I am writing this post surrounded by camping gear at various stages of dryness: tents spread across the floor, shoes propped up against the radiator, clothes hanging on chairs. It’s one of the less glorious parts of camping – having to sort out the gear after the trip, especially one that ended in frantic packing in the pouring rain. Our cat is enjoying it, though.
We really love winter camping with its frozen beauty, fun activities in the snow and smaller crowds (add absence of bugs for my husband and our younger son). Usually we stay in a yurt or a cabin, which still sounds extreme to some people. At the beginning of this winter though, we decided to take it to the next level and try camping in a tent. But as the winter was progressing with temperatures dropping lower and lower, we were close to giving up on the idea with the usual ‘maybe next year.’ And then this past weekend, we decided that there was no better time than now, packed all our stuff Saturday morning and headed to Algonquin Provincial Park.
Algonquin’s Mew Lake campground is open year round with seven yurts, which need to be reserved in advance online or over the phone, as well as electrical and non-electrical campsites available on the first come first serve basis. Campsite permits can be purchased at the West or East Gate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. After four, there is a self-serve registration kiosk at the entrance to the Mew Lake Campground.
The weather didn’t look very promising on Saturday. It was grey and drizzling but at least not too cold. Luckily, there was still a lot of snow left at Algonquin, otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a winter camping. We arrived at the campground around 5. Quite a few campsites boasted all sorts of tents, some with chimneys sticking out, others just regular ones. We snatched a waterfront site with a view of the lake, frozen and beautiful.
We don’t have a winter tent and, after reading all about it, I decided we could get away with our three-season one. There was no heavy snowfall in the forecast so we didn’t have to worry whether the frame would hold. The tent has a fly that extends all the way to the ground so it provides pretty good protection from the wind. We also added a tarp on top of it for some extra protection ensuring there was a good flow of fresh air. We added a tarp under the tent as well, plus two layers of sleeping pads for additional insulation from the ground. We also brought two sets of sleeping bags for everyone for extra warmth. And we did bring our small electrical heater so it wasn’t nearly as extreme as it sounds. In the end, no one was cold, although it was a bit chilly around dawn. The hardest part was getting out of the tent in the morning but with nature calling (pun intended) and a promise of coffee it was doable.
Cooking also presented a bit of a challenge without roofed accommodations to do food prep. So anything that could be just dumped into the pot, mixed with water and cooked quickly worked best. We made our favourite minestrone soup with the soup mix from Bulk Barn: we cut the recommended dose of the mix in half to reduce the salt content and add red lentils and dehydrated vegetables from Bulk Barn as well. We also made veggie burgers the second night and cooked eggs with beans in the morning.
On Sunday, the weather improved considerably. It was sunny and crisp with a hint of spring.
We decided to hike the Bat Lake Trail since it was very close to the Mew Lake Campground. That way we didn’t have to drive anywhere. It’s a perfect trail for a winter hike with frozen waterfalls (our son called them Elsa’s castle), a beautiful lookout point and a few lakes along the way.
Along the trail, our son kept practicing his hide mode technique, which consisted of jumping sideways and disappearing into the snow banks.
Upon our return, we headed to the skating rink and played a game of shinny. It was my first hockey game, if you can call it that since I didn’t even have skates on. But it was a lot of fun nonetheless.
The highlight of the trip was the blue jays that visited our campsite.
We took our time packing Monday morning, watching the last logs burn, savouring the last moments of our trip. On the way home, we stopped at Westside Fish and Chips in Huntsville, which has become our favourite food stop whenever we go to Arrowhead or Algonquin. After a three-hour drive, we were back in snowless Toronto.
Overall, the trip was a great success and we are definitely coming back next year. All my doubts regarding dragging my family into the cold of the winter to sleep on the ground dissipated one morning when our son mused that he couldn’t understand why some people thought that staying in a hotel was better than camping. That warmed me better than the hot tea I was sipping.
I love Family Day weekend camping. Yes, it’s cold (or even frigid cold as it was this past weekend) and a simple trip to the bathroom requires major preparations and lots of layers. But none of those things matter when you are greeted every morning by beautiful views of the snow-wrapped forest and clear crisp air that makes your whole body vibrate in tune with the singing snow under your feet.
This year, we spent the Family Day weekend at Allegany State Park. Located in the Enchanted Mountains region in western New York, it’s less than a three-hour drive from Toronto. With over 150 winterized cabins, it’s easy to book last minute roofed accommodations. We stayed at one of the cabins at the Congdon Loop. The cabin was pretty spacious with two bunk beds and a kitchenette area that had a fridge and a gas stove. There was a gas heater and electricity so it was warm (well, relatively warm when the temperatures dropped to -25C on Sunday) and light. The comfort station (very warm and comfortable) was about two minutes away. It also had showers (although not sure who would want to use them in the weather like this) and a utility sink, very convenient for washing dishes.
The park itself offers a lot to do. The Art Roscoe Nordic Ski Centre boasts over 20 miles of cross-country ski trails of various difficulty levels and also has gear rentals and a warming hut. Allegany is very popular with snowmobilers. We could hear them whizzing by from time to time. We also spotted a few fishing huts on the Red House Lake. And, of course, there are great tobogganing hills for the kid in all of us.
We arrived at the park late on Friday. Our cabin was up on a hill and there was no way to get the car up there with all the snow so we had to carry our gear and supplies. Nothing makes you move faster than freezing temperatures so between the four of us we were done in a record short time. After having a nice cup of tea and deciding who’d take the upper bunks, we were all in bed dreaming of a great day ahead.
We started the next morning with our favourite breakfast and a nice cup of coffee. We then headed to the Art Roscoe Ski Centre where we rented gear and spent the day skiing. It was snowing lightly when we started and the forest looked magical. It’s amazing how winter manages to create the most enchanting works of art with only one colour at its disposal.
Somewhere halfway through the trail, a snow squall blew in reducing visibility to almost zero. Luckily it passed quickly but our younger son continued to shake snow off the tree branches with his ski poles so by the time we were done we looked like snowmen and, well, one snowwoman.
After our skiing adventures, we drove to the neighbouring town of Salamanca (about 10 minutes away) to buy some food and wood and spent the evening cooking boys’ favourite minestrone soup with garlic toast, building a campfire near the cabin and then playing the game of Life back inside.
The next morning, we woke up to refreshing 25 below zero outside and lots of sun.
After delicious oatmeal with fruit and some warm drinks, we finally plucked up the courage to go outside.
We decide to test our new snow tube on one of the hills. It was fun while it lasted, which wasn’t very long. About halfway down the first run, the tube ripped sending the kids tumbling down. There was a bit of complaining about scratched cheeks and cold snow but nothing a nice hot cup of chocolate wouldn’t fix.
We spent the rest of the day around the cabin, our younger son breaking off icicles, the rest of us warming by the fire. By then, our improvised fire pit (the real one was hidden somewhere under the snow) got wider and deeper allowing us to actually sit around the edge right by the fire. In the end the combination of fire and snow created a perfectly round crater, its walls covered in ice spikes.
Once we went through all of our wood, we retreated inside, made some fish with baked potatoes and roasted corn (yum) and played our favourite board game, Settlers of Catan.
On Monday, it was time to leave. As always, it felt the trip hadn’t been long enough. Two beautiful does came to say good-bye.
Last week, Toronto got its first taste of winter. Even though the snow is gone now, all that white, even if a bit slushy, fluff on the ground made me excited about winter camping. I know the phrase winter camping sounds almost like an oxymoron. When I mention to people that we go camping in the winter, they usually raise their eyebrows in extreme disbelief, and even my reassurances that we stay in a yurt or a cabin do little to persuade them that winter camping is a good idea. Well, this post is an attempt to explain what compels us to leave our warm apartment behind and go freeze in the woods.
I know it’s an overused expression but winter is truly magical. Forest is beautiful any time of the year but it reserves a special ethereal kind of beauty for those who dare to venture into the woods in the cold of winter. The monochromatic landscape makes all the lines, curves and forms more prominent and striking. Winter is a skilled artist sculpting the most whimsical creations from ice and snow. On a clear day, snow coated branches and ice covered streams sparkle in the sun, and the whole forest seems to reverberate and glow with freshness and vigor. And when it snows, the world is muted and soft as the white fluff delicately envelopes everything in sight. Or, sometimes, it’s a wind-swept winter desert, rough yet absolutely spectacular.
Remember when the sight of first snow made you excited about all the things you can do outside? Time to bring that joy back! When it comes to outdoor activities, winter is unlike any other season. It’s the only time when you can go skiing, skating, tobogganing, snowshoeing, when you can build snowforts and snowmen, engage in snowball fights and make snow angels. Winter has a magical ability to coax a kid from under all those layers of coats, scarves, snowpants, and adult worries. What’s more, these activities don’t require special training or skill, just a childlike enthusiasm and willingness to try.
For us, testing our ability to be away from everyday conveniences is one of the things we love about camping. Winter adds another layer of challenge to the simplest tasks: walking to the bathroom, chopping wood, making fire, cooking. But with extra challenges come additional rewards. A simple cup of hot chocolate tastes heavenly after a day in the woods, a game of cards is so exciting in a warm yurt in the evening, and there is nothing I love more than sitting by the fire, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping red wine and watching the snow fall.
Stay tuned – tips on winter camping coming soon!