Lessons Learned from Winter Camping in the Boundary Waters

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

But, I didn’t realize how hard it would actually be.

I’d only been winter camping once before. It was at Lake Maria State Park, not far outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota, where I went to college.

That time, I think the overnight low was only supposed to be about 20 degrees. Nothing too bad, really.

This past weekend, the overnight was expected to dip to zero degrees. And, it did.

Although, it wasn’t the cold that proved most challenging.

It was the heat.

I couldn’t stop overheating. That wasn’t all, though.

I think I could’ve packed more efficiently, trained ahead of time, and dressed a hell of a lot better. Here are my lessons learned from winter camping in the BWCA.

Related:My First Time Winter Camping in the Boundary Water Canoe Area 

Overheating: 10 Steps, Pause, 10 Steps, Pause …

Our hike was about five miles. We entered in at Moose Lake, crossed over the portage to Wind Lake, and we found a site. It was about 15 degrees hiking in.

Looking at the route on the map, not so bad. (Isn’t it always like that, though?)

I felt prepared. I mean, really confident.

I packed gear enough for the three of us — Ben and Mack Caruso — and had plenty of warm clothes to keep even the coldest bite of wind at bay. Only, that also proved to be my downfall.

But, I was a bit sketched out if I’m being honest. You hear all those horror stories of people getting the tips of their noses chopped off because of severe frostbite and all that.

That wouldn’t be a good look for me.

I was thinking cautiously. That’s how I am. I’m not a huge risk-taker and I don’t like going into stuff half-cocked. It’s dumb.

But, I thought too hard about it — as I tend to do.

Here’s what I took for clothes:

  • Two pairs of long johns
  • Two base layers
  • A sturdy button-down
  • A wool sweater

(Sweating yet?)

  • Two pairs of wool socks
  • My down jacket
  • My snowboarding jacket and snow pants
  • Snowboarding goggles
  • Wool hat
  • Gloves
  • Face mask
  • Hiking pants
  • Sorel Caribou boots

Obviously, the goal was to stay warm. I achieved it, tenfold.

Hiking out, I wore most of these clothes. Rookie mistake.

Not even halfway through, I shed both of my jackets and open the vents on my snow pants. That helped, but I was still pretty warm. Although, I wasn’t sweating anymore, which was the most important part.

If you sweat, you’re dead. 

What I should’ve done was halve the number of clothes I wore while hiking in and out. The hike in, I could bear it. The hike out, I just couldn’t keep going.

The hike in was tough because we were hiking against the wind in vintage snowshoes from the ’50s. (Ben rented them from the community college for $10 for three sets.) Add to that a 40-pound-ish pack and way too many clothes.

With every step, those bit ole Sorels got heavier and heavier.

The biggest challenge was the hike out.

Now, we were sore from yesterday’s hike in and looking forward to a non-dehydrated meal. Oh, and a winter storm was on our heels.

I thought I could just push through the hike out, but I couldn’t. I had the hardest time keeping up because I through most of my clothes on because I didn’t have space in my pack.

The second half of the hike out, I felt like every 10 steps I took, I needed a break.

I’d take 10 steps, break. Another 10, break. 10, break.

But, that was the only challenge.

Get Yourself a Quality Compression Sack

I put it off before this trip.

I knew I needed one, but I just didn’t bother. I just thought since it was only an overnight trip, I could go without.

And, I did. But, it cost me.

Right now, I’m rockin’ a North Face Aleutian 0/-18 sleeping bag. It’s my first zero degree bag. (I plan to review it soon. Stay tuned for that. For now, know that it held up very nicely.)

In short, the thing is giant. I mean, really giant. It took up nearly all 60 liters of my pack.

If I had a compression sack, I could’ve shrunk that sucker down and made room for my wardrobe. If I end up hiking out with my pack again, I’m definitely getting a quality compression sack before going out.

Although, I saw a few folks pulling sleds out there. That seems like the way to go.


The Lighter, the Better

Man, I really missed the mark on this one.

I packed too much for an overnighter. Or, it wasn’t evenly distributed between us. At any rate, I brought too much — particularly in the kitchen department.

I updated my camp kitchen this year, adding the GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Camper Cookset to my arsenal. (I plan to review this too.) But, in short, it’s a larger cookset for multiday trips, for multiple hikers.

Really, it’s a car camping set.

Although, I think it does break down well in a way that can be used for backpacking. Only, I didn’t do that.

I just threw the whole set in my bag and went on. One of the main rules of backpacking — that I tend to break time and time again — is bringing only what’s needed.

More often than not, I end up bringing things that I just don’t need or that I don’t use. When it comes to winter camping, this rule becomes so much more important.

Every time I go out, I take stock of what I brought along and what I didn’t use, making mental notes of all of it. 

I ended up using half of the cookset, and I could’ve done just fine with half of the clothes.

Snowshoes from this Decade

No disrespect, Ben, but the snowshoes were a bit too cumbersome for me. But thank you for renting them out for us, they did help considerably in the snow.

After this trip, I’m making an honest investment in some snowshoes that are built, well, not like the ones we used.

These were some old school, 1950s tennis-racket-style snowshoes that were standard issue for the military, Ben told us. They were durable. I mean, you could’ve fended off a bear with these.


But, with today’s technology, there are more effective models out there. Based on this experience, I’m going with something that has the following:

A Heel Lift

Going over any sort of hills or portages, a heel lift would save your calves for the rest of your trip. These old school snowshoes didn’t have the lifts and I felt it.

Serious Traction

I went to a winter camping clinic at Midwest Mountaineer in Minneapolis earlier this season. The instructor had a wealth of knowledge to share, and I wish I would’ve taken his words more seriously.

He said that snowshoes turned into skis on the descent. Right he was. So, if you manage to find a pair of snowshoes that have a good e-break or traction bars built in, you won’t be sorry.

Shorter, slimmer

What was really hard for me was getting adjusted to walking in them. (This was also my first time snowshoeing — like really snowshoeing.)

Since they bowed out, you had to almost swing your foot up and over with each pass. Plus, you had long tails in the back.

If you crossed those, you were either going to flail or fall.

All in all, I Can’t Wait to Get Back Out

I made some rookie mistakes.

That’s okay.

I’m still a rookie.

The trip was a bunch of fun and an amazing experience. Being out there in the wild with a few good friends was a time that I won’t forget.

I’m grateful for the experience and totally hooked on the place. I cannot wait to go back.

And, now I know what I’m in for next time.