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Winter Wilderness Travel

Leave No Trace Recommendations

Winter is an exciting time to travel and camp in the Canoe Country. Not only is visitor use very low, the lakes and rivers become accessible by cross country ski, snowshoe, and dog sled. The landscape becomes blanketed in a layer of snow, transforming the wilderness into a winter wonderland. It is also a time of year that travelers need to practice "Leave No Trace" principles to minimize our impact on the land.

Plan Ahead:
Winter wilderness travel has little in common with skiing groomed trails. Weather conditions can change drastically in a very short period of time. Snow conditions can also vary from windswept lake ice to deep powder on windfall-choked portages to lakes covered with up to a foot of slush. Lakes and stream conditions often cause very thin ice in certain places. Always check local conditions immediately before your trip and be prepared for the worst possible conditions. Finally, regardless of the season, always tell someone where you are going, how long you plan to stay, and who to contact in case of an emergency.

Safe winter wilderness travel depends on strong skills. There are many programs available that teach winter wilderness travel skills. Consider utilizing these programs if you are new at winter camping or if you want to improve your skills. They will not only instruct you in safe, no trace wilderness travel skills, but will also make winter camping much more comfortable and enjoyable.

Selecting a Campsite:
Avoid camping on designated summer campsites to allow these heavily used
sites to recover from summer use. In addition, most summer campsites are located on peninsulas, islands, or in locations that leave winter campers exposed to wind and blowing snow. Try to stay off these sites and look for a site with the most sheltered and durable surface.

There are many great locations to make a winter campsite such as in a sheltered lake bay, on the ice, in natural forest openings like a spruce bog. Where ever you decide to camp, look for an area sheltered from the wind; one that is away from travel routes; and, if on land, out of sight from lakes.

You do not need a campfire to stay warm during winter. It takes lots of energy to gather firewood during the winter and skill is needed to build a fire in the snow to prevent it from melting into a water filled puddle. The "Leave No Trace" recommendation is to avoid using fires unless it is absolutely necessary. However, fires are great to sit around during the long winter evenings. With care and skill, a campfire in the winter can be ecologically responsible and a source of warmth.

We strongly suggest using a "fire pan" if you decide to build a fire at your winter campsite. A fire pan is a metal pan on which you build your fire. It provides the fire a base that will not melt and collects the ashes, allowing the camper to scatter any ash or unburned wood after the fire is extinguished. Fire pans can be almost anything metal: an old hubcap, a clean oil pan, a baking pan, an old frying pan, even a pie tin can work. Place 2-3 small logs or sticks under the fire pan to prevent it from melting down into the snow or ice and to avoid creating a melt water puddle.

Build your fire in the fire pan using dead and down wood no larger than your wrist. Small diameter wood burns better than larger pieces and enables one to burn wood without splitting it with an ax, which represents a major safety hazard. In general, try to burn only dead conifers. They are easier to identify and tend to burn hotter. After the fire is extinguished, scatter ashes and unused wood in the woods away from campsites.

Finally, do not depend on campfires for cooking or heating! Pack and use a portable stove that you know will function in extremely cold conditions. Portable stoves not only have a minimal wilderness impact, they provide a measure of safety and allow one to cook and warm water with minimal hassle regardless of weather conditions.

Minimizing Human Impacts:
Pack it in, pack it out! Remember the BWCA Wilderness can and glass bottle ban: these materials are prohibited. Repackage food prior to your trip in reusable containers. Collect all trash and pack it out. Remember to pack out all food scraps in the winter.

Human Waste:
Remember to cover yellow snow with snow. In winter, just as in summer, make sure to keep human feces at least 150 feet from lakes and streams, and well away from any trails. It is nearly impossible to dig a cat hole during the winter, but digging a shallow hole in the snow for depositing human waste keeps it out of sight and will ensure rapid decomposition. Large groups should scatter winter catholes and designate a general area for scattering. Using a latrine on a designated campsite is acceptable during winter if you can find one under the snow. Burn or pack out used toilet paper.

Snow Structures:
If you build a quinzee hut or any other type of snow structure, destroy it before moving on. Leaving structures standing is inconsistent with no trace principles, it may also encourage others to use that structure, thus concentrating use. In addition, snow structures become unstable quickly resulting in a serious safety hazard for other travelers who may try and use it.

Winter travel in canoe country is an absolutely unique experience. We are learning every day of new ways that humans can minimize our impact on the landscape in all seasons while traveling in wilderness. While humans will always leave some impact when we travel in wilderness, we can learn to travel in a way that does not harm the unique ecology of the wilderness, nor disrupts other travelers' wilderness experience.

A special thanks to Adam Sokolski for contributing this valuable winter travel information


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Published from the edge of the Boundary Waters
Canoe Area by Chad Jones

Updated Aug 26, 2016

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