Winter Camping in the Pennsylvania Wilds

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Northern Pennsylvania’s weather in April is predictably unpredictable. When Kurt and I first planned our overnight backpacking trip in the PA Wilds to scout for deer sign and pick leeks (a kind of wild onion), we didn’t expect a lot of snow and freezing temperatures. With that much snow, it made finding deer antlers difficult and locating leeks near impossible. With Kurt just getting back from an overseas deployment, and me not being able to do anything outside for a couple of weeks, we were going out no matter what the weather was like. This just meant that it would be a great time to try out some of our winter camping gear. I was excited to use my Seek Outside titanium stove inside of my floorless shelter with the temperature being so cold. In addition, Kurt recently purchased a Seek Outside tarp and swapped out his sleeping bag for a synthetic Enlightened Equipment quilt. With that being said, Kurt and I are going to go over a few takeaways and lessons learned from the trip.

Backcountry hunting stove, backpacking stove

Beau’s Stove Lesson:

Although I’ve had my Seek Outside Large stove for a year now, I’ve only used it a handful of times on trips. In the high country of Colorado, it worked great to warm our core body temperatures and dry out our gear in the evenings before we went to sleep. On this most recent trip, we had temperatures in the teens and a lot of snow on the ground. I decided to pack in a fire log due to the reality that finding dry wood may be a problem, which was something I’ve heard Adam Janke, of the Journal of Mountain Hunting, discuss before. We decided to camp in the bottom of a large valley that was littered with old growth hemlock trees and a meandering native trout stream. The hemlock trees provided us with plenty of small, dead pieces of wood that we could dry out with the help of the fire log. As we lay down on the cold ground, with Kurt’s dog Sage at our feet, we fired up the stove. It didn’t take long after the fire caught for the tipi to warm up. Everything was working great, as we put a little bit more wood on the fire and drifted off to sleep.

About fifteen minutes later, I woke up to Kurt shaking me and the tent was completely filled with smoke. The smoke was rolling out the seams of the stove and not out the pipe, like it is intended. Although, it’s nice being able to sleep through just about anything, in a situation like that, I was grateful that Kurt was there to be able to wake me up when this happened. FYI – this happened more than once…  We couldn’t figure out what had happened at first, but couldn’t put out the fire because of that fire log continuing to smolder. We cut off the oxygen to the stove by closing the front damper, but needed the heat to keep us and the dog warm through the night. I have to admit I was pretty useless as I kept drifting off to sleep, suddenly waking up in the middle of my sleep, yelling at Kurt to “Quit making it so smoky in here!” as if it was his fault.

We figured out that the spark arrestor had clogged up and was causing the smoke to go elsewhere; inside of the tent… Now that the stove was hot, we couldn’t take it apart to clean it. So with the smoke emitting from every crevice in the stove, we had to keep the doors open on the tipi to make sure that we weren’t breathing in the smoke. This made for a long night of little sleep in my case, and no sleep in Kurt’s case. Sorry Kurt! ☺

Lessons Learned: Always check your spark arrestors daily as they can become clogged with soot and ash. In addition, using soft wood like the hemlock branches caused it to become clogged much sooner than using hardwood. To reduce the chances of this when burning softwood, you should burn your stove hot for at least an hour each day to reduce any creosote and ash build up in your stove and pipe. Creosote buildup increases the more you damper the stove pipe due to the reduction of air intake on the stove door. If you get too much creosote in the stove pipe, it can cause an extremely hot creosote fire. A creosote fire will eventually throw flames out the top of your stove pipe and could potentially catch your tent on fire. Each day you should take apart the spark arrestor and stove pipe apart to smack them together and knock off the creosote buildup after it is cooled. Although we were lucky and ended up with just a night with little sleep, it could have been much worse. This was a hard lesson learned and something that we will take all necessary safety precautions to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Backcountry hunting equipment

Kurt’s Quilt Review:

One of the last things left for me to dial in on my backpacking setup was my sleep system. I had more than my fair share of cold nights because of having the wrong sleeping bag, and pad combination for the situation I was in. My first example comes from my first 7 day trip Colorado, where a 35 degree mummy bag combined with a sleeping pad with no insulation cause me to be very cold every single night. The following year I added a Kifaru Woobie to the sleeping bag and a Thermarest X-Lite and was nice and cozy.

However, I still wasn’t happy with my sleeping arrangements. The sleeping bag and woobie weighed a lot, and I had a hard time falling in love with the mummy style bag. After months and months of research, I decided to order an Enlightened Equipment(EE) Revelation Apex quilt. For those not familiar with quilts, it’s basically an insulated blanket with a closed footbox. Quilts don’t wrap around you completely, leaving you lying directly on your sleeping pad. By only going up to your shoulders and essentially being three sided, you are able to save a lot of weight. The idea behind having three sides as opposed to four is that when you compress your sleeping bag insulation by laying on it, you eliminate its insulating qualities. Along with the quilt, I purchased a hoodlum by EE to cover my head and neck while sleeping.

I went with a synthetic bag because of my fear of getting down wet; plain and simple. I could have easily cut off 10-12 oz by purchasing a down quilt, but the security of staying warm in wet environments, was worth the weight penalty. This would prove to be a good choice on my first night of testing, as the moisture from inside of the tipi caused a thin layer of frost to form on my footbox. Even with the frost, my feet stayed very warm throughout the whole night. Being able to lay on my side comfortably was a game changer, and not once did I feel like I was going to suffocate.

Overall, I could not believe how well the quilt worked for me. It is definitely staying in my gear list for a long time. Now I realize what you might be thinking, you slept in a tent with a wood stove? How could you get an accurate test? Well, with the stove problems Beau mentioned above, we had the tipi virtually wide open all night, getting very little heat from the stove. While tending the fire all night sucked for sleep, it provided me with a very realistic test for my sleep system.

Takeaways: While I have very little to complain about with my quilt experience, I will give you my suggestions when considering buying a quilt. Go with the wide option. There are endless options on the EE website, but you’ll be happy if you get one size wider than you think you need. Having  extra width would help prevent any cold spots and allow the sides to drape over the sides of your sleeping pad, keeping the cold air out. Also, having an insulated sleeping pad is critical in cold weather when using a quilt. Had my sleeping pad been uninsulated I don’t think I would have been as warm as I was.

Backcountry hunting

Conclusion:

It doesn’t matter how many times you go on a trip, you will always learn and want to improve something from it. That’s why we try to do as many short trips as we can leading into hunting season to know that our gear is dialed, our bodies are in shape, and that we are prepared for the adventure ahead. With that being said, I hope that we don’t need to partake in anymore winter backpacking trips until next winter!

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