Urban Campout

Last night the thermometer read 40°, which called for a campout in the urbs, despite the 40 mph wind gusts and the soggy snow.

There’s a lot of movement in the urbs at night. Who are all these people driving around at 2AM? Aren’t their kids going to wake them up soon, demanding breakfast? They must be out getting pedialite or emergency wipes.

Besides the cars, there’s a train or a jet going by every few minutes, so it’s hard to forget your tent is pitched in the city, not the woods. Still, it was a good time. The kids tested out their custom sleeping bags, giving them pretty good reviews: Me, with much excitement and encouragement – Do you like your awesome new sleeping bags? The kids, nonchalant – yeah. Can we have some more hot chocolate?

urban campoutWe told stories for a couple hours, about biscuit the bear, carbuncle the crab, and an anonymous ostrich, all of whom were good friends and very helpful to one another. Around 9PM my son and I dozed off while my daughter continued telling us about the volcano that was going to boil, which would feel really hot:

And there was a big rock that was going to roll into it and fill it up and then the planet would crack because the hot lava couldn’t get out.

[Laughter, followed by what sounded like a monkey, dying…]

I was talking like a funny monkey. Dad, can you do something for my finger to feel better? For my finger to be, um, not ripped?

She had a hangnail. That’s all I can remember.

Chengwatana State Forest

chengwatana state forestThis weekend we camped out in the Chengwatana Forest, about 30,000 acres of birch, aspen, and white pine along the St. Croix River in east-central Minnesota. Like the rest of the state, the forest is flat and wet, with an elevation around 900 ft. and lots of marsh, river, and lake.

In February that means lots of ice. The road was covered in a thick layer because of the recent snow melt. The foot of snow that remained on the ground had a shell of ice on it as well, strong enough to support the first half of a footstep but then break under the second.

It got down to 5° overnight, otherwise the temperature stayed in the teens and twenties with only a slight breeze. We couldn’t ask for more in the middle of February. Actually, with a few more degrees we could have ventured, comfortably, more than 5 feet from the campfire. The cold really limits campout activities to survival, i.e., maintaining core body temperature, fending off frostbite, and such. But, like I said, it’s the middle of February in Minnesota, where the average high is in the twenties and the average low just above zero.

chengwatana ice shelvesOnce again, it was too cold for young kids. I’ve drawn the line at 10°. Single digits mean frozen digits. The age range for that threshold depends, in part, on the availability of winter gear. The standard boots and mittens for young kids (pre-K) seem to be designed for the warmer months of winter, the beginning and end, rather than the frozen middle.

We’ll be back once the weather improves. Chengwatana is 20 minutes further from the Twin Cities than Sand Dunes, but it’s bigger, more isolated, and contains less private land. Plus, it has a sweet name.

Backyard Campout in the Snowcave

sledding on the snowcave

After three more hours of carving we deemed our latest snowcave to be habitable. The inside dimensions were about seven by ten, and my son could stand in it. The temperatures started in the teens and dropped to about eight, at the lowest.

One of the major challenges of camping with kids is sleeping. Many of us make the classic novice mistake of enforcing regular indoor bedtimes. At home it’s a simple process – tuck them in, close the door, then go downstairs, put on a movie and bust out the ice cream. I think I was twelve when I realized that 1) my parents didn’t have a bedtime, and 2) a person could have ice cream more than once a week, even every day.

sleeping in the snowcave

Outdoors, without an actual bed or bedroom, the kids aren’t fooled. After stuffing our faces with candy, s’mores, and cocoa, we usually compromise on bedtime – a couple hours later for them, and a couple earlier for mom and dad.

Unfortunately, in this case with all the sleeping-pad sledding, my daughter was exhausted by about 7:00 PM, so she didn’t get to join us. Major bummer, because she had actually expressed some interest – impressive, for a three year old. So, we had a nice campfire with our neighbors and then packed out the sleeping gear and hit the hay, aka snow, around 9:30 PM.

Another Snowcave

Huge snow bankIf our first quinzee were an RV it would be a popup tent trailer – functional, but cramped and drafty. Today we upgraded to a class A motorhome with popouts. To build a class A quinzee you need a massive pile of snow, and to add the popouts, i.e., additional bedrooms and den, you need multiple connected piles. I think the snow cleanup crew had just such a cave suite in mind when they plowed our complex this week.

Super quinzeeThe photo doesn’t quite do it justice. I’d say it’s ten feet tall, twenty wide, and maybe thirty front to back – the grand teton of snow banks. The problem with quinzee construction in a week-old snow mound is the ice. After two hours of hacking and carving I was spent, so my son took over for about two minutes, but we ran out of light. The campout will have to be for another night, to his dismay, and mine.

For some reason my daughter, who’s three, isn’t so jazzed about sleeping with a few hundred pounds of snow looming over her. In response to an invite my wife said, thanks for the invite. Sleeping on the snow, in a cave, in the cold, a hundred yards from our apartment… seems silly. But it’s not. It’s awesome.

Really Cold at Sand Dunes

campfire at sand dunesThis weekend I set a personal record for winter camping: a high of 0 and low of -26 degrees (confirmed with the UMN climatology database, coordinates 45.29970, 93.58346). Pretty ridiculous, but only slightly dangerous – we were armed with many trees worth of firewood and many layers worth of clothing.

I still haven’t decided on a minimum temperature for the kids, but negative degrees Fahrenheit seemed like the no-kids-allowed zone. My son cried when I declared it to be too cold for him to join us. I didn’t want to suggest he wasn’t tough enough, so I tried the distraction-with-new-information strategy, explaining the phenomenon of frostbite. But the threat of losing body parts didn’t phase him. That made me proud. He is a tough kid. I bet he would have had a great time.

oak at sand dunesThere were only a few moments of pain, mostly in my toes as I was stupid enough to wear hiking boots. Otherwise, the campfire was always blazing and if you situated yourself nearly in the flames it was quite comfortable.

Here are a few more pics: Sand Dunes – January 21.

And here’s my pertinent gear: insulated jacket, heavy fleece, thermal t-shirt x 2, long johns, wool socks x 2, snowboarding pants, hiking boots (bad idea), ski mask, beanie, sleeping bag x 2 (zero and twenty degree), closed-cell foam pad (the blue one).