In the summer, you can find us hitting the road to go camping every other weekend, checking out the best that Ontario’s backcountry has to offer. When the cool weather comes, however, we start to feel a little cooped up. Our last trip into the backcountry was mid-October. As the winter drags on, we long for the snow to melt and the lakes to thaw. We survive by watching YouTube videos, browsing Instagram accounts, and planning the next summer’s trips. But it’s just not the same as actually getting out there into the woods.
Brian and I had talked about the possibility of winter camping, but we didn’t have the gear and knew it was expensive. If we were going to take the plunge and become winter campers ourselves, we wanted to try it out with someone else’s gear first before investing in our own.
One of the Instagram accounts I started following this winter was Cruising Canoes (@cruisingcanoes), a small tripping company run by three guys in Belleville. I saw that they were running all-inclusive guided winter camping trips at Silent Lake Provincial Park:
@cruisingcanoes I am offering this all inclusive winter camp snow shoe trip on January 23-24 February 6-7 February 20-21 and March 5-6. These trips fill up fast. Get your friends together for a fun weekend. @silentlakeprovincialpark 150 per person. This is an introductory rate for 2016. Next year the price will be 200. Come have some winter fun! Email me for more info at firstname.lastname@example.org
Given that we’re used to outfitting and guiding ourselves, $150 per person for one night seemed really steep. But it was also our best opportunity to try winter camping, so we decided to go for it. After all, Cruising Canoes would provide everything from sleeping bags, cots and the tent, to food, permits and snowshoes.
We recruited four friends to join us and started talking to Andrew (aka “Twiggy”) about making arrangements for the trip. He asked for a deposit of $50 per person via email money transfer, with the remaining $100 per person payable upon completion of the trip. He also gave us the option to add on an extra night, coming up Friday night after work, but that just didn’t work for our schedules.
About Silent Lake Provincial Park
Silent Lake Provincial Park is a small (1610 ha) park north of Peterborough and Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, near Bancroft. In the summer, the park offers car camping and yurts as well as walk-in sites. This year, winter camping was allowed December 11, 2015 through March 20, 2016. We didn’t cross country ski, but apparently there are more than 40km of groomed trails in the park.
With the Cruising Canoes guys taking care of most of the details, we just had to get to Silent Lake prepared to deal with two days and one night of winter weather. Here’s what Twiggy asked us to bring:
- Warm clothes
- Waterproof/water resistant outerwear (i.e., coat, snowpants, gloves)
- 2 winter hats (one for sleeping in, one for the trails)
- Winter boots
- A change of boots or slippers for inside the tent
- A drinking glass
- Any beverages we want aside from water
The forecast leading up to the trip didn’t look good for snowshoeing. There was a lot of rain and Twiggy warned us that it might turn into more of a hiking trip than a snowshoeing trip. Luckily, the day before our trip, the park received some fresh snow.
We drove two cars from Toronto to the park, which took approximately two and a half hours. Despite the rain and snow, the road conditions weren’t too bad. We realized upon arriving at the park that we had no idea where to meet Twiggy, but a quick phone call got us headed in the right direction: Granite Ridge campground. Cell phone service at Silent Lake is excellent.
Even though Granite Ridge is a car camping campground in the summer, you can’t drive right up to your site in the winter because the campground roads aren’t maintained. We parked our cars near the yurts, where Twiggy and another guide met us with snowshoes and sleds. We changed into our snowpants, got outfitted with snowshoes and off we went. It was only a few hundred metres to the campsite, where there was a huge 10-person Arctic Bell tent set up.
Winter camping in Arctic Bell tents
These large, heavy canvas tents can start at around $400 used, if you’re lucky, but from my research online you can expect to pay upwards of $1500 for one. They typically have an exterior wall and an interior liner, to keep condensation from forming inside the tent, and a wood stove with a pipe that directs the smoke outside the tent. It’s a serious tent — very different from the three-season tents we use during the summer camping season.
Another thing that makes these tents unique is that they don’t have a floor. Since you’re not sleeping directly on the ground (too cold) and the wood stove kicks up a lot of heat, a plastic tarp won’t work. The only downside is that the snow compacts down into ice, making the floor slippery, or disappears altogether, turning the ground into mud. Some people lay down tree boughs, but our guides opted not to do this.
Winter camping activities at Silent Lake
Shortly after arriving, we went on a snowshoe hike through the woods and across the lake with our guides and the other group camping with Cruising Canoes. We definitely went off the beaten path, forging our own way through the forest.
The temperature was well below zero, but it wasn’t long before we were peeling off layers to avoid overheating. I ended up with a wet foot after stumbling into a marshy area and through a stream, but all in all it was a great hike.
When we got back from snowshoeing, our guides prepared a delicious hot lunch of chili and garlic bread — a welcome treat after a few hours trudging through the woods. It’s not camping without a fire, so we got one of those going and sat around it in camping chairs talking and drinking for a few hours. It’s amazing how easy it is to stay outside in the snow for hours on end when you’re dressed for it.
At this point, I started to become glad that we were only staying for one night. The ice and snow makes everything, including entertaining yourself, a lot more challenging than when you’re camping in the summer. Our group of six broke off and went for another walk in the woods without snowshoes, but it wasn’t long before we had to turn back thanks to icy conditions. Even going to the washroom requires a lot of effort (especially if you’re a woman) as you remove all your layers and then put them back on. Between the frigid air and the ice cold toilet seats, you try to wrap it up as quickly as possible.
Accommodations provided by Cruising Canoes
When it started getting dark, we took refuge in the warm tent as Twiggy set up his tent kitchen for dinner. He made us what he called Korean BBQ, which we wrapped into lettuce “shells” and ate taco style while sitting cross-legged on the edge of a couple of cots. It was really good!
We probably could have curled up and gone to sleep shortly after that meal, but we had to make room for the next group to eat dinner, so we headed over to the other campsite to have a few beers around the fire.
When it finally came time to go to sleep, our guides stoked the fire and made sure everyone was cozy in their sub-zero rated sleeping bags before turning off the lights. I was worried about being too cold, but with my head only a few feet from the wood stove, I was actually overheating! I slept on my sleeping bag for most of the night rather than inside of it, and I chugged water every few hours to keep my throat from drying out. With eight people sleeping in one tent (including a couple of loud snorers), it wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. As soon as everyone else got up and out of the tent, I fell back asleep and caught up on my Zs for a little while until coffee and breakfast were ready. No, I am not a morning person.
By the time we all finished a hearty bowl of instant oatmeal and were sufficiently caffeinated, it was time to start taking down the site. Many hands make light work, so it wasn’t long before we started hauling sleds full of gear back to the parking area.
Would we go winter camping at Silent Lake again?
The short answer is: yes. But not like this. We won’t be going out to splurge thousands of dollars on winter camping gear anytime soon, but we might rent some next winter or go glamping in a yurt. With our Cruising Canoes guides doing everything for us, there wasn’t a whole lot for us to do and, frankly, I was a little bored. We often relish in the preparation, navigation, site setup and meal preparation that comes with backcountry camping, so we found ourselves twiddling our thumbs a little too much on this trip. Or maybe we’re just control freaks. Who knows?