At this time of year, many Canadians are dreaming of sunny week-long destinations and sipping frosty beverages by the beach. While I admit to having a few of these daydreams over the last few snow-filled weeks, somehow when I walked into our local Mountain Equipment Co-op to purchase a new parka for my son I walked out signed up for their Winter Camping 101 session.
Winter camping is not a family vacation I had ever considered until that moment, but for some crazy reason from the second I signed up I was set on answering the question Is it possible to take a family with young kids winter camping?
After attending the 1-hour info session, talking to a few experts and finally setting out on our very first winter camping trip, here’s what I discovered.
Define What Winter Camping Is To You
There are many definitions of what it means to be winter camping. In my conversations with winter campers, I heard about spending 5 days in the back country with only skis and a backpack and setting up a week-long camp after a train dropped you off in “middle of nowhere” Northern Ontario. I knew immediately this was not the kind of winter camping my family was up for – at least not yet.
So was it still possible to have a family-friendly non-backcountry winter camping experience?
According to Jeff Brown the Learn to Camp Program Coordinator for Ontario Parks the answer is “absolutely, yes!” Remote experiences are only one definition of winter camping, and it’s okay to take baby steps. Winter camping experiences can still include RVs, renting a Yurt or even setting up a winter-tent with your car in view.
The second Jeff said Yurt, I knew that was the answer for our family. Yurts are semi-permanent tent like structures built on a wood deck so you’re off the ground and come with electricity and HEAT; clearly the perfect introduction to Winter Camping for our family.
Plan to Be Warm
When you head out on your winter camping trip you want to be safe and warm. Jeff very clearly explained “there is an extra layer of planning and type of equipment that comes with it.” If you plan on sleeping in a tent, a 4-season tent is the only way to go – they are built so that snow can’t accumulate on them and are made with a thicker material to keep the wind out. When it comes to sleeping bags, Jeff says to always “go about 10 degrees warmer than the bag is rated for.”
If you’re heading out in a tent, you need to seek out a winter camping expert, whether it’s a friend or family member or an experienced staff person at your local camping equipment store. There are lots of tents, sleeping systems and necessary equipment that will help keep you safe and warm – ask the questions and get the right equipment.
I didn’t worry as much about staying warm at night, because we knew our Yurt at Pinery Provincial Park was heated and equipped with bunk beds. I also knew that we were planning on spending all day outside in the snow, so staying warm outdoors became my priority.
Warm clothing is key to any safe and fun winter camping experience and layers are your friend! While we were nice and toasty in our Yurt, outside we were all bundled in breathable fabrics under warm winter coats. At night, we all changed into dry clothes that we hadn’t sweat in because staying dry is the biggest part of staying warm in the winter.
I like to fancy myself a bit of a campfire chef and love menu planning for our camping adventures. However, when you’re cooking outside in freezing temperatures you want your meals to come together quickly. Campfire cooking is great in the summer, but in the winter a camp stove is the fastest most reliable option. Because Yurts come with a barbeque, we planned to cook all of our meals on it and I also brought a plug-in electrical kettle to make boiling water for hot chocolate, tea and instant oatmeal fast and easy!
Keep in mind you also consume more calories in the winter, because your body is working overtime at keeping you warm. The best winter camping meals are ones that you can prep at home before you leave, come together quickly, have enough calories to keep you full and of course warm you up! Another important tip is to remember to get enough water and stay hydrated.
Get Ready For Fun!
So you have all the right equipment, you’ve set up camp, you’re dressed for the outdoors and now it’s time to have fun! We quickly learned that any winter activity we wanted to do can be done at an Ontario Park. From ice skating, to snow shoeing, to skiing and even tobogganing, there is no time to be bored! At the Pinery, we loved hiking in search of animal tracks and ice skating. I couldn’t get my kids off the ice rink! They spent hours on the ice surrounded by quiet forest – it was truly magical!
We packed our own ice skates and toboggan but ski, snowshoe, skate and sled rentals are all available at select Ontario Parks.
As much fun as we had outside during the day, Canadian winters mean it gets dark early and the nights are long so plan for fun inside activities at night. We knew it would be too cold to sit around the campfire all night like we do in the summer and instead we brought along a favourite board game and a deck of cards. We also brought homework (but that’s another story!).
Don’t Be Afraid To Bail
Going into this winter camping adventure, I watched the weather reports and knew I would bail at the first signs of rain (who wants to be stuck indoors?), temperatures colder than -10 degrees during the day and snow storms. The best, most fun conditions are just below zero day time temperatures, lots of snow and if you’re lucky – sun. We hit the weather jackpot but I was prepared to put our first winter camping experience on hold if the weather didn’t cooperate.
So What Are You Waiting For?
I set out to answer the question is it possible to take a family with young kids camping? The answer (just like Jeff said), is 100% yes! Of course it takes careful planning, the right equipment and a good understanding of how adventurous you want to be. For us the experience was full of memories I will cherish forever and a promise to my kids that we will plan another Yurt winter camping again trip very soon.
And you should too….
With Family Day Weekend and March Break just around the corner, it’s time for you to consider your own winter camping adventure. In Ontario, Family Day weekend indoor and outdoor activities are being held at Algonquin, Killarney, Bronte Creek, Pinery and MacGregor Point Provincial Parks. March Break activities are already planned at Bronte Creek (Maple Syrup Festival!) and Presqu’ile Provincial Parks. A full listing of activities and tons of information on how to get your kids outside and having fun this winter can be found on the Ontario Parks website and especially their events section.
Happy Camping Everyone!
A big thank you to Ontario Parks for giving our family the opportunity to experience Yurt Camping at Pinery Provincial Park.