Hiking in the Winter Backcountry
On my first morning out in the field (quite literally), my boots were frozen. Just two days into our winter hiking/camping trip in Northern Ontario, I was already starting to feel the icy sting. So far, my sister and I had hiked a little less than 20 Km. At this point, was it really feasible to hike 230 km in ten days?
Insofar I had done only mildly crazy stuff, from hiking long distances to standing knee deep in some pretty chilly water. This last December break was a chance for me to take that up to eleven. We were going to hike the Bruce Trail in Northern Ontario to the Bruce Peninsula National Park, famed in Canada for its grotto coloured a pristine emerald blue.
The reasoning for this trip was simple — clouds. As readily apparent, my style of photography lies in making a scene appear dramatic, in a sense of organized chaos, if I may. Winter gives me that. Winter gives me days when the skies are completely blanketed in the dramatic goodness only cloud texture can provide. But winter also asks a lot of those who dare to venture out into its domain. Yet, here I was, convinced that cloud texture and dramatic landscapes were worth the extra effort.
The preparation was by far the easiest. Many hours were spent scouring the internet for all manner of advice and tutorials on winter gear, and weekends were spent perusing the aisles of our local MEC store, both to compare items and consult more experienced adventurers. While I am an advocate for gear minimalism, I have to throw in the towel on this one — winter gear cannot be skimped on.
There were so many times during this trip that I appreciated having the gear that I did on my back. Having a good, solid -20C sleeping bag and pad kept me warm (and alive) even in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere, with no heat source other than our own bodily furnaces, and 4-season tent dutifully blocked the chilling effects of the winter night’s gusts. Making do with minimal photography gear is easy, making do with minimal winter gear is not. My sister still claims, to this day, that my convincing her to buy proper gear was the best thing I’d ever done for her.
Challenges were omnipresent, for sure, but not in a readily apparent manner. For someone who had never experienced the cold before, the negative temperatures were my primary concern, and mitigating them was made top priority. Yet, resisting the cold effects on the body was relatively easy. All one has to do is don proper clothing and layers for the most part. The greatest challenge, no matter how appreciative I am of their companionship, was in fact the gear I had on my back. Yes, the weight factor. The things that kept me alive were also the things that strained my body to no end — precisely one of the reasons I advocate for gear minimalism.
All in all, my winter gear weighed close to 30Kg. Naive old me thought it would be a piece of cake to handle. With experience, it probably would have been, but this trip was the polar opposite — for me to gain experience in the winter back-country. Prior to this trip, I had little to none in carrying such copious amounts of gear on my back. Couple the weight factor with frequent occasions of mild dehydration and you get a couple of incredulously angsty people. Long walks were shared in silence, alone with only our thoughts.
The biggest disappointment, however, was at the end of each night when we checked our pedometers. Every night we sank in the realization that we had gotten nowhere near our daily goal. Some days were a little less bleak, coming in at around 20Km, while others barely made a dent. On a warm, summer day, hiking 23Km before sundown would not have been much too much of a problem, but at this time, walking on the slippery snow coupled with astonishingly short periods of daylight, we did the best we could — but our bests weren’t enough.
At times, we deviated from the Bruce Trail — a popular summer hiking trail in Northern Ontario turned scarcely populated backcountry turf in the winter — to shamelessly hike the highway. It was depressing at times, resorting to the usage of motorways while on a nature hike, but time was precious and fleeting, and we had to reach the mapped out towns/checkpoints before we inevitably ran out of food.
Running out of food while out on a winter hike is a bad idea. For one, our bodies relied on the heat we produced from the food we ate. Not eating was simply not an option, unless we were alright with freezing (we were not). We had planned to buy specific rations of food in the small towns we passed through during the hike, but one resource stuck out in particular — water. Most of the land on which we hiked was farmland on which hikers were graciously permitted by the landowners to do their thing. Houses were few and far between, if any at all, so tap water was out of the question. Using purification tablets on lake water was not an option due to the low, unsuitable temperatures. Our only option then was to dig up and boil snow right from the ground on which we walked.
The snow held little water, and we had to watch as our fuel reserves gradually dwindled as the boiling of such small amounts necessitated long durations of burning. In the end, the water somehow usually tasted of a slight metallic essence, but we had to make do or risk dehydration. Twice, we were able to ask the remote homeowners for a refill of our bottles — a luxury we cherished as they tasted much more refreshing and pure compared to boiled snow and ice.
Despite weight being biggest challenge, to some extent I was prepared for it. For the trip, I opted for just the bare essentials in regards to my photography kit — a single Fujifilm X-T2, 16-55 F2.8, three extra batteries and a few filters were all that lined the walls of my camera bag. In addition, I had my tripod strapped down securely to my backpack. If I can leave you with anything, it is this — if you can make do without it, don’t bring it. Often, in the heated moments of angst and tiredness, I contemplated why I had even brought the tripod along. I knew I needed it in case the Northern Lights made an appearance, as we were told they might (though sadly never did). Beyond once doing some astrophotography, I was strapped for reasons to hold onto the tripod. It was unnecessary weight, and it was adding to the strain on my back. So once again, if you don’t absolutely need it, don’t bring it.
To be honest, this trip was never photography-centric. I did no research into potential photography locations and never wrote a shot itinerary, beyond the grotto itself. So why all the trouble to bring a camera with me out into the frozen outdoors? I want to eventually start venturing out into the backcountry again. I had no experience thus far on surviving on my own out in the wilderness, whereas my sister did. This trip was not so much for getting images as it was for getting experience. I wanted to know what hiking extraneous distances carrying overbearing loads with limited food and water would be like. If naive old me had had his way, I would have just gone out on my own at some point thinking it would be a piece of cake. Thankfully, I did no such thing.
Experience is crucial to any feat. People learn best from their mistakes. Mine was overestimating my abilities. On our first time winter hiking/camping, both my sister and I, experience and slightly less experienced respectively, made errors that could have posed great danger to ourselves. My sister almost had the audacity to venture out into -20C temperatures with nothing but winter clothing and summer camping gear, and I had the audacity to think carrying 30kg on a long hike would be a cakewalk. If I can leave you anything, it is never to overestimate your abilities.
Overall, this trip was a lot more painful than I would have liked. We also never did make it all the way to the end, as a family emergency required our early return. In the end, we only really hiked 120 km; yet, despite all the trials and tribulations, I would not give this up for the world. I love the backcountry, and all its untouched and pristine beauty. Though the situation was intensely grueling at times, being alone with my thoughts was not always a bad thing. It let me reevaluate a lot of things about myself, and my life. It made me appreciate even more the fact that some photographers are willing to go to extremes to create art, and it reinforced the fact that hard work and experience can never be excused, regardless of how much gear one has. In a way, this trip was my first step towards becoming a true digital nomad photographer. I hope to venture into the backcountry again soon.
As always, 'till next time,
P.S. Pro tip: apparently you’re supposed to keep your boots wrapped up and stored inside your sleeping bag rather than just exposed, even inside your tent! Your body heat keeps the boots from freezing, which saves a lot of pain to get up in the morning! Exactly one of the reasons why experience is so important.