The day after Christmas yielded our first significant snowfall. About six inches fell overnight and blanketed the northern Detroit suburbs. We played host to four college-age young men and two senior high boys who were sick of playing video games. The evening’s chatter and talk were focused on the fun time when they were young and the winter camping snow shelters that they made hiking the Chief Pontiac Trail. It was to practice winter survival skills. As they got older, these shelters’ size grew, and sometimes they dragged sleeping bags and candles to spend the winter night. Later that evening, the older boys trooped out to the back yard and started mounding snow. It was dark and getting late, so I went off to bed while this group worked away in the snowstorm.
A True Winter Camping Survival Shelter
The next morning showed the results of their work. A ten-foot mound of snow was settling in the bright morning sun. It was an impressive sight. The boys built the start of a quinzhee. It’s a basic shelter made by hollowing out a big pile of snow that has been allowed to settle and harden. They can take several hours to build but are an effective way to stay warm when camping in the winter. A quinzhee shelter is warmer than any four season tent.
All the Comforts of Home When Winter Camping
Evan, Peter, Matt, Tim, Ian, and Austin finished their winter survival shelter in the late afternoon. They ran power out to the snow dome quinzee for music, Christmas lights, and laptop access from the multitude of unsecured Wi-Fi networks in our neighborhood. They lined the base of the shelter with a tarp, then wool blankets and sleeping bags. It was comfortable and warm. The entrance was blocked with a couple of sleds.
The Scouting Magazine Boys Life offers a great outline of how to build a quinzhee winter survival shelter. It also features great outdoor skill articles and stories in each issue.
5 Simple Winter Camping and Survival Tips
Besides building a simple quinzhee, there are a couple of easy tips to keep in mind when camping out in the winter months.
Layer Your Clothing – Start with at least three layers of clothing. You can help to regulate your body’s temperature by adding or removing different layers of clothing. Use wool or material that wicks moisture away from your body. Loosen or remove layers if you begin to sweat. Moisture will cause heat to radiate away from the body, eventually making you colder.
Take Care of Your Feet – There is nothing more miserable than cold, wet feet. Select cold weather boots that are comfortable and allow at least two layers of socks. Wair an inner liner sock that will wick moisture away. Wear thick wool or Smartwool sock for warmth. If your feet get wet because of sweat, loosen your boots and change your socks. Hunters have numerous ideas and hints for keeping your feet warm and dry in the winter. Check out How To Keep Feet Warm While Hunting (13+ Tips and Tricks) for some great ideas.
Drink Water – When hiking or skiing, it’s vitally important to keep hydrated. Don’t eat snow. Keep a Nalgene full of water next to your body to keep it warm. I have witnessed a man pass out from drinking ice-cold water as it hit is the vagus nerve. At night keep your insulated water bottle with you in your sleeping bag.
Bring a Supply of Pocket Warmers – Pocket warmers are excellent to have with you when sleeping in the snow. Toss one of two at the bottom of your sleeping back to keep your feet warm and toasty all through the night. I swear by them.
Sleep on Layers – Another overlooked winter survival tip is to sleep on layers. While it’s kind of heavy to hike with, having a wool blanket folded over a couple of times under your sleeping bag or on top of an air mattress in your snow shelter is worth its weight in gold. It acts as a comfortable insulator. A layer of leaves or pine boughs also works to keep you off the cold frozen ground.
Avoid Wearing Cotton – While cotton is comfortable when it gets wet, it stays wet. Invest in Smartwool undergarments and socks. I’ve personally used Smartwool during winter camping and found it’s best at keeping me feeling dry and warm.