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