Warming up to Winter Camping

By Gord Green

There are no mosquitoes, no line-ups and sleeping is pure comfort snuggled into a cozy sleeping bag with a cushion of snow between you and the ground. 

If you have never considered heading out into the backwoods in the dead of winter, this may be an adventure worth checking out. You can snowshoe, cross-country ski or even go ice fishing in the pristine quiet of a winter’s day. It’s also a great time of year for tracking and identifying wildlife, which leave their tracks everywhere they go. At night, the woods take on a different character as moonlight reflects off the snow to light the forest.

“It’s a totally different experience – I prefer it to summer camping,” says Kyle Reckman, a sales associate at Novack’s of London, which has been outfitting outdoors adventurers since 1939. “It’s a lot more relaxing because you don’t have the crowds, and you don’t have to worry about animals as much”

With a little preparation – including layered clothing, and lots of carbohydrate and protein-packed foods that create body heat – the cold shouldn’t be an issue, notes Kyle.  “It’s really important to stay dry, because when you’re dry you’re warm. That means you need to peel off layers when you are active so you don’t sweat as much.”

That in mind, it’s also a good idea to have a burst of activity just before bedtime – all that body heat will come in handy as the temperatures outside plunge over night.

Roam Ontario Winter Camping with a 4 Season TentA good quality three-season tent may be adequate for most conditions, but these types of tents aren’t built for heavy snowfalls. That means you’ll need to keep whisking snow off the roof to prevent your tent from collapsing, says Kyle. Four-season tents are the best option because they are designed for harsher wind and snow conditions, and provide a higher level of insulation.   

Another necessity, unless you are prepared to cook everything over campfires, is a proper winter camp stove.  Standard camp stoves will freeze in harsh conditions. White gas stoves are a requirement for outdoor winter cooking, and can range in price from $69 up close to $200.

Using snow as a natural insulating material is one of the advantages of winter camping. Perishables, like meat, are easily preserved by building a natural ‘snow’ refrigerator for storage. The drawback of this natural system is that liquids will freeze. You can’t bring in large quantities of water, so be prepared to melt your own. As long as there is no yellow or pink colour in the snow (pink indicates bacteria), the resulting water will be potable.

The key to enjoying winter camping is preparation, says Mark of Hamilton, who tried it for the first time four years ago. “The first time we went, we really didn’t know what it was all about. The temperature dropped to -39, and my brother-in-law had a summer sleeping bag. Fortunately, we were camped close to the car so he could go back to get warmed up.”

Planning is paramount, adds Mark. “Winter camping is fantastic, but you have to be aware of potential hazards like frostbite and hypothermia. You should check the weather because you don’t want to be setting up in a blizzard. You need to pack based on how cold it is going to be. I’m buying a four-season tent this year with a wood-burning stove and chimney.”

There are a variety of winter camping experiences to explore that can take you from southern Ontario to Algonquin and beyond.  

Camp Wanakita

Here’s the answer for those who want to experience winter camping, but aren’t quite ready to pitch their tent in the snow. YMCA Camp Wanakita, situated on a 1,000-acre site on the shores of Koshlong Lake in the Haliburton Highlands, offers three winter camping experiences with family accommodations in private, heated cabins with washroom facilities.

“These camps let families explore a variety of winter activities, with everything taken care of for them,” says Cam Green, Outdoor Centre Director at the camp. This includes things you might expect like campfires, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. But it also gets families working together in high ropes, low ropes and winter ecology explorations.

Four-day camps are held over New Year’s and Family Day weekend. There is a Monday to Friday camp on March break.

Meals are served ‘community-style’ in the camp’s dining hall, but are more upscale than you might remember from your camp days as a kid, notes Cam. “The food is very good, with dinners ranging from roast beef and tilapia to a pizza night.  Or course at New Year’s there is a special meal. And we do a Greenland New Year’s celebration at 9 p.m. so the kids can get to bed in good time.”

You can register online for the family camps starting November 15, at ymca-wanakita.on.ca.  The all-inclusive cost for four-day camps is $263 for adults, $185 for youths 10-16 and $165 for children 3-9 (plus HST).

Valens Conservation Area

The Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA) is opening up this popular park for winter camping from Jan. 1 to April 30 for both tents and trailers. Campers must hold an annual HCA pass, and commit to a minimum of 16 nights during the winter period.

The bonus is that you don’t have to move your tent or trailer off site between visits. And it’s a lot closer to home for those who live in southern Ontario. conservationhamilton.ca/winter-camping-at-valens


If you want a taste of Northern wilderness, Algonquin’s Mew Campground stays open throughout the winter, says Andrea Coulter, a Planning Intern at the park with the Ministry of Natural Resources. “There are campsites available on a first-come, first-serve basis including some electrical sites,” says Ms. Coulter, noting facilities include a comfort station with laundry, flush toilets, shower and drinking water.

The site attracts campers of various styles and experience, she notes. “I love walking around the Mew in the winter to see the range of camping equipment people use. You’ll see RVs, trailers, tents and even quinzees (a igloo-like structure built out of snow).” If you’re really adventurous, you might luck out and find an abandoned quinzee ready for occupancy.

For those not so adventurous, the campground has seven ‘yurts”– eight-sided, tent-like structures that are mounted on wooden floors. Yurts sleep up to six people, and include fluorescent lighting, power, and electric heat.   Yurts can bee booked up to five months in advance and cost $91.50 per night not including a reservation fee. Online reservations are available at ontarioparks.com

Accessible from the Mew are cross-country ski trails, two major networks that take you deep into the wilderness and feature warm-up cabins en route. “Winter is actually one of the most beautiful times to visit Algonquin,” adds Ms. Coulter. “I’ve heard artists say the park is boring in spring and summer – they prefer it in Winter.”

At the base of the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario Winter Camping offers Tipi camping starting on New Year’s Eve. There are a variety of packages at this sustainable resort which include meals, guided trips and use of snowshoe and cross-country ski equipment.  ontariowintercamping.com

If you’re ready to warm up to the idea of winter camping, there’s a good checklist available at camping-