Winter Camping


By Rob Kesserlring- Outdoor Writer


It is difficult to imagine anything better than the amber glow thrown from a setting August sun, a gentle ripple on a sparkling lake, and the happy camaraderie of canoeists reveling in the pleasures of BWCA in mid-summer. But a growing cadre of hardy individuals refuses to equate the camping season with the summer season. They have discovered the special pleasures of winter camping in the Boundary Waters. 

For some it is the challenge of camping outdoors during the coldest months that draws them to the wilderness. They build snow shelters called quinzees or pitch nylon tents in weather as extreme as alpinists encounter climbing the continent’s tallest peaks. They thrill in fighting winter’s gales, damp frost and thirty-below temperatures with grit and pride. But more often, modern campers embrace gentle winter camping techniques developed by the Métis and first nation people long ago when tin wood stoves and cotton wall tents first became accessible. With snowshoes or skis to float over the snow and by pulling a toboggan filled with gear and provisions these winter campers travel in harmony with the elements. The rewards of pulling a sled across frozen lakes and over summer portages smoothed by deep snow include visual treats impossible in summer: animal dramas recorded on the snow by tracks of the hunted and the hunter, the exquisite patterns of hoarfrost and a sky so clear, so blue, it is as if a veil these campers never knew existed was pulled back from their eyes. 

Marshes that six months earlier were bug-infested and difficult to traverse by canoe are easily crossed. Favorite waterfalls that draw a crowd in summer are pristine and stand alone. Although lacking the panoply of summer colors, the white of the snow and the muted murky green of conifers create a monochromatic world with a simplicity that stirs the soul. The noisy birds of the frenetic breeding season are but a memory and those long summer days have been replaced with afternoon sunsets, followed by inky darkness, interrupted on clear nights with the glorious smear of the Milky Way or perhaps the twisting dance of the Aurora Borealis. 

Inside spacious tents, wood stoves pop and sizzle and stovepipes glow red, radiating heat and creating an astonishing difference from the temperature just outside the canvas. The warm tent becomes a crucible for storytelling, a patient forum for essential conversation and a happy playroom for games of yore whose rules are nearly forgotten. With morning light, the croak of a raven and the echoing cracks of expanding ice awaken the campers. The fire is spruced up, dry clothing is donned, bannock is baked and the winter trail beckons for another day of adventure. 

Winter camping in BWCA can be a relaxing, introspective adventure but the margin for error is thinner than in the more carefree summer months.  Winter campers need to be prepared and be equipped with appropriate gear and clothing. Initial trips should be made in the company of experienced winter campers or with the assistance of a professional guide.


Rob Kesselring is a teacher, canoeist and outdoor writer. His books: River Stories and Daughter, Father, Canoe, Coming of Age in the Sub-Arctic, are available through his website at  HYPERLINK “”




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