Kens, winter camp in the Nicola River Valley, British Columbia
Winter camping in a tent is something I haven’t experienced yet. Therefore Camper Ken is going to share his winter camping story with us and a few tips for staying safe.
Winter Camping in BC – Camper Ken’s Story
Summer, Thanksgiving and Halloween are over. My days of trolling the lake for Rainbow are numbered. Temperatures are dropping and every morning there is more ice covering the lake. So why am I still here in a 9’ x 12’ canvas army tent while my winterized 4×4 truck and camper sit in a driveway on the Coast? Well …
Arriving in camp
I arrived in the Nicola River Valley for the first time outfitted for a long weekend in the middle of summer. I brought shorts, T-shirts, Cooler, Tent, a Fishing pole, and an Inflatable Boat, all the gear that fits inside a V6 short box truck. Betsy, the V8 gas-guzzling full-size camper was left at home to sulk.
Well … I never went home! I spent the next five months, until Christmas, living off grid at five different lakes while my pension cheques covered expenses.
I fell in love with the area and contemplated calling it my new home. Ok … summers are fantastic but what about the winter? Asking locals about the winter weather, I didn’t get the same answer twice. Well, I’ll just have to experience it firsthand to know for sure.
I’m a problem, no problem, solution kind of guy, a MacGyver of sorts. How to stay warm and dry in a canvas tent when it’s winter? How cold does it get anyways?
The dreaded freezing temperatures
During a cold snap in early December, my weather station at the top of the flag pole recorded -30°C, (-40°C with a 10 km wind chill). No problemo. It’s not like it’s never been done before. Gold prospectors in the early 1900s stayed in canvas tents and lived to tell about it … well at least most of them.
Dry = Warm. With the dry snow of the Interior, I figured I had a fighting chance. Not like the “Pacific Cement” snow on the “Wet Coast”. The same principles as proper clothing apply. An insulation layer on the inside of the tent and a breathable, waterproof, windproof layer on the outside.
Winterizing my tent
While listening to the only FM radio station, Q101 Merritt, a commercial for the local Purity Feeds set my winterizing plan in motion.
Two $13, 40-pound bales of hay from Purity Feeds farm supply.
Two $12, 10’ x 20’ tarps from Fields Department Store (one of the few left in Canada).
A roll of 4’ wide 1/8” thick foil-bubble-bubble-foil insulation at $2.25/ft from Bryant at Home Hardware.
The 3-4 inch sandwich of hay insulation between the two tarps over the frozen ground worked amazingly well. The oversized tarps sealed off the drafts where the tent wall meets the ground, a floorless tent.
How to keep warm
At 100 square feet, no problem keeping the new insulated tent warm with a Mr. Heater Big Buddy propane heater on low (9,000 BTU). On high it puts out 30,000 BTU, typical of a mid-size backyard BBQ. I rarely need to use anything more than low. I never run the heater, just the pilot light, during sleep for safety reasons.
On really cold nights I’ll sleep in four-hour shifts so I can bring the tent back up to temperature in between. The heater has a built-in oxygen sensor that will shut off if the air quality becomes unsafe. The canvas tent is much more breathable than a nylon tent and still blocks the wind.
People think I’m absolutely crazy Winter Camping in a tent! No … I’m just properly outfitted. There’s a reason the Scout motto is “Be Prepared”.
Camping tips for -12°C temperatures
Wrapping toilet paper around your palms increases the R-valve of your favourite gloves and still leaves dexterity for your fingers.
Include these items under the covers; lighter, phone, gloves, socks, and slippers. Bring some reading material as you’re likely to stay under the covers well after sunrise.
You can make ice cream by pouring a bit of 18 % coffee cream in the bottom of a takeout cup the night before.
Keep a 10″ spike handy to break the top layer of ice in the water bucket to brew your morning coffee. A spike makes an excellent stir stick when making ice cream. Preheat the spike with a lighter to get things started.
Donuts make excellent hokey pucks if you’re needing to practice your slapshot.
You now qualify for a Scouting winter camping BC badge.
Mindset /Attitude – This is the number one, and the most important factor for an extreme adventure like winter camping in BC.
Clothing and Shelter – Being properly prepared with the proper clothing and shelter is dependent on the worst case weather. Bottom line, Dry = Warm. I pay special attention to my fingers and toes, if they’re warm, I’m warm. My favourite layer is a feather vest.
Gear / Tools – The basics, lighter, knife and hatchet, tarp, rope, and cord. Disposable, non-adjustable “BIC” butane lighters are the most reliable. I can’t recommend the Gerber Backcountry Tool Kits enough (Essentials or Pro) nothing compares. Hand Axe (knife in handle), Machete, Folding Pocket Knife. The other most used tool in camp, a pair of 10″ slip joint pliers, uses are too many to list.
Heat – I could write a book about it. It’s far more involved than I ever imagined to become a ninja-level master of the flame. You can’t beat free, dry heat, forest wood for fuel. The convenience of a set-and-forget propane heater/stove has its place. Barbeque coals/briquettes are a convenient fuel to bring in a dry bag.
Fire starter – Next time you’re doing a load of cotton sheets or jeans in the dryer, collect the lint in a cardboard toilet paper tube. Mix Kerosene (Citronella lamp oil) and organic material like dried cow chips or tree bark in a tin can. Pulverize it with a stick, and let it soak overnight. A woodsman will scrape dried yellow Sap/Pitch/Amber from a wound on a tree trunk, it smells like fuel, it’s waterproof and you can light it with a match. Find strike-anywhere (not safety) wooden matches, dip the heads in candle wax, waterproof.
Safety – The most common injuries in camp are cuts and burns. Know how to use an axe and split wood. The most dangerous thing in camp is vaporized fuel, Propane, Butane, Gasoline, and Naphtha/White Gas (Colman Camp Fuel). These fuels mixed with air cause an explosion/burn of the vapour in the air. You’re looking for trouble (an explosion) if you use gasoline as a fire starter. Use Kerosene, a lot safer AND more effective. Kerosene does not evaporate into the air very quickly. It burns on the surface of the wood, where you want it. If you want something small and handy in your packsack, a small can of Yellow ABS solvent used to glue plastic plumbing pipe will evaporate very slowly and surface burn.
First Aid Kit – The original bushman’s first aid kit, a roll of toilet paper and black vinyl electrical tape. It works better than any bandage I’ve tried.
Winter Camping in BC, why it is worth it
I have a multi-acre living room that comes with a jaw-dropping light show most evenings at dust, followed by the Milky Way, clearly visible without city light pollution.
My fishing boat is 30 feet away ready to jump in when I see the fish start to surface. I’m a huge audio/music fan. Out here, I can blast my tunes as loud as I want whenever I want as I’m the only camper around. I sleep like a log, with fresh air, exercise, and dead silence. No traffic, police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, or reversing garbage trucks.
Everything I do in camp is to improve my living conditions and independence from the machine called “normal” society. I work for me, myself and I, and have a great boss.
I’m a lean muscle machine, constantly moving and exerting energy, no gym is required. Free, non polluting, solar/wind powered living off grid. No debt, no credit card, no worries. Surrounded by nature and wildlife I’m in total harmony with Mother Earth.
Camper Ken is a retired industrial controls engineer from Vancouver, BC, Canada. He is an avid woodsman, fisherman, MacGyver, music lover, electronics geek, and all-around good guy.
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Yrene lives in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, and is the founder of BackcountryCanadaTravel.com. She was born in Switzerland, lived and worked on different continents and has travelled the world. Yes, that's me, an Entrepreneur, wilderness nut and animal lover who prefers off-the-beaten-track places. I write about things I love. Mostely.
Love your article. Is winter camping precautions the same as heavy snow precautions? Wanna know some more from your experience. As we are just planning snow camping in a truck camper and are very excited about it. Thanks to your article that helped a lot.
I’m glad you found the article useful. I checked out your blog and you seem to be on the right track. Camper Ken would probably gladly answer all your questions. If you like, you can find his email at the bottom of the article. Or you can add questions here and I will get him to answer them.