Winter Wonderland

January 1, 2003
Filed under Feature Stories

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If winter camping brings to mind tiny tents and bone-cold sleepless nights, or waking up to find your trailer dump-valves frozen shut, rest assured theres another option. Long before the invention of modern nylon shelters or travel trailers, hardy miners, trappers and hunters spent entire winters under the rugged fabric of canvas wall tents. Outside, the temperatures can plummet into the single digits while a storm drops a foot of snow. Inside the canvas wall tent, campers sleep soundly, with a wood-burning stove to stave off the chill and a padded cot to cradle a tired back. Passing a cold, snowy night in a wall tent isnt frightening its fun.

On a sunny winter weekend, I introduced my family to wall-tent camping. Remembering the magic of the first fall that I had spent stalking elk from a real hunting camp, I pitched the winter camping idea at the dinner table one evening. My sons, 5 and 6 years old, were immediately enthusiastic. The dog, Gabe, seemed to like the idea as well, thumping his tail on the tile in a strong show of support. All eyes turned to Mom. Outnumbered by the males in the household, she graciously agreed to the excursion, shooting me a look that suggested if the weekend wasnt as wonderful as the sales pitch, I might be sleeping in a wall tent in the backyard. No pressure.

A trouble-free camp creation is more of a challenge with a wall tent than with the typical nylon shelter associated with summer car camping. In the old days, outdoorsmen typically cut wooden poles from the forest in which they camped to support their wall tents. First, the ridgepole was selected. This long pole was inserted through the openings found at either end of the tents roof peak. The ridgepole was cut long enough to extend a couple of feet beyond either end of the tent roof. Crossed poles, lashed together with rope, cradled the ridgepole and were used to raise the tent. The ridgepole was tied off to a tree at one or both ends. With the ridgepole hoisted, the tent sides were then raised with additional horizontal beams. Another option is to cut uprights that support the sides at each loop where rope is run to the tent stakes. If this is beginning to sound like a lot of work, it is.

Like the Native American tribes of the Great Plains who valued its straight, limbless trunk and light weight for teepee supports, early outdoorsmen found that lodgepole pines made perfect tent poles. When the canvas tent was rolled back up for transport, these ax-hewn poles could last for years if leaned against trees, keeping them off the ground until needed again. Modern campers who value a quick, hassle-free experience usually buy a pipe frame that supports the tent from inside. We used a premanufactured frame from Cabelas to support our tent, and having made a practice run in the backyard prior to our outing, the setup took less than an hour.

With the sun shining low over the rugged peaks, and a fire crackling warmly in the wood-burning stove inside the tent, I figured the outing was well on its way to being successful. The tent went up without a hitch, and our cooking and sleeping gear was tucked inside without incident.

Cooking in a wall tent can take several forms. My uncle dragged along a small gas range to burn the bacon at our annual hunting camp, but I prefer something less cumbersome. For a weekend trip, its easier to plan a menu around meals that simply require heating or hot water to prepare. Such fare can all be handled on the top of a wood-burning stove.

By the time the kids had finished throwing snowballs and came inside to warm their fingers, a pot of stew bubbled on the stove with a loaf of French bread heating in foil nearby. The teakettle jockeyed for position on the rear of the stove, promising a payoff of hot cocoa if we kept the stewpot from nudging it over the edge.

Could we maybe live here? Micah asked as he polished off a bowl of canned peaches.

Ask Mom, I grinned, then ducked to avoid a low-flying potholder.

Theres one downside to winter camping with children that may actually provide some of its most pleasant moments. It gets dark a couple hours before bedtime. Realizing we would need to entertain the kids for a while after dinner, we packed a deck of cards, some board games and books. To be properly enjoyed, though, these amusements require more illumination than a flashlight can deliver. In fact, the entire wall-tent experience is more enjoyable with a brightly lit interior. This is easy enough to provide.

Before staking down the tent, I wrapped two lengths of wire around the ridgepole near the front and rear of the tent. A hook bent in the end of each wire supported a Coleman lantern. A single gas lantern will light a wall tent, but two are better. Seasoned wall-tent campers check the fuel level in their lanterns before dark to avoid an annoying blackout that usually strikes about the time youre searching for a bedtime snack.

After several stimulating games of slapjack and garbage, the boys began to quarrel over what to play next but it was bedtime. Knowing that the fire in the wood stove would burn to embers during the night if I didnt wake up to stoke it, we were prepared for the tent to get cold. Everyone had a cot to sleep on with an insulated pad between the cot and sleeping bag. Four inches of foam cut to match the dimensions of a cot makes a fine pad, but I found thick, self-inflating sleeping pads from L. L. Bean that provided plenty of warmth and comfort for wall-tent camping.

The kids wriggled into their bags. Brrr, its chilly in here, chattered Dominic, who had been sitting nearest the stove. We turned out the lantern over the sleeping end of the tent and shook out a couple of fleece blankets to throw over us for extra warmth. I loaded the stove for the last time and closed the dampers. I would restlessly awaken twice that night, each arousal created an opportunity to poke more wood in the stove. The second wake-up call came not from chill or bodily function, but hailed from an owl, probably a great horned, hooting in a tall tree somewhere east of the tent. I heard the dogs tags jingle as he lifted his head, too. When the owl song slid away down the creek, Gabe settled his furry muzzle, and the entire tent slept until the morning came.

After a gourmet breakfast of instant oatmeal and bagels toasted on the stovetop, it was time to enjoy the day. We chose a level spot for the tent with an unobstructed southern exposure, so warm sunshine on the canvas was already beckoning us outdoors.

I poked a couple of logs into the stove so we would have a warm tent at lunchtime, then we marched over the hill to a gentle slope. Micah took the first ride, but managed to put the sled into a sideways slide halfway down the slope and dumped over.

It was Doms turn next. He raced straight down the run like an Olympian on the luge. Too fast, Dad, came the muffled commentary from inside a fleece hat twisted around Doms head. However, the fun had just begun. The boys found that sliding on the crusted snow in their snowsuits generated plenty of speed in itself. They dug in their heels on occasion to create an impressive white spray. Micah learned that he could go from a slide to a roll by leaning over and pulling his arms into his sides. I liked this children wearing themselves out in the great outdoors with absolutely nothing but the natural world at hand.

In addition to body sledding, there are other activities that mesh well with winter camping in a wall tent. Hiking is fun when the snow cover is thin. Snowshoeing is another great option, but two of our favorite winter pastimes are cross-country skiing and wildlife watching. You can find some real wildlife treasures out on the ski trails. But even if the animals are absent, cross-country ski trips are a wonderful way to see the natural world. The solitude and scenery is overwhelming. Winter camping can transport you to magnificent places that are normally overrun with summer visitors, but are seldom seen by human eyes after September or before March.

After lunch it was time for a nap. The afternoon hurried away with the lazy winter sun quickly spending its light on the granite peaks down the valley. We settled in for another cozy night, and before we knew it, were greeting the final morning of our adventure and breaking camp.

“Could we do that again?” queried Micah from the back seat as we pulled away from the snowy deserted campground. “Ask Mom,” I replied with confidence. After all, if the wall-tent adventure hadn’t been a success, why would my wifes warm fingers be wrapped so tightly around my arm instead of my neck?

The Right Stuff
Winter wall-tent camping demands quality equipment. There are local sources for gear in most large communities, but these mail order outfitters can supply all you need.

Tents: Youll search far to find better than those supplied by Cabelas (800/280-9235; cabelas.com). It also sells tent frames and other wall-tent accessories.

Wood stoves: Check out Cabelas. Or make your own from an easy-to-build kit from Northern Tool and Equipment (800/222-5381; northerntool.com).

Cots: A good cot helps keep you away from the cold and moisture of frozen ground. I like the Bunkmaster II from Coleman (800/835-3278; coleman.com).

Sleeping pads: A cot by itself wont keep you warm, youll need an insulating pad between your sleeping bag and the cot. I liked the Camp Futon from L.L. Bean (800/809-7057; llbean.com).

Sleeping bags: Choose a 20-degree (or lower) rated sleeping bag, or add an insulating liner to your bag. Spread a blanket over the top for extra warmth. Cabelas, Coleman and L. L. Bean offer sleeping bags for the occasion.

Warm clothing: None of this is much fun without proper clothing. We found plenty of good stuff for our outing inside the L.L Bean catalog.

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