How Not to Camp in the Winter

How Not to Camp in the Winter

Another tale from the trails for a cozy fireplace read:

I asked my brother Allan to write me an account of his misfortunate winter adventures. I remember his tale of all the things that went wrong on this unforgettable weekend class trip. Ill informed and unprepared they ventured into the frosty wilderness of the Ontario, Algonquin Highlands. 




Tales from the Trails –

How Not to Camp in the Winter


So, this tale occurs early in the 1980s (1982, I believe) on a wintery Thursday in February. It was scheduled that our group of four were to go to a winter retreat destination, with 12 others, to experience some outdoor activities. 

It was a pre-organized event for my university fitness course and all we understood was to bring some winter clothing and personal items (according to a winter checklist) and the other supplies would be furnished on site. No real itinerary was given prior to arrival, but we were reassured that we would not be abandoned in the woods during the weekend.

One of us had a car and agreed to pick up the three others living around the Toronto area before heading out of town just before 11 am. In an excited, jovial mood, we arrived at the outdoor centre near Whitney (Algonquin Park area) around 2 pm-ish. Of course this was pre-internet / cell phone era and we had not really looked at the long-range weather forecast. We were young, in our early twenties, and sadly we made assumptions about this organized trip.

At the main lodge we were given our equipment for the four-night stay. Our guide explained to us that we would be rotating around the premises from one style of accommodation to the next.

We were each given cross-country skis (not properly waxed, nor measured to our height); a 40-lb backpack filled with supplies; a down sleeping bag (matted and clumped from many years of use, and, as I would come to realize in the next three nights, virtually useless in the winter); a map of our route to follow over the next three days; and a tent for the first night’s accommodations.

winter fire

The first destination—a hillside location, tight to some trees⁠—was not too far away, only three kilometres, but the terrain was challenging. Up and down hills at dusk on icy track conditions with ill-fitted, un-waxed skis. At one point, I fell forward on a descent and the tip of my ski cut my cheek just under my eye. Not a great way to start.

Our foursome had departed late, 3:30 pm, and we knew it was going to be a challenge to get set up before dark; a brisk wind and snow squall didn’t help. 

Of course, tents in that decade were one-season tents that were always a mystery to set up. We had literally thirty minutes to get this thing together, but, of course, there were no instructions. We asked ourselves, “How difficult can it be?” Well, we struggled royally. With darkness upon us and two flashlights to assist, we only managed to get it half assembled. Were we missing poles? Pegs? Other pieces? 

In the end, we tied off one part of the tent to a neighbouring tree so that it could stand erect. Quickly, we put our sleeping bags down and laid our backpacks to one side of the tent. It was too windy to get a fire going, so we feasted on granola mix for supper and decided on an early night. I slept with all my clothes and a jacket on. It was a cold night, but I figured tomorrow we would plan out our day more judiciously.

winter hiking

The next day, one of the few attendants that slept in a nearby cabin came by early in the morning and escorted us to an eating area where we had a good solid brunch. Revived, we learned that our next evening would be in a quinzee, a snow cave, that we had to dig out ourselves. 

We decided to dig out our digs and set up our sleeping arrangements before going on an afternoon 30-kilometre ski. It was a sunny day and quite beautiful. What could go wrong? Well of course, the skiing was manageable and fun, but we were sweaty and dehydrated by the end. It was challenging to find water and stay warm when we returned to camp. 

As night descended upon us, we had a campfire to give us a little reprieve from the elements while we ate our supper. Thankfully, as the winds increased, we could retire to the shelter of our snow cave. We ended up huddling close together to minimize heat loss throughout the night. It was freezing cold again, but bearable, since the quinzee blocked the wind.

When we awoke, much to our surprise, the roof of our cave had dropped to just about a foot from our heads. Our heavy, heated breathing throughout the night was the cause.

Fortunately, the ceiling didn’t collapse on us as we slept!

After breakfast, we did some snowshoeing, had lunch and continued on skis to our next accommodation. Tonight’s abode was going to be a bit of luxury…a wooden cabin with a stove!

We carried on with our backpacks and followed our map. The trail wasn’t too intense, 20 kilometres, and we enjoyed our afternoon, giddy with the knowledge of a cabin in our future.

Well, after supper we entered our cabin and noticed eight bunk beds and a central wood stove. When we closed the door, we quickly realized that the wind was easily penetrating the century-old rustic cabin.

Because I couldn’t tolerate another freezing night of disrupted sleep, I took it upon myself to fill the indoor wood box to the brim with logs from the outside wood pile. I had that stove almost glowing red by 9 pm and finally felt warm and comfortable as I headed to my bunk.

We settled in our bunks in our awful sleeping bags, blissfully unaware that the temperature that night would drop to -40 C. I awoke at 2 am, freezing and miserable, and noticed that the fire was almost out. For the next five hours, I stood, along with two others, by the wood stove, feeding the hungry beast, hoping it would penetrate the arctic temperature to warm us. 

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the heat radius from the wood stove that evening was barely a metre. We could not fully warm ourselves until the sun shone through the windows at 8 am. What should have been a relaxing evening on a bunk bed mattress had sadly devolved into another very challenging, sleepless night.

Discouraged and defeated, we complained to our leaders that we had sustained a few terrible evenings. Obviously, we were excited to learn that this last night would be at an insulated cabin with a larger stove. Eureka! Off to Nirvana we went!

As we looked at our map, we saw several paths to our final destination. With more than enough time, we decided to take the longest route to enjoy a good workout on a scenic trail. This was our mistake. What we didn’t know was that one of the leaders had left an hour earlier to meet us at the halfway point on the most direct trail, which wasn’t the route we took. So our paths never crossed. 

Communication, all weekend, was not easy out in the wilderness, which had a  negative effect on all participating groups.

winter cabin

Eventually we arrived at the insulated cabin! Ah…perfect! Our B & B awaited us. One… slight…problem.

The door was locked! Who would lock a cabin in the middle of nowhere in the winter? 

Now, what to do? The sun was starting to set, we were heavily dehydrated, and our sweat was turning into a cold chill. We came up with some insane ideas. Being in a state of distress, we attempted to break in. 

We soon abandoned efforts because we didn’t want to damage the property. Just before dusk, thankfully, the leader appeared at the cabin. Let’s just say he was not happy that our meeting up on the trail earlier in the day didn’t happen as he had planned. 

In the end, we entered that lovely warm domain and spent a glorious evening replenishing our fluids in an insulated, cosy (26 degrees!) cabin.

Our experience with surviving the frigid temperatures gave us a deeper appreciation of what early settlers had to contend with out on the wild Canadian frontier.

Going forward, forty years later, there have been great improvements in camping equipment, outdoor clothing and communication. Our trusty Scouts and Guides have taught us, you have to be prepared, which we were not! I guess that was our life lesson learned.

In hindsight, if we had had a four-season tent; wool layers; warm, functioning, reliable sleeping bags; and numerous water containers, we would have been comfortable every day of our winter camping experience.

What we took away from this experience is really common sense: be safe; respect the elements; do not make any assumptions about your equipment, food, weather and shelter; know what you’re getting yourself into; make sure there is a quick out if needed; and most of all, enjoy the moments out in the wilderness!


By Allan Roitner

An Invitation to Submit Your Own Tales


If you have experienced any interesting tales from the trails, I encourage you to submit your own stories. You don’t have to be a great, established author. Just send me your proposed outline or write a short little entertaining tale about your Nordic ski or snowshoe adventures here in Ontario or elsewhere. 

If you took photos to support your text, all the better, email me those, too. I am sure we all have a few campfire stories we could share on OST. 

Send me a message from my contact page


Dan Roitner

Here is another Tail from the Trails – My Cell Phone is Lost in the Snow   or read
On One Ski to the Hot Tub

March 17, 2023No comments

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