Readers respond with winter camping hints

A week ago, I may have hinted (or begged) for help from BDN readers. If you missed that column, here’s the short version: My bosses decided that they were going to send me out into the cold, cruel world, and expected me to sleep in a snow shelter that I’d build myself.

“Great story!” they said. “You’ll have fun!” they said.

“Help!” I said.

And help, you did. I received plenty of responses from readers, many of whom think nothing of digging into snowbanks, setting up camp, and snoozing under piles of the white stuff.

Thankfully, we’ve got tons of the white stuff. Heck, earlier this week I got to eyeballing the snowbank that my plow guy left, and almost grabbed a shovel and started digging.


I didn’t, of course, because I was still too busy receiving emails and phone calls from people like you — people who wanted to lend their expertise and make sure I didn’t end up doing anything stupider than usual.

After a week of those calls and messages, I think I’m ready to get started. In fact (as you’ll learn later on), I’ve got a fool-proof plan that I think will work quite well.

First, though, here are some of the suggestions that your fellow readers passed along.

Larry Ferrell, a veteran outdoorsman from Newport, offered perhaps the best endorsement of all, and my initial nervousness began to wane.

“Winter is the best time to go camping,” he wrote. “Why? There are no bugs.”

Good point, Larry.

Ferrell, it turns out, spent a decade as a scoutmaster, taking scouts on winter camping trips each year.

“Seriously, winter camping can be fun if you have the knowledge to be able to be comfortable, and not just ‘manning up.’”

Among Ferrell’s tips: Use an inflatable air mattress for ground cover; build the shelter close to a cliff or rock wall and put a reflector fire between the rock and the shelter; sleep in thermal underwear with a wool cap.

Good suggestions, all.

Two readers independently told me about a guy named Chuck Whitney, who will be teaching the art of making a native snow shelter — a quinzhee — under the auspices of the Schoodic Institute.

Tony Coyne, a reader from Rockland, started his email by calling me “The Dave Barry of outdoors writing.” That, as you can imagine, earned him a few bonus points.

And after sharing several very useful tips, Coyne addressed one of my biggest fears: How do I avoid suffocation if I’m sleeping in this air-tight snow pile?

“The single most important feature is a hole in the roof, usually a couple of inches wide, which allows the carbon monoxide to escape throughout the night,” he wrote. “Keep a short pole or stick handy to keep that hole open. Winds will tend to fill that hole.”

Pole for hole. Check.

Another reader, Duane Aldrich of Lee, had an off-beat idea.

“ Forget the bears?” he asked referring to the fact that I had written that bears wouldn’t be a concern for me during this winter camping snafu … oops … excursion, since they were all hibernating in their own snow shelters.

“ I would suggest contacting [Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife bear biologist] Randy Cross,” Aldrich wrote. “He’s sure to know where there is a den already for use that won’t require a lot of snowshoeing to reach. With any luck it will also be occupied. That way you can be assured that it will be warm enough so you don’t freeze to death!”

Dances With Wolves, I’m OK with. Slumbers With Bears? Not so much.

I even received a press release from a company that seemed like it was eager to help.

If I was going to go winter camping, the release informed me, I certainly, obviously had to wear a pair of Darn Tough Vermont socks. Full-cushion, don’t you know. Merino wool. Naturally antimicrobial to repel bacteria.

Bacteria-free socks would be a plus, I figure. After all, if I’m willing to poke a blow hole in a perfectly good snow pile so that I don’t suffocate, it’d be a shame if I ended up choking to death in my sleep, killed by my own foot stench.

But eventually, I received the email of the day. Of the week. Of the year, even.

Dianne Kopec, an adjunct instructor at Unity College, told me that she had a deal I couldn’t refuse.

And she was right.

“I am writing to suggest that my students build you a quinzhee on the central green of our campus,” she wrote. “It is simple to build, and would be instructive to the general public as it would demonstrate how they could protect themselves if they are caught outside in the snow.”

Good point. The best point, of course, remains the fact that a team of eager college students would be on hand to do much of the digging and blow-hole engineering.

“Building a quinzhee on the central green has several advantages,” Kopec concluded, making an argument that by this point was unnecessary (she had me at “my students build you”).

“The site is beautiful, a gentle slope looking north toward Unity Pond, and easily accessible from the campus drives,” she wrote. “You would have an enthusiastic audience for your adventure.”

That part kind of worries me, to be honest — I remember being an “enthusiastic audience” for all kinds of things back when I was in college. None turned out so well, as I recall. But her final sentence sealed the deal.

“If disaster struck, there would be nearby places of refuge,” Kopec concluded.

I love it when a plan — even one that’s been foisted upon me by my bosses — comes together.

John Holyoke can be reached at or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.