Welcome back science enthusiasts! It’s been more than a week since my last update, and what a couple of weeks it’s been! First off, let me just reassure you that we survived our little experiment. We went camping with Little Miss, and while I must admit that it wasn’t a roaring success we did learn a lot. Here’s a bit about what we’ve learned.
First and foremost, freezing is pretty cold for a 3-season tent like our Marmot. Although we tried to avoid it, the night we picked to camp ended up being the coldest night in the past month and the heart of a short cold snap. It dropped to 30°F (-1°C), which isn’t profoundly cold, but it can sure feel that way if you’re not properly equipped for it. So, while our tent is good for “3 seasons” it very definitely has its limits.
We would consider upgrading to a 4-season tent, but my past experience has always been that ‘all seasons’ can be a bit of a euphemism for “works in anything but cold weather, and is a bit more stuffy in the summer than a 3-season tent.” For truly cold camping you really do want a tent that has built-in insulation so that the tent acts like a secondary sleeping bag, slowly heating up while you’re inside. The bad news with a winter tent is that they’re expensive, and I would imagine that they’re only really good for very cold weather camping. So, something else to invest in, but not something that we can readily afford just yet.
Second, the temperature rating on your sleeping bag is extremely important to have matched with the expected weather. This past trip we went out with a bag rated to 10°F and a bag rated to 30°F. The 10° bag is my venerable Mountain Hardware down bag – I’ve been using it for 21 years and counting, and it’s still too warm for almost any night that I’ve been out camping.
I tend to run warm, so if we were to invest in a new bag for me then we’d want one that wasn’t rated for quite such cold weather. The other bag was a new(ish) REI bag that we borrowed from my Dad, and GeoWife decided to brave the night in it. This was probably a bad call as she tends to run cold, and even though the weather wasn’t colder than the bag was rated for, it wasn’t a comfortably warm night. About half way through the night we actually ended up piling my old bag on top of GeoWife for extra warmth and I made due with a backup set of cotton blankets that we’d packed. So, yeah, the adult sleeping situation wasn’t ideal, but we’re learning more about what we need.
The third is Little Miss’s sleeping arrangements. The change pad worked well as a sleeping surface, but the layering we had for her wasn’t warm enough for the cold weather. Her core temperature was nice and toasty, but her arms got pretty chilly. To be clear, she was perfectly safe, she just wasn’t comfortable. We have warmer gear for her, but unfortunately she needs to grow into it a bit because it’s sized for six months and above. As our Little Miss is on the small side she’ll probably be seven or eight months old before she fits it, and a badly sized sleeping bag isn’t something that you want an infant sleeping in. The net result was that she slept, but rather fitfully.
After a rather poor night’s sleep and woke up both tired and late into the morning. We decided to call it after just one night, repacked the car and headed for home.
So, what do we do with this information? Well, first and foremost, this will factor into what parks we can go to in what seasons. Right at the moment, our minimum temperature is freezing (32°F, 0°C), but we’d prefer to keep the overnight lows in the 40s. This means that for this winter, we can’t readily visit any park that’s either too far north or at too high of an elevation as most parks in the Rockies already have overnight lows that are in the 20s or 30s. It also means that if we’re going to make it into Alaska, we need to plan that trip for the middle of the summer. The alternative is a costly upgrade in gear, although we might be able to push the temperature envelope a bit lower when Little Miss grows into her warmer sleeping bags.
What does this look like for this winter? Well, we certainly don’t want to call the trip off or postpone it into the spring. We also can’t yet justify spending the money to get into serious winter camping gear. So, we’ll stick to parks with more moderate winter temperatures. We might also be able to supplement this with cabins or hotels for a few short visits to parks outside of our temperature envelope, but this will also rapidly drain our savings, so it’s an option we’ll consider sparingly.
The good news is that there are a number of parks at lower altitudes and across the south. This includes Joshua Tree and the Channel Islands parks in California, White Sands in New Mexico, the Everglades in Florida, and probably a few others. We can also take a bit of a cutesy option and do the indoor park that is Carlsbad Caverns. So, restricted, but not unreasonable.
In terms of planning, we also need to make a trip up to Canada for a number of reasons: retrieving some of our camping gear, introducing GeoWife’s side of the family to Little Miss, and celebrating New Years. That list isn’t in order of importance. We also need to visit California next month, both to celebrate Thanksgiving with my side of the family and because I’ve requested press credentials for the Vandenberg launch of NASA’s DART mission as a journalist with Universe Today. Again, not saying which is more important in this list. In terms of action items, our next steps are to try to build a list of where we’ll try to go, and when, so that we can plan out what gear upgrades we really need vs. which we might want to consider in the future.
So, to summarize, we learned that our gear isn’t up to temperatures below freezing. This will restrict where we can camp, but there are enough national parks with temperate climates to still have options for starting this winter. We should be able to stretch our comfortable minimum temperature when Little Miss grows a bit and by upgrading at least one of our sleeping bags, but for the moment strenuous winter camping is outside of our affordable gear range.
Since I hate to end one of these without a bit of science, let me draw your attention to something that I’ve done in the style of how I’ve written this update: I’ve written it in the style of a science paper. Wait – I hear you say – how can it be written in the style of science if it didn’t bore me to tears? I sympathize, if that’s your reaction, however I wasn’t trying to say that I wrote this in the language of science, just the style of a science report. I began with an introduction, albeit a brief one. I then moved on to our observations, what usually makes up a results section. I did skip over a methods section, so if I wanted to make this a formal science report I’d have specified where we were camping, precisely what gear we used, and how we were going to make our observations. Most of this is the content of the previous post, however, so I’ll spare you a repeat of these details by referring to Castle et al., the previous posting. After I reported the observations I talked about what these observations mean – what we’d usually call a discussion section. Finally, I moved on to a summary and conclusions section which included a statement of ‘next steps’ for how this research project would continue to progress. See how that all works? Introduce the study, present the methods and the observations, then discuss their importance, summarize, and lay a groundwork for what comes next. That’s the basics of a science report.
We’ve got a lot more to talk about as we continue to plan, so I’ll try to kick up the frequency of these updates. We’re still in the planning steps, but there’s a lot of good stuff to report, so tune in next time to hear more of how it’s going.