A change of pace
Winter camping can be fun
By Greg Seubert
Imagine trying to stay warm when the thermometer reads minus-20 or dry in a blizzard.
It doesn’t sound like fun, but don’t tell that to Nick Gordon.
“I hate being in the cold, but if you have the right clothes – not the most expensive clothes – you can be pretty comfortable,” he said. “I try to show people it can be a lot of fun. People get cold feet. I teach them how not to have cold feet. We talk about how to stay dry and stay warm.”
Staying comfortable while camping in the middle of winter is Gordon’s specialty.
The Kenosha man, who teaches outdoors and wilderness survival courses at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, also operates NOW Outdoors LLC, a business that helps people become more skilled, experienced and confident while outdoors.
He brought a group of 15 people, including 10 first-time winter campers, to private property in the Portage County town of Belmont, a few miles southeast of Hartman Creek State Park, for a three-day trip in late February.
“People don’t know how to be in the woods anymore,” Gordon said. “A lot of people think this is life-or-death survival. I get a lot of, ‘You’re crazy.’ The way I see it, there are six months of cold and people who love camping shouldn’t be stuck with only six months of enjoying the outdoors.”
He has been teaching and guiding wilderness adventure, emergency readiness and survival programs throughout the Midwest and abroad since 2009.
“People come out here and don’t know how to build a fire on snow,” he said after taking a break from cutting wood. “Our fire is 6 of 7 feet long. We’ll cut a tree down and drop one log at a time.”
Winter camping has its advantages, according to Gordon.
“It’s really quiet,” he said. “The snow absorbs a lot of the sound. If you’re by water, you can see a lot more wildlife. It’s a whole different vibe. There are no bugs, no sweat. The longer the trip, the better.”
The trip to was Gordon’s second to the Waupaca area in just over a month. He hosted about 20 campers Jan. 11-14 at the Frozen Butt Hang, an event that he has held each of the past seven years.
Although the February trip started with sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s, temperatures at the Frozen Butt Hang dipped to 13 degrees below zero.
“We had a cabin up north,” Gordon said. “I always wanted a winter tent as a kid, but never got one. I bought a hammock for $90 and had five layers of clothes. I just went out, layered up and had a great time.”
He estimates he spends about 150 nights a year outdoors. He spent 70 nights outdoors in the winter of 2014-15, including 20 nights with temperatures hovering around minus-20.
Gordon prefers to take people camping on private property with permission from the landowner.
“What’s nice about private land is it’s free,” he said. “We’ll go ice fishing. We’ll split wood. We’ll cook. You can make anything out here. If you go to a gear store or website, they will try to sell you everything. I just tell beginners to borrow a tent and see what other people are using.”
Besides Wisconsin, Gordon has taken his students and clients to Canada, Alaska, Mount Everest and the Amazon Jungle.
His winter campers includes kids as young as 10 with their parents to others in their 60s.
Some of the trips are over a weekend, while others are longer. Campers can hike up to 40 miles and change campsites on a week-long trip.
Each trip is different, as winter weather is often unpredictable.
“Cold, wet weather is the worst,” Gordon said. “Sleet and freezing rain is no joke. All your gear gets encrusted.”
Aaron Hense, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student from Muskego, joined Gordon’s group for the February trip.
“It’s just a different pace,” he said after setting up his tent. “A lot more planning goes into it. It’s a little bit of a challenge and it gets people out of their comfort zone.”
The trips all have one thing in common for Gordon: connecting his students and clients with the outdoors.
“I love the scared confusion,” he said. “I really love it when I see people succeeding outside and having a good time.”