I’m not going to lie; for most of my life, camping, or the thought of it, never particularly floated my boat – or kayak, or canoe, or dinghy, or whatever you’re supposed to use.
Then I joined a few folks from MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) on a winter camping excursion to Algonquin Park and I have to admit, they turned me.
As a lifelong Torontonian – though I can’t imagine any city in this country being exempt – I now whole-heartedly believe that going winter camping is something everyone in Canada should do at least once in their lives. Barring the unlikely event of total calamity, I also suspect the experience wouldn’t stop at “once”.
(To be clear, I’m not talking about 30-below-fear-the-frostbite-while-carving-your-bedroom-out-of-ice kind of winter camping. I’m talking about the more cushy car-camping variety where you roll up to your neatly hemmed, chilled but snowless campsite, trunk full of life-savers and luxuries, and have yourself a rustic but relaxing and relatively predictable getaway in the s’more-warmed lap of Mother Nature.)
That being said, in order to properly enjoy the experience, doing it properly is definitely a must.
Winter camping is not without its planning, preparation and consideration. Here are some tips to help you make the most of it and make it home in one piece…
Do your research & really look into locations
We stayed at Mew Lake Campground in Algonquin Park and it was fantastic; easy drive from the city, short ride to several nearby nature walks and lookouts, short ride to a general store, tons of room, clean and pristine, right on the water, quick walk to pressurized fountain, washrooms and showers, etc. I don’t imagine, however, that all sites are quite the catch.
Be sure to dedicate at least a few hours to not only digging into details and alternatives, and reading what others have said about the location (where reviews are available), but being conscious about how the site aligns with your preferences for “roughing it” and the kinds of experiences you hope to have (and not have).
Make a list (and check it twice)
There is really no way around it: you will probably need a lot of stuff, even if you’re just going for one night. Forgetting what seems like the smallest thing has the potential to really dampen the campin’, so make your lists, check them twice, and don’t be shy about trying to replicate every day city life (there’s a happy, authentic middle-ground between back-country camping and car-glamping).
As a starting point, there are plenty of good camping essentials lists around the web. For me, it makes sense to break it out into these categories:
Essentials: Body / Bed / Cooking / Consuming / Cleaning
I find the five buckets above to be very helpful for both comprehensive and nuanced coverage.
Gear: Get the good stuff
An introduction to MEC’s wildly comprehensive catalog of gear, made me realize that good gear grants you a great deal of confidence, and can make or break a camping trip.
From the ventilation, zippers, and weather-resistance of your tent, to the wool used in your base layer and toque, you’ll probably want to spring a little extra for the physical and psychological comfort of quality. You can always save some cash surviving off vegetarian chili and frozen bananas. However, I recommend doing what we did and feast on wings, roti and every kind of s’more topping.
Don’t overdo the warmth
It is going to be a bit cold, but even under those circumstances, you can end up being too warm. Loading up on good gear does not mean “microwave yourself” by going Babushka and dressing for indefinite dispatch to the Arctic. Know exactly what the temperatures will be like and then configure your wardrobe (and sleeping bag if you can) appropriately.
If it’s only -2 degrees, but you’ve dressed for -20, you’ll start identifying more with the roasted marshmallows than you will nature.
Test your things to make sure they work (and have a backup plan in case they don’t)
If you’re bringing anything that has to “work” with gas or electricity, or anything that needs to be assembled or “fit” into other things, test it before you leave—even if it’s new, or the multiple parts came in the same product packaging. Just test it to make sure it all works. Then create a contingency plan (e.g., use fire for heat, drive to closest store, etc.) for the event in which you get to the campsite and it magically doesn’t work. Where it makes sense, the contingency plans should also try to cover the on-site equipment too.
Don’t forget to go see nature
While the collection of wildlife and the colour palette or the landscape will certainly change with the weather, cold temperatures don’t create total vacancy. Make sure you allocate time to get away from the campsite (another bonus of car camping) and appreciate the beautiful blanket of nature that wraps around our summers. You’ll probably be surprised at what you find. (Note: This is Dave with an actual bird on his hand. He has a calling.)
Bring the right people
What “Location, location, location” is to the lifeline of real estate, “People, people, people” is to the experience of a winter camping trip. If you surround yourself with people who appreciate the beauty and serenity of nature and love good conversation, people who understand the profound importance of unique encounters and make a habit of making the most of things, you will absorb all the invigorating, therapeutic elements of the experience and all but unconsciously overlook its suddenly negligible irritants. Campfires are handy and all, but when you are winter camping, I would argue that nothing beats the warmth of charming company. They’re much less likely to make your clothes smell too.