My wife, Paige Drobny, and I are dog mushers and guides for Squid Acres Kennel located in Fairbanks and Cantwell, Alaska. We have 50 Alaskan Huskies that we train to race the world’s two longest dogsled races, the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, both covering 1000 miles of chilly wilderness. Each of these races exposes us to some of the harshest winter elements for up to 10 days at a time. With the training and guided trips that we do, we are out in the elements daily from October to May, with temperatures sometimes dipping near -60F. Being a professional dog musher in Interior Alaska teaches you a thing or two about getting things done in cold weather. Nothing quite works normally when temperatures plunge well below zero and so one must use extreme care, a little forethought and ingenuity to get our daily tasks accomplished out on the trail.
One of the areas that is affected by extreme cold on the trail is our eating habits. During the midwinter training and racing, the dogs may run up to 120 miles each day. We usually run 50-60 miles. Stop so the dogs can rest for a few hours and then get back on the trail. This gives us little time to stop and feed ourselves. When it comes to snacking on the go, we must either pack snacks that are soft even when frozen or we must use that forethought and plan for what snacks we’d like to eat. In order to stay warm at these temperatures our bodies are burning immense amounts of calories and so we need to replace them with high calorie foods. One of our favorites for quick and easy trail snack are the Heather’s Choice Packaroons. They pack a high caloric punch in a small package. We simply put one of these packages of Packaroons in an inside pocket and let it thaw out and soften up a bit. When hunger strikes, it is right there and ready to eat.
For meals on the trail, we like extremely high calorie meals that we can heat up while making water for the dogs. We have large bucket “cookers” that use alcohol as fuel and can melt snow into 3.5 gallons of boiling water in about 10 minutes. We use this hot water to add to the frozen meat and kibble that we feed the dogs, who are burning up to 12,000 calories a day. We can also use this hot water to either drop prepackaged vacuum sealed frozen meals in and heat up or we can use this hot water to add to one of the fabulous Heather’s Choice dehydrated meals.
Those of you who have used a Heather’s Choice meal, know that some of the meals need to sit for up to 20 minutes while the meal is rehydrated from the hot water. Imagine trying to let your Salmon Chowder sit for 20 minutes in -30F temperatures. After 20 minutes you are most likely going to be looking at a frozen meal. So, this is where ingenuity and forethought come in again. We must come up with a way to keep the meal insulated while it rehydrates. My first method was to slide the meal into my massive beaver fur over-mitt that keeps my hands warm and then wrap an extra coat around that. I was quite pleased with the results, it worked well. However, the next time I tried it and didn’t fully seal the bag I was not so happy to have a little chowder in my mittens for the rest of the trip! It was time to come up with a new method.
One item, we find countless uses for is the foil backed reflective bubble wrap insulation. You can buy this in large rolls at your local hardware store and make everything you use a little warmer. We make insulated buckets for dog food, sleeping pads, insulation on the bottom of our cooker to keep it from melting into snow, extra insulation on water bottles or thermos, you name it. It occurred to me that I could mimic the beaver mitt and make an insulated pouch that I could put my Heather’s Choice meals in while they rehydrated. It weighs virtually nothing and has made an incredible difference in my, on the trail, cold weather meal preparations.
So here is what I did. I purchased a roll of foil backed reflective bubble wrap insulation and Tyvek house wrap tape at Lowe's. I decided I wanted enough room in this pouch for two packages of Heather’s Choice entrees and laid them out on the bubble wrap and drew a line for the size I wanted it to be.
I wanted it to be made with a double layer of the insulation, so I folded the bubble wrap to create the double walled pouch and then cut the shape out with a heavy-duty scissors leaving about 4 inches for the flap that can be tucked in to close it up. I then use the Tyvek house wrap tape to tape the edges of the pouch. This tape works better than duct tape for sticking to the insulation. It is also one of the best cold weather tapes that you can use for repair tape on tents, clothing, gear, you name it. It sticks better at cold temperatures than duct tape. The last step is to cut the flap edges at angles so it easily can fold into the pouch once food is in it.
Now you are ready for some cold weather camping! Don’t forget to test your stoves in cold weather to see how your fuel works at extreme cold!