Answering the Call of the Wild

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Usually, from November on, deep snow prevents access to the cabin by anything other than snowshoes or skis. The late arrival of snow that year meant we could drive to a half mile and walk in.

A burley former Army drill sergeant was at my son’s repair shop asking for help repairing a tire. Sitting outside was a small motorhome. I asked him when he got the motorhome. “Well,” he said, “I figured it was about time to take my granddaughters up into the hills and teach them to camp.” My response was: “Hey, I thought Army guys learned to camp in tents or sleep on the ground under the stars.” He scoffed. “Nobody does anything like that today,” he replied.

As a person who lives in a little town right next to a national forest, I almost have to believe what he said. Motorhomes and large 4-wheel-drive pickups pulling huge travel trailers are on the road constantly, headed into the hills. Some are bumper-pull but the largest are fifth-wheel rigs. With slide-outs (some have as many as three), some have an amazing amount of space. I’m just not sure what those people do in the hills that is different than living in a city. Some campgrounds are so crowded on the weekends it is like being in a residential area.

My brother, Clark (right), and friend in front of the cabin. We always took firearms with us when far from civilization.

Many of the readers of this magazine have likely camped in the traditional manner. This author has spent a good share of his life “in the hills” since, in our isolated area, we have been able to go as little as 10 miles and never see another person for the duration of our stay. I have a mining claim located at over 9,000-foot elevation in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho. When sleeping outside at that altitude, it seems that a person should be able to reach out his hand and touch the stars.

A winter adventure

Camping is basically a fair-weather activity. Only once did my brother and I and three friends attempt to camp in the dead of winter. Obviously, we didn’t plan to sleep out. Being college students, we thought it would be fun to spend a couple of nights in a mountain cabin our parents visited every summer. The snow wasn’t deep at the time, so the cabin was accessible, but it was cold, with daytime temperatures below freezing and nighttime temperature far below zero.

The author (left) and a friend carrying firewood to the cabin. By the time we got there, it was already dark.

We hiked in a half-mile from the nearest road. Several trips were necessary to carry everything, including food and sleeping bags. The cabin had a cook stove and cooking utensils, but we had to bring firewood with us. All that physical effort kept us warm. We thought the small cook stove would heat the one-room cabin quickly, but we were wrong. Single-board walls, some papered with old Christmas cards, didn’t keep out much cold. We prepared supper while still bundled up in our heavy coats. What we managed to cook cooled rapidly, so supper didn’t warm us up much.

In spite of the cold inside of the cabin (the first night, we could still see our breath near the floor as we rolled out the sleeping gear a few hours later), the camaraderie of a bunch of guys made conditions acceptable. A Coleman gas lantern illuminated the small area quite well and we talked late into the night. Even though the small stove was “banked,” we knew that when morning arrived, we would face dramatic conditions trying to get up and around.

Finding simple pleasures in a primitive setting

Motor homes and travel trailers have one major advantage: inside bathrooms. We have all heard our elders tell about the miles walked to and from school each day in childhood. Those trips weren’t half as dramatic as using an outhouse in the winter! Our “facilities” were 40 to 50 yards farther back in the woods. The trip there, any time spent there, and the return to the cabin were events not easily forgotten.

The first night, we could see our breath as we spread out sleeping bags near the floor. Note the Christmas card wallpaper and the Coleman gas lantern.

With the fire roaring full blast all the next day, we became more comfortable. Meals were naturally the high spots of the trip. We broke ice out of the creek that ran by the cabin to obtain water to drink and to wash dishes. It’s funny the way doing dishes in a camping situation is almost a pleasure. Since the cabin was used on-and-off all summer, the owner had a screened-in storage area for dishes, pots and pans, protecting them from any varmints that might get in. The metal plates may have had chips on their porcelain edges and a couple of metal cups were missing handles, but we considered the equipment first-rate, especially since none of it had to be carried in.

Bedding down the second night was really pretty pleasant. Three guys slept on the floor and the other two took the cabin’s double bed. We all slept well except for one thing. A pack rat (known as a wood rat or trade rat in some areas, and apparently a large one, based on the noise he made) spent an inordinate amount of time running over the cabin’s tin roof. It is amazing how much noise could be made by a small animal in the total stillness that surrounded us. Surely none of us were willing to get out of a warm bed into the bitter cold to chase him away.

Back to the comforts of civilization

The next morning after breakfast, we bundled up our equipment. Most of the food was gone and almost all the wood we’d brought had been burned. Everything was carried back out to the road. We were careful to leave the cabin as clean as we found it because having the use of it was much appreciated.

The author, washing dishes.

Like a lot of things in life, we learned that common sense precludes trying to camp in the wintertime. Yes, it is possible and we weren’t sorry we tried it, but all future camping trips – and there were many – were made in warm weather.

In today’s affluence, the motorhome/travel trailer method of spending time away from home has become the standard. The average person may consider such activity “camping,” but in reality, it is enjoying what Mother Nature has to offer without sacrificing the comforts of home. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts.

Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at

  • Updated on Jun 6, 2022
  • Originally Published on Mar 9, 2021
Tagged with: winter adventure
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