzees can be a bit claustrophobic and you probably won’t be able to stand up in them. Then there’s the nagging thought of “is this thing going to collapse on me?” that can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep.
Still, sleeping in a quinziee is something to experience, and something you should do at least once in your life!
Sleeping tips for winter camping
As a rule of thumb, you’ll need to double up before you go to sleep.
This means using two sleeping pads (preferably, the one on the ground should be a closed cell foam pad) and two sleeping bags. If you get really into winter camping, you may want to purchase a single down sleeping bag rated between -20 and -40 degrees, but for your first few times, you don’t need to make such an investment.
Beyond these basic measures to stay warm, here are a few more tips on getting a good night’s sleep:
- Before you get in, do a few minutes of warm up exercises. These can be jumping jacks or a combination of fist pumps and kicks. The point is to get your body temperature up so you can warm up that cold nylon bag.
- Use a sleeping bag liner. This will add life to your sleeping bag by absorbing some of the condensation and moisture you release through the night — and add some extra warmth!
- Bring a hot water bottle in the sleeping bag with you. But make sure to tightly seal the lid! Very tight.
- Bring a second, empty bottle into the sleeping bag with you. This will be your pee bottle. Peeing in a pee bottle without getting out of your sleeping bag takes some dexterity, but it’s a skill worth having! Oh, and be sure to clearly mark your pee bottle as a pee bottle!
What to eat and drink while winter camping
Like we said earlier, winter camping is like camping in summer, you just need more of everything.
That means more calories and more food.
You can expect to consume between 3,000 and 5,000 calories a day, depending on your metabolism, what kind of activities you’re involved in, and how cold it is. The colder, the more food you will want to consume.
That’s quite a range. Simply put, expect to consume at least 50% more than you would consume on a summer’s trip.
Ideally, half your calories should come from carbs (such as pasta, grains, as well as sugars such as candy bars), a quarter to come from fats (nuts, cheese, fats from meat, and the rest should come from protein, such a dehydrated meat, chicken, and so forth
Like a house, your body needs a lot of fuel to keep warm in the winter! So plan on packing around two pounds per person per day.
Winter is very dry — you’ll notice by how often you’ll be reapplying lip balm.
Further, cool temperatures can be deceptive. Because you’re not sweating as much and the heat isn’t making you crave something to drink to cool off, it can be easy to forget to drink in the winter, even if you’re doing a ton of skiing or moving throughout the day.
Put these factors together and you can very well become dehydrated. For this reason, it’s crucial to drink regularly and to drink a lot, even if you don’t feel like you need to. Each morning you should fill several water bottles with warm or hot water melted from the snow.
You might be able to collect water from a hole you somehow manage to cut in the lake, or a location where an underground spring or current has kept the ice from forming. In these cases, you still want to try to warm the water up. This will both keep it from freezing and help warm you up when you drink.
Now, even if your bottle is filled with hot water, the mouth of the bottle can still freeze shut during the day. To prevent this, follow these three guidelines:
- Use an insulated bottle or thermos
- Keep the bottles upside down – this makes it less likely that the small amount of water along the rim will freeze and seal the bottle
- Keep the water bottle tucked in a jacket, close to your body
There are many reasons to explore the BWCA in winter
Still on the fence about heading out during the winter?
Still not sure you’re ready?
The best way to become a seasoned winter camper is to get bundled up and get out there.
You can ease your way into it by taking day trips into Boundary Waters or by making a cabin or a room at a resort your home base and venturing out for a few hours into this silent, frozen wonderland.
You’ll come back to a warm, climate-controlled room, a soft bed, maybe a hot tub, and an urge to return to the frozen lakes, the snow-covered cliffs and to stay out longer.
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