Story and photos by Zak Erb.
I was once asked what the allure of winter camping is. At the time, my insight into the activity was mostly theoretical. To that point I’d slept out in the snow only once, and that was within shuffling distance of my home. So my answer (like my experience) was very short, and very safe – “Well, if you like camping and enjoy winter it’s a no brainer.” Not exactly an insightful response, and not entirely accurate either. I know plenty of folks with camping gear, who enjoy winter activities, but wouldn’t dream of pitching a tent in the snow, much less shivering a night away in it.
Since then I’ve broadened my experience somewhat. I’ve now got a handful of solo winter camping trips under my belt. I’ve lugged gear through icy streams and deep drifts. Melted snow in a pot for water. Greeted a frigid dawn or two with nothing but snow and trees for company.
Once, while exhausted and chilled, I set fire to a woolen sock while trying to dry it out. I’m no expert (as the sock burning will attest), but I’ve given it some thought, and I believe I’ve hit upon a better answer.
So, what IS the allure of winter camping? Well, I’m so glad I asked…
I am drawn to winter camping for a simple reason – it demands that we drastically narrow our perspective and radically alter our priorities. This narrowed perspective draws a select few items into sharp focus and completely blurs out the rest. Everyday concerns melt away entirely. The snowy vastness of your temporary home does not concern itself with social media posturing, the outcome of the big game, or what the Kardashians are up to. And for a time at least, neither do you. You’re so completely removed from your day to day existence that you start to wonder why you concerned yourself with such things in the first place.
Just as asphalt and super-centers give way to deep snow and evergreens, so too are commonplace “needs” consumed by far more basic needs. Warmth, hydration, and sustenance. These are your only true concerns. Of course there are other things which tug at your consciousness, pulling your thoughts this way and that. The stark beauty of winter for instance, or that echoing coyote howl, disconcerting in its proximity. But these are minor considerations and you know it. What really matters right now is keeping your feet dry and your belly full. In the span of a few snowy kilometers your world has morphed from a tangled web of routine and distraction into a state of essential purity.
This is not hyperbole, I promise. You’re deep in the woods, utterly alone. It’s well below freezing and you’ve yet to reach your campsite. You’ve consumed two of your three litres of water. Where do you think your mental energy is being spent? Does your neglected inbox at work so much as enter your mind? Of course not. You’re far too busy figuring out how to melt sufficient snow to create three more litres of water. As a secondary consideration you’re also devising a plan to keep said litres from freezing into a block of ice. Perhaps in your everyday life it’s an ambitious new work project that stokes the fires of your animal brain, gets you working overtime in search of a solution. On a trail covered in damp, heavy snow, all it takes is a wet boot. Drying that boot, and more importantly, the soggy sock inside it, becomes your sole driving passion.
This narrowing of your worldview may seem claustrophobic or uncomfortably restrictive, but believe me, it’s quite the opposite. The return to primal concerns is extremely freeing, empowering even. It teaches you about your abilities, your limitations, and your environment. Something clicks into place deep in the core of your being when you find yourself alone in the frozen woods, completely engaged in simply… existing.
There is a reason we in privileged society buy cottages, a reason we fetishize simpler, less cluttered times, a reason for the nascent “tiny house” movement. It’s because simplicity just feels right. Humanity has been around a long time. For the bulk of that time we lived simple lives, uncomplicated by the commerce and gadgets we’ve become focused on in recent millennia. Something buried deep inside each of us remembers this innate preference for simplicity, and we want it back.
Winter Camping – focusing to the near total exclusion of all else on warmth, hydration, and sustenance. What could be simpler than that? |E|