Want to enjoy the snowy months to their full potential? Here is a guide for beginners who are ready to go winter camping.
For Canadians, winter is a long season, and it may feel confining, dark and cold at times. But with the right knowledge and equipment, you can embark on a winter camping adventure to get out into the wonderland and explore the beautiful snowy parks and wilderness areas across the country.
Winter camping has a variety of definitions depending on who you ask. It can encompass any overnight experience in the wilderness where temperatures are below 0 C. At this point, the weather is below freezing and there is a very real possibility of danger from the elements that require you to be well prepared.Unsplash
The Advantages of a Winter Camping Adventure
If you’re new to winter camping, you might be wondering if it’s even worth the hassle. After all, is it that enjoyable to sleep in a tent in below-freezing temperatures? In short, yes, I think it is! While winter camping comes with some logistical challenges, it also has many benefits.
Privacy and Seclusion
While the summer months see campsites at their peak capacity, winter camping tends to mean fewer people and a more tranquil atmosphere. There are many advantages to this such as more privacy and better access to trails and winter activities.
More Wildlife, Fewer Bugs
When I visited Algonquin Park this summer and asked a park ranger whether he had seen much wildlife recently, he replied that he hadn’t seen anything “in months.” If a park ranger hasn’t spotted wildlife in a while, it’s even more unlikely that a camper will see anything during their stay. Winter camping provides the opportunity to see wildlife more easily and frequently because fewer people are in the area. There will also be no leaves on the trees obscuring your view of moose, deer, or rabbits passing by in the distance. You may even spot tracks in the snow. Plus, although you must bundle up to stay warm, you don’t have to worry about mosquito bites, applying bug repellent or checking yourself (and your dog) for ticks after a hike.Unsplash
No Restocking on Ice
When winter camping, keeping your food supply refrigerated is a much easier task than during the summer months. Without the heat and sun exposure threatening to spoil your food, it is simple to keep it fresh in a cooler in your car.
Various Activities to Enjoy
Part of the fun of winter camping is the range of new activities to try rather than the regular summer camping activities. You might visit the same park as you in the summer, but instead of swimming, hiking, fishing and canoeing, you can try:
● Cross-country skiing
● Ice fishing
● Ice skating
● Tobogganing or sledding
The experience will give you a new appreciation for a place you had always associated with warm summer nights.Unsplash
Finding Campgrounds During the Winter Months
For beginners, a great way to ease into the experience is to book a front-country campsite. Then, it’s not necessary to invest in specific winter camping gear right away if you’re not sure you’ll be using it again. Instead, you can rent four-season gear (like sleeping bags and tents) from a local outfitter. Many campgrounds across Canada also continue to operate during the winter months, offering access to facilities such as running water, showers, toilets and firewood. Here is a list of front-country winter campsites in the provinces.
Ontario has many popular provincial parks that remain open in some capacity during the winter months. These are some fantastic front-country options for first-time winter campers.
Mew Lake, Algonquin Park
Located along Algonquin Park’s Highway 60 corridor, Mew Lake Campground operates through the winter, with 131 electrical and non-electrical sites available to book. For those seeking a more luxurious winter glamping experience, they also have nine heated hurts to stay in. The campground at Mew Lake offers hot showers, flushing toilets and a comfort station throughout the year.
Dawson Trail Campground, Quetico Provincial Park
Located in Northwestern Ontario, Quetico Provincial Park operates five sites at the Dawson Trail Campground through the winter, from January 1 to March 31. Three of the sites have electrical hookups but there is no water or toilets available onsite.
George Lake Campground, Killarney Provincial Park
Easily one of the most famous provincial parks in Ontario, Killarney is worth visiting in all seasons. During the winter, you can still enjoy camping at George Lake Campground—if you’re willing to walk to the campsite. While it’s still technically a front-country campground, winter access is limited due to the snow since the road is only plowed as far as the park office off Highway 637. Campers must be prepared to carry in their gear or use a sled to move it a short distance from their parked car to their actual campsite. For the ambitious first-time winter camper, this is a great option that provides a taste of what backcountry camping could be like in the snow!iStock
Alberta is well-known for being home to famous national parks in Banff and Jasper. Winter camping is possible at various front-country sites around Alberta, with options for traditional tent camping or van camping. Something to note about winter camping in Alberta is that the winter is much longer than in Ontario, with below-freezing temperatures and snow arriving as early as October and melting into the warmth of spring as late as mid-May.
Wapiti Campground, Jasper National Park
Winter camping is available at Wapiti Campground from October 9 to May 15. This is one of the best options for camping near Jasper National Park. It was my preferred place to take a hot shower when I visited in late October of 2021, plus there were 40 RV sites with electrical hookups, flushing toilets, drinking water and a cooking shelter. Keep in mind that for those enjoying the winter in a van or RV, there are no RV water fill-ups or sanitary dump stations at Wapiti during the winter season.Unsplash
Depending on which part of British Columbia you’re camping in, the winter season can start and end differently, whether it’s similar to winter in Alberta or much shorter (especially closer to the coast).
Carp Lake Park
Anyone looking to try winter camping in British Columbia can do so in Carp Lake Park, which has various campgrounds open during the winter, including Bert’s Cabin, War Lake Campground and Carp Lake Campground. After September 17, the park is open until it becomes inaccessible due to weather. While you can camp there on a first-come, first-served basis, none of the facilities are open. So it’s essential to come prepared with enough water.
Lakeside (Deer Lake) Campground, Sasquatch Park
Sasquatch Park in British Columbia offers a front-country winter campground from October 14 to March 28, with winter camping fees in effect for bookings. There are no facilities open currently, but it remains a vehicle-accessible campground.Unsplash
Your Essential Gear Packing List
Before departure, you’ll either need to invest in the necessary gear or rent from a local outfitter. Whatever you do, several items should be on everyone’s packing list for front-country winter camping.
● A sturdy, waterproof tent (preferably ripstop nylon or polyester material)
● A sleeping bag (rated for use at -10 C or lower, depending on the time of year and expected conditions)
● Two sleeping pads per person
● An outdoor cook stove and fuel (preferably a high-quality canister blended with isobutane)
● Midweight base layers (x2 pairs)
● A down jacket
● Waterproof jacket and pants
● A headlamp
Do You Need Four-Season-Specific Gear?
While it’s not required to invest in four-season gear for winter camping in all instances, it’s a good idea, especially if the temperatures will be below freezing during your adventure. If you are hesitant to invest in four-season gear because you’re unsure whether you will want to go winter camping a second time, opting to rent gear the first time around is a good option that will ensure your preparedness without hindering your budget.Unsplash
Tips For Winter Camping Across Canada
Once you’ve booked your campsite and invested in the appropriate gear, keep these winter camping tips in mind for the adventure.
Vent Your Tent
It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s essential to vent your tent properly when winter camping. If you keep all the ventilation flaps closed overnight, your body heat and breath will create moisture that is trapped inside the tent with you. Instead, keep at least one or two vents open in the tent for sufficient airflow.
Dress in Layers
Layering your clothing is the key to a comfortable and warm winter camping experience. Wear a base layer to regulate your body temperature and have add-ons like puffer jackets and vests that you can easily use to increase warmth as necessary. Remaining in sweaty clothing after exerting yourself will cause your body temperature to drop. To avoid this, remove your sweaty base layer as soon as possible (including socks) and put on your second, dry base layer.Unsplash
Insulation is Key to a Peaceful Sleep
It’s essential to think about how you’re going to keep warm at night when winter camping, and that goes beyond investing in a four-season sleeping bag. You need a camping mattress that provides a layer of insulation from the snow and the ground. Better yet, bring two per person to improve the insulation. You can determine how effective the two sleeping pads will be by adding together their R-value. The combined amount boosts the level of insulation you receive.
Warm Your Extremities
While layering up will help keep your core body temperature regulated, you also need to keep your extremities warm throughout the trip. Studies show that your hands and feet act as insulators and thermal regulators in the cold, so by keeping them warm, you keep your overall body warmer. Be sure to bring merino wool socks and insulated gloves, and pack some hand and foot warmers.
Winter camping puts a fresh spin on the tried-and-true camping adventure experience. When surrounded by a landscape that is covered in a soft blanket of white snow, the world seems peaceful, tranquil and so much larger than you. It’s an exciting way to get outside this winter and push yourself out of your comfort zone.