What to see, how to eat and why you shouldn’t wash your dirty dishes with snow: if you’ve never camped in Canadian winter, you’re missing out.
Story and Photos by Megan Robinson
When my boyfriend and I pulled up to Gatineau Park in the middle of January, we saw cross-country skiers unpacking their cars in the parking lot, bundled in snowsuits, ready for a day of exploring the park’s well-groomed paths. Out of another car poured three children, their parents moving more slowly behind them, grabbing the bags and toboggans.
I’ve camped at music festivals and on five-day canoe trips, but I knew our two nights of winter camping would be something else.
Officially opened in 1938, the 361-square-kilometre park has aged well, with clean public washrooms, well-kept grounds and a spellbinding attraction that draws diverse crowds year-round. For the lucky people who live nearby, Gatineau Park is perfect for day trips and quick escapes from the city, but for those of us travelling from out of town and staying a little longer, there are four-season tents, yurts and cabins available for booking.
Brown Lake Cabin, which is partially solar powered, has the largest capacity, able to hold up to 17 people. The four-season tents—one of which we booked, though they can hold up to four—are a newer addition to the park, whereas the rustic wood cabins, which used to be full-time houses in the 19th century, have since been renovated for public use.
With Gatineau’s colder season spanning from mid-November to mid-April, you can expect each month to vary in terms of what activities and weather you’ll be getting. As a Canadian accustomed to erratic weather, it didn’t surprise me that snow didn’t fall here in 2015 until late December, whereas in 2016, it dropped early November. Our January jaunt had a fresh snowfall with mild weather and hardly any wind. Even at night, a walk down to Lac Philippe from our campground was pleasant enough that we could stand outside, taking in the stars that reflected off the snow, without being bitterly cold.
I expected to yearn for summer days, where camping means jumping in refreshing lake water and barbecues at dusk, but escaping in the winter proved worthwhile in ways I’d never anticipated.
Here’s what you can expect:
Where to Sleep:
We booked a four-season tent. With wood floors and canvas walls that meet in a peak, the shelters are really more a hybrid tent-cabin combination. Of course, you can tell people you’re staying in a tent, and leave it at that, scoring yourself the title of real bad-ass, but in truth the four-season tents are so comfortable even those homebody, non-outdoorsy, high-maintenance types will be satisfied.
Inside the tent is a wood fire stove, a fixture that proved to be an absolute highlight. I brought my own lumberjack (read: boyfriend), who chopped the pre-cut wood into kindling for us and stoked a fire upon arrival. After less than 20 minutes, we were taking off our coats and scarves, comfortable in just T-shirts.
Sleeping four total, our tent had a double bed on the bottom, with two single bunks layered on top of each other, all lined with thin mattresses. Bring your own sleeping bags, and prepare for a delicious slumber.
A word of bonus advice: We kept the stove going into the night, but let it die down on its own. We woke up a little cold, but the other option is waking in a puddle of sweat. The tents have small windows as well, to allow for a cool breeze when needed.
What to Eat:
You do not need to labour over dehydrated vegetables or drop money on expensive freeze-dried meals on this excursion. The tents are well equipped for your cooking needs. With all necessary cooking utensils, a barbecue just outside the tent and a cooler on the porch, anything you’d make at home you can make here.
Personally, we chose to cook directly on the wood fire stove, pan frying our eggs from the heat of the fire, for the sheer delight of it.
In our cooler was a load of fancy groceries and zero regrets. From pancakes and bacon to grilled cheese stuffed with brie and pear, we did not stick to the typical camping menu.
The tents are equipped with a sink for washing up, but bring your own sponge, dishrag and soap. There’s no running water, so the more you can bring, the better for both drinking and doing dishes. Doing dishes with snow is not the most fun or efficient.
That said, a real highlight for us was gathering snow and boiling it in a pot to make drinkable water. We brought Nalgene bottles, but used this method when we ran out.
What to Do:
Getting to the tent is its own adventure. We arrived at the visitor centre, confirmed our booking and immediately had to decide what sort of trails we were looking to explore while we were there. We scanned the map of the park, realizing that certain paths were only available for snowshoes, others for skis. Paths were clearly groomed for cross-country skiers, and the forest was better to be explored with snowshoes.
After a quick debate, we decided to rent snowshoes, then unloaded our stuff onto a sled and set out for our cabin, dragging our belongings behind us like they were our child. After 30 minutes up and down cushiony hills, along the lake and through the trees, we finally arrived at our temporary home.
The next day we strapped on our snowshoes, dressed up in snow pants and coats, and went for a four-hour hike through the trees. Not realizing we were actually on a summer trail, the challenging hike brought us to Lusk Cave, an ancient marble cave carved from a glacier that melted 12,500 years ago.
After the intense trek, we dutifully unwound with Baileys-spiked hot chocolate topped with coconut whipped cream. We also brought books and playing cards, thinking this would be a good opportunity to unplug from the world, relax amongst our thoughts and give our eyes a break from staring at screens all day long.
But don’t worry—in case the thought of disconnection makes you nervous, know that your phone, even out in the middle of the park, will still receive full service.