Active Outdoors: Playing in a freezer



No sooner had the weather wonks started intoning phrases like "Arctic Blast," "Deep Freeze," "Coldest Weather of the Winter," and "Dangerous Wind Chills," than the emails started flying as my buddy David and I began planning an overnight to test some new cold-weather camping gear for You need real cold to adequately test sleeping bags and pads rated to zero or below!

We were being promised daytime highs in the single digits, nighttime lows below zero. Perfect! Wish we had a month of it! But you just know it's gonna go and get warm again (Bah, Humbug!), so we just had to get out and enjoy it while we could.

OK, I want you to know that we may be nuts, but we aren't crazy. Cold like that can be unpleasant (to say the least) if you aren't properly prepared and we were, by definition, not properly prepared. We hadn't actually used some of the gear we are relying on to keep us warm and safe. Therefore, we didn't know for sure that it works. We had only the manufacturer's word to go on, and that's not the same as having used the stuff ourselves.

Really, it's not all that different from going winter camping for the first time. You don't go heading for the highest peaks of the White Mountains (or even the Greens or the Berkshires) to test out gear in conditions that can alter your life if you make a mistake. Our campsite is only a mile or so from the road. If something goes seriously wrong we can bail out quickly.

The day actually felt warmer than promised, perhaps because our camp site is in the sun and well sheltered from a northwest wind (one of the reasons we go there.) We got the tent and stove set up, wood supply in, and our sleeping bags and pads rolled out and still had time for a hike in the afternoon.

Because we were testing new sleeping bags and pads, we took a proven shelter, a Vertex 6.5 tipi made by Titanium Goat ( This little gem holds two people and winter gear, weighs less than seven pounds, including the tent, stakes, and a clever little woodstove and stovepipe. Yup it was way below zero outside the tent, but we ate dinner in our shirtsleeves.

Once the stove went out, it got cold in a hurry, but we were snugged into new "Dri-Down" zero-degree rated mummy sleeping bags from Sierra Designs and Kelty set on top of insulated pads from Thermarest and Klymit.

We thought we'd be OK, but, of course, we had a backup plan if the bags couldn't handle the cold. As it turns out, it got down to 11 below; I wore two layers inside my sleeping bag and stayed pretty toasty all night. David, who sleeps warmer than I do, tried the same but ended up having to take off a layer.

If worse had come to worse, we'd have relit the stove and take turns staying awake to keep it going. We had enough wood inside if we needed it. In the morning, I sat up, lit the stove while still in my sleeping bag, and dozed until the tent was warm.

By the way, the tipi and woodstove were set up in the backyard before this trip to make sure everything was there and worked properly, and the gas stoves we cooked on were tested after spending a night in the freezer.

The spot we camped is open to the sky, and on a clear, sub-zero winter night like last night, the stars seem so close you feel like you are part of them.

Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!


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