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McBee's Travels
by Dave McBee



Confessions of a Candy-Ass

by Dave McBee

I've recently been tossing around the idea of snow-camping, and I've reached some conclusions that I hate to admit. I spend a fair amount of time backpacking and camping, but usually venture out no earlier than the middle of May (when the rains that characterize our Pacific Northwest weather begin to diminish), and tuck the tent away in late October (when the rains resume again). It seldom gets too cold here (that may be part of the problem) unless you head up to the mountains, but it's pretty much constantly damp-to-wet-to-miserable from October to May (or June-ish).

I talked to several friends who snow-camp, as well as to a couple of equipment buyers at my local REI (locally based outdoor clothing and equipment store), and have concluded that either they're all crazy, or I'm a candy-ass.

Let's start the list of reasons why not to snow-camp with the obvious: it's cold out there! As mentioned above, it might not be that far below freezing under 1000 feet in elevation, but, as I said, it's cold! And the wind blows a lot!

It might actually be easier to stay warm if it was 20 degrees (F) as opposed to 40 degrees: frozen precipitation is, in many ways, easier to deal with than the liquid form. It's easier to stay warm if you're dry.

People have offered me little tidbits of information:

that you can't get away with that three-quarter length sleeping pad; the ground is cold, and the less contact you make with it, the better (I recognize I just said "ground'' - even considering lying on snow is so foreign to me).

That you have to keep your water bottle from freezing. In some cases that means keeping it in your sleeping bag. You can also aid yourself by filling it with warm water before bunking down - it also acts as a hot water bottle. Just make sure the lid's on tight.

Which leads us to: water in the tent is your enemy! More specifically, condensation is your worst nightmare.

I discussed with a buyer at REI what makes a 4-season tent different from a 3 season one. The main difference is in design: intersecting poles give the tent strength enough to deal with heavy winds and/or snow load. The more times your tent poles intersect the better off you'll be in those conditions. And a vestibule becomes increasingly important: you'll want to keep those really wet outer garments (as well as all that moisture clinging to them) outside of the inside of your tent.

He confided that one can get away with camping in the winter with your 3 season tent (provided heavy snow and wind doesn't arrive). It's a test of your tent-erecting abilities: putting up your tent so that it ventilates perfectly, so that (if your tent has a separate rain fly) the two layers are not in contact, so that as much moisture as humanly possible stays out of your tent.

One could also test one's abilities with a tarp overhead, steeply raked, to help keep snow load off, I suppose.

Another factor to consider before heading off into the frigid wilderness is that the nights are long. Even now at the end of January, you're looking at 15-16 hours of darkness. How are you going to fill that time?

As my friend Dave told me, "You can't drink alcohol, 'cuz it tends to make you make stupid mistakes, like going outside in the middle of the night with your socks on and get back into your sleeping bag with them." This-coming from a guy who jumps out of airplanes...

Speaking of stepping out in the night to whiz, it can be rough enough on a cool and rainy night in September. Temptation would be to not drink anything at all for several hours before retiring. Or to keep something in the tent to pee into.

So what do you do with the rest of that long night. I suppose you could sit up and read and use up all your battery power. I suppose, if you're lucky enough to have someone along of a like mind, you could have sex, if your sleeping bags connect or if you truly enjoy goosebumps. But you must consider, again, that that sort of stuff produces heat and moisture that'll soon condense on your tent walls...

Then there's the possibility of getting buried in an avalanche.

And consider that if you lose your food bag to tree-climbing rascals, you're pretty much screwed. You have a greater reliance on food to maintain body heat, and if Joe Bear takes off with your stores, there'll be no berries to console yourself with on the walk out.


Speaking of food, camping in sub-freezing temperatures might put new restrictions on the kinds of food you can pack; how do fresh fruits and vegetables fare, and does cheese freeze? Or, more importantly, can you chip a tooth on it if you're not careful?

In a related topic, camping in cold temperatures you'll need to tote in an increased amount of gear: more clothes, more food, more fuel, snowshoes (without them the odds of wet feet increase, too!), and other things I probably haven't even considered.

Then there's the matter of decreased visibility, both of peaks overhead lost among low-hanging clouds, and the possibility of losing the trail in the snow.

Then there's the whole matter of falling through holes in the snow or crashing through into a hidden stream.

On the upside, I'm told it's pretty! And there aren't any mosquitoes! And it sounds like a great way to commit suicide, if you're concerned about your next-of-kin losing those life insurance benefits and you want to make it look like an accident.

I have to conclude that I'm not nearly as macho and rugged as I'd imagined; to come up with all these reasons why not to snow-camp, I must actually be quite the candy-ass. I can live with that.

daveAuthor Dave McBee likes being a candy ass since discovering mysteriously-shaped truffles in the Dilettante shop window.


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people who know what to do in the cold:

Bill McGown's snow cave espresso stand

Ottawa's Canal Cam (seasonal when the canal is frozen) to see the action on the longest skating rink in the world








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