Last weeks outing was uneventful, so I decided to skip the trip report, but this past weekend we lucked out with some actual winter weather, so I figured the trip would be worth shearing. I also wanted to test the limits of my current Classic Backpacking sleep system, and I figured this would do it.
I started out early in the morning. The temperature when I left the house was –7F (-22C).
It always sneaks up on you how quickly you can overheat in temperatures this low. Your instinct tends to be to wear as much clothing as possible, but once you start moving, you heat up very quickly. I was wearing my base layer, my wool “vest”, and my crew neck sweater with the anorak on top. It was very windy, so I needed the shell, but had to be move slowly so I wouldn’t overheat. One problem with this clothing system is that it’s annoying to layer up and down.
The temperature gradually went up during the day, reaching –3F (-19C) in the early afternoon. My bushwhacking took me near a small lake. I’ve done some some trapping there in previous years, and sign was all over the place.
Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to do it this year because I’ve been messing around with this Classic Backpacking thing.
I moved away from the lake, and up a small mountain, but not before punching through some thin ice near the edge of the lake. My left leg briefly submerged up to about six inches above my ankle. I quickly blotted it with snow, but my pant leg froze solid, and stayed that way until I got the fire going later in the day.
A I have been doing recently, I stopped early to make camp. With sunset at 5:30pm, I was setting up camp by 3:30. I picked the most sheltered spot I could find, right in the middle of a thicket of pine.
Camp was going to be simple. It’s something I have been trying to work out for the past few week. My goal was to use the blanket as ground insulation, and the comforter as a top quilt. I got the idea from an article I found by Horace Kephart titled Featherweight Camping in England. In the article Kephart describes the sleep system of T.H. Holding. While Kephart dismisses the sleep system as not suited for American campers, the description is worth noting:
“The ground-sheet is of light mackintosh. Over it goes a little "groundblanket" of thin cashmere, with eyelets at the corners, so that it can be pegged down. This is not only for the sake of warmth, but also to save wear on the mackintosh, which has to be very thin.
Mr. Holding's eiderdown quilt is only to cover with, not to roll up in. The Wigwam size is 5 feet 10 inches by 4 feet, to which is added a foot of cloth valance all around, which is pegged or weighted down so that the sleeper will not kick off his covering. These quilts are thinner than the domestic ones of down, and roll up into remarkably small compass.” Horace Kephart, Featherweight Camping in England, 1914
It is also the earliest depiction I have been able to find of a down sleeping bag in use when camping.
Anyway, my plan was to duplicate this sleep system, except kick it up a few notches to make it appropriate for the temperature. I haven’t seen any references of T.H. Holding doing much winter backpacking.
I put my oil-cloth tarp on the ground. I left half of it folded up behind my back. My plan was to pull it over me if the wind got bad because the comforter I have is not good at stopping wind. On top I put my blanket, folded over in four It made for a sleeping platform bout a foot wide. On top I put the quilt, folded over in half. I pinned it to the blanket using eight blanket pins. The arrangement was too tight around he shoulders, so I had to stagger the comforter there a bit, leaving a small section on the side that had only one layer of comforter.
The set up was quick, and the folded over comforter lofted up nicely. I gathered some firewood, and got to the numerous tasks I had to finish before nightfall: make water, fill up my canteen with hot water so I can use it under my comforter, cook food, dry out my pants and gloves, etc. I put on my second sweater, which was warm enough when I was near the fire.
At this temperature everything takes much longer. Every object that gets even a little warm acquires a coating of ice that you then have to chip off. The pot is impossible to was. The moment you put any water in it, you get a coating of ice that you then can’t remove without heating up the pot. When you then put it down, half the forest floor freezes onto it. You can’t touch your canteen with uncovered hands because it will freeze to them. That’s why I usually don’t like metal canteens, but I don’t have a choice here.
When everything was done, I crawled into my sleep system, and prepared for a miserable night. I had gathered a small amount of wood and was planning on keeping a very small fire going all night long just in case. I had plenty of fire wood within reach.
The sleep system was an unbelievable success. Well, a success in the sense that it kept me alive during the night when the temperature fell to about –20F (-29C). I was supposed to be even colder, but I was in a sheltered spot, which kept the area warm, and more importantly, blocked the wind for most of the night.
Before I go on, I don’t want to oversell any of this, in case someone else is thinking of doing it. Over the years I’ve gotten fairly comfortable with the difference for my own body between being extremely cold, and being close to death from the cold. When here I say that something worked, I mean that I wasn’t close to death. You shouldn’t interpret that to mean that I had a cozy night.
On numerous occasions I got very cold and was shivering uncontrollably. It is in part due to the cold, and in part that my body tends to freak out at certain points when it gets cold, and it takes several minutes for it to stabilize.
Even though I planned to keep the fire going, the sleep system was so “comfortable”, that I fell asleep for too long, and the fire went out. I decided not to restart it because getting out from under the comforter would be counterproductive.
The main problem was that during the night I would tend to pull up my knees and curl up, which would push the comforter aside and open up gaps near my knees and my butt. Both would immediately get very cold, and I would wake up, straighten out, and then shiver until I warmed up again. The doubled up comforter, provided nearly five inches of loft, which made this surprisingly doable.
I had some other minor problems. The comforter near my mouth froze due to my breath, even though I was trying not to breath on it. My pant leg apparently wasn’t completely dry, so it felt chill, although the comforter by my feet kept giving excellent insulation despite the moisture build up. In the morning when I opened up the comforter, I had steam coming out from my pant leg.
Overall though, it was a very successful nigh, and I was very surprised by the effectiveness of the sleep system. The blanket folded over in four provided sufficient insulation from the ground, and the quilt provided excellent insulation on top.
There was only one point during the night where I was worried about making it. I don’t know what time it was, but the wind started coming through, and really cutting through the insulation. As I had planned, I tried to pull the second half of my tarp over me, but the oil-cloth was frozen almost stiff. It was like working with a hard piece of plastic. I’ve noticed it gets stiff in cold weather, but this was nearly unworkable. It was like putting a rectangular piece of plastic over me. Even when I managed to do it, the wind would just push it over. Luckily, the wind died down quickly. I lost a lot of heat because of the wind and because I was trying to mess with the tarp. The fingers on my right hand were completely numb, and it took me what seemed like a very long time to get my body warm enough so that I would not be worried about making it. I contemplated getting up to restart the fire, but I was shaking so much, that I wasn’t sure I would be able to.
Anyway, I made it through to the morning.
I gathered some small pieces of fire wood, and using what was left over from the night before, got a small fire going again to warm up.
My feet were in very bad shape. They were fine under the comforter, but after I shoved them into my frozen boots, I lost all feeling in them. I suspect it was a combination of the frozen boots and the socks getting damp from the moisture coming off from my not-so-dry pant leg.
When my hands were warm, I packed up and headed out. I was sure that my tarp was going to snap while I was folding it because it was so stiff, but it worked out fine.
After about an hour of walking I warmed up and was able to feel my feet again. I had some home made venison jerky on the go.