Crown Land Camping During The Polar Vortex

Polar Vortex Crown Land Camping
As some of you might know, each year Matthias and I put ourselves to the test and push another month into the winter. In December 2013 we did 8 days on Manitoulin Island, albeit in relatively balmy weather with the temperatures never really dropping past -5°. Checking the weather forecast before our January trip in 2014, we learned that we were going to be looking at temperatures dropping at night to -32°C before the windchill.


What worried me the most about the trip was getting cold and remaining cold. I really wanted to see if my PCU set up would be able to stand up to the punishment. I knew from previous tests I had done with my PCU clothing system that I’d be fine if I kept myself moving. However, I had never really tested it for static use.

I focused first on filling my 107L (6500cu-in) Mystery Ranch pack with the things I absolutely needed. I’m in no way an “ultra-light” backpacker, as you can tell by this list. 

• Expedition Thermarest
• Modular Sleep System Gore-tex Bivy
• Modular Sleep System Summer Bag
• Mountain Equipment Co-op Drake 0°C Bag
• Thermarest Pillow
• Seam and Tent Repair Kit
• Mountain Equipment Co-op Scout Tarp

• MSR Dragonfly Stove
• 2x Fuel Canisters
• Pot and Measuring Cup
• Dehydrated Food (with enough for two extra days)
• Tin Cup
• MSR 10L Dromedary Water Bladder
• 1L Canteen

• MSR Foldable Spork

• Bag of 550 Paracord
• First Aid Kit
• Helinox Chair
• Toiletry Bag
• Change of Clothes
• Compass and Map
• Emergency Bivy
• SOG SEAL Pup
• Gerber Folding Saw
• Petzl Tactikka XP
• MS2000 Strobe
• Extra Batteries

After all of that was put into my pack, it was nearly full. This was the first time I had loaded up my Mystery Ranch 6500. It is twice the size of my other pack, the Large ALICE. I was a little disappointed that I had filled it until I lifted it up. It weighed in at 72lbs. Not heavy by military standards so I’ve been told, but not light by my standards!

The Trip
We parked the car in the small town of Dwight, just a little trip east of Huntsville. There were lots of snowmobiles buzzing around taking advantage of a beautiful sunny day. Matthias and I stretched after the long drive and suited up.

• Perroz Designs Performance T-Shirt
• Arc’teryx Polartec Gridfleece (Level 2)
• PCU Level 3 Fleece
• PCU Level 5 Softshell
• Long Johns
• Burton Snowboarding Pants
• Wigwam 40 Below Socks
• Salomon Comet 3D GTX
• MEC Cascade Gloves
• MSR Goretex Shell Mitts
• Mystery Ranch Touque
• Trekking Poles
• Atlas 1030 Snowshoes

The hike was easily one of the best parts of the whole trip. My body temperature was well regulated as we walked across the north shore of the Lake of Bays. I wasn’t hot, and I wasn’t cold. We took our time and took breaks when we needed them. One of the things that struck me as being different than a lot of the other hikes I’ve done in Ontario is that as we passed Cooper Lake, we were surrounded by fairly large hills. Well… large by Ontario standards. I’m used to fairly flat terrain, and it was interesting to see something new, and was a reminder of why I love going somewhere new as often as I can.

We found a nice clearing to set up the tent and started unpacking our bags as the sun was going down. With the Toronto Ice Storm still fresh in our minds, staying away from breaking tree branches was pretty high on our list.  When we were done we were treated to a night’s sky that both of us admitted to be the clearest we had ever seen. We mulled around for a bit and then went into the tent to hang out before going to bed. I had found that my MEC sleeping bag was significantly warmer than the winter bag that comes with the Modular Sleep System, so the order of bags was the Goretex bivy on the outside, green summer bag in the middle, and the MEC bag on the inside. Considering how cold it was outside, I’d say that the combination worked pretty well as I was never cold. My feet got pretty chilly in the middle of the night, but I found out it was because my feet were pressing against the side of the tent. That was remedied by throwing some hand warmers into my socks.

What made me feel really uncomfortable though was my nose. When the night was its coldest, the air would freeze the inside of my nostrils and warm up a bit as I exhaled. The tip of my nose is what worried me the most though as it was always cold. Developing frost bite whilst asleep was not very high on my to do list so I pulled the front flap of my bivy over my face. While that kept me much warmer, it predictably meant that condensation and frost developed on the inside of my bivy. Every once and a while I’d wake up because my face would shift and get pressed against the ice. It was pretty miserable. I battled with this for a few hours waking up every so often until I gave up. I sat up and told myself I wasn’t going to lay down again until I used my brain to figure out a better solution.

I flipped red filter over my headlamp as not to wake Matthias, and looked around the tent. Then it came to me, one of the most low-tech items I had brought with me became the key to a relatively comfortable sleep. I dug into my pack and pulled out my shemagh, opened it up and put it over my face and lay down again. The lightweight and breathable scarf allowed me to breathe without feeling stuffy. I’m not sure why, but it never really collected too much moisture, and it never froze. Most importantly, my nose was happy again! I drifted back to sleep, and was pretty much good to go until the morning.

One of the other big lessons from the trip was how our stoves performed in the cold. We had two MSR stoves, a Pocket Rocket and a Dragonfly. The main difference between the two is that one uses compressed gas, and the other uses liquid fuel. As you can imagine, the compressed gas barely worked in the -20°C morning air. It barely produced enough BTU to warm my hand when I waved it over the flame at full blast. The Dragonfly on the other hand, performed well. It leaked a bit when I pressurized the line, which worried me, but getting some warm food into my stomach was going to happen.

Looking back at this trip and how much snow we had around us, I think that creating a snow shelter would have been infinitely more comfortable to sleep in. However considering the hour that we arrived at the site, it would have been pretty difficult. At least that gives me some goals going forward! I definitely took a lot away from the trip, and I’m glad that we decided to go. Next year, February!

2 comments:

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    1. I forget unfortunately, it was either my buddy's 4-season, or a 4-season we had rented.

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