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Winter Camping

Really? Yes, really!

Article by Ryan Cranston

Photography by Randy Miller, Jerrod Hammond, Mason Klebold, Ryan Cranston

Originally published in Grand Junction Lifestyle

Winter, they said. It’ll be fun they said.

For many, the onset of winter is not the most exciting change in the world. Cold, dark, and uncomfortable are some terms commonly connected with the “W” word. But for myself, and a few good friends, it IS exciting. It means ice fishing, snowmobiling, and…camping!

Being outdoors is one of the things that drives me, and I fully believe it’s incredibly beneficial to overall health, both mental and physical. So it was only natural that about seven or eight years ago, my friend Mason and I, undoubtedly while sitting around the TV watching the Broncos game came up with the hair-brained idea of going camping in the Grand Mesa backcountry on snowmobiles.

I mean, why WOULDN’T we do that? Right?

Winter camping on the Grand Mesa is a true wilderness experience since there is NOBODY else around for many, many miles. The silence at night can be deafening. Some of our favorite spots are 20 miles in any direction from the nearest maintained road. If someone gets hurt, or you have any kind of emergency, help is a LONG way away, if it’s available at all. As a member of the Mesa County Search and Rescue Snowmobile team, I don’t take this lightly at all. The fact is, even if you are able to call for help, it’s going to be hours or possibly even the next day before anyone arrives. In addition, winter camping at elevations of 10-11k feet in Colorado does present some unique challenges. Beyond the obvious ones like staying warm and not dying, there are other things that are much, much harder to do when you’re trying to camp somewhere with six to nine feet of snow on the ground. One of these is to erect and maintain shelter. When there’s no dirt to drive stakes into, securing a large shelter well enough that it doesn’t take flight in 30-40 mph winds is tough. 

We have certainly made mistakes over the years, and I like to think that we’ve learned from them and improved. Up until the 2022 trip, we had not faced any extremely bad weather. We had some cold night time temps of 25 below zero and up to a foot of storm snow, and some snowmobile breakdowns, but overall the first seven years of winter backcountry camping were fairly benign, and tons of fun! In fact, it’s been so much fun that our group doubled from two to four. (hahaha, very popular right?!) But we were about to experience some of the worst camping weather any of us have ever encountered, in March of 2022.

With all of us being dads, scheduling a three-day trip to run willy-nilly in the woods, that works for everybody’s schedule is virtually impossible. So, even when the weather forecast called for about 10” snow we were obviously still going. We had confidence in our methods, and our gear at this point and felt like we’d be fine. And we were, but we were reminded who is ultimately in charge, and does not care, by Mother Nature herself when she proceeded to dump over 30 inches of snow on us during our three-day trip. The truth of it is, with that much new snow, camping becomes work. A lot of work. You have to knock snow off the tent, shovel out the tent, keep your equipment from being buried, etc., etc. constantly. We even broke trail from camp all the way back to the parking lot during the storm, just to ensure we’d be able to get out with camp in tow on the final day (this proved to be our best idea of the trip!). All of this work didn’t leave much time for the real reason for going, which is ice fishing. And even when we did try to go fishing, the heavy snowfall pressing down on the ice was causing so much overflow that the lakes were almost impossible to navigate safely due to snowmobiles getting stuck in 18” of slush under the snow.

We will go again this year, and are all eagerly awaiting the trip. We will however, be hoping for a better forecast. Go outside and do cool stuff with great friends and family, your health depends on it!

*Activities like the one described above carry inherent risk. Know your limits and experience. Don’t push your limits – in winter EVERYTHING is much more difficult and takes far longer, even in good weather. Don’t even think about doing things like this with anyone you ultimately don’t trust your life with. Carry appropriate safety gear and know how to use it blindfolded and upside down. Some of the safety gear we take is listed below. This is NOT an all-inclusive list, but just some highlights of essential things, beyond the normal winter clothing and camping gear.

*Satellite communication device: SPOT or InReach. This is your best chance to call for help, since there is no cell service on most of the mountain.

*Carbon Monoxide detector: A must-have, when hot tenting.

*GPS, map and compass: Even if you are familiar with the area. When you can’t see your hand in front of your face because it’s snowing that hard, you better know how to navigate.

*Two-way radios: Keep the group in touch with each other if you get out of sight of each other.

*First Aid – Have the training and gear to take care of each other as if your life depends on it, because it does.

*Battery banks for your electronics – cold will decrease battery power much faster. 

*Multiple, reliable fire starting implements – you must have fire. 

*Firewood cutting and splitting implements – you’re going to need way more wood than you think. We even pack in hardwood like cherry or peach for stoking the stove at night. It burns 3-4 times longer and hotter than the aspen or spruce that is locally available on the mountain.

*Extra set of dry clothing for each person.

*Water procurement and purification methods – and ways to keep your water from freezing solid when it dips to -25 degrees.

*Sleeping system for cold, wet conditions. This means synthetic insulation instead of down, cots are great to get you off the cold floor.

*Food for a couple days longer than you plan to be there. You never know what might happen.

*Backups of everything, remember: 2 is 1, and 1 is NONE

*I would recommend starting out within walking distance of a maintained road. This way, when things go south, you *should* have an easy way out. But even this has no guarantees.

*Have a detailed written plan as to where you will camp and when you’ll be back. Stick to the plan and make sure you leave it with your family. Leaving a copy on the dashboard of your vehicle is a good idea as well. This is the only way you’ll be found if you have an emergency.

*Durable, waterproof shelter is a must. We use a tipi made by a Grand Junction company named Seek Outside. Ours is the 12 person model, which has enough room for 4 people on cots with the titanium wood stove for heat (also made by Seek Outside).

Go outside and do cool stuff with great friends and family, your health depends on it!