Winter Camping in Algonquin Park – Shelters
When it comes to winter camping in Algonquin Park, there are many shelter options available that cater to all types and levels of winter campers. Winters can be extremely harsh in Algonquin. Temperatures can dip to -35 degrees Celsius and below, winds can howl and falling/blowing snow can accumulate very fast. These are all important things to consider when choosing your shelter for winter excursions in the Park.
During the winter season in Algonquin Park, you can camp anywhere in the back country, or at Mew Lake (the only developed campground which remains open for the winter season). Mew Lake offers campers the opportunity to winter camp in a bit more comfort. There is a heated comfort station (full laundry, bathroom and shower facilities). The park also offers the rental of Yurts at Mew Lake. Yurts are spacious tent-like structures with a table and chairs, as well as two pull out bunk beds and mattresses. They also come with an electric heater and light, and are equipped with electricity. You can drive to the yurt which is allows you to bring all of the comforts from home. The nice thing about a Yurt is that you can always have a warm place to get out of the cold, and dry off any wet gear. It’s a great way to introduce someone to winter camping or to winter camp if you do not have proper winter gear like a tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag. There are a few strict rules when using Yurts which renters must be aware of. You are not allowed to cook inside the yurt (there are partially covered cooking areas right outside each yurt), and you are not allowed to bring pets into the Yurt. One thing to keep in mind as well is that on occasion, the power can go off at Mew Lake. If that happens you have to be prepared to wait out the cold temperatures. In the past, the campground host/hostess have had extra propane heaters on hand for such occasions (to be used with extreme caution in an enclosed environment). It’s always a good idea to bring a few extra warm blankets, just in case. The first time I ever brought my wife winter camping we stayed at Mew Lake. The first night we stayed in a tent and the temperature dropped to -35C. My wife was not impressed so the following night we rented a yurt and she loved it. It made the entire experience much more enjoyable for her. The yurts do book up fast though so be prepared to make your reservations months in advance.
The other shelter options for winter camping allow you to set up either at Mew Lake or in the back country. Mew Lake also offers regular campsites (some with hydro and some without). These sites allow you to drive to your site (the sites are ploughed) and set up your tent. To get to the back country, most campers will load their gear onto sleds and pull their gear to their selected site. This is a bit more work, but offers complete solitude. Next to staying in a Yurt, a hot tent is probably the next most comfortable way to winter camp.
A hot tent is a tent (usually canvas although other lighter materials can be used) that has a wood burning stove in it as a source of heat. The stove is vented via metal stove pipes that are vented out of the tent. To me, there is nothing nicer than retiring to your tent after a cold day and relaxing and warming by a crackling fire inside your tent. The stove makes a great place to boil water and many people will cook on their stoves. The heat from the stove also makes it easy to dry out any gear that got wet from the day. There is a bit of work required to properly set up a hot tent. Normally the ground beneath it has to be stomped down (snowshoes make this task much easier) or dug down. Most hot tents to not have floors so it’s important to get the snow packed down to make a nice solid base inside the tent. Hot tenting generally means that you are going to have added weight and bulk to your load. Tents are large and heavy and stoves and pipes can also be bulky. Having said that, once set up, it is really hard to beat the comfort that they provide. Hot tents come in a wide range of sizes, styles and prices. You can often pick up a used tent at a Military Surplus store for around $300.00. On the other end, you can pay well over $2000.00 for a well made Snowtrekker brand tent. There are lots of other options in between, depending on your budget and needs. One thing to point out is that you should not expect to get a full nights burn out of a wood stove. Most of the wood available in Algonquin Park is soft wood and does not burn for long. I have one of the largest stoves available (Kni-Co Alaskan) and even if I stuff it full of wood, the most I can get is 2-3 hours of burn time. This is important to know because you will either have to wake up every few hours to stoke the stove, or you will have to be able to deal with ambient temperatures once the stove burns down (this is my preferred method).
Another shelter option for winter camping is cold tenting. Cold tenting is just as it sounds – sleeping in a tent without any heat source. Although this sounds kind of crazy, there are a few benefits to this style of camping. The cost, weight, bulk and ease of set up is normally much better with a regular cold tent. With a cold tent, it is imperative that you have a decent sleep system (sleeping pad and sleeping bag). As I mentioned above, temperatures can get dangerously cold in the Park and without an adequate sleep system, cold tenting could be perilous. It is advisable to use a proper 4 season tent if you are cold tenting. 4 season tents are normally made with heavier materials than a 3 season or summer tent. They have less ventilation (although some ventilation is required) and are designed to bear snow loads and shed snow much better. It’s not uncommon to get several inches of snow overnight in Algonquin Park and it is very important to have a tent that won’t cave in under a fresh snowfall. Condensation will almost certainly build up inside your cold tent by the morning. It is normal to find the inside of your tent and top of your sleeping bag encrusted with a layer of frost. This happens due to the warm air from your breath and body meeting the cold air outside your sleeping bag and tent. This is very normal and nothing to be overly concerned about (we will discuss condensation in sleeping bags in a later post). If you want to use a regular tent but don’t want to “cold tent”, an option is to get an electric sight at Mew Lake. This would allow you to run an electric heater into your tent. Again this requires a higher level of safety as it is easy to melt materials in the tent. I’ve even taken this approach one step further, and brought an electric blanket. I put the blanket in my sleeping bag and turned on the heat. What a treat that was to crawl into a pre-heated sleeping bag with a toasty electric blanket inside!
This past winter I tried a shelter system I had not yet tried in the winter. I slept under a tarp. Much like cold-tenting, it is imperative to have a solid sleep system to do this. I really enjoyed the experience as I loved the ability to be able to look around the campsite from my bed. Condensation issues can be an issue in an enclosed tent but I found this to be less of an issue under the tarp. The open feel was great however there were a few issues I found. Getting the right pitch can be a challenge depending on the size and shape of your tarp. I did my best to set up my tarp in a way that eliminated a breeze blowing right through. The open end of my tarp did allow a bit of spindrift to get in during the night. For the following nights I added another tarp to eliminate that issue, however that pretty much made my tarp just like sleeping in a tent. The advantage of a tarp shelter is that it is very light and fairly easy to set up, once you figure out the pitch you want. If I were to tarp again in the winter I would use a larger tarp and a different pitch (I’d use a long fire along an open overhanging edge), although I’m not entirely sold on the “sleeping under a tarp in the winter” idea quite yet.
The final type of shelter I’ll go over is a snow shelter (quinzee or igloo). Most people know what an igloo is, so I won’t get into that. A quinzee, on the other hand, is a shelter made by hollowing out a large pile of snow. It is a lot of work to make a quinzee and it can take several hours. Snow has to be shoveled out and then back into a large pile. The snow is then left to sit for a period of time so that the snow can “sinter”, a process in which the snow bonds at a molecular level, making it much more stable as a shelter. A large sleeping area is then hollowed out with shovels, and air holes are placed on the top. Making a quinzee takes a fair bit of practice as there are a few tricks to properly and safely build them. They can collapse if they are not built properly so it’s important to have the knowledge to build them safely. Sleeping inside a quinzee can be very comfortable. Snow is an excellent insulator and regardless of exterior temperatures, the inside temperature of a quinzee usually stays around 0 to -5 degrees Celcius. Many people will burn candles inside to help raise the inside temperature.
So as you can see there are many options available for winter camping shelters. Over the years I have tried all of the above shelters and to this day I still bounce back and forth between various shelters, depending on the temperatures, number of nights I’m going to be out, purposes of my trips etc. I would suggest renting a winter shelter before actually deciding which one suits you best. Algonquin Outfitters offers various options for winter camping shelters (and other gear), which is a great place to start. Stay tuned for more winter camping talk!
Winter Camping Useful Links
- Algonquin Outfitters Winter Rental Gear
- Algonquin Park Seasons
- Winter in Algonquin Park
- Mew Lake Campground
- Yurts in Algonquin Park
- Nordic Skiing in Algonquin Park (Current Conditions)
- Winter in the Wild Festival (Family Day weekend in Feb)
Other Blog articles I’ve written here
- My “Winter Camping in Algonquin Park” blog
- My “Night Photography in Algonquin Park ” blog
Winter Camping Photo Gallery
Winter gear by Marmot
Available at Algonquin Outfitters 705-787-0262 or 1-800-469-4948
Stephen is an award winning, published photographer who specializes in Weddings and Fine Art prints. He has won numerous international photography contests, and has had the honour of being published in TheBigWild.org, Photo News Magazine and ProNaturePhotographer.com. He offers photography workshops in Algonquin Provincial Park, and is also available for private / group workshops.