It was early January, 2019 in Northwestern Montana. My friends and I were sitting around, watching some TV, trying to figure out something we could do outdoors, in the middle of winter. We were never the types to sit around inside the house.
We all really enjoy ice-fishing and camping, so we concocted the idea of going to one of our favorite lakes out in the remote mountains of NW Montana, and staying a few nights there. It would be an enjoyable outdoor excursion. And it would be a good opportunity test our strength, resolve, and survival skills.
We decided on our destination and timeline: We would hike into, and set up camp near, Smokey Lake in the Fire Lakes chain near Stryker, Montana. We would depart on January 16th and stay a few nights, as long as the weather permitted
Now that we had a location and date set, it was time to get prepared. A lot of thought and preparation goes into planning a winter camping trip. The stakes are much higher than warm weather camping, as there are far more risks associated with a cold weather trip. We would be out of cell phone service, deep in the snowy, remote wilderness, far from vehicles and external assistance. We would have to rely on our own abilities for the duration of our trip.
We had given ourselves about 2 weeks to prepare for the trip. Our main considerations while planning included: shelter, food, water, and a means to stay warm. We also had to be prepared for other things that may arise, such as medical emergencies or encountering one of the many large predators that inhabit the Montana wilderness. We also had to devise an efficient way to pack our large store of gear from our vehicle drop off point to the camping location.
For shelter, we decided on packing in a canvas tent that my friends had sewed together themselves. Along with the tent, we would bring a small wood stove to put inside of it, and a small chainsaw for gathering firewood. That way we could stay warm in the harsh winter weather.
In terms of food supply, we brought potatoes, onions, cabbage, cheese, butter, chili, soup, spices, sausages, deer steak, and other meats and vegetables to cook on our wood stove with the cookware that we also packed along. We also brought backup MREs and dehydrated meals in case cooking was not a viable option.
To stay hydrated, we brought several gallons of water from home as our main supply. We also had the means to boil snow or lake water, if need be. Water filtration devices were also included in our packs. I had my LifeStraw with me just in case things became desperate.
And as I stated previously, we brought along a small chainsaw with a couple tanks of gas and bar oil, as well as a splitting axe. We had no intention of freezing out there and didn't want to waste time and energy gathering firewood with hatchets and axes, so our small chainsaw would prove to be a valuable asset.
Other provisions that we brought along included first aid supplies, coffee, hatchets, shovels of different sizes (small pack shovels and a large flat shovel for clearing snow), space blankets, toilet paper, ice fishing gear, fishing bait, ice auger, ice hut, knives, fire starting material (fatwood), additional clothing, rope, a bluetooth speaker, solar charger, power banks, cell phones (in case our vehicles got stuck and we had to hike out to call someone), snow shoes, cots, sleeping bags, pillows, headlamps and flashlights, batteries, and other miscellaneous gear. We also brought our firearms in case we ran into a hostile predator, or had to shoot an animal for food.
Finally, to transport everything, we procured two large snow sleds. Once we had all of our gear rounded up, we packed and secured it in the sleds and fastened harnesses to the sleds for pulling. The harnesses were designed to hook to the sled and wrap around the chest to allow for easier pulling.
We prepared everything the night before, so that we could get up there early. That way we would have plenty of daylight to hike in and set up camp. My two friends joining me were coming from Eureka and I was traveling from Kalispell. Our destination, Stryker, is between Eureka and Kalispell, about 25 miles South of Eureka and 40 miles North of Kalispell. The plan was to meet at Stryker by 9am on the 16th, then drive into the mountains as far as our vehicles would take us, and then hike the rest of the way to our destination.
The three of us pulled into Stryker right at the same time, just before 9am. It was perfect timing. Then, from there, we were able to follow the narrow, snow covered road for several miles into the mountains West of Stryker. We made it past Blue Lake, Sunday Lake, and down to the Sunday Falls trailhead before we had to park and leave my Subaru. We then took my friend’s old Ford pickup up the road maybe another half mile before we had to park it, too.
From there, we unloaded our gear-filled sleds from the back of the pickup, strapped on our harnesses, and started the arduous trek to Smokey Lake. It was probably around 10am, or just before, when we started our hike. It was a strenuous hike, most of the distance being uphill. The deep snow also slowed us down quite a bit. It was a physically demanding hike, considering we were dragging heavy sleds uphill in the snow.
It was slow and tiring, but we made it to the lake by noon. It had taken us about two hours to travel probably a mile and a half. It might have gone a bit faster if one of our sleds hadnt been so heavy. It required frequent stops to rest and we had to drag it in short bursts on some of the steeper terrain. But, nonetheless, we made it to our snowy destination with all the gear we would need to fish and camp comfortably.
Once we arrived, we immediately went to work preparing our site. The first thing we did was fire up our little chainsaw and cut up a dried, fallen log to start a fire. We cleared the snow from our fire pit and the surrounding area, and started a nice warm fire. We sat by it for a bit and cooked some potatoes and chili for lunch. That helped warm us up and give us a good boost of energy to finish setting up camp. My bluetooth speaker was also a nice luxury. We listened to some enjoyable tunes while we toiled away at our camp.
Once we had a good supply of firewood and our fire was burning nicely, we went to work setting up our tent. We first cleared the ground of snow using our large flat shovel, then set up a couple of supports for the edges of the tent. Then we used rope to string up and secure the frame of our tent. At that point, the tent was pretty much up and rigid, but it needed a few more things before it was usable.
We laid down a heavy tarp to serve as the floor of our living space and to keep out moisture and cold. The bottom edges of the tent were tucked underneath the tarp and secured. This also helped to trap heat in the tent. Finally, we brought in our little wood camp stove. We set up a small platform for it and ran the chimney pipe through a fireproofed hole in the roof of the tent. Once it was lit and burning away, our tent stayed luxuriously warm. Plus, we had cots to elevate ourselves from the ground, so that helped as well.
Once we finished setting everything up (probably around 2pm) we took some time to relax by our large outdoor fire and enjoy the scenery and camaraderie.
After we were warmed up and rejuvenated, we decided to do some ice fishing on Smokey Lake, less that 50 feet from our camp. The ice was surprisingly thick, averaging about 16 inches or more. Good thing we brought that ice auger!
We bored several holes and got to fishing. Our method was pretty simple and straightforward: Secure a fat nightcrawler to your hook, lower your bait all the way until you touch the bottom of the lake, then raise up a foot or so. The fish were biting as soon as we dropped our lines down. The only species that we caught was Brook Trout, but man did we catch quite the pile of fish. None of them were of any impressive size, but they were still perfect for throwing in the pan and frying up. Which is exactly what we did.
We fished until it got dark, around 5:30pm, then retreated back to our campsite. For the rest of the evening, we pretty much just relaxed by our fire, cooked dinner, listened to music, told jokes and stories, read from some books that we had brought along, and just generally enjoyed the cold, serene winter night that we were apart of.
Though, at one point, our relaxation was interrupted when strapped on our headlamps to go saw up a small, dead larch tree to use as firewood in our tent stove. We wanted to make sure we had plenty of wood so that we didn't have to leave our tent in the middle of the chilly, winter night. But other than that, it was a great time of making memories under the still winter night, out beyond the reaches of civilization. It was refreshing and relaxing.
Later, once the night had progressed and we were full and tired, we retreated to our warm, cozy tent and prepared for bed. It was actually surprisingly comfortable in our little winter hideaway. We had heavy sleeping bags, pillows, cots, our little wood stove, and an Ipad with one of our favorite shows on to keep us toasty and content. I drifted to sleep listening to the tv show playing in the background and the wood stove with its comforting popping of burning wood. And that was the end of our first day there.
The next morning was chilly and overcast, so I stayed in the tent awhile. At least until I cooked some breakfast sausage and boiled some coffee. Then I went outside to stoke our outdoor fire and stretch out a bit. It was a slow morning of meandering around the fire, eating breakfast, and drinking coffee.
It had been snowing intermittently all morning, so we were sluggish and stayed close to camp. Before long, 11am had snuck up on us. The weather had cleared a bit, so we ate a quick bite and decided to head back out on the lake to fish some more.
We stayed out on the lake for an hour or two fishing, but the snow had been steadily picking up the entire time. By 1:30pm, the snow was coming down quite heavily and didn't appear as though it would let up soon.
Around 2pm, I think, we decided that we should probably pack up camp and head back to the vehicles before they were snowed in and became stuck. The snow had been coming down heavily and steadily for the past few hours, and we did not want to risk getting stuck out in the wilderness of Stryker.
So we gathered our gear before it was buried by snow, took down our tent as quickly as we could, loaded and secured our sleds, and left the area by 3:15pm. We had planned on staying a couple of nights, so we were a bit disappointed to have to leave early. But it was quite the snow storm that we found ourselves in and we would rather cut our trip short than get stuck out in the wintery wilderness. Though, we were well prepared in the event that we did get stuck, and we were confident that we could have survived out there for an extended period of time. However, this was intended to be a recreational camping trip, not a survival exercise. So, we packed up and headed out to avoid the headache of getting stuck.
The hike back was a bit easier than the hike in, since mostly it was down hill. And the fresh snow made the sleds pull a little easier. So we trekked along, through the snow, back to the pickup. We made it there a little after 4pm, loaded our gear, and headed down to retrieve my Subaru. It was a good thing that we left when we did, as the old Ford was nearly getting stuck in the fresh snow, and we had to give it a push a few times.
But we made it out and down to where my car was parked. Luckily, I didn't have any trouble getting my car moving. With everything packed up and us safely in our vehicles, we finally left the area around 5:00pm and headed our separate ways home.
Although my January camping trip was cut short, it was packed full of experiences and friends that I will remember, hopefully, for the rest of my days. It was a great taste of being out in the wilderness, during winter, and having only yourself to depend on.
It was also a useful exercise in preparing for the challenges and demands of surviving out in a winter wasteland for extended stays. And I would say that the trip was a shining success. Not only were we comfortable and warm, but we had a great time fishing and telling jokes and stories around the fire. It was such an awesome feeling being out in the natural world in such a setting, experiencing the beauty of nature in such a raw state. Our excellent survival preparation ensured that we were safe and not lacking in any necessities.
I am glad for the time that I got to spend with my friends out in such a wonderful place. Many memories and experiences were generated by my brief winter camping trip. And for that, I am thankful.