Intro to winter camping in Ontario
Camping in the cold is inherently riskier than during the warmer seasons. It’s challenging to survive sub-freezing temperatures, especially if you’re wet, tired and racing against winter darkness. But with a cautious mindset, the right gear and well-developed skills, winter camping is a truly fulfilling experience. The best way to fast-track your learning is to sign up for a course or take a guided trip with expert supervision.
No matter what attracts you to winter camping, you’ll find plenty of great opportunities to make the most of the season in Ontario.
How to winter camp
Whether you wish to stay in a frontcountry (drive-in) campground or venture into Ontario’s snowy backcountry, there are two distinct approaches to winter camping: alpine-style cold winter camping or traditional hot tenting. Each style has its own attributes, limitations and distinctive equipment.
This approach to winter camping draws heavily on the style of mountaineers, relying on extra-warm, lofty sleeping bags, four-season gas cooking stoves and sturdy nylon tents as buffers from the harsh environment.
The main advantage to cold camping is that the gear is lighter and packs up smaller than a hot tent kit, allowing you to carry it in a backpack or a compact sled and travel overland in steep and rugged terrain.
You can modify or add to your existing three-season camping gear (layering several summer-weight sleeping bags, for example) for your initial winter trips in frontcountry locations, making cold camping a great way to get a taste of winter camping.
The downside is the cold. You’ll need to stay warm through metabolism (by supersizing your trip menu) and insulation (by packing a lot of warm clothing). This makes for long nights buried in your sleeping bag in a frosty tent, especially on trips in January and February.
Furthermore, keeping insulation dry in a cold environment is tough without an external heat source. Sleeping bags, long underwear layers and boot liners will inevitably become damp with condensation and sweat, making moisture a limiting factor on cold, multiday trips—something to consider if you’re planning to stay out for more than a weekend. Take advantage of every moment of sunshine to dry out critical pieces of gear.
Cold winter camping often works well on Ontario’s backpacking trails, such as the Highland Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park. Plan on simple, high-calorie meals that can be prepared quickly on a white gas stove. Be sure to pack a lot of fuel—start with about one litre of liquid white gas per day and adjust as you gain experience—as you will rely on your stove not only for cooking meals but also for melting snow for drinking water.
Setting up an efficient cold winter camp is a fun project for wannabe architects and engineers. Depending on the campsite and amount of snow, it’s possible to craft kitchen benches and windproof countertops from compacted snow and further insulate your tent with partial igloo walls. Snowshoes are essential for mobility and packing out a tent site.
Some cold winter campers go so far as to build a quinzee, essentially a mounded dome of settled snow with an excavated cavity for sleeping. Quinzees are warmer than nylon tents, but they’re often slow and wet to construct and subject to condensation, so it’s important to have a moisture-resistant synthetic or treated down sleeping bag as well as a ground sheet. Be sure to poke several air holes in the quinzee walls for ventilation.
Lounging in a t-shirt in a spacious canvas tent with a glowing and crackling fire in a woodstove is the ultimate luxury, especially when it’s snowing and blowing outside on the darkest nights of the winter. Traditional winter camping with canvas-wall tents and portable woodstoves has become increasingly popular in recent years.
Warmth and comfort are the greatest attributes of hot winter camping. Rather than spending the long evening hours bundled up in a sleeping bag cocoon, you can take the time to prepare elaborate meals, as the woodstove doubles as a cooking surface, dry out your damp gear and read—much the same way you would at a cottage.
You can hot tent in frontcountry campgrounds or pack your gear on a toboggan and venture into the backcountry—the way Indigenous trappers and coureurs des bois did. This style of travel is ideally suited to the frozen lakes and portages of Ontario’s canoe country.
Most hot winter campers carry an ice chisel or auger to cut through frozen lakes and ponds to access water for cooking and drinking. Even in the winter, all water should be boiled before drinking to avoid illness.
Hot tenting is comfortable, but it’s also a huge investment. Because of its weight and bulk, hot camping gear doesn’t cross over to three-season use as easily as a cold camping setup. Renting or going on a guided trip may be a more economical option.
If you decide to invest, make your first hot winter camping trip modest and easy to cut short if necessary. Burned-down tents do happen, so be especially careful when setting up your shelter and woodstove—make sure there’s plenty of space between hot surfaces and fabric tent walls.
Hauling a toboggan load of hot winter camping gear is challenging, especially in powder snow and hilly terrain. March outings are preferred for more stable snow conditions and hard-packed waterways. Locating, cutting and splitting dry firewood is also a lot of work.
Hot winter campers often prefer making camp in wetland areas where standing deadwood is abundant. All winter campers should note that in some provincial parks it’s illegal to camp on designated summer sites. Minimize your environmental and visual impact by selecting out-of-the-way campsites and being mindful when cutting dead timber to avoid creating eyesores.
Because of the labour involved in travel and setting up camp, hot tenting works best with a larger group to divide the responsibilities.
What you’ll need for winter camping
Regardless of the style of winter camping, you’ll need much of the same gear—with a few key differences. You’ll also need the same array of cooking pots, pans and kitchen gear you’d use on a summer camping trip.
Here’s a list of the gear you’ll need, with specific notes for cold and hot camping.
- Shelter types: Whether you choose a nylon dome, tunnel-shaped tent, canvas A-frame, wall tent or yurt will define your style of winter camping.
- Cold camping: For cold camping, many first-timers can get away with using a lighter-weight, three-season tent for their outings in frontcountry locations. Some cold campers prefer an ultralight combination of shaped snow walls for wind protection and use a tarp for shelter overhead.
- Hot camping: Hot tent design determines ease of setup and interior space. A-frame models (Snowtrekker is a popular manufacturer) come with internal aluminum frames to go up fast and work well as a single shelter for groups of three or less.
- Saw and axe: A bow saw and full-size axe are essential for cutting and splitting dry firewood for a hot camping setup.
- Auger or ice chisel: For hot winter camping, it’s handy (but not imperative; an axe will work, too) to pack an auger or ice chisel to break through the ice to access water for cooking and drinking. Remember to boil the water before drinking to kill any pathogens.
- Sleeping bag: For either style of winter camping, invest in a quality winter-rated sleeping bag, ideally insulated with a water-resistant down fill. Alternatively, you can save money by layering up with a couple of three-season bags to stay warm. Most hot tenters allow the fire in the woodstove to burn out overnight for safety and to reduce the amount of firewood they need to cut, so you’ll need a warm enough sleeping bag to make it through low temperatures.
- Sleeping pad: Winter campers lose a significant amount of heat through conduction from the cold ground, so be sure to select a self-inflating or insulated air mattress that’s meant for four-season use.
- Layers: Dressing in layers helps manage sweat and moisture and to stay protected from chilling winds. Long underwear tops and bottoms, thick wool socks, fleece mid-layers and a windproof shell for your upper body and legs are the typical wardrobe for a day of winter travel. Bring a second set of warm layers, such as heavyweight fleece long underwear tops and bottoms, to wear in camp.
- Insulated jacket: A puffy jacket insulated with down or synthetic fill is critical for staying warm during breaks, while setting up camp or in case of an accident or injury. Wise hot tenters always store a change of clothing outside their tent as insurance against a devastating tent fire.
- Hand-, head- and footwear: Bring a spare pair of gloves, a light pair of mitts and a heavy pair of mitts for the coldest days. The same goes for hats and toques. Your choice of daytime footwear is determined by your mode of transportation: specialized boots for backcountry skiing, or warm pack boots or winter moccasins for snowshoeing. It’s a good idea to bring a second pair of boots (or a dry set of boot liners) for use in camp.
Food and cooking
- Cold camping: For cold camping, bring as many easy-to-prepare, calorie-dense meals as possible to keep your belly full and minimize time spent burning fuel with the gas stove. This means plenty of cheese to add to fast-cooking pasta-type dinners and butter to kickstart your morning oatmeal. High-calorie snacks like nuts and seeds are excellent additions. Be aware that energy bars and other snack food items turn rock-hard in the cold, so pack accordingly.
- Hot camping: Hot campers have more options for trip menus because their cooking isn’t limited by fuel supply and the woodstove makes a wonderful cooking surface inside the tent.
- Gas stove: Some campers get by cooking on an open fire, but a single-burner gas stove is best for preparing meals and boiling water for cold camping. For winter use, you’ll need a liquid fuel stove that burns white gas or kerosene for greater efficiency, as most canister fuels don’t work well in sub-zero temperatures. It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow for drinking water; plan on bringing about one litre of fuel per day and modify as you gain experience.
- Woodstove: For hot tenting, you’ll need a portable woodstove and sections of stovepipe, often with an elbow section to allow the chimney to exit the tent. Be sure your stovepipe diameter matches the size of the pipe exit panel (or stove jack) on the tent. Hot winter campers often use their woodstove as a cooktop to prepare meals and boil water.
- Backpack, toboggan or sled: If you’re travelling any distance, you’ll need a way of carrying your gear. For rugged terrain and lighter cold camping loads, expedition hiking backpacks work best. On flatter terrain, including easy trails and frozen waterways, it’s easiest to haul your gear on a sled.
Typically, cold campers can fit their more compact loads on a plastic kids’ sled—a pulk is a high-tech alternative that’s specifically made for winter camping. Hot campers usually rely on narrow toboggans, which are made of flexible plastic or traditional wood with a low profile and measure approximately 4 metres (12 feet) in length.
- Backcountry skis or snowshoes: Skiing is a good way to travel on a winter camping adventure, both for hauling smaller loads of gear in backpacks or on pulks in flat terrain and for exploring on base camp trips. You’ll want a wider pair of backcountry skis and sturdy boots for pushing through ungroomed snow.
Most traditional hot campers get around on large wood-framed snowshoes. Traditional snowshoes create a better “float” of packed snow for hauling toboggans. They’re also faster than modern metal-framed snowshoes on the flat terrain and frozen waterways preferred by traditional winter campers. On the other hand, modern alpine-style snowshoes are best for technical trails and lighter backpack loads.
- First aid kit: Always pack a first aid kit and know how to use its contents. Some medications, such as EpiPens, must be kept close to the body to avoid freezing.
Where to rent equipment and gear
To save money and try winter camping before you decide to buy equipment, modify your summer kit where possible and check out these Ontario outfitters for winter camping rental gear.
- Algonquin Outfitters: rents four-season tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads from its Oxtongue Lake headquarters, located on Highway 60 minutes away from Algonquin Provincial Park’s West Gate
- Frontenac Outfitters: located adjacent to Southeastern Ontario’s Frontenac Provincial Park and rents canvas tents and woodstoves for hot camping, as well as toboggans and winter-rated sleep systems
- Algonquin Basecamp: located in Kearney, on the western border of Algonquin Provincial Park and offers complete outfitting for cold and hot winter camping, custom packages for individuals and groups, and weekend instruction
- Lure of the North: a Sudbury-area outfitter that offers guided trips and instruction, as well as everything you need for a self-guided winter adventure, including canvas tents, woodstoves, toboggans, snowshoes and sleeping bags
- The Wilderness Experience: rents canvas hot tents in the London area
Learn the basics on a course or guided excursion
The fastest and safest ways to learn how to winter camp are taking an instructional course or going on a guided trip with experts. These Ontario outfitters offer winter camping instruction and guided trips in some of the province’s best frontcountry and wilderness destinations.
- Voyageur Quest: offers an all-inclusive overnight introduction to hot winter camping from its base on the western edge of Algonquin Provincial Park, near South River
- Lure of the North: guides a wide array of winter expeditions across northern Ontario and offers “training camp” winter camping and survival instructional courses from its base in Northeastern Ontario, about an hour’s drive from Sudbury
- Algonquin Basecamp: winter rentals come complete with instruction, arranged over several weekends in January and February in Algonquin Provincial Park
- Friends of Frontenac: offers a free introduction to winter camping in Frontenac Provincial Park
- Temagami Outfitting Co.: provides all-inclusive guided hot camping trips by snowshoe and toboggan in the Temagami wilderness of Northeastern Ontario
Where to go winter camping
Ontario is one of the best places to go winter camping, with great opportunities at 31 Ontario provincial parks and one national park. There are options for drive-in camping and backcountry camping, plus comfortable yurt- and cabin-based stays. Book your reservations well in advance.
Here are a few highlights:
- Killarney Provincial Park: Frontcountry camping at the George Lake Campground has a distinctly wild feel. You have to trek and haul your gear a few hundred metres to access your site from the Park Office parking area. Besides offering beginner-friendly winter camping (as well as yurt rentals for those looking for a cozier option), the Killarney backcountry is open for hard-core winter enthusiasts.
- Algonquin Provincial Park: Ontario’s favourite park receives a fraction of the visitors in the winter months, making it a great destination for winter camping. You can drive in and camp at the Mew Lake Campground or challenge your skills by tackling the backcountry.
- Sleeping Giant Provincial Park: Located about an hour’s drive from Thunder Bay, this is a fantastic winter destination known for world-class cross-country skiing. You can also rent one of the park’s cozy yurts or explore its wild backcountry.
- Windy Lake Provincial Park: offers yurt-based camping near Sudbury, making this a great destination for first-timers wishing to get a taste of winter in Northern Ontario.
- Frontenac Provincial Park: offers a great introduction to backcountry camping in the winter, with easy-access backcountry sites and weekend “learn to camp” instructional programs.
- Bruce Peninsula National Park: year-round frontcountry camping is available at its drive-in campground near Tobermory, as well as backcountry winter camping along the spectacular Lake Huron coast.
- Silent Lake Provincial Park: this park near Bancroft is an exciting winter destination with great cross-country ski and snowshoe trails. The campground remains open throughout the winter, with the option of renting heated yurts for added comfort.
- Quetico Provincial Park: recently opened a portion of its Dawson Trail Campground for winter camping, with five maintained sites for drive-in camping. The park’s expansive backcountry is also open for experienced winter campers with advanced wilderness skills.
Last updated: September 19, 2023