Love at -36 Degrees: Surviving a Family Weekend on Ice


All is quiet. Daddy and friend are fishing, Auntie is sleeping, and daughter is cuddling with dozing Grandma. The thermometer is hovering at -9 degrees during the typically warmest part of the day, but the wind makes it feel like -32. Last night the air temperature dropped to 36 degrees below zero.

Just another typical ice fishing trip on Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota.

Love at -36 Degrees: Surviving a Family Weekend on Ice | Duluth Moms Blog

I’ve got to be honest with you. I really didn’t want to go on this trip once I heard the temperatures would be dropping well below zero and staying there for the duration of our stay. Though I have gone ice fishing before, it always involved staying in a warm cabin or hotel complete with pool and hot tub. But the plan for this trip was to spend 3 full days and nights on the ice with 5 other people in a 10’ by 20’ “sleeper,” a small shack with 6 bunks, a 4’ x 2’ food storage/cooking area, and a 30 square inch “bathroom,” which is a fancy name for a curtained-off corner with a toilet seat, bucket and a generous supply of plastic bags.

But fishing for walleye on the frozen surface of Lake of the Woods surrounded by family is my husband’s absolute favorite thing to do. Though our daughter and I haven’t gone every year, we decided that, at age 7, she was old enough to experience a fun family weekend on the ice. And since she was excited to go, I had to put on my big girl pants and hope for the best. 

I mean, what could go wrong? We prepared for every possible contingency, bringing enough bedding, food, and warm clothes for at least a week. My husband packed a spare “Buddy” heater, fuel, jumper cables and a spare battery for our vehicle, “just in case”. I brought a carbon monoxide detector as, surprisingly, they are not typically installed in the propane-heated sleepers.

Night One

When we arrived at our sleeper, I was dismayed to discover it didn’t look at all like the photos on the outfitter’s website. It wasn’t nearly as spacious and certainly wouldn’t pass the “white glove” test. Though at first glance it appeared there was no room for the mountains of supplies we brought, I learned that when we’re fishing, all of our stuff goes on the bunks and when we’re sleeping, everything goes on the floor. 

Which brings us to assigning bunks, which were stacked 3 high. The middle bunk is the easiest to get into and most comfortable temperature-wise, so those were designated for the youngest and oldest in our group. The top bunk is warm and the bottom at floor level is cold. Feeling a bit claustrophobic at the thought of crawling into the hole that was the bottom bunk, I volunteered to sleep on the top.

Was that ever a mistake. The heat needs to be set high enough so those in the bottom bunks won’t freeze. However, I was so hot I could hardly take it. Silly me, I forgot to bring shorts and a t-shirt and since we were in mixed company, wanted to keep my pjs on. Every time the temperature became comfortable enough to fall asleep, the heater would kick back on. I literally spent half the night plotting how I could convince my husband it would be ok if I just took the truck and left for home the next morning.

Night Two

The misery of the night before was soon forgotten and we had a lot of fun settling into the rhythm of talking, laughing, snacking, playing games, watching movies and of course, catching fish. We ended up catching 20 walleye and sauger the first day and celebrated with a fresh fish dinner that night. It was even warm and sunny enough for me to go for a short walk outside.

I confessed my plot to the hubs and told him there was no way I was going to sleep on the top bunk again, so we switched and I began to psych myself up for sleeping in “the hole”. Thankfully I have a decent down sleeping bag and also brought a fluffy fleece blanket. My husband decided it would be best to bump the heat down and we all hit the sack. 

A few hours later, I started awake to find my face tingling and frost on my eyelashes. As our friend jumped down from his top bunk, the carbon monoxide detector beeped. A few of us scrambled out of our bunks to assess the situation. 

Since there was no cover on the thermostat, my husband unintentionally put the furnace down to pilot-only on the night it was 36 below! I would love to know how cold it got in the sleeper – thankfully it didn’t take too long to heat up and the carbon monoxide detector simply needed fresh batteries. Whew! 

Night Three

The next day brought more fun, laughter and 14 additional fish. After several rounds of pairs cribbage, we decided to turn in early with a new sleeping strategy: Turn up the heat and abandon the top bunks for the floor. This seemed to be the best approach. My spot in the hole even felt a bit cozy.

Around 2 am, I heard my daughter next to me and smelled something unfamiliar. After the fog cleared, I realized she had thrown up in her sleeping bag. Awesome! Thankfully, we had plenty of paper towels, wet wipes, plastic bags, and extra clothes and bedding to deal with the situation as best we could and most of it was contained to her bunk. It could have been much worse!

Love at -36 Degrees: Surviving a Family Weekend on Ice | Duluth Moms Blog

Preparation is Key

I have to admit, despite everything that happened, staying in a sleeper on the ice IS a lot of fun and I ended up enjoying myself because of the experiences and laughs shared with loved ones. The fact we had carefully prepared helped us deal with those Murphy’s Law moments that are bound to happen whenever you are pushing the limits. 

Fortunately, most ice fishing outfitters are conscientious about guest comfort and safety. They stop by to check on you 1-2 times per day and are available for questions and to jump your vehicle if need be. This is a comfort as cell service can be spotty.

A basic rule of thumb is since there is no running water or way to quickly dry wet items, bring extra clothes and bedding. You will need to bring sufficient water for cooking, drinking and washing up and be sure to pack any spices or condiments you will need to enjoy your food. Check to see if your ice house has a cook stove – ours had a propane-powered two-burner stove plus propane lights.

Be aware that although sleeper houses are wired for electricity, there is no electric supply out on the ice so you will need to bring a generator and plenty of gas if you want electric lights, to run a coffee maker or be able to charge your phone or other electronic devices. Be sure to bring an extension cord and a power strip or two.

Some sleepers are outfitted with TVs and DVD players, so plan accordingly. Otherwise, pack plenty of games, puzzles, books, tablets/laptops and other items to keep the littles entertained. Our daughter kept busy climbing up and down the bunks, snuggling with Auntie and Grandma, and watching movies.

Other supplies you may wish to bring for your trip include plastic bags, ziplock bags, toilet paper, paper towels, disinfecting wipes, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, pots/pans, paper plates/cups/bowls, cooking/eating utensils, a fan (battery operated if you won’t have a generator or don’t want to run it all night), flashlights, spare batteries, shovel, hand/dish towel, dish soap, basic medications/first aid supplies, scented spray for the “bathroom” (essential!), candles, and a lighter.

All in all, I am glad I hung in there with this trip. The rough spots are already converting to fun memories that we can laugh about for years to come and I have a real sense of satisfaction and accomplishment of taking on an activity I knew would be uncomfortable and making it through to the other side. I am proud to say I survived a weekend on ice during the bitter cold of January 2019!

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Sarah VanderMeiden
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Sarah is a dyed-in-her-wool-socks Minnesotan whose life-long love of woods and water drew her to move to Duluth 23 years ago this November. An avid hiker, she loves to explore all locales on Lake Superior’s shore, snowshoe frozen North Shore rivers and go for walks in Duluth’s Lester Park. Working in Higher Education for over 20 years, Sarah’s greatest joy was to talk with students about how to navigate the challenges of college, what they wanted to do with their lives and how to make their dreams come true. After stepping out of this career to be a stay-at-home-mom, Sarah has returned to her passion of helping people achieve their personal and professional goals as a Board Certified Coach. To find out more about coaching and her background, visit or find her on Facebook at Sarah VanderMeiden Coaching . Sarah’s family lives in the country and share their five acres with a small flock of laying hens, deer, wild turkey, way too many mice and 10,000 honeybees. Sarah has given up gardening and keeping her house clean to pursue her many interests including enjoying the lake, singing, photography and spending time with her family camping in their vintage travel trailer or tickling each other on the couch.