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Winter camping: Lots of solitude and layered clothing

Winter camping is for best learned by going with someone with experience. The group of six that camped at Itasca State Park this past weekend included six experienced campers and two beginners. (Photos by Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise)

A group of friends spent the weekend winter camping at Itasca State Park and had a good time, even when night time temperature dipped to 20 below zero.

Four members of the group have been winter camping for 10 years. Eileen LaFontaine (Minneapolis), Beth Kodluboy (Minneapolis), Dawn Voelker (Des Moines, Iowa) and Corey Davis (St. Louis Park) have winter camped in an impressive array of locations, including their first year when they visited Yellowstone National Park where they saw bison and elk along with the Trail of Tears.

Davis said you need the right gear and recommends going with other seasoned campers who want to share their experience.

Favorite outings of the core group include Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the Badlands of South Dakota, the Boundary Waters in Minnesota where they brought gear in by sleds, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Afton State Park.

For most, this trip was their first visit to Itasca, although Kodluboy said she had been there on a bike ride before.

"I pushed Itasca this year because we only had a weekend," she said. "The biggest trips have been a week."

Davis invited his daughter Madeline Turnquist, also of St. Louis Park, to come along for the Itasca adventure, and while she has gone on several trips with her dad since she was a baby, this was her first below-zero outing. It was also the first below-zero outing for Jeremy Jost of Golden Valley.

Preparation is key

The group arrived at Itasca just a couple of hours before dusk, and had a lot to do to prepare the campsite for the night.

Jost and Turnquist built a tarp wall around their campsite to protect their cooking stove and campfire pit from the wind.

Davis said that preparation is the key to a successful camping experience, and this group was definitely prepared. They brought two vehicles full of gear, including tents, mattresses, food, a special cooking stove, shovels, snowshoes and much more.

Other site preparation was packing down the tent site, making trails on snowshoes and making a "snow refrigerator" by hollowing out a mound of snow so they could keep their water bottles from freezing.

"Snow is a great insulator," Davis said.

Turnquist credits her dad with getting her "really prepared" for the outing.

"He warned me and had me prepack everything. I had three layers, snowpants and coat in the sleeping bag to keep warm. I was actually wearing five layers this morning, so that's keeping me pretty warm," she said.

Camp cooking and entertainment

Since their site had electricity, Davis hung a string of colorful Christmas lights he had brought along to create a cheerful glow at their camp that could be seen from inside the tents.

A stove was used for heating meals that had been prepared ahead of time.

"I had pasta with a white sauce with shrimp and vegetable for my main course and bacon with eggs for breakfast," Davis said. "We use white gas stoves as opposed to canisters or cooking over the fire because it's a lot more efficient at controlling your heat."

Eating big, hearty meals helps campers stay warm. High-calorie foods on this trip included cookies, meat and cheese.

They had gathered some dead branches for their campfire earlier, but due to moisture in the wood ended up using wood they purchased during "an emergency run" to the visitor center. As the temperatures continued to drop, they decided to cut their campfire time short.

Jost said he enjoyed roasting summer sausage over the fire using a large stick.

"The most memorable part for me was cooking my socks over the fire to steam dry them," he said. "My boots got a little too close to the fire, and it melted them a little bit."

Voelker said that Saturday night they didn't do too much for entertainment due to the cold.

"One of our stoves went out so that made us decide to go to bed early," she said. "I have index cards with charades, and we sometimes do a 'stay warm' dance, but it was too cold for that. When it's not so cold, we also sit around the campfire and catch up on news of each others' lives. We see each other only once a year. We don't even know what we look like in regular summer clothes. We catch up on different trips we've been on, too."

"I had zero degree" sleeping bag with a liner, insulated sleeping bag and a summer sleeping bag over the top and I used all of it last night," Kodluboy said. "We also heat water and put it in bottles that go inside our sleeping bag for extra warmth. It's great because you can eat the whole time. You bring food to bed and you eat and you eat."

LaFontaine said that jambalaya and beef stew Kodluboy shared kept her warm.

Other than a few people who drove by to "gawk" at the group, the only visitors to their camp were some deer who walked by during the night.

The beautiful, old pines, solitude and fresh snow were among the best parts of the group's stay at the park.

"I like the conifer forest," Davis said. "We are planning to do a snowshoe hike by the lake. We are also planning to make a snowshoe maze. In order to keep warm you have to move. So at night when your toes get cold, it helps to walk."

Backcountry camping options

In addition to the Pine Ridge campground, there are several backcountry sites for use in the winter months as well. Campground Manager Greg Lanners said the backcountry sites for "adventure campers" are the most popular of the two. Campers snowshoe or cross-country ski to their campsite carrying all of their supplies.

"When the moon is out and you hear a wolf howling in the distance it is something you will always remember," he said.

Lanners said the Pine Ridge campsite is "very quiet" during the winter, although it does pick up some when temperatures warm into the 20s and 30s.

"Only one or two reservations come in each week during the heart of winter and those who do come mostly have RVs due to the cold weather," he said. "They might go out snowshoeing or cross-country skiing but when they come back they go in their RV where there is electricity, water and heat."

Winter tent camping at the Pine Ridge is also an option, although not a popular one. Winter camping is best done in a small tent that can be pitched relatively close to a campfire. Having a cot or camp bed gives some protections from the cold ground.

Mummy-style down sleeping bags retain body heat as does dressing in layers with cotton next to the skin, then wool and a down jacket. Gloves inside of mittens keep hands warm. Two layers of socks should also be worn.

Since water is not available at the site, bring an insulated jug and a kettle to heat the water over the campfire for coffee or tea. Water is also available at the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center.

Winter safety precautions

Park Ranger Sandra Lichter said while winter is a beautiful season at the park, visitors also need to be aware that cell phone service is "sketchy" in some areas of the park and there are also areas with no reception.

"Always be sure to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return just to be safe," she said.

Anyone going out on the trails should also carry snacks for energy and water to stay hydrated.