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Out in the Cold
Ultralight Solo Winter Camping in Nebraska's State Parks
Text by Matthew Marx
Photos by Jeff Kurrus

I was soon on the trail, looking out at the snowy forest. I drew a deep, cold breath, then watched it unfurl like smoke. No one had yet set foot here...

Why the heck would you want to do that?" That's what I usually hear when I tell people I'm going solo winter camping in Nebraska without a tent. Sometimes I ask myself the same question, yet every winter I find myself lacing up my boots for an overnight solo trek with very little gear. How did I get to this point?

Certainly the joys of ultralight solo winter camping don't just come out of nowhere - I can't think of anyone who just woke up one snowy morning and decided to head out into a frigid and desolate Nebraska wilderness area for several days. In my case, it came from an ongoing progression of "normal" camping experiences and searching for something I couldn't find anywhere else.

Going Ultralight

I've always loved to camp. During summers when I was a kid, my parents would take the family camping in central Nebraska where we would set up an oversized aluminum-pole tent, inflate rubber air mattresses with an accordion-style foot pump and cook on one of those 20-pound, suitcase-style Coleman stoves. As I grew older, we started leaving the safety net of the campground to hike into the wilderness. The heavy equipment, of course, had to be abandoned or replaced by something lighter, but the reward was a sense of isolation and the peace that comes with escaping the hectic buzz of everyday life.

The desolate winter woods of Ponca State Park offer challenging hikes as well as many glimpses of Nebraska wildlife, including white-tailed deer.
After taking progressively longer and longer hikes, I soon realized that the less weight I carried, the freer I felt, and that much of the gear I originally thought of as essential, like a tent, was really unnecessary. At that point, I realized I was "going ultralight" - carrying as light and as little of gear as possible.

For the last 10 years I've been hiking and camping mostly with my brother. He's an ultralight equipment junkie, and I never mind inheriting a barely used sleeping bag because his new model is three ounces lighter. Even in the rainy Northwest where he lives, he almost never carries a tent - when the weather turns foul, he simply rigs up an ultralight Siltarp that weighs next to nothing.

I'm always surprised how little I really need to be comfortable on the trail. When I'm camping, I expect to give up most of the comforts of home. Part of the experience is getting in touch with something internal through the physicality of hiking, and gaining a stillness of mind through the beauty of the landscape. And even though I like sharing these experiences with other people, some of the best trips I've had were on my own, especially in Nebraska where the beauty is quietly understated. When camping, I gladly give up comfort for the serenity of the wilderness, and when going ultralight, I have an increased sense of lightness and freedom. By camping alone, I have only the stream of my own thoughts as company, and after a couple of days those thoughts adopt the qualities of the Nebraska landscape and I'm left with a kind of clarity I can rarely find in the city.

Why Winter?

The biggest difference between summer and winter camping is the emphasis on survival. While there is some danger in any kind of outdoor excursion, in the winter the cold is ever present, so the smart hiker packs the correct gear and keeps an eye on the weather. In the winter you have to be more aware of the elements and things like sweating too much, which can ultimately chill the body. This necessity of awareness tends to heighten my senses, giving me great satisfaction when I overcome cold conditions by remaining warm and dry. I certainly don't recommend camping alone in a blizzard, which is downright dangerous for novices, but during a normal winter day, with a little know-how and good gear, you may find it to be the most comfortable camping of your life.

Keeping the hands warm means performing dexterous tasks quickly--and a good headlamp helps.

When ultralight camping, having quality equipment is especially important (see sidebar on page 39). If you're on the trail freezing in a cheap sleeping bag, you'll gladly pay triple right then and there for the good one you should have bought in the first place.

For your first solo winter camping trip, go someplace small for just one night. There will be many new experiences to troubleshoot - such as using your stove to melt snow for drinking water, learning how to vent excess heat away from the body, and making a perfectly level place to sleep - so don't attempt a weeklong excursion into a secluded wilderness until you know what you're doing. Many of Nebraska's state parks provide a balance of safety and seclusion. There likely won't be anyone else on the trail, so finding solitude is easy.

On my most recent winter trip I visited Ponca State Park, which boasts nearly 1,400 acres of heavily forested hills overlooking the Missouri River. A foot of heavy snow blanketed the ground during my visit, with daytime temperatures in the twenties and nighttime temperatures in the single digits.

A full moon rises over the Missouri River at Ponca State Park.

I first checked in at the park lodge to let the ranger know I would be spending the night in the forest and thought he'd ask the standard, "Why would you want to do that?" Rangers are rangers for a reason, however, and he seemed to understand. "It's beautiful out there," he said, "and you'll certainly have the place to yourself." After asking if I had all the necessary equipment (I didn't tell him I was going without a tent) and making sure I knew the rules of low-impact camping (which is easier in the winter), he produced a map and showed me the best places to hike and camp.

I was soon on the trail, looking out at the snowy forest. I drew a deep, cold breath, then watched it unfurl like smoke. No one had yet set foot here and the path spread before me like canvas. The quiet beauty hushed even the dampened sounds of my own steps. Already my mind began to lose the chattering noise of normal thoughts and absorb the peace of the landscape.

The hills around me had been formed by the ancient river, and I soon found myself climbing a snowy chute. As I ascended, sweat started to emerge under all the Capilene and fleece I was wearing, so I took off my hat and unzipped the layers of jackets. This kind of conscious awareness is necessary when hiking in the cold; if my clothes should get soaked with sweat, it can make for a miserable night when the body begins to cool and the mercury drops. When winter hiking, it's always best to keep the body's core temperature on the cool side of comfortable.

Eat a hot, protein-rich meal just before bed to increase your body temperature.

I soon found myself on the edge of a clearing and could hear the horses before I saw them. I approached the corral - a back area of the park where the animals were housed - and removed my gloves to pat their velvety noses. I felt the heat under their skin and traced the vein lines on their cheeks. Curious about their strange visitor, they gathered along the fence, gently stomping and billowing streams of moist air from their nostrils.

After hiking for most of the day, it was time to find a suitable spot to bed down. The best places to camp are on the sides of gullies or valleys, away from cliffs. I look for fallen logs, which make good seats. In very deep snow, I'll make a snow kitchen - a rectangular pit a few feet deep - in which I can drop my legs to make a chair and keep my stove out of the wind. On this trip, however, the night was calm and there were plenty of logs on which to sit. I always set up camp before I eat, as a full belly makes for a sleepy head. Make sure you stamp out your sleeping area to make the snow hard and level. You may think that the snow will be like a soft mattress, but the weight of your body will compact it in strange places and you'll end up with a lumpy "bed." Also, all that stamping warms the body before you rest.

Dusk lingers in Nebraska's wintry valleys, the snow seeming to glow with its own light after the sun has fallen. Nestled in a mummy sack, I felt completely secure in my warm cocoon. The moon had not yet risen, and as the light failed, the stars began to emerge between the branches overhead.

A bivouac sack is more a glorified sleeping bag cover than a tent, and weighs a fraction of its big brother.

Sleep came slowly, but it did come, though I woke several times at the strange sounds of the forest. I was, after all, alone in the middle of a dark forest in the middle of winter. Though the body and mind rested, the ears stayed alert, and when coyotes began to investigate my tiny camp, I shook off my rest and loosened the sleeping bag's drawstring to peek out into the darkness. The shadows cast by my imagination loped for a few minutes beyond the stand of trees at the boundary of my sight, but in reality, the coyotes were already gone, leaving nothing but footprints and a few howls growing as distant as my fading dream.

The morning was cold, and I was reluctant to leave my shelter, so I waited for the sun to creep across my bivy sack. After a quick breakfast, I was soon ready for the trail. Slinging the pack across my shoulders, I looked back at my campsite. The only hint I had been there was a brushed-off log and a man-shaped indentation in the snow. As I hiked back to the parking area, I felt light, all of the heaviness of city life having been left somewhere in the woods with the snow and coyotes. This is why I have come here, I told myself. This is why I will come here again.

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