Sleeping in a tent while surrounded by snow and ice may sound miserable to those who haven’t tried it. But there are plenty of Maine outdoorspeople who enjoy winter camping. In fact, some favor it over camping during other times of the year.
“I prefer the quietude, the lack of bugs and the lack of people,” Matthew Silverio of Lincolnville, who has been winter camping since he was a little kid, said. “When we have a lot of snow, it’s even more fun because you can do things like make sleeping huts and snow quinzhees and kitchens. You know, winter camping can be a lot of fun.”
Compared to camping during warmer months, winter camping requires a few extra pieces of gear and clothing to stay warm and comfortable, said Silverio, who is the president of Coastal Mountains Search and Rescue. Knowledge of the dangers — especially the risk of hypothermia — and a commitment to self care are also key to having a successful and fun winter camping experience.
Start in your own backyard
If you’re at all interested in winter camping, you may as well give it a try, said Rosendel “Rosey” Gerry, 72, of Lincolnville. A lifelong Mainer, he picked up the activity last winter as a way to make the long, dark season more bearable.
“I just hate winter,” Gerry said. “So I wanted to do something that was going to make it go better. I started talking about maybe doing some winter camping and people were laughing at me and saying, ‘You? Winter camping? No one hates winter more than you.’”
To prepare, Gerry turned to an old friend, Silverio, for guidance. And since he wasn’t interested in camping alone, he pulled together a group of men from all walks of life, including a doctor, an attorney, an architect and a fisherman. They now camp together at least once a month, late fall through early spring.
“I call the group: Old Men Camping in the Woods,” Gerry said with a laugh.
The group camps mostly on their own private properties throughout the midcoast area, far enough away from houses to enjoy the wilderness, but close enough to easily hike out if something goes wrong.
“It’s much more approachable that way,” said Silverio, who has also winter camped in backcountry areas such as Baxter State Park. “There are a lot of little tricks to staying comfortable that you can learn in your own backyard. Everybody has to figure out what works best for them, and that just takes experience and practice.”
While the group camps close to civilization, they select campsite locations that are far enough in the woods that they need to carry their gear — either in a backpack or on a sled. This means they have to be conservative about what they pack, taking into account the weight and bulk of each item.
They have a few camp rules. Politics and religion are off the table for conversation. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone keeps their distance and cooks their own food with their own cookware.
“I like the comradery, the conversation,” Gerry said. “And cooking. The cooking can be the simplest — you know, like on Saturday night, one of the guys just brought a can of beef stew and just cooked it on the fire in a can. Or there’s Rick, who has a wok and chops up onions and peppers and garbanzos and stirs in an egg. He does almost gourmet cooking on the campfire.”
‘Nobody likes being cold’
People who enjoy winter camping aren’t somehow immune to the cold, Silverio said. They’ve just learned how to fend it off. That’s one of the most important skills to learn if you’re interested in pitching a tent in February.
“Nobody likes being cold,” Silverio said. “So the real trick is figuring out what works for you as far as [clothing] layers to be comfortable and stay warm.”
There are many tricks for staying warm outdoors. Chief among them is avoiding cotton, which holds onto moisture like sweat and can quickly cool your body down. Instead, wear wool or synthetic clothing (though synthetic fabrics can easily melt if they get too close to the campfire.)
From left (clockwise): A winter camper plays a mandolin while enjoying the fire in midcoast Maine; A group of winter campers set up their tents in the woods in the midcoast area; Some people who camp in the winter set up a simple tarp lean-to as a shelter. Credit: Courtesy of Rosendel Gerry.
“There are little tricks like putting your water bottle or boots in your sleeping bag at night so they don’t freeze,” Silverio said. “There’s nothing worse than getting up and putting your feet in frozen boots.”
Silverio also changes his socks and long underwear before he goes to bed so he’s completely dry. And he often eats a high-calorie snack just prior to sleeping to give his body more fuel to maintain a proper temperature.
In most cases, winter camping is safer to pursue with a friend or two. That way, you can share camp chores such as setting up shelter, collecting and purifying water and building a fire. You can also check in with each other regularly to make sure everyone is comfortable and warm. Self care — and caring for your fellow campers — is especially important while winter camping.
“The trick is not to push it,” said Silverio. “You have to take care of yourself when you need it. You have to take time to get more water or get more food because your body needs the energy. If your feet are cold, you need to do something about it. If your hands are cold, you need to do something about it.”
A warm sleeping bag and a thick sleeping pad that can insulate you from the ground are also key for staying comfortable and safe. For most Maine winter camping conditions, a sleeping bag that is rated at a comfort level of zero degrees Fahrenheit will likely be warm enough, Silverio said. However, if you’re interested in mountaineering or going out on some of Maine’s coldest nights, you’ll need an even warmer sleeping bag — something graded in the negative degrees.
For shelter, you can use a variety of things, from a tent to a hammock bivy sack that’s designed for winter temperatures. Gerry strings up an $8 tarp to create a lean-to, leaving the side facing the fire open. He prefers the open structure because it allows him to stare up at the stars.
Every winter camping experience is different
It’s especially important to check the weather forecast while planning a winter camping trip. Even so, plan for colder temperatures than anticipated. Strong winds can really change a winter camping experience for the worse — so can freezing rain.
“This last weekend, oh my god, the wind was whipping,” Gerry said. “It was 10 below zero with the wind chill factor. The trees were creaking and the roots were growling. I didn’t sleep much.”
The next morning, the group packed up without eating breakfast. It was just too cold, Gerry said. He wouldn’t do that again.
But during most trips, when the weather is calm and cold, the group is perfectly content as they sit around the crackling campfire trading stories. One camper even brings a mandolin to entertain with some tunes. During the day, sometimes they go on hikes or practice primitive skills. And at night, they usually have some sort of interaction with wildlife, whether it’s a barred owl hooting in a nearby tree or a pack of coyotes howling in the distance.
“I call it my cabin fever reliever,” said Rick Seibel of Lincolnville, who’s a part of the group. “You’re getting out and doing something different. It takes money and time and effort. And when it’s cold out, you really have to push yourself to do it. But after, you’re so happy you did.”