To Afton, and beyond...

Another last minute decision. The temperature is cold enough – it'll be at least -10C tonight. I know I've been putting it off – finding excuses not to go because this or that needs to be done. It's only one night and now I've run out of excuses. If I don't go tonight, I don't know when I'll get a chance again to test out the gear. The plan is to go for a longer trip in February, but February is a cruelly short month, over before you know it. Winter slips by like sand in an hourglass. I want to head out for longe, but with our first baby on the way hiking plans have to take second place. This one night might be the only opportunity for a while, and I should make the most of it. After all, one night is better than no night.

Over the winter, I've built up a collection of gear to supplement and enhance my rather limited set of cold-weather kit. Most of it has remained untested in snow and cold. I really wanted to make sure my new winter clothing and sleeping system could handle the varying weather conditions we get in Minnesota. Unlike Lapland, where the sun hangs so low it offers little or no heat until March or April, Minnesota is at the same latitude as Southern France and the sun rises high enough to warm the ground even in deepest winter. It's not uncommon to have a -15C air temperature and melting snow on the ground. Night and day temperatures veer wildly between extreme cold and not-unpleasant, spring-like warmth. This makes selecting gear that much harder. You're not simply going to be cold; you're going to sweat, then get cold, which is never fun.

Last Autumn, you may recall, I didn't get a chance to test out my Laufbursche huckePACK. So today, it was the first thing out of the gear closet. I grabbed my Multimat Adventure CCF pad to give it some structure, and crammed my WM Antelope into a stuff sack. Opening the pad wide enough inside the pack to accommodate the bulky winter bag was a chore. It barely fit. I made a mental note to try stuffing the bag in first next morning, and then slip the mat on top. That worked much better.

The huckePACK is a surprisingly large pack. I wasn't packing particularly sensibly, but there was still plenty of room for more gear once I'd squeezed everything in. It carries extremely well. My pack weight was around 7kg, and I didn't notice the pack's presence at all while hiking. The presence of load lifters makes a big difference - especially when a pack is loaded high. The larger main outer pocket takes a snow-claw and DuoMid as it it were made for them. As for the other two pockets, they are roomy, but I found I would prefer the angled side pocket to just be a simple rectangular style; my water bottle fell out while I was bending to fiddle with snow shoe buckles. The other side pocket, while rectangular, has a cut in the side to allow access. It's handy, but I was worried about losing my kuksa and tent stakes. It's a matter of personal choice – some people like to access the side pockets while wearing the pack, but I'm not dextrous enough. I'll fix a couple of shock cord cinches to them to keep things nice and secure.

I used a four-section piece of Z-lite on the back of the pack for added padding. I originally thought that the shock cord holding it in place would not be sufficient, but it did a great job. The pad never moved, and was very comfortable. It was also a great thing to take with me – serving as a kneel pad, sit pad, and added insulation for my back at night. don't leave home without one!

I'm driving to Afton. A bald eagle swoops down out of nowhere. It always amazes me to see them. Even in central Minneapolis, by the Mississippi, I often see them scoping out the river banks for mice. It is a good sign. I stop by the park office. No trouble getting a campsite today. Down to the end of the road. I take out the pack, and buckle up the snow shoes. Off we go.

Joe tipped me off on some good and reasonably priced ski-poles – the

Black Diamond Traverse

. A two-section pole, with a simple flick lock tightener. Light enough, sturdy, simple, and strong enough for the DuoMid. Their cheerful orange colour doesn't hurt in the snow either. They even match my Lightning Ascents. It's important to be fashion conscious while hiking. You never know who you'll meet.

I trek down the hill, taking a winding, narrow, steep path through some aspen. My snow shoes crunch, gripping tight. There is a trail, but I decide to head off track through deeper snow.

And now another hill – up this time. Time to raise the heel lifters. I'm glad I have them. It's not a big hill, but it's enough to point out my state of unfitness. I wonder how the guys in Bozeman and Colorado do this all the time. I seriously need to exercise more!

I chose not to wear my

Aclima WarmWool

top. The temperatures were not cold enough, and I was worried I'd be sweating buckets in it. Instead I went with my good old Haglöfs synthetic baselayer. It dries incredibly quickly after a workout, and my only complaint is that the torso length is a little short. I often find this though. My shirts ride up too easily. I wish more manufacturers would offer a long body option.

Up in the camping area. Not many people have been here – no tracks, and deep snow. I'm not sure where I'm going to stay, but I find one site that people have been in recently. It's a good spot – under a stand of birch, shielded from the wind but with a view over the prairie. They obviously dug into the snow, and I decide to take advantage of their work. I lay out the DuoMid and stake down the corners, leaving the snow to sinter while I head off to explore the park some more.

It probably would have been easier to just set up on fresh snow. I don't know why the people before me felt the need to dig down to the cold ground, but I thought the walls around the shelter might save me building a wind break. As it was, I had to dig into them and construct slots for my

REI Parachute Stakes

.  I was a little concerned that they wouldn't be strong enough to hold the DuoMid in place. It requires a fair amount of tension to maintain a taut pitch, but I shouldn't have worried. It is amazing how strong a snow-anchor can be once it's set. In one corner I had to use a

MSR Blizzard

stake. I'd not used one before, but after scratching a line in ice, it slipped in nicely, horizontally, and after I buried it in snow, it held fast. I find the snow parachutes to be better – more flexible, easier to set in snow, sand or with rocks. Plus, they weigh next to nothing.

For working around camp, I used a

Snow Claw

- a cheap, plastic, emergency snow shovel. It did the job, but next time I'll take a decent shovel (maybe a Black Diamond Deploy 3) as shuffling around on my knees with the snow claw killed my back.

As for gloves, I had four pairs with me. Well, three technically, as the

Montane Resolutes

are a layered set. The pile and pertex inners are prefect for snow work; they don't get wetted out in the snow, which is more than I can say for the air of thicker PowerDry liner gloves I was wearing at first. Stupid of me I kno, but the cold does that to you. Anyway, in this case, PowerDry didn't dry very well. The good thing about the resolutes is that if it does get wet and windy you can slip the eVent mitts over the top. My final pair of gloves were a cheap pair of thin liners, which are great for doing odd jobs around camp that you might need your fingers for. Next time, I'll skip the PowerDry pair.

I stomp through the snow, making a path through the trees, across the whitened prairie, going nowhere in particular. That's the beauty of snow shoeing, I think to myself. Go anywhere in perfect silence.

I skirt around an island of trees. As I pass, the wind starts biting into my face. I slip on the wind shirt, glad I decided to bring it at the last minute. Which way? Which way now?

Into the open white expanse. Deep, untouched snow. Even my snow shoes can't float above this soft powder. I struggle on, knees lifted high, toppling now and then into a drift. I smile as I push myself up and on, the wind still at my heels. I'm hungry.

The Tanka Bar, is, in my humble opinion, the best snack ever. Pounded buffalo (well, technically bison) meat with cranberries, produced by a start-up company on Pine Ridge reservation, 150 calories, and weighing in at only 1oz. Also available in a spicy hot version! (Commercial over.)

Restored, I plough on, heading back towards the campsite, excited to finish setting up the shelter and getting some food on the go. It's hard work though – sometimes the shortest route is the hardest. When I see the bright yellow of my shelter I am relieved. The snow has set hard. Everything is going to be okay. I just need to get some water. I take off my shoes and head along a packed path, and immediately discover why snow shoes are necessary. With every other step I posthole into the snow. The return journey, as I stumble back with a pot of water is frustrating, to say the least. I make a mental note not to try that again. 

Food. Yummy, delicious, dehydrated food. Or not. I decided to try a different brand of organic dried ginger and sesame pasta. I don't really know why I did this as the idea of ginger and sesame pasta sounds awful to me now. I think I didn't want to eat a huge pack of Backcountry Pantry, and this brand made smaller, 1.5 serving packages. My mistake. It was awful.

But let's look on the bright side... my

Primus Express Spider

was wonderful.

Fast and efficient, not too noisy, lightweight and simple to use. My boil time was a little slow as I didn't bother to take a wind break, but nothing to worry about. My GSI Haluite pot was large enough to boil enough water for the meal a nice cup of Russian Caravan tea which I drank from a

Kupilka Kuksa

for the first time – about which more will follow in another post.

As I sit eating in silence, I notice my legs and feet getting colder. The temperature is falling with the sun. Somewhere, not too far away, a pack of coyotes start howling.

It's time to enter Ice Station Zebra.

I don't usually suffer from cold feet – cold hands, yes, but my feet usually run hot. But hanging around in camp in slightly damp boots is when hot feet turn cold.

I was a little worried about this, so did a lot of research into keeping my feet warm and dry in camp and while on the move. I know a lot of people swear by vapour barrier liners, but I feel they are really not for me. Layering systems are vital for winter, but I'd just get annoyed with a complex layering system on my

feet. It's enough hassle putting snow shoes on and adjusting buckles without fiddling with waterproof socks, plastic bags, and overboots.

I bought a pair of

Integral Designs Hot Socks

to slip on in camp, and a pair of Tyvek booties to pull over them so I could walk around in camp (or, as was the case, slide around in camp – they are quite slippery on snow). These were just about adequate. At first I tried squeezing my Hot Sock enclosed feet back into  my Vasque GoreTex boots. It was a tight fit, but helped to dry them out a bit more. In colder weather, a pair of down booties would be better.

In the leg department, my

BPL Cocoon Pants

were excellent. Super lightweight (213g), really warm, and water resistant. Just perfect. I'm very happy with them. They are very flexible as part of a layering system.

Time for bed. I pack used things away loosely and pile everything inside the DuoMid. Out with the CCF pad and air mattress. Puff up the sleeping bag. Do I need the bivy bag? Probably not, but it won't hurt. Air pillow – check. With a luxury lantern all is good. I curl up inside the bag, the air cold on my face.

Foolishly, I forgot to make a shock cord system to attach the Exped pillow to my Ether Elite, so once again I was in for a nocturnal wrestling match as I tried to reposition the pillow from within the cocoon of my sleeping bag. Every time I got it in position, it moved when I got back inside the bag. Over and over again,

ad nauseum


And I'm really torn about the sleeping bag. The WM Antelope is well made, warm, and fairly light. The hood cinches down tight and at night, in winter, when all you want is to be cosily tucked up and protected from the cold and the wind, a mummy bag is perfect. But when it comes down to it, I'm a side sleeper, and mummy bags are made for back sleepers. I would be far better served by a quilt and a separate down hood – much like the set up that



. The only problem is that I'm not convinced a quilt is the best solution (for me) in true cold.

Sure, in a mummy bag, the down beneath you is compressed and inefficient. And that night, I did start to feel the cold radiating up from the ground. This was mainly because the Multimat Adventure and Ether Elite 6 were not enough even together for anything below -10C. After I slipped the 4-section Z-lite under my hips (this is where I felt the cold from, mainly) it was a little better, but still not perfect.

Perhaps the only solution is a quilt in combination with a down/synthetic filled air mattress. I don't know, but it's an expensive thing to try and find out I'm still not warm enough.

The Antelope is rated to -15C, and I feel this is very accurate. I wouldn't want to take it below that. In colder weather, I could easily extend it's range by combining it with the Golite 3-Season quilt, but the main place I felt the cold was under my hips, and that problem is more likely related to my baselayer riding up and the pads not being warm enough. Perhaps

Kooka Bay's secret down pad

is worth a look.

I picked up a balaclava for the trip, but in the end found it wasn't warm enough. I was warmer just sleeping in my

Mountain Hardwear windproof fleece hat

. This is my go-to had for everything. Possibly the warmest hat I own.

Still, even with all these gripes, I had a relatively good night's sleep after midnight.

Dogs barking somewhere. Talking to each other it seems. At least I think they are dogs. Maybe they are rabid coyotes? And now – distant sirens. They must be in Afton. What the hell's going on? Was that gunfire? It sounded like it. Maybe a farmer is shooting coyotes? Or maybe the police are hunting an escaped convict, and he's going to run through the state park, trying to evade them. What if he finds my shelter? Maybe he'll shoot me! Calm down. There are no rabid coyotes or escaped convicts. There are no rabid coyotes or escaped convicts. There are no......Zzzzzzzz.

I wake up early, with the light. I still have both legs and no gunshot wounds. I decide to make coffee to celebrate.

Thankfully, I remembered to keep my water bottle and boots inside the bivy bag, close enough to my body to keep them warm.

The main reason for getting the Spider was the ability to use the gas in 'inverted' mode during winter, to ensure an appropriate mixture of fuels reached the stove. After warming the pre-heating tube, the stove lit immediately – which was a relief as this was the first time I'd attempted this.

While the method of ignition was fine, the stove slid around on the thin aluminium pad. I'm going to need to make something similar to the

MYOG stove pad over at Thunder in the Night

. But for this night, I would manage with some careful balancing.

The inside of the DuoMid – as expected – was covered in frost, but this shook off easily when breaking camp.

To be honest, I'm surprised there wasn't more, but the wind, which picked up in the night, probably helped disperse some condensation.

Coffee and oatmeal. Then another coffee. I'm ready to go. I crawl out into the day, and start shuffling around, packing up, excavating stakes, and – what's that? A fox dashes out of the trees. I rush for the camera, fumbling with the lens cap – too late. It's gone. It seemed happy, bounding along with the same expression my Springer has in the snow; pure glee.

Can dogs and foxes can know glee? I remember something I read about babies in the womb. Apparently at around 19 weeks, they can dream. But what do they dream of? They haven't seen anything yet; their eyes are still closed. Do they dream of sounds? Amniotic tastes? Movement? Heartbeats?

There it is again! The fox! It's taking exactly the same route as before! It's like the deja vu cat in The Matrix. This time I'm ready. I grab the camera, raise it – but the lens is too wide, and apparently covered in frost.

Can you see the fox? It's in there, somewhere!

I'm packed up and ready to go. I strap on the snow shoes. I think I'll take the long way out, and go for a walk around the park some more. It's a beautiful morning. Crisp and fresh. My show shoes crunch along. I'll be home soon enough, but not yet...

For some reason that morning, the snow shoe bindings were not quite right. With every step they would clatter and rebound with a double tap-tap. It became so irritating I had to re-adjust them twice, but to no avail. It seems that with large boots, the bindings can rub against the edge of the floatation platform, causing them to flip-flop up and down. The manual informs me that I can cut a curve out and remedy the problem. Add that to the list of little things that need fixing then!

Down the hill, stomp stomp stomp. A beautiful trail down to the St Criox River. As before, I feel refreshed; lighter somehow, as if I've shaken off some burdens.  There's a lot to look forward to this year. 

"Big changes are coming, here they come..." 

An old favourite Laurie Anderson song rolls around  my head. How did it go? Oh yes...

"What next, big sky?"