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One cool experience: Camping not just for summer months

Skiing, as seen above by Tyler Riegelman and JT Schneider during their trip, is one of the main ways to travel while winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoeing Area. It is also convenient to pull gear on a sled instead of carrying all of the equipment.1 / 3
JT Schneider and Tanner Bakke cut firewood to cook and stay dry.2 / 3
Food is an important part of survival in winter camping. Justin Lunde sits next to the fire during the 2011 winter camping trip, while others are preparing their next meal.3 / 3

The smell of burnt marshmallows and tiki lights are not always synonymous with camping for outdoors enthusiasts in Red Wing. Instead of hunkering down underneath a cozy blanket to enjoy the falling snow through a window pane, some people brave the ever-changing climate of winter to go camping.

The Red Wing Environmental Learning Center leads a group of students up to the Boundary Water Canoe Area every year to have this winter experience.

The BWCA, located in northern Minnesota, is an area with no cellphone reception and limited satellite signal. When ELC junior instructors travel there, they have to rely on their own skill and abilities to survive.

Lucas Knowlton and Aaron Wildenborg were two of the junior instructors who took this trip to the Boundary Waters. Both teens have been involved in ELC since an early age and felt prepared going on this adventure.

"We all had plenty of training and ideas of how to take care of ourselves and knew what to do," Knowlton said.

This training involved taking two winter camping classes that began teaching them about what they would face. They learned about snow shelters, including a quinzhee, which they built while on their trip.

Jason Jech, the director of ELC, does not consider winter camping to be "rocket science," but he does think basic skills like fire-building and maintaining a food source are key to survival. These skills were taught and teens applied them on their trip.

A typical day while winter camping starts of much differently than one in the summer.

"You wake up freezing," Wildenborg said. After mustering up the will to get up, then it is time to make a fire to heat up water.

"Your body is always working trying to stay warm, even when you're doing nothing and just sitting around and talking," Jech said.

During the day, it is important to wear layers so it is possible to shed and add clothing when the body gets warmer and colder, he said.

"The food is a big part of winter camping," Jech said. That is what is used to fuel the body with calories to burn and keep itself warm along with ingesting warm liquids.

Eating snow is strongly discouraged, Jech said, because that cools down the body when it is fighting so hard to stay warm. However, he does not consider this the worst thing to do on a sunny day.

During their trip, Knowlton said they had a day they experienced minus 20 to 30 degree wind chills and were forced to stay at camp by the fire and eat to stay warm.

The adult instructors who accompanied the junior instructors on the trip have experienced winter camping, are very knowledgeable, and "are some of the greatest guys," Wildenborg said.

Jech said winter camping is not something he would encourage people to try without preparation and training. Instead, he said people can first try winter camping in their back yards and "bail" if they need to and go back indoors. They can work themselves up to the next level by camping locally and then maybe somewhere a little farther away.

Looking back on their frozen trip to the boundary waters, Wildenborg and Knowlton said they looked at the trip as an accomplishment.

It is a "lifelong experience you'll be able to take with yourself everywhere," Wildenborg said.