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Camping In A Deep Freeze | Winter 2005 Out Here Magazine

Winter campers should research the gear and skills needed, Chuck Ungs advises.

Steer clear of bugs and crowds, and get a winter wonderland all to yourself

By Noble Sprayberry

Photography by Laura Segall

It was a proposition only a best friend could make: camping just south of the Canadian border in the middle of winter. Snow. Ice. Single-digit temperatures.

"I'm not sure who first came up with the idea but the other one was dumb enough to go along with it," says Chuck Ungs, 40.

Since 1988, Ungs and Brian Wolfgram camped in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota a dozen times, with trips coming between mid-December and late February.

While they chose the coldest months to ensure thick blankets of snow for snowshoes and skis and solid sheets of ice on the lakes, they also enjoyed benefits available to any winter campers.

"The big selling points are there are no bugs, no poison ivy, and no competition for campsites," says Ungs, a Toddville, Iowa, naturalist.

Solitude also provides a draw. While they always see at least one other camping group, Ungs says the trips make them feel they've got the entire wilderness area to themselves.

Still, most people aren't too sure about the idea, Ungs says.

"Most people think we're nuts. They can't imagine why you'd want to camp in the winter," he says. "We tell them that we like getting away and trying out our gear and knowing that if we need to depend on it, it will function."

Anyone considering winter camping anywhere should research the gear and skills needed for each trip, Ungs says. It's a lesson he and Wolfgram learned the hard way.

"After the first year we went up there, we tell everyone we were lucky to live through it," Ungs says.

Layers of long underwear provided plenty of warmth but an outer layer of denim jeans proved troublesome. "Cotton is never your friend when you're getting cold and wet," he says.

Wet cotton dries slowly and loses its ability to trap warmth, and Ungs now eliminates cotton from his camping wardrobe.

So, Ungs and Wolfgram adapted. Trail sleds, easily towed by someone on skis, replaced backpacks. High-tech cook stoves provide warmth and food. Synthetic materials create clothes that trap heat but wick away moisture from the body.

The first trip was four days but they've stayed as long as one week. Their record for the coldest temperature was 38 degrees below zero.

"When you go prepared," Ungs says, "it's really an enjoyable experience."

Noble Sprayberry is a freelance journalist based in Dallas.