"There is no such thing as bad weather, just poor choices in gear & clothing."
Where Shall We Go?
Boy Scouts who join Troops with established winter camping traditions will find no difficulty in deciding on a hike objective. Probably they will have several favorite winter sites. Other Troops may own a winter cabin on their summer camping place, where in winter the surroundings have an added familiar interest in the leafless trees, the snow mounds over the camp oven, the fireplace; the far views that were hidden in summer.
If it is to be the first winter hike adventure, however, selection of a destination will be given serious debate, inquiry, and further discussion.
Points to consider:
Who and How Many?
Experience in zero weather hiking and camping has demonstrated the wisdom of organizing an expedition in small, self-contained groups of six to eight Scouts, and not less than 5 (In case of casualty, two can carry or take care of one, leaving two Scouts to go ahead for help if necessary).
The gear for six to eight (beyond that in their backpacks) will fit nicely into a six foot toboggan, a commonly available size.
A Patrol of six to eight Scouts also is more suitable for pulling a toboggan, in relays of three:
A Troop's first real cold weather camping expedition will be concerned with what to take. It is common to see Scouts pack three or four extra sweaters. In other words, too much stuff to carry into the backwoods.
The "whys" of comfortable cold weather clothing should be thoroughly understood to ensure that the boys' choices of clothing will be practical.
To begin with, what is the process of "keeping warm"? It is not, as so many believe, a matter merely of piling on more and heavier clothing as the temperature drops.
Keeping warm is a combination of insulation and moisture control (both outside dampness and body perspiration), and the relation of these factors to the particular hiking and camping activities planned, such as:
To keep dry is vital:
According to the famous Arctic explorer Stefansson, the various factors of keeping warm in sub-zero temperatures include:
UNDERWEAR: Non-cotton, loose fitting, with plenty of air space. Tight fitting clothing does not allow sufficient air space.
FOOTWEAR: For hiking afoot, which we are considering here (snowshoeing and skiing are dealt with elsewhere), the temperature, weather and nature of the country to be covered will suggest the type of footwear, whether moccasins, shoepacks, mukluks, or high-cut boots. Check with a good outdoor equipment supplier to understand the state of the art then, if budget is most important, consider second-hand boots from thrift stores.
For frosty snow, not too deep, the old-school Indian moccasin can be ideal.
In all cases, footwear should be sufficiently roomy to permit the comfortable wearing of two pairs of wool socks. Or in place of one pair of socks, a felt insole or booty. This absorbs a great deal more moisture, and keeps the feet dry. Place damp (not wet) socks in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night to dry from your body heat.
Spare footwear, moccasin type, can be a luxury for changing into as soon as major activities have ceased for the day.
Tight boots restrict circulation, and are a direct cause of frozen toes or feet.
SOCKS: Soft wool or synthetic, smooth fitting, and not tight. One heavy pair, or two pairs if your boots are big enough. Repeat: Tight boots restrict circulation, and are a direct cause of frozen toes or feet.
SHIRTS: Woolen or polar fleece with long sleeves. Worn over synthetic underwear, plus either a sweater or a second wool shirt. In both cases a water-repellent and wind-resistant jacket or parka insures sufficient warmth in sub-zero weather.
JACKET or PARKA: The parka has advantages over some other types of jackets. Its roominess permits both freedom of movement and inside circulation of air, and helps to eliminate perspiration dampness. Remove your outer layer if you begin to sweat. Always remove a layer before you overheat, add a layer when you rest, before you get cold.
MITTENS: Knitted mittens or mitt-liners inside water-repellent over-mittens are best. Finger gloves are not sufficiently warm in sub-zero cold even with an outer mitten. An extra pair of gloves (fingers loose fitting) may be useful around a bivouac in milder weather.
HEADWEAR: The ski cap worn as part of the Scout winter uniform is best. Otherwise, a snug wool cap that will pull down over the ears. The skier's knitted ear-band, leaving most of the head uncovered, should not be worn in zero-weather. Bring a second hat that fastens under the chin, to keep fresh and dry to wear at night.
SLEEPING BAG: For overnight bivouacs and camps a standard sleeping bag, plus two heavy-weight fleecy blankets, will be sufficient. Remember to use foam sleeping pads underneath you. You will loose more heat to the frozen ground through conduction, than to the air.
NIGHT WEAR: Suitable sleeping clothes will vary with circumstances and conditions, the period of hiking and the temperature, and whether bunking down in an open-front bivouac or a tent. In all cases a complete change of clothing to fresh long underwear and dry socks will best ensure a sound sleep.
American Scout winter hikers have developed an excellent sleeping suit made of a sweatshirt with a built-in hood and a pair of track trousers, plus a pair of inexpensive sheepskin slippers.
How Shall We Travel?
Travel plans will depend upon:
For a one-day expedition (Saturday or other holiday), the food, an extra sweater for rest periods and personal Scout first-aid kits can readily be carried in a backpack with waist strap.
The overnight or week-end outing will call for real discussion, the details including number of Scouts and groups going, and incidental activities along the trail and in camp.
SKIS OR SNOWSHOES? Some boys own cross-country skis or snowshoes. In the absence of either, snowshoes can be made by any handy Scout. Cross-country skis & boots can be purchased second-hand from equipment rental stores at the end of the season.
TRAIL BREAKING: Without either skis or snowshoes, the adoption of a good system of cross-country trail-breaking by Scouts in turn may provide the solution. A good system is to hike in single file, taking turns as "lead." At a given time interval, or distance, the trail-breaker "peels off" by stepping aside until the Patrol passes, then brings up the rear--now going easily in a well broken trail. Be aware that this is impossible in areas with high snow-fall and low foot traffic.
ROUTE TO BE FOLLOWED: If possible this should be across-country. Following travelled roads means losing half the fun, with the added disadvantage of exposing the party to any frosty wind, instead of having the occasional protection of trees and ridges afforded by a cross-country trail. A safely frozen stream may offer an ideal route part of the way. Be aware that underwater currents can make the ice thin from underneath, without warning, a potential death trap.
TOBOGGAN OR SLED? Take the load off your back! For the transportation of the bulkier duffel, use a toboggan, wide-runner, or inexpensive reinforced personal equipment sled. While the ordinary narrow-runner sleigh or bobsled may be satisfactory on a snow-covered road or a well packed trail, when it comes to the usual cross-country going the runners probably will cut through any crust, and bring a pulling problem that may upset the hike time table, and may result in the arrival at the camp site after dark.
An important matter will be the loading and lashing of the equipment on the sled or toboggan. Use a tarp to enclose all the equipment before you lash.
What Shall We Take?
PERSONAL KIT: Experienced Scout campers will have no difficulty in selecting their personal kit. The following list is offered as an overall check. Experience and the means of travel used may suggest the addition or deletion of certain unnecessary items.
*Cutlery note: One of our Arctic-travelled collaborators observes, "I can get by with a pocketknife, spoon and large plastic mug. Leave the plates and forks behind!"
PATROL EQUIPMENT: As in the case of individual kit, Patrol groups with winter hiking qualifications will have little difficulty in making up the required equipment list. The following list is given for checking:
*The term Shelter is used here and elsewhere as meaning any form of tent, lean-to, etc., which a Troop may possess; also snow shelters or houses.
**Not used in lightweight camping.
***Not needed for Patrols boiling dehydrated meals. Use snow to scour food from plates.
QUICK FIRE LIGHTERS: Make by brushing hot paraffin on a sheet of newspaper, then roll tightly while still warm, and cut into small rolls about two inches long. These will prove useful when kindling wood is scarce, or when a fire is needed in a hurry to meet an emergency. Have in your pack a "snowball" of absorbent cotton soaked with paraffin, with a "wick" projecting.
In Planning old-school "eats" the difference between winter menus and those of summer outings will be kept in mind. Particularly the matter of freezing. Next, minimum number of items, and minimum weight.
Select from this list:
No canned goods or fresh fruits such as oranges and apples. Apples in particular are unpalatable after freezing and thawing. The dried fruits mentioned are less bulky, and are better sources of energy; also they may be eaten dry while on the tramp. Incidentally they help to assure healthy elimination.
A useful practice is the preparation at home beforehand of foods such as baked beans and stews, freezing outside in pans, then cutting into individual size blocks. These require only heating, so are especially convenient for quick preparation on the trail. (They would be used in southern zones only during a definitely indicated freezing spell.)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Dehydrated or "freeze-dried" meals require only adding boiling water. They can be made ahead at home, or purchased locally or online. They are well worth your time (to make yourself) or money.
Hints for the Trail
KEEPING WARM: On the hike the parka or jacket and the woolen shirt should be allowed to hang loose. If Scouts become over-warm, the moist air inside the garments may be expelled by pumping in a quantity of fresh air. This is done by grasping the jacket or parka at the bottom, pulling it outward and bringing it back several times. When resting, the parka cord or sash should be lightly tightened.
To avoid chilling during the regular stops for rest, halt your party in a sheltered spot, pair off, and sit back-to-back on packs, with a ground-sheet round each pair. This back-to-back furnishes a good deal of warmth.
If feet are wet, from perspiration or melting snow, socks and insoles should be changed immediately. This can be done even in severe weather if exposure to wind is avoided. If frostbite is suspected, however, footwear should not be removed on the trail, since the feet will swell to such an extent that it will be impossible to put the boots on again.
FROSTBITE: On the principle that an ounce of frostbite prevention is worth a pound of cure for frozen noses or cheeks, we use this procedure on zero hikes:
At intervals the Patrol Leader calls out, "Check for frostbite," whereupon each Scout turns and examines the face of his buddy, and points out any whiteness or discoloration. Thus caught in time, a "bitten" nose or cheek can be corrected by applying the bare hand while hiking on. (The outside of a mitten will be frost-cold.)
The routine must be carried out frequently when the hikers are exposed to a wind.
USING THE COMPASS: Ordinarily a compass will be used only as a guide to general direction,- not for the laying and following of a crow-line course. Used in this way it could considerably slow down a hike, since it of course does not indicate the best route.
BEWARE COLD METAL: Guard against the touching of frost-cold metal with the bare hands, or a metal cup with the lips. You may lose some skin or lip unless you apply lukewarm water to the skin and metal to bring them up above freezing.
DRINKING WATER: The summer caution against drinking water of OR EATING SNOW unknown purity applies equally to winter hiking and camping. Typhoid and "Beaver Fever" (Giardia) have been traced to a supposedly "perfectly clear" spring and "pure ice." Even sucking icicles may be risky.
For purifying water for camp bring the water to a rolling boil. Water purifying tablets may not work well with cold water. Water filters will freeze.
A caution also is offered against much eating of snow to slake the thirst, particularly during a hike of any distance. The practice, combined with the loss of body salt through perspiration, may cause stomach cramps.
A good plan for the all-day winter hike is to carry hot thermos bottle drinks for the noon halt, or as needed at other times.
The weather being suitable and the hiking time permitting, the day's program should include one or more Scouting contests, such as: Wild animal and bird observation, with competition points for each first seen.
Bird and animal snow track identification, and the best "stories" taken from them.
"Observation Alert:" the low whistle by anyone with a hand indication of a general direction and the low announcement, "I see a partridge" (or other object), when all halt and endeavor to discover the object; each on doing so announcing "I've got it."
Discovery of old birds' nests in leafless trees and bushes, and securing them if of a kind desired for the Patrol or Troop Museum,- and if procurable without too much difficulty or delay.
Identification of leafless trees: (a) by trunk characteristics; (b) by general contour.
Identification of bushes by shape, bark and color of stems. Collecting of small twig cuttings of deciduous and evergreen trees and bushes, for later mounting.
Finding suitable material for fire-bow sets, including tinder.
Finding good types of the more difficult Twig Alphabet letters for signs, to improve existing Patrol or Troop mounted alphabets; letters such as A-B-D-G-H-O-P-Q-R-X.
Occasional compass direction quiz, without warning.
The arrival of a "Zero Expedition Patrol" at its campsite objective offers one of the top opportunities of demonstrating planned Patrol teamwork. Having arrived at least two hours before dark, as part of the planning, and assuming the bivouac site to be well wooded, the Patrol proceeds thus, as an illustration:
The Patrol Leader selects the spots for tent and fireplace, and No. 2 begins unpacking the toboggan.
No. 8 clears away or packs down the snow for the tent and fire. Patrol Leader and remaining Scouts all go for the evening's supply of firewood, if a campfire is on the agenda.
Nos. 6 and 7 return with the reflector logs and starting firewood. No. 2 builds the fireplace and fire, and 6 and 7 (cook and assistant) begin preparation of the meal.
Remainder of the Patrol brings in firewood until the Patrol Leader is satisfied there is sufficient for the evening.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.