These days, come a typical winter, the ice is dotted with an ever-increasing number of RV-style wheelhouses that may be more comfortable than your own living room. But a growing contingent of ice anglers is taking to the winter camping scene in pop-up, hub-style shelters. It’s a great way to spend a weekend on the ice on the cheap, or to explore the backcountry where wheelhouses can’t go.
If the idea of sleeping on the ice piques your interest, first, seek therapy. Then, follow these tips.
Winter ice camping in a small shelter isn’t for everyone. It’s actually a lot of work, especially if you’ll be camping far from your vehicle, as you would be if you venture into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But for the adventurous, it can be a lot of fun.
There certainly are a few challenges. First off, you want to balance comfort with ambition.
For example, if you’ll be driving your vehicle onto the ice and pitching a hub-style shack right next door, you can pack as much gear as you want. But if you’re pulling a sled and all your gear several miles into the BWCAW to chase lakers for the weekend, you’ll want to trim your load considerably. Pare down your gear list so you can haul all your gear without getting too sweated up.
Staying warm and dry
The most important key to enjoyable winter camping is to stay warm and dry. If you get cold and wet, you’ll have a miserable time.
Although you can sleep-over in a variety of shack styles (I slept in an old clamshell-style shack with a plastic floor on my first outing), most people utilize hub-style pop-up shacks. The larger models offer you a lot of room, and they can accommodate multiple people, although if you really desire, you can squeeze solo into some of the larger flip-style shacks.
Assuming you won’t be camping right next to your truck, you have to fit all your gear into a sled, so pack accordingly. You’ll need to be able to pull it – or have a snowmobile or ATV to do the work.
Choose your camping spot wisely
Once you have all your gear loaded and you get onto the ice, choose your camping spot wisely. You won’t exactly be hole-hopping. Set up on a location that could be productive both day and night. It’s worth the extra effort to find fish before you set up so you’re not wasting your time where there are no fish.
Of course, you could just set up a base camp and hole-hop nearby, but most anglers are looking to set up camp right on a productive fishing spot.
Once you’ve found your location, scrape away the snow and set up your shack. Properly stake down your shelter and bank snow around it to keep out cold drafts and blowing snow.
If you’ll be adding a floor with some type of mat, such as a puzzle-piece gym floor mat, you can scrape right down to the ice. If there’s no floor, I like to pack down a little snow so I’m not slipping on glare ice.
Floor mats are comfortable enough that you can walk around in socks or slippers, rather than stumbling around in heavy boots inside your shack.
The ‘must-haves’ of the trip
The real trick to staying warm anytime you’re camping in cold weather is to have an insulating layer beneath you. A cot topped with a camping mattress is a luxury, but carrying a cot may not be practical.
At the very least, pile up evergreen boughs under your mattress to keep your body off the ground. Your ground layer is the biggest key to staying warm. I have some roll-up camping mattresses I use if I’m packing heavy (sometimes I even bring two), but if I’m going light, I use a blow-up mattress, which saves space and weight, but doesn’t keep me as warm.
A good sleeping bag is a must. Sleeping bags have come so far. My 0-degree bag from 20 years ago was infinitely larger and heavier than my current bag of the same rating. Good bags are lightweight and take up little space, although they aren’t cheap. But for the cost of a weekend stay in a hotel, you can buy a great bag that will give you years of warm use.
In the mornings, my nylon bag usually has some condensation on top. I carefully dry this in front of my heater each morning, keeping my hand on the bag at the wet area as a guide. If my hand gets too hot, the bag is likely getting too hot and I don’t want to burn it! You’ll really appreciate crawling into a dry bag each night.
Heaters a nice addition
Heaters aren’t essential if you have a quality sleeping bag, but they are a nice addition, and, again, it depends on how much gear you’re willing to lug. I run my heater only when I’m cold or trying to fish, but I shut it off overnight and rely on my sleeping bag to keep me warm
Make sure the heater you choose is rated for indoor use, such as a Buddy Heater. These heaters have built-in carbon monoxide sensors and will shut off if they tip over. Carbon monoxide buildup is no joke.
Open your shack’s vents and don’t be afraid to crack the door. Pay attention to signs of sleepiness or dizziness, which could indicate CO2 poisoning. If these occur, shut off your heater, open the door, and get some fresh air in the shelter. It’s a good idea to bring a CO2 alarm with you, even if you use a heater with a built-in sensor.
Yet another option is to bring a wall tent that will accommodate a wood-burning stove.
This is certainly a heavy, cumbersome option, but you’ll have plenty of room to move around and you’ll stay toasty warm.
Condensation is a real thorn in the side of the winter camper. As you exhale, moisture condenses and freezes on the roof of your tent in cold weather. Opening your shelter’s vents and even the door will help. Keeping a heater going all night will prevent condensation.
Otherwise, you’ll have to deal with it. One option is to simply wipe the frost off with a towel in the morning before it melts and drips on everything. However you manage condensation, keep it from getting your gear wet, and carefully dry wet clothing, sleeping bags, or roll pads in front of your heater.
Hot meals and staying hydrated
A hot meal is a real treat on a cold day. You can cook over an open fire on the ice, roast a wienie on a stick in front of your heater, or bring along a campstove. If I’m packing light, I bring food that doesn’t need to be cooked.
You also need to keep some things cool (such as meat or cheese) and some things from freezing solid (such as fish). Burying these items in snow will serve the purpose. It will also keep your beverages cold and refreshing.
It’s important to stay hydrated when you’re camping, especially if you’re exerting yourself when pulling a sled. You lose a lot of water vapor just breathing in cold air. I usually bring along at least one or two reusable plastic bottles with water. You can either bring enough for the weekend, or bring a pot and boil snow (or scoop water from the lake and boil it). It takes a lot of snow to get a little water, however.
Keeping things dry and warm
Another consideration is dry clothing, especially socks.
Your feet will likely sweat in your warm boots, and when they sweat, they get cold. Bring along plenty of warm socks.
You can dry wet ones by hanging them over your heater (although you’ll probably stink up your shelter).
I also bring a dry bag with at least one full change of clothes. You can use the poles in the hub as a drying rack. Also, take care of your boots. Not only is it uncomfortable putting on cold boots in the morning, it also can actually be difficult if they freeze. Sometimes I put my boots inside my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing (make sure they’re dry).
Also, keep your cell phone and recharging sticks in your sleeping bag to keep them warm at night. I always put my phone on airplane mode overnight as well to keep the battery from draining.
A few more accessories
A few more accessories that are handy are an LED lantern that can be hung from the top of the hub, and also clip-on rattle reels that alert you to a bite overnight.
Like I said, there’s a balance between the weight of each object and its worth. Get resourceful with the materials you have at hand, especially if you’ve got a long hike and you’re packing light.
Rather than pack a chair, use the bucket that you’re probably using to haul your fishing gear. Flip your sled to serve as a table or a fish-cleaning station.
Bring newspapers. Ball them up and put them in your boots each night to suck up moisture. Plus, they serve as great fire starters and reading material on long nights.
A final consideration is hygiene. Inevitably, while out in nature, you’ll have to answer the call of nature. A 5-gallon bucket with a garbage bag serves as a handy toilet. Once you’ve used it, you can remove the bag, let it freeze, and pack it out.
And you can never bring too many garbage bags! They’re great for human waste, food-generated garbage, fish guts, keeping wet boots and clothing from soaking other gear and many other uses.
A winter camping and fishing excursion can be an exciting way to spend a weekend outdoors. If you can stay warm and dry, you’ll have a much better time, even if the fish don’t cooperate.