By Ben Koch, Operations Director, New Vision Wilderness
I grew up playing in Wisconsin winters – some of my earliest memories are of building massive jumps on the sledding hill (my memory probably recalls them bigger than they were), skiing between the trees at Rib Mountain, and hockey games at the Shawano ice rink when it was 10 degrees. I remember my dad dragging me out in the middle of winter to go cross country skiing (which was too slow of a sport for me at the time) and of strapping on snowshoes and plunging through the deep snow. Winter and the cold have always been a part of my life.
Even with all of this, there was always one outdoor winter experience that I never had the courage to try: winter camping. I couldn’t get over the idea of how one could possibly stay warm through the entire night outdoors. Rationally, I knew this didn’t make sense – people have been surviving outdoors for centuries, long before the invention of central heating and insulated buildings – but the worry of being cold can override rational thought.
Five years ago, I began my career at New Vision. I remember walking out into the field feeling excited, nervous, and anxious — all of the typical feelings I’ve had when starting any new position – but this time I also was afraid. One thought pushed all the rest out of my mind.
How would I make it through the winter?
I had over 5 years of experience working in the outdoors with youth and I felt confident in knowing how to manage and support a group, but I had just one night of winter camping experience under my belt (and my wife would be more than happy to tell you how well that went).
Fast forward through those initial days and I can tell you that I have learned to love living outdoors in winter! It offers so many opportunities that you cannot get any other time of year. Campfires and wall tents provide an intimate space for emotional vulnerability. Quiet and solitude create an inherently reflective space that helps me better collect and understand my thoughts. And winter brings out the incredible starry nights and clear skies I’ve grown to love.
I also learned that there is one critical element to being able to love winter and find these positives – the right equipment! The difference in loving winter experiences and being cold, wet, and miserable is the quality of your preparation and your gear.
Parents considering winter wilderness therapy programs often face the same questions and concerns I did my first foray into the field. They want the best option for their child, but are rightly concerned about how their child will be safe in winter. This is a critical question for any program to answer, because effective trauma therapy needs someone to be able to feel safe.
If you are trying to find the right placement for your child and considering wilderness therapy in winter, I want you to know how we at New Vision prepare our students for winter camping.
It all begins with layers, layers, layers! We provide students with high quality, non-cotton layers, and lots of them. We start with thermal base layers to trap their body heat and help to wick away moisture. For top layers, students receive three different fleece layers — a vest, sweatshirt, and hooded sweatshirt. Over this, students wear a down puffy jacket for insulation, and a Helly Hansen jacket that is water resistant and windproof.
For the bottom layers, students again get a thermal base layer, two fleece pant layers, a thick softshell pant, and Helly Hansen water resistant/windproof pants. We teach students the principles of layering, ensuring that they always wear a base layer, an insulating layer, and a water resistant layer.
For headwear, we again provide multiple layers – a fleece hat, a fleece neck gaiter, and a fleece balaclava. For hands, we provide students with fleece gloves, leather work gloves, and insulated Ice Armor mittens. And for feet, we provide students with 5 pairs of wool socks and two different top quality footwear options – Baffin boots, rated for -40 weather, and Neo waterproof overshoes with insulated down booties inside.
Sleeping gear is also crucial. A sleep system rated beyond 30 below zero is a must! We use -30 rated sleeping bags with a fleece sleeping bag liner inside and two thermarest sleeping pads underneath to insulate from the cold ground, all inside a snug 1-person tent. We also make hot water bottles, known as ‘hotties’ in the field, that we give to every student each night to help them stay warm in their bags.
All of this equipment and preparation is focused on making sure that each student has the necessary gear and training to keep them safe and warm in the wilderness. What I learned five years ago from my mentors at New Vision, I now teach to our staff and our students. It is possible to be safe and warm in an outdoor winter wilderness environment. It takes time for anyone to adjust to living outside in the winter and to learn to follow the four secrets to staying warm (layers, food, water, and exercise), but with the help of our amazing and caring instructors, our students learn to survive–and thrive–in winter!