Penner: You can survive – and even enjoy – winter camping if done right

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After scarfing down my lovely breakfast – rock-hard granola bar with an exquisite Fireball whisky demi-glace – I speculated that neurons were once again sending signals to my brain. (The “speculation” part tipped me off.) This was good. It had been a long, cold night in the tent. But now, with fire made and body fuelled, signs of hope started emerging. The morning gloom was fading. And then, as the sun crested the distant ridgeline and fingers of fog started burning red-orange over the half-frozen surface of Upper Kananaskis Lake, my senses really started tingling. I grabbed my camera and tripod and sauntered down to the snowy shore to capture the show.

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First the truth, winter camping isn’t for the faint of heart. The cold seeps into everything. Things freeze. Everything takes longer and requires more effort. Days are short, nights are long. Stuff doesn’t seem to work as well. (Including the body’s main systems that rely on circulatory activity, which, I think, is all of them.) That’s the bad news.

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The good news is this: winter camping can be incredibly rewarding. They make stuff for winter camping. You can protect yourself from the cold. The peace and quiet is surreal. You get choice camp spots. (Or, in my case, the campground completely to yourself.) The sense of adventure, of accomplishment, is heightened and even more gratifying than when conditions are “easy.” (I’m being serious.) The skies are phenomenal. And winter serves up spectacular scenes that can warm your soul like nothing else.

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Frosted backlit pine trees on the hike into the Point Backcountry Campground, Photo, Andrew Penner cal

My one-night adventure at the Point Backcountry Campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country was, in many ways, the perfect little foray into the backcountry to get my feet wet – er, cold – in the “sport” of winter camping. Like most people with a passion for backpacking and camping, the vast majority of my treks have been in spring, summer, and early fall. A backcountry overnighter in December? Not so much.

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However, considering the hike from the North Interlakes Day Use Area is just four kilometres with little elevation gain – not to mention the fact the Point Backcountry Campground is beautiful, permits fires and provides firewood, and is open year-round – all paths pointed to “The Point.” In summer, I’ve hiked by this campground several times and always thought it would be great in the shoulder season. And it’s one of only a handful of backcountry campgrounds open in winter.  (For a list of additional campgrounds, including front-country campgrounds that are open in winter, visit www.albertaparks.ca. You can also reserve your campsite on the website. It’s $12 per night/person plus a $12 non-refundable reservation fee.)

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Andrew Penner takes a selfie upon making it to Upper Kananaskis Lake. cal

I set out from the trailhead (located approximately 30 minutes south of Kananaskis Village on Kananaskis Lakes Trail) at 1 p.m., a late start, and made it to the 20-site, lakeside campground by about 3 p.m. Distractions along the way – stunning reflections in the lake, frosted pines, the soaring rock walls of Mount Indefatigable, to name a few – were numerous. So, due to multiple stops for photos, I had barely enough time to set up my tent, grab a stash of wood, and catch the sun’s last rays before it slid behind the looming ramparts of Mount Lyautey. Shortly thereafter, the temperature started falling, my water bottles began freezing, a frosty sheen started building on the tent, and I wondered if my gear – and myself – would hold up. According to the weatherman, it was going to be a -15 C night.

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“The biggest enemy when you’re camping in winter is water and condensation,” says Ofelia Hernendez, an advisor at Mountain Equipment Co-op, or MEC, who is a winter camping specialist. “Moisture seeping into the sleeping gear, base layers getting wet, tents collapsing under snow loads, dehydration, these can have dire consequences and have to be avoided at all costs. Your survival can actually depend on it.”

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The author’s campsite at Point Backcountry Campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Photo, Andrew Penner cal

During my short visit with Hernendez, who regularly conducts free winter camping clinics at the downtown MEC store (the next one is slated for Jan. 9th at noon), she also highlighted some of the essential gear. “Having a four-season tent, which will have a stronger frame, stronger materials, and the necessary ventilation to prevent frost build-up inside the tent, is critical for winter camping.”

Additional items that Hernendez highlighted were: a lightweight collapsible snow shovel (for building a tent site, digging a fire pit, and gathering snow for drinking water), a closed-foam sleeping pad (to provide a moisture barrier from the ground), insulated sleeping mat, headlamp, sunscreen, sunglasses, insulated thermos, portable stove with extra fuel (melting snow for drinking water is key, eating snow will actually dehydrate you) and, obviously, a warm, down-filled sleeping bag made for cold weather.

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Not surprisingly, given my lack of winter camping experience, I made a few rookie mistakes along the way. My memory foam sleeping pillow, for example, froze solid (an inflatable one would have been better!), I burned my gloves while drying them out by the fire (thankfully, they were still usable but a second pair would have come in handy!), and I barely had enough fuel for all of the snow melting that was required for getting drinking water.

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he author admiring the fog and sunrise over Upper Kananaskis Lake. Photo, Andrew Penner cal

However, I made it through the night relatively unscathed. And there were many memorable moments in the short and sweet 24-hour adventure. Like the sunrise show. The frost-smothered pines and ice-smeared peaks. And, of course, my gourmet breakfast.

Winter Camping Gear 101

There’s no way around it: you need good gear for a winter camping adventure. Here are a few items that I’ve found perform exceptionally well in the wild.

NEMO Tensor Extreme Conditions Ultralight Insulated Sleeping Pad – This is the warmest, most insulating sleeping pad you’ll ever need. Available in a variety of sizes to pair with the rest of your sleep system. $349.95

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Big Agnes Torchlight Sleeping Bag – The “Mother of Comfort,” Big Agnes makes some of the best backcountry camping gear on the market. Their Anvil Horn -18° is a warm, lightweight bag that has accompanied me on dozens of adventures, winter and summer.

MEC TGV2 Tent – A great shelter can save your life. MEC’s TGV2, an all-season, two-man tent that’s built to withstand whatever Mother Nature wants to dish out, fits the bill. $569.95

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MEC Tremblant Jacket – An ultra-warm “puffy” that packs down into a compact package, the Tremblant might be the warmest jacket I’ve ever owned. It’s perfect for camping, skiing, climbing, or just walking the mutt on a frosty morning. $269.95

Petzl ACTIK Core Headlamp – Call it an unfavourable tilt in the Earth’s axis, but we don’t have a ton of daylight hours in winter. Just the way it is. Headlamps are key. The Petzl Actik will light your path. $109.95.

Helinox Chair One – Weighing in at less than a kilogram, this ultra-lightweight packable chair has become a “must-have” on every backcountry adventure I take. A no-brainer. $159.00

Grayl Geopress Water Purifier – It’s simple to use and works like a French Press – push down the filter and, presto, clean water. Saves the boiling process in winter! $124.95

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Gregory Baltoro 65 Backpack – A time-tested classic with an awesome suspension system and form-fitting design. It will get you – and your whisky – where it needs to go. $449.95

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