Hot tenting beats cold camping, hands down. I remember the trip that changed everything for me. I was “cold camping” in Algonquin park, sleeping in my four-season tent at the end of a long and cold February day of snowshoeing through deep snow.
I had no heat source — which is what defines cold camping — except for my own body heat. It was -27 degrees Celsius when I crawled out of my frozen tomb in the morning. Getting up and get moving on the trail was the only thing that was going to thaw me out, but the bindings of my snowshoes (and my boots) had a thick layer of ice to chisel off first before I could get anywhere. With frozen fingers and toes I made slow progress to my vehicle parked at the access point. When I reached my car, jacking the heater full blast to thaw out, I pledged that that would be my last four-season winter camping experience, ever!
The next year I splurged and bought a Snowtrekker “hot tent” and wood stove — a canvas-walled dwelling that turns into a sweet oasis when the stove is roaring. There’s a heat source. It can be -30 degrees Celsius outside but a balmy 20 degrees Celsius inside. Moments of an early morning, sitting by the wood stove, sipping on hot coffee and munching on baked biscuits, and especially being able to pull on de-iced boots that have been hung and dried overnight, are absolute bliss.
I haven’t abandoned cold camping completely, however. I’ve packed my four-season tent, even a bivy bag, for mid-March trips when temperatures aren’t so frigid. Cold camping does have its advantages. You’re not burdened by too much gear and can travel a lot further during the day. Set up and break down of camp is also far less time consuming. In an hour you can be fed and bedded down for the night. With hot tenting you have to set the bulky tent and stove up and spend a good hour finding and cutting enough wood for the night.
Hot tenting is preferred for times when you just want to be out in the woods in the winter. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you’re not home waiting for the colder months to end. Distance travelled isn’t part of the equation but length of time is. You can stay out for a serious stretch when you have a heat source to escape to. A colleague of mine (Mark Williamson) at the college I teach at part-time went across Algonquin Provincial Park last year and cold camped it. He made the 170 km crossing in 20 days rather then the estimated 26. He was ecstatic on how fast he traveled. To him the trip was a success, getting only slight frost bitten checks and toes. But I remember him saying when he got back that keeping things dry was the toughest part. On the fifth day of the trip a warm spell soaked everything and he never did totally dry out after that. If he had hot tented across the park, the amount of days spent out would have been extended for — but the trip would have been more of a time of “living” in a cold environment — maybe even enjoying it – rather then fighting to survive the ordeal.
To me, that’s what winter camping is all about. The relish in the silence of winter, getting away from the crowds and enjoying a time of year that few wilderness enthusiasts get a chance to experience.