Late spring camping trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness bring some of the best fishing of the year.
The water is slowly warming up, and fish are still oriented toward shallow water structure. Later, they will slide to deeper water, becoming more challenging for anglers to find.
The biggest drawback to this wonderful fishing, besides occasional bad timing with mosquito hatches, is the cold nights. It’s not uncommon to have night-time temperatures flirting with freezing well into June on the Minnesota-Canada border.
I’ve always boiled down BWCA trip timing to a tradeoff between fishing quality, temperatures and bug levels. Everyone has a certain sliding level of acceptance for each.
Being prepared for cold nights starts before you leave for a wilderness camping trip. A quick look at the weather forecast is useful as a starting point for temperature, precipitation and wind. However, a one-week camping trip leaves a lot of room for variability within a weather model, and it’s best to prepare for the worst.
It’s wise to dress in layers for both sun protection and keeping warm. I typically layer up extensively before I crawl into the sleeping bag or sit around camp after dark. Long underwear as a base layer provides a great option for keeping warm at night. While you may not use long underwear on a trip, depending on the weather, it is lightweight and low volume and thus is low penalty if packed but not used.
If you don’t want to bring long underwear, consider purchasing a sleeping bag liner. Some campers use the liners for longterm sleeping bag maintenance and hygiene, but they do add an additional level of warmth, some five or 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Choosing a sleeping bag is an important planning step. Sleeping bags come with a temperature rating. However, what isn’t often explained is that the temperature rating is not standardized. One company’s 40 degree bag is another’s 30 degree bag.
In my experience, I tend to view the ratings as what the manufacturer believes is the minimum temperature through which you can survive. There tends to be a difference between survival temperature rating and comfort temperature rating.
For this reason, I tend to reach for a bag rated slightly colder than what I expect to encounter for low temperature.
You can always shed layers, but you can’t get more layers or a thicker bag while camped in the bush. Cold comes creeping in from a few places – air, ground conductance or anything that gets wet.
All these cold sources need to be addressed. To battle cold air, check your tent’s vents. Close the vents at night to keep the heat in, or open only the topmost vents.
You may need to look for a 3- or 4-season tent rather than the more typical consumer tents intended for summer use only.
Getting off the ground and avoiding ground temperature conductance is critical on trips. Purchase camping pads accordingly; the thicker the pad, the more weight and volume, but the further off the ground you can get.
You can also check sleeping pads for R insulation values; I have a thermal pad for Western big game hunts that works well on wilderness camping trips where nighttime temperatures plummet.
Another option for getting off the ground is hammock camping. If you can find two good trees – avoid dead, dying or shallow rooted and exposed soft wood trees (e.g. conifers) – you can hang a hammock and a rain fly and stay warm and dry.
Heat loss from the human body is exacerbated by wetness. Water is denser than air and speeds up thermal energy transfer. Keep your gear dry!
On some trips with rain and no sun or wind, this can be a challenge. If you can dry gear in tent vestibules or by hanging in tents or screen shelters, you can get some level of relief.
Always use your and maintain your rain fly. Scotchgard your tent and rain fly every two or three years or after heavy use.
Choose clothing that dries quickly or repels water and wear the best raingear you can afford.
One overlooked element of staying warm is camp site selection. For keeping warm, choose sites with minimal wind exposure. Strong winds sap body heat unless well buffered by layers.
Avoid low spots that pool cold air. Forested sites provide modest thermal cover, a minor advantage, or open, exposed sites.
Fire is an obvious solution to staying warm. Fire is useful for cooking, but a good fire to warm up and dry gear also provides some psychological benefits. Humans are ancestrally wired to enjoy fire, and a relaxed sit around the campfire is good for group morale.
If you find yourself in temperatures that are colder than what you expected while wilderness camping, try this trick: Grab your Nalgene or other water bottle, boil water and fill your bottle to the top and slide it into a T-shirt and crawl into your sleeping bag. You can warm your core or slide it down to your feet or up to your head and shoulders near the bag opening.
Because water has the highest specific heat of any liquid, the heat will last all night. This year, while employing this technique, I had a warm and comfortable seven-hour sleep, opened my water bottle in the morning to use the water for coffee, and the water was still steaming.
Wilderness camping means squaring off with the elements, but it shouldn’t be a cold endurance challenge. With a little gear preparation and planning, prudent site selection, and some adaptation, you can stay warm and dry on all trips and get the most of your time unplugged and away.
Scott Mackenthun is an outdoors enthusiast who has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. He resides in New Prague and may be contacted at email@example.com.