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Winter Camping is Cold (D'uh)

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

I know, that seems kinda obvious in Canada in January, isnt' it? I've lived in this country most of my life. I know January is the coldest month but "Winter Camping" everywhere else in this country includes snow. I had no intention of camping where there was snow. Around here, snow doesn't happen every year. It isn't unusual to have a few days in January that actually get warm-ish. If the calendar indicates a winter month and I'm camping, I'm going to call that Winter Camping! It is very well known amongst my nearest and dearest that I absolutely hate being cold. I'm one of those who would prefer to melt in ridiculous heat than shiver in the temperatures that most Canadians consider simply "brisk". Almost all the people I love in this world tease me without mercy when I whine and snivel about the "cold". Vancouver is considered almost tropical by the standards of everyone outside this little pocket of BC. I own multiple sets of long thermal underwear and I wear them fairly often as I tramp through nature preserves, bogs, and other wetlands in search of adventure and interesting birds. So what on earth possessed me to load up Wanda and head out to Rolley Lake Provincial Park?

To be honest, I lost my mind. After more than two years without any significant travel, the wanderlust overtook my intelligence. Between Covid restrictions and all the extreme weather events hitting this province and destroying the highways connecting the province to the rest of the country, even domestic travel has been challenging. Wanda is sitting in my townhouse parking lot, begging to be taken out. The radio announced a couple of days of fine weather just before my birthday getaway to Harrison Hot Springs. Wanda has lights and a heater for comfort and there are plenty of open campsites between home and Harrison. Rolley Lake Provincial Park even has cell service (most of the time) so I could chill and watch Netflix, if the night got long and I finished my book. Yep, I thought of almost everything...

.... except that I hate being cold.

It truly was a beautiful sunny late January morning when I loaded Wanda's fridge, packed my bag and camera equipment and merrily headed to Rolley Lake Provincial Park. Located just over an hour away from my home, Rolley Lake is a fairly flat area with second growth forest. Since it's not too high in elevation, I knew the snow wouldn't be a factor. Checking online, winter camping was open although none of the park showers, flush toilets, or water are available. This year, there was no charge for off-season camping.

Even though I am a delicate flower when it comes to the cold, I do bundle myself up and get out for a trail walk or hike most days so I was looking forward to the trails in the area. I learned decades ago that getting outside daily is hugely important for my mental health, so I'm actually very good at dressing comfortably for the weather conditions. Due to the storms we have been experiencing, many local hiking trails are closed while crews try to clear fallen trees and repair disintegrated trails throughout the area. Recent reports suggested that the trail around the lake was in decent shape but the trail up to the Falls had a lot of mud and debris making the trail challenging. I decided that I would do the Lake trail and leave the Falls portion for later in the year.

I arrived at the park late afternoon and was quite surprised to see that many of the campsites had already been claimed. There was a wide range of winter camping equipment, with everything from huge motorhomes with loud generators to canvas tent set-ups. There were several adjoining sites claimed by several different groups camping together. I set up camp, started my fire and enjoyed the unseasonable warmth, all snuggled in my winter coat, toque, and gloves. Campers tend to be chatty and happy to make conversation as we meet on the roads and trails. It appears winter campers are even more sociable. I had several invitations to join others' campfires. We shared stories and food as we sipped our various beverages. Darkness does come soon and we all headed back to our sites with most tucked into our beds before 9pm. Within about 30 minutes, it became clear that I was going to need to turn on the heater.

This may not seem like a major issue however heating a rolling tin can (even when the tin can is insulated) is a very inconsistent process. My incredibly efficient heater pumps hot air into the space to approximately 50C above whatever temperature the heater is set for. Then, having reached hellish levels, it turns off until frost appears at the end of your nose and you fear for your dental work in the chattering of teeth. In between these levels is a period of approximately 45 minutes when the ambient temperature is perfect for sleep.

I gave up sleeping as light came through the skylight and was soon sipping a good cup of coffee, dressed in multiple layers including thermal underwear and Icelandic wool. As I sat drinking my coffee, I admired the beauty of the sun coming through the trees enhanced by the campfire smoke. There was also a touch of lingering fog clinging to the tops of the trees. As I stopped shivering, I began to cheerfully anticipate the trail walk I had planned. The ranger had warned of bear sightings in the area but no real concerns, as long as sensible precautions were followed. The Rolley Falls and Lake Trail is a fairly easy 4.7 kilometre loop trail around the lake. It's rare to find more challenging hiking trails open during the winter but there are many year round trail walks. This weekend, there was still a thin layer of ice on the shaded areas of the lake surface.

There were quite a few people already out and about on the trail. The day use area includes a playground for kids and many people were walking their dogs (leashed) on the trails. The sun was bright and promising to warm up through the day. I was feeling much more positive about my day once I started moving in the sunshine. As usual, I stopped to admire various views and watch little birds and took a very long time to make my way around the lake.

As I approached the end of the walk, the fog started rolling in and soon it was a challenge to see the trail ahead. Knowing that the fog was not likely to dissipate for at least the next day or two, I made a decision to pack up camp and return home for the night. It didn't make sense to me to stay out, have another interrupted night of sleep, and not even be able to enjoy the nature around me. So, was Winter Camping a big FAIL? Maybe. Kinda. On the other hand, I did get out of my comfort zone which is always a good thing. I've learned how all my heating systems work and have been reminded about the limitations of heating a tin can in the Winter. I've discovered my solar system holds enough power for heating, cooking food, lights, and charging electronics for an overnight Winter trip. I didn't hate it but all the pleasure came from the social first night and the gorgeous lakeside walk, not from camping overnight in Wanda in January. I can't easily replace the campfire camaraderie but a similar walk can be had in many places locally without staying overnight.

My bottom line? I'll wait until the days and evenings are warm enough to be pleasant outdoors after dark away from the fireside. I'll wait for the trails to be in better shape. The nights will need to be warm enough that the heater doesn't need to run through the night. My blankets will have to be enough for me to sleep comfortably through the night. For local trips, that's more likely the end of March or early April. My eagerness to get out won't hurry Spring nor will it provide the warmth I require to sleep well.

Travel is always a learning experience. Apparently, my wanderlust is so strong it can make me lose my mind. This trip was an excellent reminder that delicate princesses from tropical Canada should not do attempt to sleep outside of a permanent structure during the Winter months ... but I truly do not regret it. I had an excellent evening and a fabulous walk which *almost* made up for the terrible night's sleep. On the other hand, I've heard about USB charged heated gloves, vests, and hats....


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