The great Canadian winter-camping primer

a-cabin-in-the-woods-in-Alberta Photo by Dolce Vita/Shutterstock

“Winter camping is the best. No bugs, no people — you have the wilderness to yourself,” says Kaydi Pyette, a seasoned winter camper and the managing editor of Adventure Kayak and Canoeroots magazines. “There’s something magical about waking up to a new snowfall transforming the landscape into a winter wonderland.”

Here are nine tips that will also have you singing winter camping’s praises.

Pack the right clothing. You don’t have to spend a fortune on high-tech and gimmicky gear to stay warm and dry. Instead, remember to layer, steer clear of cotton, and opt for merino wool where possible. And just in case you get a chill — the kind that chopping firewood can’t cure — hand-warmers might do the trick. Light, small and easy to carry, they’ll keep you warm when nothing else will.

Keep one change of clothes dry. Nothing will chill you faster than wearing wet or damp clothing. To ensure you have dry gear to sleep in — or something to change into in an emergency — pack one set of clothing (including socks, long johns and a hat) in a dry sack or in your sleeping bag.

A camping mat is a must. Regardless of whether you’re sleeping in a quinzee or a tent, you’ll want to create separation between your body and the snow. Closed foam or closed cell mats are ideal, as air mattresses become heat sinks once they cool. You can also create layers under your primary mat — particularly under your bottom — by layering your coats and snow pants (if they’re dry). This also will prevent your outerwear from freezing overnight.

The right sleeping bag is worth investing in. When shopping, don’t just look at price tags – inspect the temperature ratings. As you make your selecting, remember that down bags can get wet with snow and condensations, but synthetic bags may not provide the same level of warmth. A hybrid option may be your best bet.

Prepare your food in advance. The less time your fingers spend exposed to the cold, the better. To give your body the right fuel to fight lower temperatures, plan hearty meals that can be cooked in one pot, such as stews. Since everything is likely to freeze, keep any snacks handy and thawed in the inner pockets of your jacket.

Bring entertainment. Moving to stay warm will likely be your primary activity, but long nights mean plenty of downtime. Come equipped with fire-building supplies, a guide to the stars and a good book.

Pick the right location. If you’re a first-timer, your destination can make or break your trip. Pyette recommends trying someplace like Bruce Peninsula National Park, where the lake’s shores are transformed by ice formations. Look for a drive-in camping spot, or one that’s only a short walk in. Regardless of how far you have to travel, use a sled to help cart your gear in.

Make it last. Length matters just as much as location. Shannon Lyon, a winter camping enthusiast who has worked with Mountain Equipment Co-op and Outward Bound Canada, says that to fall in love with winter camping, you may have to push your limits. “The first night can be rough; the best sleep is the third night in,” she says. “You’ve got to push through!”


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