Monday, March 3, 2014

A Snow Walker's Companion: Winter Camping Skills for the North Review

As you guys have probably noticed, I try to do book reviews primarily for books that can be obtained for free online, so that you can easily get them. A Snow Walker's Companion: Winter Camping Skills for the North by Garrett Conover and Alexandra Conover Bennett is not in the public domain, and as such is not freely available. Even so, I thought it was worth a mention.


The book is currently in it’s third publication. It was originally released in 1995 with subsequent publication in 2001 and 2005. I have purchased two different publications of the book over the years, and have read it several times.

I first read the book years ago when I was developing an interest in more complex winter travel in the woods. Last year, I was again reminded of the book and re-read it. A Snow Walker's Companion has developed a cult following and is often sited as one of the best guides to winter travel. The book focuses on traditional methods for winter travel, which according to the authors are more efficient and reliable than modern methods that are overly focused on technology.

I must admit, I have refrained from writing anything about the book here because each time I read it, I was sure that I had missed or misunderstood something. The methods described seemed highly inefficient and unnecessarily burdensome for winter travel. Recently however, a fellow blogger provided a link to a video of a trip structured after the manner outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion, and even included Garrett Conover as one of the members. After watching the video with great interest, I felt secure enough that I had understood the book as it was intended and finally decided to write a review here.

As I mentioned above, A Snow Walker's Companion focuses on traditional methods for winter travel. According to the authors, those methods are the most reliable and efficient means for winter travel. As portrayed in the video, those methods culminate in a team of wool and canvas clad men, pulling heavily loaded toboggans containing large canvas tents with wood stoves, along frozen river beds and lakes.


Each time I read the book it struck me as rather condescending and dismissive of any other means of winter travel. Now, I am the last person to talk about being dismissive and condescending, so I will not begrudge the authors their attitude. However, it did strike me as strange that they would insist that this is the most efficient and reliable means of winter travel. I would certainly understand it if the authors simple like such traditional means of transportation during winter, or if they were doing it to recreate for educational purposes winter travel in the age of Shackelton and Nansen. I do find it perplexing however that they would insist that in light of all of the techniques and equipment we have developed over the last century, that this is still the best form of winter travel.

The most glaring reason why I found such an assertion to be a strange one is that the scope of travel afforded by the methods outlined in the book is so very limited. In effect, if you chose to travel in the manner outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion, you immediately restrict yourself to terrain that is limited to frozen river beds and lakes. Anything more than a ten degree incline, and travel is transformed into a heroic struggle, or outright impossible. That is not to mention travel up mountains, through densely forested areas, etc. It hardly seems like the “ultimate” travel method.

Leaving aside the absurdly limited terrain option left to us with this traditional form of winter travel, let’s look at the above video for more specific examples. I use the video because it was designed as an educational class developed based on the book, and had one of the authors as a member of the trip.

The video features a team traveling 62 miles (100 km) over a 10 day period. Each team member is pulling a sled loaded with an average of 150 lb (68 kg) of gear. Now, for any modern woodsman who is familiar with winter travel, those statistics will seem ridiculous. They will be even more shocking if one watches the video and sees the struggle endured by the team over these 62 miles. The short trip featured in the video is very similar in its factors to that completed by the authors of the book. They traveled 350 miles (563 km) across Labrador along frozen rivers in the manner outlined in the book. The trip took (if memory serves me right), about 60 days.

I say it would be shocking to a modern woodsman because for anyone familiar with modern techniques and equipment, traveling 62 miles over 10 days on level and clear terrain like that necessitated by the methods of travel outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion and seen in the video, would be considered a leisurely, relaxing trip. In fact, even at moderate pace, such trip can be completed without any effort in half the time. More so, a modern team can complete the same trip with a quarter of the gear. It would not cross the mind of any modern woodsman to go on a 10 day winter trip with 150 lb of gear. Counting food and water, a modern woodsman would have a pack at the beginning of the trip under the same conditions of no more than 40 lb (about 15 lb of gear, 20 lb of food at 2lb per day, and about 4 lb of water).

Now, let me make it very clear, when I say “a modern woodsman using modern techniques and gear” I do not mean any fancy electronics or motorized transportation. I mean a person on snowshoes with a tent a sleeping bag, a backpack, etc. Using modern techniques and equipment, a woodsman can take that 150 lb of weight that was used for a 10 day trip with the methods outlined in A Snow Walker's Companion, and can stretch them out for a 65 day trip. The difference is staggering.

Just for rough comparison purposes, Paolo Rabbia just completed a 435 mile (700 km) traverse across the Pyrenees, with an elevation gain of 10,499 ft (3200 m). He completed it in 29 days, carrying a 44 lb pack (20 kg). All of this was done on some of the toughest terrain imaginable. Now, I know Paolo Rabbia is not an average person, but an average person would have certainly been able to duplicate the results if traveling on frozen river beds and lakes.


I know some of you were not happy with the above comparison, so I figured I would toss in another one. Ray Zahab, Ryan Grant, Stefano Gregoretti and Ferg Hawke just completed a 100 km (62 mile) crossing of Baffin island. They did it in 48 hours, pulling 50lb sleds. The crossing was entirely unsupported. Again, an extreme example, but one showing what is possible using modern techniques.


Considering all of the above, I continue to find it strange that the authors of A Snow Walker's Companion insist that the form of winter travel they have outlined is somehow superior to other forms of winter travel.

Perhaps one could insist that the form of travel outlined in the book is more comfortable than modern forms of travel, with a nice large tent and a fired up stove. Sounds good in theory, but as the video shows, almost every day, from dusk till dawn, the team is struggling pulling heavy sleds, over lakes that can not support the weight, hacking paths through trees, etc. Hardly seems like a relaxing trip. A modern woodsman can complete each day’s travel in half the time, leaving plenty of time for a nice fire, a cooked meal, and relaxation.

And let’s not forget, the modern woodsman can go wherever he pleases. He is not locked to frozen rivers and lakes. If he so chooses, he can go over a mountain, through a valley, into a dense forest, etc.

Now, all that being said, A Snow Walker's Companion is a good book. If you are interested in traditional winter travel, or are a historical recreationist, the book is a wonderful resource, as long as you can ignore the perplexing assertions about how that form of travel is the best. The book does a good job describing the methods required for such traditional winter travel, and even provides resources where such traditional gear can be obtained. Within the scope of the type of winter travel it describes, it is an excellent guide. So, if you are interested in traditional forms of winter travel, this book is for you. If you are interested in historical recreation, then this book is for you. If you thought Shackelton was the man, and you want all of your winter trips to resemble his attempt at the South Pole, then this book is for you.

The downside of the book, of course is that it is so limited in scope. If you are interested in any other type of winter travel, which does not involve teams of men pulling heavy sleds along frozen rivers, then the book offers very little. Not only that, it is outright dismissive of any such forms of travel. So, if you don’t want to pull a 150 lb sled for a 10 day trip, this book is not for you. If you want to carry all of your gear in a backpack, this book is not for you. If you want to go anywhere where the terrain is not 100% level and clear of any vegetation, then this book is not for you. If you want to travel in an area where trees are not abundant, then this book is not for you. If you think that we might have learnt something about winter travel in the last century, and you want to take advantage of that knowledge, then this book is certainly not for you.  

P.S. since my last purchase of the book, it seems like the publisher has run out of copies, and the price has skyrocketed. Hopefully this review would serve you as a decent guide as to whether you want to fork over the current $150 price.

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