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Hot fun in the wintertime
There’s something about early morning while camping in the woods…
The first rays of the sun beckon through thick tent material. Birds chirp and chatter, letting you know that there is a lot more going on outside than in. And, with the natural world your playground, there is always the promise of a day full of adventure.
Makes you want to leap from your sleeping bag into your parka and long johns…
If that last sentence seems out of place, you obviously haven’t had the joy of winter camping in Central Ontario.
Now, before you close this magazine, or move on to the next, much more rational sounding article, I want to assure you that winter camping has something to offer for each and every member of the family.
Kids will enjoy the snow angels, the animal tracks to be found around each and every corner, and a day full of as much tobogganing and skating as they can take.
Mothers can look forward to exhausted kids that will fall asleep early in the evening and long winter nights filled with books, magazines, and candlelight.
Dads? Two words for you: bacon and sausages. But we’ll get to that later.
Winter camping is an adventure that your kids will never forget. It is also one that will leave the other kids in their class gasping in amazement. There’s nothing like spending a night in the winter woods to keep imaginations and memories flowing.
And it is also a heck of a lot less scary than it seems.
Twenty-five of Ontario’s 330 parks are open for winter camping. These parks will all have automobile access and park staff on duty. Some will even have camp stores open in case you forget your provisions.
6 of these parks also have yurts available for winter camping. Yurts are semi-permanent canvas structures that look like a cross between a tent and a hut. They have wooden floors, bunk beds, a table and chairs, and (best of all) an electric heater. Most yurts will also have a gas barbeque outside. For more information, please call Ontario Parks at 1-888-ONTPARK (1-888-668-7275).
Because winter camping does require some experience and skill, I recommend the first family trip be undertaken with either an experienced guide, with people who have winter camped before, or by renting a yurt. Luckily, two of the parks that offer yurts are within short drives: Algonquin Park and Silent Lake Provincial Park.
Even when camping in a yurt, there are still plenty of precautions that need to be taken. And these hold true for all winter camping experiences. Many of them are also good to consider for short day-trips into the woods and on frozen lakes and rivers.
While, I have considerable backcountry experience, I still turn to the pros for advice before heading out into the cold and snow. Alix Taylor and Steve Mason are guides that formerly worked in the Algonquin Park region. Their 2 and a half year old son, Aaron, has considerable experience for his age in the bush. Their dog, Oli, grew up around sled dogs. This is a family that knows winter camping. They are also a family that loves to share their knowledge with others.
I asked them the first thing that people should consider before heading out for a winter, and the both immediately answered “clothing!”
“Clothing can make or break a trip,” explained Alix.
“The right clothing is essential for both health and safety,” added Steve.
Both parents stressed that cotton is a complete and utter no-no when in the backcountry.
Cotton, you see, holds wetness and moisture, and loses all insulating properties when wet – even when damp. As you tend to sweat quite a bit while having outdoor winter fun, this means your cotton insulating layer will be pretty much useless.
And they both stressed the importance of layers.
The ability to layer up or down in response to weather or level of physical activity is very important. You don’t want to get too sweaty when weather or bodies start to warm up. At the same time, you will want to be able to add a layer when things cool down, or when you are done with the physical exercise.
Alix stressed the importance of frequently checking on the temperature of children. “Kids often don’t express the fact that they are chilled,” she said. “Similarly, they don’t often tell you when they are overheating. This is particularly true when they are having fun or are tired – two common states when having fun outside.” Both chilling and overheating can be truly dangerous when away from camp.
You should also check extremities – hands and feet – regularly. Fingers and toes are prone to frostbite. They also tend to get wet pretty quickly. The jump from numb hands and feet to frostbite can happen quickly.
And don’t forget to change once you get back to camp.
“You don’t think of kids sweating,” Steve added. “But having fun outside in layers produces lot of moisture. Changing out of those clothes at the end of the day is essential.”
Eating frequently will also keep kids warm. “Eating acts like fuel for the body’s furnace,” said Steve. “Snacking will help regulate temperature and keep your energy up.”
Both Alix and Steve pointed out that winter activities and warm clothing will cause for the burning of plenty of calories, so there is no reason to be shy about the foods you consume. In fact, high fat foods metabolize more slowly, meaning that they will keep you warmer for longer periods of time. These fats will mostly likely be burned off after a day of winter fun.
I like to start the day off with oatmeal and either bacon or sausages. I usually make sure there are enough for me to snack on during the day – something most husbands probably don’t get the chance to do at home. Throughout the day, I tend to hit the high-fat snack foods like peanut butter and cheese. Alix recommends having granola bars on hand to make sure that the furnace is constantly stoked. Fruits and veggies, while nutritious, are mostly water. They don’t offer the needed calories and can freeze while camping.
Once you have the proper fuel in you, there is plenty to do once you are out camping.
When I go out in the bush with kids, I load a toboggan up with everything that we could possibly need for fun. This includes crazy carpets, snowshoes, skates, and guidebooks that describe the plants and animals of the area. It is easy to drag this toboggan as you ski or hike to your destination.
The guidebooks come in handy during the winter, as there is no shortage of animal tracks to be found in the snow. Small animal tracks, such as snowshoe hare and beaver, are common, so too are larger mammal tracks, such as fox, deer, and moose. I’ve even stumbled upon wolf tracks in parts of Algonquin.
And while animal tracks are easier to spot during winter, so too are the animals that make these tracks. I can tell you from experience that deer stand out much more obviously when the forest understory drops its leaves. And that red foxes are more easily spotted on a snow-white background. I can also tell you from experience that there is nothing quite like the look on a child’s face when he or she sees these animals in the wild for the first time.
I would say that my chances of seeing wildlife increase dramatically during the winter months.
Most campgrounds, particularly ones with yurts, will be found close to water. Which, of course, during the winter months, is actually ice. And what do Canadians think of when they think of ice? Skating, of course!
While you may be lucky enough to come across clear patches of ice (either from wind, or from the work of fellow winter-campers), it never hurts to pack a shovel along with your skates. It doesn’t take long to clear a small rink if the snow and ice conditions are right.
Ontario parks also offer up some of the best cross-country skiing in the world. A fine example is Silent Lake, which has more than 40km of groomed trails for skiers of all backgrounds. I recommend the short, 2.5km loop for children (or adults) who are just starting out. These trails feature several huts with woodstoves and firewood for when the weather turns nasty, or when the kids need warming up. The Silent Lake yurts can be found just off the ski trails.
Unplanned events, such as snowmen, fort building, and snowball fights are inevitable and only add to the memories.
And thought you may not have considered it before, there is a whole new world of memories to discover out in the winter woods. You owe it to both your kids and your selves to enjoy it. So, get out your best long-johns and start planning your trip today.
Hopefully, I’ll see you on the trails!
Dressing for Success
Start with a polypropylene long underwear base – it will wick moisture away from the skin and prevent chill.
Fleece pants and shirts/sweaters make an excellent secondary layer. They trap air, dry quickly, and act as a great insulator, even when wet.
Wool can be used as a secondary layer. Though it does have good insulating properties, it does not dry quickly, can trap moisture, and is extremely heavy when wet.
A windproof/water-resistant outer shell layer is a necessity. Waterproof fabrics may not necessarily be the best choice, as they will prevent the moisture generated from sweat from escaping. This can cause your under-layers to get heavy, wet, and cause chills. Windproof and water resistance fabrics, such as nylon are more appropriate. Gore-Tex allows for some breathability while keeping the bulk of water and snow out. More waterproof materials should have vent holes or zippers at the back and at the armpits in order to allow sweat moisture to escape.
Gloves should have an insulating inner and waterproof outer layer. Same with boots. The ability for the liner to come out of the boot is advised, as it will allow the inside of the boot to dry when at camp in the evening. Starting a day with dry footwear is essential. Ask for “Sorel” style boots when shopping for you and your kids.
Hats and scarves are also needed.