I'm back home with all of my extremities intact, so I'm going to call our first back-country winter camp a rousing success— more or less. Although we were well-prepared (and I've somehow had colder sleeps in the woods) there were several lessons we picked up along the way.
As promised, here is the follow-up to our last article, Essentials for Winter Camping in Saskatchewan. This is what we learned:
Gear sleds are not the saving grace we assumed
They're necessary— don't get me wrong. But the gear you're hauling doesn't magically become weightless, and you definitely need to pay mind to how you arrange everything. Keep the heaviest stuff on the bottom and make sure it's easily distributed and secure. Otherwise, your capillaries will explode from frustration as your gear dumps all over the snow every time you hit a slight incline.
Propane can freeze
If you're going to rely on heaters or stoves, keep in mind that propane will start to gel and freeze in our cold western Canadian winter hell. Find a way to keep them warm, or you might find yourself freezing your fingers off trying to put together a last minute bonfire.
Carbon monoxide is sketchy
Even with a large tent, combustion from a heater invites the 'silent killer': carbon monoxide. Make sure it's properly ventilated and try not to keep anything burning while you sleep. At the very least, you'll avoid waking up with a splitting headache and confusion from nightmarish, fume-induced dreams.
Boiling water sucks
I expected water purification to be somewhat of a chore, but really, it's worthwhile to bring out your own water. If it freezes, all you have to do is melt it. This beats having to stoke a fire long enough to boil a giant vat of snow, which usually ends up with bits of dirt and twigs floating in it anyway.
Portable heaters rule the roost
If you're not setting out to be the next Survivorman, then there's no reason you shouldn't be bringing along this bit of luxury. Portable heaters make the trip comfortable (enjoyable). Nothing beats a pre-heated tent, or flipping a switch and making things nice and toasty in the morning. Just keep that fuel from freezing. (We had trouble igniting at -15C.)
Camping on ice has its drawbacks
If you're a fisherman, then you'll want to camp where the fish are. Besides testing the thickness of the ice, there are a few things to anticipate: the wind will eventually try your patience, access to firewood is limited, tent pegs/nails are a pain to remove once they freeze into the ice, and the repeated melting and freezing of snow beneath the tent floor (usually a tarp) will make things very slippery. Afford the extra time to grab that shovel and build some wind barriers and weigh down anything you don't want to chase halfway down the lake.
Everything freezes eventually
This one's for anyone considering going winter camping the first time. Prepare for the likelihood that, no matter how hard you try, you will be inconvenienced in new and exciting ways. If your morning coffee freezes or your camp-stove spontaneously shoots flames, it pays to have a backup plan.