Solo Winter Camping: Safe or Not?

By Tim, Tubbs Ambassador

Every December the company I work for has a mandatory shut-down between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Not a time I would normally select as vacation, but I’ve turned it to my advantage by planning the first winter camping trip of the season. This year my usual winter camping “partner in crime” was unable to make the trip; understandable, it was a mid-week trip during a hectic time of year. No problem I thought, the two things that seem a natural fit for me are the wilderness and solitude.

As I watched the news casts it was clear northern Minnesota was heading for an extended deep freeze, sub-zero temperatures night and day. I could only hope for a reprieve before my trip. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Daytime highs were about -5 so guessing the overnight lows to be around -10/-15. My friends called me crazy. I was prepared. I had a -20-degree sleeping bag and kept myself hydrated and active. Staying active is easy while solo camping, you do it all: firewood gathering, making and maintaining the fire, tent setup, cooking, etc.

I had a great time star gazing, snowshoeing and exploring along the Kettle River and had plenty of time to think. But to be honest a lot of my thoughts were focused on my next move and the “what if” scenarios. I know risk goes up when in the wilderness alone, more so in winter and even more in sub-zero temperatures. Even the smallest mistakes, forgotten, lost or broken piece of gear, frostbite, cuts, burns, sprains or map misreads, can have magnified consequences.

So, I think ahead. Before I get out of the sleeping bag in the morning I know exactly the sequence of events I’m going to follow to maintain and trap my heat (dressing), what to pull out of my pack first, second and third to prepare a hot meal, what I’ll do if the camp stove doesn’t start, etc. Even on the trail I will re-consider distance (day light hours are shorter in winter), direction and if I’m likely to see other hikers. I’ll go out of my way if needed to avoid trail hazards: icy sections, snow and ice-covered overhangs, areas that are susceptible to avalanche, stability of rocky sections and fallen trees blocking the trail, etc.

So, am I crazy for solo camping in winter? Maybe. I’d like to think it’s more about risk management and thinking ahead, trusting in your capabilities, being honest about your skill level and not “falling asleep at the wheel.” I will say however it takes time to build the experience level and confidence needed to pull off a solo sub-zero winter trip. If you haven’t winter camped I would recommend starting with friends someplace close enough to safety (vehicle or cabin) where it’s easier to recover from any learning opportunities.