What better way to celebrate the new year than with a three day camping trip. I figured it was the perfect opportunity to try being in the woods using the Classic Backpacking equipment and techniques I have been trying to put together.
The weather was ideal for the task. From the sources I’ve been reading, there seems to be a consensus that a person in the woods, relying on a single 5lb blanket and without relying on a fire all night long to keep warm, can do so down to about 40F (4C) and with discomfort can go down to 32F (0C). For temperatures below that, one would have to rely on a fire that can be kept burning all night long, or would need different insulation like fur robes. Since the temperature for the weekend was set to be fairly warm, at about 32F (0C) during the day, and down to 20F (-7C) at night, I figured it would be a good test for the gear and techniques I was about to use. Any colder than that, and I would have had to bring out a larger axe and rely on a fire to make it through the night; any warmer, and it wouldn’t be much of a test.
I picked an area of the forest that I expected to have good resources, and set out. When doing Classic Backpacking, it is much more important to select your terrain carefully, as you are much more dependent on the resources that you can find, so you must plan accordingly.
I followed a river into the woods, or at least I tried to stay close to it. You always hear the advice of following a river out when in a survival situation, but the terrain along rivers is often some of the most difficult you will encounter.
Along the way I tried to gather resources when I saw them. Some birch bark and pine pitch make good fire starter. They also make a big mess when you try to carry them.
There are two very significant constraints on someone doing Classic Backpacking these days when compared to the people in the late 19th and early 20th century who did the same. One of them is the willingness to drink untreated water. While I do not want to discuss gear specifics in this post, most sources specify carrying only a single canteen for water. That indicates two things. The first is that those travelers were much more careful in sticking close to water sources. The second is that they were willing to drink untreated water.
I walked as deep into the woods as time allowed. Ordinarily I would wait until it was fairly late before stopping to set up camp, an act which takes me about ten minutes. Since when doing Classic Backpacking I would have to set up a much more complex camp, I stopped several hours earlier and got to work.
I brought only a small hatchet. I figured it would be sufficient for setting up camp and gathering a small amount of firewood so that I could cook, and have some left over in case I needed it during the night.
When setting up the bedding area, I encountered the other significant disadvantage faced by someone doing Classic Backpacking when compared to people in the past: the ability to collect natural resources. It is simply not considered responsible these days to start felling trees in the way that it was done in the late 19th and early 20th century. While Nessmuk describes bringing down one tree six inches in diameter for fire wood and another for bedding and shelter material, that is not a sustainable practice.
The result is that we have to be more careful in the way we use our firewood and bedding materials. In this case, instead of me collecting a large number of pine boughs, I collected just enough to create a soft top layer of bedding. Underneath a constructed a stick bed, comprised of lined up sticks, covered by finer willow branches. That way I can create sufficient dead air space and separation from the ground without excessive use of living plant material.
For insulation, in addition to my blanket, I brought a sweater, a scarf, a pair of gloves, and an extra pair of socks. Unfortunately, I was tired and distracted, and forgot to change my socks before going to bed, and wrapped myself up in the blanket while wearing my damp socks. I woke up around 9 pm with my feet freezing. I had to get up, put on my other socks, get the fire going again, warm up, and then get back into bed.
All went well until about 1 am when I woke up because I was cold. I had a little bit of fire wood left, but starting the fire up again would have been a waste. See, contrary to popular belief, cotton/canvas tarps are not flame resistant unless they have been chemically treated. Mine hasn’t been because I didn’t want to use modern chemicals, and the methods listed in the primary sources, using sugar of lead (lead acetate) just didn’t seem like a good idea. The result is that you can’t have the fire too close to the tarp. I had my fire set up about three feet from my bedding, which was safe for the tarp, but would mean I would have to get up and move closer in order to get any decent heat from my small fire. It just wasn’t worth it. I spent the night waking up on and off due to the cold. In the morning I used the remainder of my wood to warm up.
The first night under my belt, I packed up and got moving again.
For the second night I also stopped early. My plan for night number two was a bit different. It seemed to me that the time I spent the previous day setting up my tarp was time I could have used in better ways. There was no chance of rain, so I didn’t really need the tarp. A tarp does virtually nothing when it comes to reflecting heat from a fire, and an open set up like mine does little to trap warm air. I figured my time would be better spent gathering more firewood and then building the fire closer to my bedding.
That's exactly what I did for night two, using my tarp as ground cover on top of my bedding to keep moisture away.
I melted snow for water, cooked some basic food, and wrapped myself up for the night.
I hope you appreciate the above picture. I only have a 30 second timer on my camera. That right there is the Olympics of blanket wrapping.
I didn’t make the socks mistake again, but still woke up during the night from the cold. Having the fire close by made it easy to restart and warm up on several occasions, letting it die down in between. That way the wood lasted me through the night.
Some of you are probably wondering why I didn’t build a long fire like you see in retro-style pictures. The reason is that I find long fires to be incredibly wasteful of firewood, a precious resource that requires time and energy to gather, and are usually unnecessary. A smaller fire, close to you, at about torso level will keep you plenty warm. I would only consider a long fire if I needed a very large fire for some reason without making it very deep.
Anyway, the night wasn’t as bad as the first. I packed up, and headed out.
Considering that I was trying to push my gear and the corresponding skills, I think the trip was a success. I was right a the boundaries of what my gear would allow me to do. I would say that the estimates for a comfortable night with a single 5lb blanket, assuming proper bedding, of about 40F (4C) sound right. I was able to push it lower with a few tricks I have picked up over the years, but it wasn’t comfortable. If the temperatures were any lower, I would need to bring out a proper axe and depend on keeping a fire going all night long for warmth. That’s not a fun way to spend the night, but the choices are limited.