STILES: ‘He who learns must suffer …’ — Winter camping in the West |

STILES: ‘He who learns must suffer …’ — Winter camping in the West

Jim Stiles
Free Press Guest Columnist

Right about now, doesn’t freezing to death sound like a pleasant option?

Ever since humans shed their fur and felt the warmth of a lightning-caused fire and realized that if they could keep the flame alive, they could avoid the brutal cold forever, we’ve spent a good portion of our time in pursuit of that goal.

For those of us who reside in the “modern world,” the effort to stay warm is as challenging as turning the dial on the thermostat. But there are a few of us, driven by inexplicable forces, who possess a willingness to suffer and deliberately seek the misery of sub-freezing temperatures. It’s called “winter camping.”

I got an early start on this madness. I became a Boy Scout on a blustery December day. Two weeks later, our former-Marine scoutmaster with a penchant for torture took us camping. We slept in Army surplus canvas pup tents. My Sears sleeping bag was made of “kapoc.” It offered as much warmth as the Sunday copy of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Years later, yearning to be Out West whenever I could, my buddy Tynes and I set out for Jackson, Wyo., on the 27th of December in an MGB convertible. We were 19. We battled snow and wind across the Great Plains, encountered -37 temperatures at a place near the North Pole called Bondurant (the MG heater kept us relatively toasty at -5), and finally wimped out and sought refuge in a motel. But later in the week, we camped at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim; we had it all to ourselves and when the mercury fell to -5, I was sure we’d die by morning.

After that, I swore I’d get better equipment but was still stupid enough to keep pursuing my winter camping fetish. Then I moved to Utah and become a park ranger. I fancied myself a true outdoorsman. I could survive anywhere. I had the gear and the knowledge. Nature was my friend and if she occasionally got a bit feisty, I could handle it.

In early March I decided to test my new goose down bag. My dog, Muckluk, and I traveled west to a remote side canyon of the Escalante River. An eight-hour drive led us to the head of Moody Creek. My pack was loaded, the dog was ready. It was so mild that I decided to forgo the extra weight of a tent. Who needs it on a glorious day like this? Let the stars be my canopy tonight.

It started to rain about midnight. I had pulled the drawstring on my mummy bag tightly around my face so that only my nose protruded into the air. It soon began to take on water. And the temperature began to plummet. A fierce wind came up and the rain turned to snow. It occurred to me that we might just die there. Finally, the snow stopped but the wind raged on for hour after hour.

But it was the wind that saved us. We were camped under a half dead juniper tree and the howling breeze slowly dried it. I crawled out of my bag and began to tear off branches, I pulled out a match, and lit a fire. I added more fuel and the fire grew hotter.

Nothing ever felt so wonderful. And at the base of that tree, deep in its hollowed out trunk, I had stuffed the one item that remained dry, an old Eddie Bauer down coat that my pal Jim Conklin had given me. I pulled it on and sat down in front of my roaring fire, where I fell asleep sitting on my heels.

When dawn came, the storm had passed as quickly as it had arrived. A sun rose clear and bright and what snow had fallen melted rapidly. My drenched bag must have weighed 20 pounds. I lashed everything together and headed back to the car. I felt like Death eating a cookie.

But I survived. And I winter camped again and again. Finally, I gave up tent camping but still slept in my car on long winter journeys where I was too tired or broke to get a motel room. Even my bride joined in the fun last February. Traveling with our two ancient cats, we found ourselves in Walsenberg, Colo. in a blizzard. We slept in the hospital parking lot and Fuzzy peed all over Tonya in her sleep.

“Well,” Tonya remarked, “At least her urine didn’t freeze.” My wife — always looking at the bright side. She made me promise I’d never sleep in a hospital parking lot in a blizzard again, with old cats that had bladder control issues again. Since then, when we winter camp, we leave the cats at home.

And now, in November, even frozen urine sounds refreshing.

Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr — Planet Earth Edition.” It ran for 20 years as a print publication and is now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West — Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed.” Both can be found at Stiles lives in Monticello, Utah and can be reached at

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