“People freak out when you say you go winter camping, but it is really fun. When you are all done you feel like you really accomplished something. It is a great way to recharge your batteries and get outdoors,” says the Belleville resident, who for the past four years has hiked into the stillness of Frontenac’s snowy interior for a weekend of wintry solitude.
“Plus, there’s no bugs,” jokes Lambert.
For camping rookies who shiver at the idea of nothing but a layer of canvas or nylon separating them from the elements, Zabe MacEachren says that it helps to learn essential skills from more experienced campers. MacEachern is the Coordinator of Outdoor and Experiential Education at Queen’s University and has winter camped throughout Northern Ontario and Manitoba. This winter she teaches the perennially popular winter camping programs at Frontenac Provincial Park. The goal of the these wilderness skills survival programs is to help beginners plan a successful and comfortable winter camping trip.
“Many things can be learned on one’s own while out in the bush, but generally learning takes longer and you must be prepared for potential difficulties and new situations, especially in a cold environment when things can go from good to bad very quickly,” advises MacEachern.
And just how cold will you be? The answer might surprise you.
“Many people think they will be cold, but they learn to overcome this by altering the way they dress,” says MacEachern, adding that simple skill development plus learning how to correctly use a wood stove keeps you toasty.
But you need more than a roaring fire to keep warm while winter camping, and both Lambert and MacEachern emphasize choosing the proper clothing and equipment to ensure your safety and comfort. Layers of natural fibres (think: silk, wool and leather) plus a windproof outer layer will keep you dry, because believe it or not, you’ll work up a sweat while setting up camp.
MacEachern’s go-to gear includes light flexible footwear like mukluks, leather chaps and mittens with interchangeable wool liners. Stay away from synthetics, not only because they don’t insulate as well as natural fibres, but they will melt when you’re working around your fire. “And dry wool socks are sheer comfort wear,” adds MacEachern.
When it comes to tents, campers have a few options. Walled canvas tents are the tent of choice for most winter campers, and the type used by MacEachern during the Warm Winter Camping Overnight at Frontenac. These durable tents provide superior snow and wind protection and can be outfitted with a wood stove. Walled tents are typically larger and heavier than the nylon tents you take camping in the summer time, a key factor to consider if you use a pulk or other sled bring your gear to your campsite. For that reason, Lambert opts for a lightweight nylon 2-person tent.
“I would say a smaller tent is better. The small tents don’t take as long to get warm from your body heat,” says Lambert. The lightweight tents aren’t for everyone, but they do have the advantage of being able to be used year-round. “Three or four season tents are a must and the fly must come all the way to the ground,” advises Lambert, who takes an all-season approach to the gear he buys.
Of course, camping isn’t camping without food. But first, you need to have water. For that, Lambert brings an ice auger and SteriPens for water he gets from Frontenac’s waterways. “Melting snow might sound easy but it takes a lot of energy to melt water because the snow to water ratio is 10:1. That’s a lot of snow and wood to melt even 10 cups of snow to get one cup of water.” Lambert’s technique reserves wood for heat and fuel for cooking.
For mealtime, MacEachern suggests that campers head to the frozen food aisle of their grocery store, but not to shop! “I make my own version [of these meals] for camping from scratch with real ingredients,” she says, adding that meat and fat are ingredients that will keep you warm. And for dessert? “The fun part about winter camping is that you can make and have ice cream!”
A winter night sleeping under the stars is incredible experience itself, but MacEachern recalls one December at Frontenac Provincial Park that was particularly memorable.
“I had finished hauling my canoe and gear down the road to the lake. I arrived pleased that the lake was not fully frozen so I started testing the ice along the shore as I moved my canoe out to the open water. Suddenly I heard a “Hey you with the canoe” and turned around and saw a Viking-like figure standing at the top of the hill in bare feet. We had a great chat about winter and traditional equipment,” says MacEachern. “Meeting such interesting people and watching wildlife, like a marten exploring the shoreline, was clearly a memorable aspect of that December overnight in Frontenac Park.”
Book your back country winter camping trip at Frontenac Provincial Park on the Ontario Parks website or contact the Friends of Frontenac Park to register for their upcoming Wilderness Skills Training Programs, which includes winter camping planning sessions with Zabe MacEachern. Not ready to try winter camping? Try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in The Great Waterway instead with our list of places to go and rent gear!