(I wrote this up over a week ago and forgot to post it.)
December 9th and 10th I went deer hunting in Tioga County, PA, just south of the New York State line. Temperatures while we were there topped out at about 32*F/0*C, and dropped down to about 21*F/-6*C at night. There's usually a breeze blowing as well. We slept under a pavilion with two walls built but the ends open, temporarily covered with canvas tarps. At night we had a propane-fired patio heater to take the edge off the cold. In this post I want to offer some observations on how some of our gear worked.
Don't trust old equipment, even if it's been tested recently, unless maintenance has been performed on it. My Coleman 425 camp stove made in 1979 was tested the previous weekend but failed on this trip. A seal blew so it wouldn't hold pressure, and leaked fuel.
One of my friends used an MSR Pocket Rocket canister stove with no problems. I keep a folding Esbit stove in my daypack for brewing tea or coffee when out in the field, but it didn't see any use on this trip. I've used it on past trips, however.
The Lixada wood gasifer stove I got in November worked OK for warming water. This is primarily a twig stove that is sold under various brand names on Amazon and eBay. Like all twig stoves it needs constant feeding to keep going. I wanted to try it this weekend with charcoal briquettes, since we always keep two or three bags up at our campsite.
Using briquettes, the Lixada stove was able to get water up to near-boiling but never to a full, rolling boil. This temp was good enough for filling the canteen I put in the bottom of my sleeping bag to keep warm, but not hot enough for oatmeal or coffee. Briquettes would work if you needed to simmer something in a pot or fry something in a pan. They burned for a long time.
I also tried the Lixada stove using fire starters made by filling a cardboard egg carton with oak shavings and paraffin wax. One of these would bring my MSR kettle to a rolling boil in only a few minutes. The main downside to these is that they'll leave your pot covered in so much soot it'll be darker than Spinal Tap's Black Album. These fire starters also burn out in about five minutes.
In one of his "longhouse" videos on YouTube, Evan Hill of Hill People Gear discusses your energy envelope. This pertinent because if you're backpacking, it may actually cost you less in energy to pack in a canister stove and fuel than a twig stove that you have to gather and prepare fuel for.
On future winter trips I'll make sure to have a functional Coleman stove and bring my Kovea Spider as a backup.
SmartWool merino wool base layers are warm, help you manage moisture, and don't itch.
Windproof pants make a huge difference in staying warm. I continue to be pleased with my ORC Industries Level 5 PCU softshell trousers. I've had these for several years and they've been one of my best purchases, always keeping my legs warm and dry in snow, when worn over insulation.
When sleeping on a cot in drafty weather you cannot have too much insulation beneath you. I used a MidwayUSA shooting mat, a blue foam pad, a Thermarest Ridge Rest, and then two military surplus wool blankets folded in half lengthwise on top of my cot. This gave me a firm but warm and comfortable bed.
The old trick of putting a hot water bottle in the bottom of your sleeping bag works. I filled a Nalgene Oasis canteen with hot water, wrapped it in a shemagh, and put it in the footbox of my sleeping bag. It warmed the bag up nicely. It was still lukewarm in the morning. Being already warm, it boiled faster when it came time for breakfast, too.
Two or three disposable hand warmers activated and tossed into you bag before bed also help. I had a package of these coming up on their expiration date so I wanted to use them up, and this was a good way to do so.
The disposable hand warmers and toe warmers came in very handy while sitting out on my deer stand. If you're moving around in the temps we experienced keeping your hands and feet warm isn't a problem but once you're sitting still, you need either more insulation or an external heat source. The disposables worked well for me.
Some guys like to use an empty Gatorade or Nalgene bottle to pee in so that they don't have to get out of their bag in the middle of the night. Frankly, I don't think I could do that without pissing all over my sleeping bag, but YMMV.
The Hill People Gear Mountain Serape is an awesome piece of gear. I used it two ways last weekend. First, after being out for a few hours hunting, I used it in greatcoat mode over my Arc'Teryx LEAF Atom SV hoodie while hanging out back at camp before bed. It allowed me to shed the hooded sweatshirt I'd been wearing under the Atom SV, and also my ORC PCU Level 5 softshell trousers. As a greatcoat, the Mountain Serape provided a warm layer of insulation and blocked the wind when out around the campfire, and inside our drafty shelter.
If I hunted out west where you can do so without wearing blaze orange, I'd pack a Mountain Serape with me to my stand and put it on while glassing/waiting for game. Not only is it warm but it also helps to break up your outline, so you don't look like a human. If HPG made one in blaze orange or blaze camo, I'd order one for sure.
Later, I used the Mountain Serape in sleeping bag mode as an overbag around the footbox of my sleeping bag.
A Snugpak poncho liner may be a viable, less expensive alternative to the HPG Mountain Serape if you're on a budget, especially if you added snaps or bungies to hold it closed around yourself.
For use around a campfire something made from natural fibers would be better than the nylon shell of the Mountain Serape or Snugpak poncho liner. E.g., a wool blanket poncho or a South American alpaca poncho. OTH, they probably aren't as windproof as the modern insulated ponchos.
If you're car camping, having a vacuum flask of hot tea or coffee filled ahead of time is a great morale booster. It's really nice being able to immediately pour yourself a hot cup of tea when you come in from the cold, instead of having to wait for it to brew.