Let's start with a disclaimer - I am writing this article while my friends and I plan our first camping trip into the deep-freeze this January... However, this will be even better than having tips passed down from your "professional" survivalists! Stay with me. Firstly, you can see exactly how well these tips pan out once our story is published on our Stories page. Secondly, pros tend to gloss over details that come second-nature to themselves, but not necessarily to those who are venturing out for the first time. Thirdly, we're terrified. We're going the extra mile to research what we need to make this comfortable, especially since we'll be setting up camp a fair distance from the vehicles.
Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.
Here is a list of essential gear and strategy for camping in Saskatchewan's most unforgiving season:
It's good form to avoid cotton in any season, but winter can be especially dangerous. Wear a base layer (long sleeve, pants and socks) made from wool or polyester since they wick moisture away from your body. Wool can also keep you warm when it's wet, but that's not a point you want to reach in winter. Dress in breathable layers so that moisture can escape, and remove layers to avoid sweating. Never sleep in the clothes you wore during the day -- bring an extra pair of everything.
Cover up. If the temperature drops suddenly, or the windchill picks up, skin can freeze in minutes. Bring a face mask, scarf, toque, parka, ski-pants, well-insulated boots and gloves (preferably heavy duty mitts).
Unless you own a canvas tent decked out with a furnace, you're probably looking at your three-season tent thinking, "No way that's happening." But four-season tents don't offer much for insulation either. All you can do is build a shield from the wind and keep yourself off the ground.
Use heavy/canvas tarps over your tent and as a footprint beneath your tent to prevent moisture from seeping in.
Avoid wind -- set up camp away from lakes, rivers or open spaces. Try to use a ridge or build a snow bank to shield your tent from wind blowing from the north-west.
Put a blanket over the bottom of your tent to help separate you from ice/snow beneath your tent.
Sleeping Liners and Mats
If there's one piece of gear I recommend, it's the Thermolite Reactor sleeping bag liner. This alone has been the difference between waking up like an ice-block or nice and toasty. Bring an extra heavy blanket and a thick goose down sleeping bag if you have one.
Avoid sleeping directly on an air mattress (I mean an ultra-light mat, not that big one you let your parents use when they visit). Remember that the ground is constantly stealing your heat by thermal conduction, and any moisture or condensation in the mat will freeze. To prohibit this, put a blanket between your mat and the tent-floor, and top the mat with another blanket or reflective padding if you have it. Putting an emergency blanket inside-out and around the mat should help reflect heat.
Boil it. But use a camp-stove and bring extra fuel. Melting snow to a boil over a fire might be reasonable if you plan on dedicating a lot of time. Pump filters won't work because they'll freeze when you're not using it and could break. Purification tablets take longer to work because the cold air keeps them from dissolving properly (also, the taste of pool-water anyone?)
Bring a large thermos to keep your hard-earned water from freezing.
Bring on the fat! Bring out the meat and cheese! Nothing's going to spoil in the sun, but whatever you bring should require minimal work to prepare or clean the dishes (cooking with tinfoil helps.)
This seems like an obvious necessity -- clear a spot for your tent, build pathways, wind-guards, etc.
Axe and Saw
Dry wood is hard to come by in the wintertime. Extra time will be needed to gather enough kindling to start and sustain your fire. Replenish your stock of firewood before letting it run out at night so that building a fire the next morning is as easy as possible.
There's a lot of extra gear involved with winter camping. Unless you own the mother of all backpacks (I'm imagining this), load up a utility sled.
Portable Heaters and Lanterns
Nothing wrong with bringing along a little modern luxury if you can fit it. These should help dry out your tent (or burn it down), as well as provide some extra peace of mind.
Lanterns are a good idea to have around since headlamp batteries die quicker in the cold. The nights are very long.
Back-up Plan and Emergency Provisions
Let people know where you're going and for how long. Know the options for alternative accommodations in the area.