Winter Camping 101: Front Country

Winter camping can be an exciting and rewarding experience. Many Ontario Parks offer winter camping in the front country and a list of applicable campgrounds can be found here. Front country winter camping refers to camping in a developed campground offered by a provincial park or privately owned campground. Like anything new, it is always best to go slow, do lots of research and ease into it. I began winter camping by booking a yurt at Mew Lake Campground in Algonquin Park. My mother actually suggested the idea of going to see Algonquin in the winter, so I booked one of the yurts there and we had an incredible time.

Roofed Accommodations

Staying at a yurt or a roofed accommodation in one of Ontario’s Parks is a great way to experience winter camping, without having to purchase a lot of equipment. Yurts are heated by electric heat, or by a wood stove, depending on the yurt and park they are located in. Staying in an accommodation such as this lets you experience winter activities in designated parks, have a safe and warm place to sleep, but also will help you gain experience with many of the things you would do when camping in a tent.

Cooking

Many of the yurt regulations do not allow you to cook inside them. In this aspect, you are heating or cooking your food outside in some way. In my opinion, it is best to precook your meals or bring foods that can be heated up easily, especially during your first experience. 

When I stayed in a yurt in the winter, I brought a crock pot and a fully cooked homemade stew. To keep the crock pot as warm as possible, I sat it in my car, plugged it into the electricity offered by the yurt, using a very long extension cord, and heated up my food that way.

Most yurts also have a fire pit provided, like a normal campsite, so you can also cook over the fire. Remember to bring a shovel in case one isn’t provided, as you may have to clear out the snow from the fire pit before you are able to start a fire and cook on it. Some yurts have barbeques provided and others recommend you bring your own. Just a note that some fuels do not work well in the cold, so it is best to keep them inside the yurt until you are ready to use them.

During my first stay in a yurt in the winter, I brought my Coleman stove and attempted to make breakfast with it. The fuel had been left in my car and it took a long time to get enough heat to warm up my frying pan to cook our meal. When it was finally hot enough, I cracked my eggs open, only to find they were frozen inside. That brings me to my next topic, food storage.

Food Storage

Storing your food in the winter can be tricky. Instead of the usual issue of keeping your food cold in the summer, you are dealing with the opposite, keeping your food from freezing. It is best to keep your food and drinks in a cooler to keep the temperature more regulated. When it is very cold, it is a good idea to fill a Nalgene bottle with hot water and keep it inside the cooler. This will help keep the cooler from getting too cold and keep your food from freezing. I generally keep my food in my vehicle so it is safe from critters, however, if you are also allowed to keep your food in the yurt or roofed accommodation, this will help keep your liquids and food from freezing and avoid too many issues. This is also good practice to figure out what foods might be easier for you to bring, if you decide to take the next step and camp in non roofed accommodation.

Hydro Campsites

Many of the parks which are open in the winter offer campsites with hydro. This provides many options for winter campers, especially those people who do not own or have access to a hot tent. My second experience winter camping was in a summer tent on a hydro campsite. I do not actually own a winter tent and camp in my summer tents during winter without issue. The main difference between summer and winter tents, other than the materials, is that the poles are usually stronger on winter tents to be able to handle any snow load you may experience. To avoid this issue, I suggest putting a tarp over your tent to keep the snow off of it, putting your tent underneath a tree (make sure there are no broken branches first that can fall and harm you), camping when no snow is expected, or, ensuring you constantly clear the snow from your tent. Do your best to have a backup, just in case, as winter can be very unpredictable, but I have seen many people camp this way in winter with little or no issue.

On my first winter camp, I used a small tarp underneath the tent for some insulation from the snow covered ground, and also laid a tarp right over the tent to help keep the heat in. I brought a few very long extension cords and a few power bars, as there is only one plug-in per campsite. I used a space heater, set it on a cookie sheet to be extra safe, and after about a half hour, my tent was warm and cozy. I do know that some people use propane heaters with a similar set up. When using these, however, you must have proper ventilation. As I do not have much experience with this type of camping, it is something I cannot personally recommend. I have tried a white gas heater, but even with ventilation, I always find I get a headache and I just don’t feel comfortable using this method myself.

Cold Camping Tips

Front country winter camping can also be done by cold tenting and hot tenting and a lot of the information I have provided above is similar for these methods. All of the campgrounds on the Ontario Parks list except Arrowhead, offer non hydro sites in the winter time as well as hydro sites. I rarely cold camp as I get extremely cold when I’m sleeping, but when I do, I do several things to keep warm. Buying a cheap hot water bottle at a hardware store that you can fill with boiling water is a great way to stay warm while sleeping in the winter. You can also do this with a Nalgene bottle, however, ensure you burp it after you’ve filled it with hot water and seal it tightly to avoid any leakage and waking up in a wet sleeping bag. When I am cold camping, I also keep my water and my fuel inside my sleeping bag to keep them both from freezing. Making a simple water bottle cozy using foam for your water bottle will also help keep any liquids from freezing. Please check out our previous article on Hot Tenting versus Cold Camping, for other winter front camping tips and tricks.

Booking

As winter camping has become more and more popular over the years, it is best to book your front country campsite well in advance of your visit.  For roofed accommodations, especially for holidays and weekends, most need to be booked a full 5 months in advance when the dates open on the Ontario Parks website, and even then it is not guaranteed that you will get one. Facebook has many winter camping based groups in which people will sometimes advertise that they will be cancelling a site or a yurt, so if you miss booking your December campsite in July, keep an eye out as you might get lucky and end up with a cancellation. Regardless of how you camp, make sure to always keep safety in mind, do your research and go with someone who has experience if at all possible. Winter camping is definitely a lot more work than camping in other seasons, but if you do it right; it can be just as enjoyable, if not more. If you have winter camped in the front country, have some experience under your belt, and, are interested in backcountry winter camping, check out the next article in our winter camping series.

Christina Scheuermann

By Camper Christina

Christina is an avid paddler of both canoes and kayaks, a year-round backcountry camper and car camper, and an outdoors enthusiast, who has been going on mostly solo trips since 2015.. read more

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