I like to plan ahead. That means when a friend and I started discussing winter camping way back in October, I whipped out my calendar and we circled a weekend in December that looked good. Fast forward a couple months and the days leading into our trip saw temperatures drop into the single digits and heavy snowfall hit the region. But this was it, the big camping trip! So did we wisely decide to reschedule in hopes of more moderate weather?! No way!
Let me provide you with some background. I’ve been camping since before I could walk and spend a lot of time outside. But, I’ve never (successfully) winter camped (I did have one attempt a few years ago thwarted by gale force winds). So this has been on my to-do list for a long time and I was really anxious to make it happen. Enter Jason, a long-time friend and new Northern Swag contributor (bio coming soon!), who is a former outdoor guide in Alaska and has vast outdoor experience and mad survival skills. So when we saw the weather forecast for our trip shape up to be pretty cold, confidence & motivation remained high and we weren’t deterred.
Our location, Guernsey Lake State Forest Campground, nestled next to the Sand Lakes Quiet Area, was selected due to my familiarity with the sites, trails, and access roads. It was the first place I ever camped, when I was an infant, and I’ve been camping, skiing, trail running, and biking there consistently ever since. It feels remote, but is relatively close to Traverse City, has great trails, good fishing, and nice sites. It’s also open year round. I decided to do some reconnaissance mid-week to see if the campground was even accessible. Fortunately, the roads had been plowed. Unfortunately, it looked like they’re only plowed occasionally, maybe once a week, and clearly not after every snowfall. I made it to the campground during my recon trip in my Honda Element (love that car!) without any issues, but the next few days after that and prior to the trip saw heavy snow.
We left early in case it took us awhile to get to camp so we would still have plenty of time to set up our shelter. That was a good call. The roads had definitely not been plowed and we struggled through knee deep snow until we found ourselves facing a rather steep climb, with nowhere to turn around if we didn’t make it. Attempt number 1 wasn’t even close. So we got the shovel out and cleared the road. Next we cut some branches down and laid them on the road, perpendicular to the direction we were going, on the steepest part of the climb, to assist with traction. It worked! We made it to the campground shortly after that without issue.
Our top 2 priorities once we arrived were 1) get a fire going, & 2) build our shelter. The low that night was going to be 15 degrees with 15 mph north winds, making it feel like it was around 0 degrees. We originally planned to sleep in hammocks to keep ourselves off the cold ground, but weren’t able to find a decent grouping of trees where we could hang them near the fire, while also putting our tarps up to block the wind. So we ended up cutting some pine boughs to make our “beds” on the ground, next to the fire. Underneath that we laid a tarp so when the fire melted the snow underneath us, we wouldn’t get wet. On top of the pine boughs we had Therma-Rests, and then sleeping bags.
We brought some firewood, but were able to harvest more from dead trees we found in the woods. The key to using that wood is having a hatchet or bushcraft knife so it can be split open to get to the dry wood inside. Despite the fact that we brought matches, Jason decided to light the fire in true
badass bushcraft manner, using a ferro rod and his knife.
With the fire made, plenty of firewood, and our tarps up, it was time to relax until nightfall when we planned to do some light-painting photography. We heated up some soup in the fire and took a couple nips of bourbon to keep our bellies warm.
Once the sun set we got out our camera gear and had some fun lighting steel wool on fire for some cool long exposure photos.
After our camera batteries died (rather quickly from the cold), it was time to settle in for the night. For additional warmth, we took some coals from the fire and laid them on heavy duty aluminum foil near our sleeping area and used wet logs as a barrier between us and the fire. This worked remarkably well as we remained comfortable all night.
After a quick breakfast the next morning, it was time to head home as both of us had family/holiday obligations. However, we did briefly discuss when we could get out again and are trying to fit in a multi-day trip later this winter. Hopefully the weather is a little kinder next time!
While Jason and I are both experienced campers (Jason much more than me), we learned a ton during this trip and would do a few things differently. Between what we knew beforehand and learned on this trip, we put together a hit list of winter camping tips:
1) Layer! We all hear this a lot, but it is truly important. Between shoveling snow and sitting down doing nothing, our heat levels changed drastically within minutes (especially when we were sweaty from the exertion of shoveling snow or chopping wood), so it was important to be able to shed and add layers quickly. For me personally, I had a long sleeve wool baselayer (wool is awesome! wicking, quick drying, breathable, & warm!), thick flannel shirt, and then a down jacket for when I wasn’t moving around. I also wore midweight capilene “long johns” underneath softshell pants, tall wool socks, and high winter boots.
2) Be prepared to adapt. We arrived at the campground with the intention of sleeping in hammocks, but knew that we may not be able to find trees that were suitable, so we also brought sleeping pads, which we ended up using.
3) Purchase and throw some painters’ tarps in your gear kit. We had our usual tarps (I have two of these and use them all the time, not just for camping) to build our shelter, but later in the evening the wind started swirling through the winds, constantly changing directions, and we had to bust these out to add walls to our shelters. They’re cheap and worked marvelously in keeping the wind out.
4) Know your down/insulation. Down is known for its amazing warmth to weight ratio, but many people don’t know that it can’t get wet. If it does it loses its thermal capabilities and is also awfully difficult to get dry. If it’s going to be wet, rainy, or snowing heavily, use synthetic insulation.
5) Bring a good bushcraft knife. For car camping this may seem unnecessary, but we both had ours, and used them constantly. From cutting down bedding, to splitting firewood, to starting our fire, to preparing our meals, they’ll come in handy. Jason uses a KA-BAR Becker BK-2, a great knife that can be found online for around $75 (awesome value). I brought my Tops Black Rhino and was very pleased with its usefulness and quality. The thickness of the Black Rhino made splitting wood incredibly fast and easy.
6) Invest in good boots and gloves/mittens. There were a few times during the night when my back and face got a little cold, but my fingers and toes were warm and that kept me happy. If your digits get cold, it’ll ruin your trip incredibly quickly.
A few winter photography specific tips:
7) Bring extra camera batteries and keep them in your pocket, close to your body, so they stay warm. My batteries died pretty quickly in the freezing temps, but I had plenty of extra and so was able to keep shooting.
8) Try to keep your camera away from your body. If it gets too close, or if you breath on it, you’ll cause condensation to form. If you do get condensation on your lens, make sure you have a microfiber cloth to wipe it off with.
9) I prefer fingerless gloves when shooting in cold weather. I can keep my fingers warm when I’m not actively taking photos and also quickly get my fingers out to use my camera, without having to completely remove my glove/mitten. I used these from Outdoor Research and they work very well (although there are warmer ones).
10) It gets dark early in the winter so make the most of that. We did so by bringing steel wool to do some long-exposure light painting. It was a total blast and kept us from just sitting around the fire drinking bourbon.
Any other winter camping tips or stories? We’d love to hear from you! Please feel free to share in the comments.
Over the last year, our motivation here at Northern Swag has been similar to that of the 46.9 million people who couldn’t get themselves to the polling locations last Tuesday (i.e., pathetic). We were looking for a source of motivation…for a concept we could really get behind. The winning proposal was a simple one: a monthly Swag Meetup.
We would choose a location and set off with the intent to capture a variety of perspectives and try some new tricks. To help get our creative juices flowing, we agreed to blindly choose a “theme card” at each meet-up (e.g., “rule-of-thirds”, “movement”, “light”, etc.). To make it interesting, we even threw in a dreaded Old Maid #selfie card and quickly let out a sigh of relief when our contributor Brian Beckwith drew this card first (#sucker).
Below are some of the captures from our first meetup at the ghost forest in the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Our next event will be December 4th (the first Sunday of the month). Stay tuned for more details. We encourage anyone to join. After all, the more perspectives the better (and the lower the risk I will draw Old Maid).
There are a few things I’ve been wanting to check out recently, the Little Traverse Wheelway, the tunnel of trees on M-119, and Legs Inn in Cross Village. Why not tick off all 3 in one go? That’s what I decided to do during a recent camping weekend at Fisherman’s Island.
I spend most of my time in the three-county region of Grand Traverse (where I live), Antrim (where I work), and Leelanau (where I play), but there’s plenty of scenic offerings and adventures to be had a little farther north. Fisherman’s Island is just a few miles south of Charlevoix, so about a 55 minute drive north up US 31 from Traverse City. The Little Traverse Wheelway is a paved trail that starts on the north side of Charlevoix and runs approximately 26 miles along the coast through Petoskey to Harbor Springs. From the start in Charlevoix to Petoskey it’s about 20 miles, and then another 6 to the end in Harbor Springs.
For the first dozen or so miles it runs along US 31, but as it nears Petoskey there are numerous overlooks to stop and soak in the view. The trail is well marked, even on the part that runs on the road and through a parking lot in Petoskey. It’s a great opportunity for beginner cyclists to get some miles under their belts as there are no big climbs and no vehicles to contend with. The long-term plan is to eventually connect the TART that ends in Acme to this trail in Charlevoix via Elk Rapids, but that’s likely a few years away. And by few I mean 10.
The trail currently ends in Harbor Springs, but that’s the part I was really looking forward to as I’d heard the tunnel of trees on M-119 is a great cycling route. The overlooks and scenery did not disappoint and this route is definitely on my to-do list during the fall when the colors start to turn. The road does not have any shoulder and is winding and narrow, but all the vehicles (mostly motorcycles) that passed me were driving leisurely and I felt totally safe the entire ride. From Harbor Springs to Cross Village is a little under 20 miles with some gently rolling hills (don’t be fooled by the course profile below, there weren’t any steep or sustained climbs).
If you need a mid-ride re-supply, stop at the quaint Good Hart General Store. I was in a bit of a rush to make sure I arrived timely for dinner, but I did stop for a quick photo.
The thought of homemade Polish food (& beer) at Legs Inn kept me going through the last few miles on what was a very hot summer day. The rest of the family was driving up from our campsite and everything was timed perfectly as we rolled into the parking lot a few minutes apart (they took a wrong turn and skipped the tunnel of trees, but it ended up working out timing wise). It also gave me the victory!
Legs Inn is located on a bluff facing west over Lake Michigan. Despite our voracious hunger, we decided to wait a half hour for a table outside in the garden. There’s a large lawn next to the garden where kids were running around as the sun started to dip and the temps dropped. A few cold beers and a giant plate of Polish food had everybody extremely satisfied. We’ve already scheduled our return trip!
Ultimately a pretty amazing summer day. Getting back to camp and roasting marshmallows over the fire capped it all off. I typically spend my bike rides in Leelanau County, but will be back up north as soon as I can.
I moved back to the Traverse City area almost ten years ago (giant gulp at how time flies). I quickly realized that the things that once occupied my time in Chicago would need to change. Over those ten years, I have lost, on average, a pair of high heels every year and picked up a new outdoor activity in their place. Four years ago it was cross-country skis (this year I think I actually skied faster than walking). Two years ago, it was the road bike. Last year, the clip-on pedals for the road bike (SCARY addition that deserved its own year and that luckily only resulted in one near-death experience). And this year, after borrowing everyone else’s kayak way too much, I purchased my very own. We picked up a few of these Michigan-made recreational kayaks on sale at K-Mart, of all places, for $180 apiece. “K-Mart is still open?” you ask, followed by, “Does it float?”. The answer to both questions is yes.
Mind you, I am no expert and far from a gear snob (goes without saying after mentioning K-Mart, huh?), but I have been really pleased with the boat. It is steady enough for my totally ungraceful launches, paddles smoothly, and, most importantly, lets me get out on all the Northern Michigan fresh water we are so lucky to live near.
For this weekend’s outing, we headed west from the Coast Guard Station at Glen Haven, on the forecast of 0-2 mph winds. Given my assessment of Michigan weather forecasts’ accuracy at 50%, seems about right that we had 0-2 mph winds for half the trip and a bit of choppy waves for the other half. Spring paddles have the amazing benefit of crystal clear waters but come with the added risk of a hypothermia-inducing tip! We stayed as close to shore as we could, while still avoiding the gnats, and cut our original plans short as soon as the waves picked up.
Turns out blue light specials do alright maneuvering around a sleeping bear. I’m forecasting plenty of return trips to paddle this route and I can guarantee my forecast will have an accuracy well-above the Weather Channel’s.
For those who follow this blog, it’s apparent…I am a Leelanau County girl. I require serious navigational help to get most anywhere beyond county lines in Northern Michigan. But I’ve been introduced to a new spot in Antrim County, Grass River Natural Area. This little gem, outside of Bellaire, is well worth expanding one’s boundaries, especially this time of year!
I first visited Grass River late last October, when the area was covered in a golden carpet of downed Tamarack needles. There was a magical feel to it, more intimate than most of the wide-open dunescapes I frequent in Leelanau County. The 1,443 acres of protected land offer sedges, bogs, boardwalks, and opportunity aplenty to encounter nature up close and personal. Below is one of the many viewing platforms you’ll find.
Since going last fall, I have returned twice. In the spring, I witnessed all kinds of green wonders emerging to showcase the results of 40 years plus of preservation. And this last weekend, our crew visited just in time to witness the orange and gold hues of autumn ablaze in the setting sun’s rays. The Sedge Meadow trail is a must see, with several viewing platforms and a chance to take in some of the flora and fauna the area along the section of the Grass River near Clam Lake offers. The loop is less than a mile and offers boardwalks that make for a fun running track for children. If you have more time, add on the Fern and Woodland Trail, for a nice 2.5-mile hike that takes you through both wetlands and uplands.
The next couple weeks will make for prime times to visit Grass River. The fall color there is like nowhere else. Suffice it to say, my Siri will be hearing the request, “Please show me directions to Grass River Natural Area” almost as much as she hears “Hey Siri, please show me pictures of cute baby owls,” from my 9-year-old. With 147 species of birds, I have a lot more to see!
Check in here for a schedule of events and classes offered and plan your hike with the map at the end of this post! Enjoy!