Falling for winter camping

If there is one thing we see differently as a couple, it’s our joy/hatred of the winter season. Jessi thrives on the winter holidays and sees beauty in almost every snowflake. Ari hates cold weather and considers every snowflake to be one of the thousands he’ll need to deal with before the cold months in Michigan finally pass.

Tahquamenon Falls, January 2018But when you take winter weather and combine it with the awesome power displayed in a half-frozen waterfall, or the grandeur of ice blocks floating in Lake Superior, or the stillness of undisturbed snow far down a snowshoe trail — even Ari can’t help but enjoy it.

We recently attended our third Roadtreking Winter Freezeout, which is held annually at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Tahquamenon Falls in winter
Tahquamenon Falls, also sometimes known as “rootbeer falls” because the tannin in the water makes it look like the soft drink.

It’s a great source of fun each year to visit with friends we’ve made and to meet a few new souls who have been convinced to brave the wind and weather to explore the UP of Michigan.

smiling girl overlooking lake
Winter camping can be daunting, but it affords you hiking opportunities you won’t have in the warm summer months.

We mostly take over the Tahquamenon Falls State Park campground, and the staff and hosts there are thrilled we’re around. While campers probably pack the park every other season, there are a lot fewer people looking to settle in there in the winter.

Part of that may be that winter camping can be daunting, although for some it may just be that they know what to do but prefer not to. There are hassles with winter camping that you don’t have in the summer, but when it can take you to places like Tahquamenon Falls and Whitefish Point, we think they are well worth the effort.

The two critical issues you are forced to deal with are water and heat. Electricity is the same no matter the season: you either have a plug-in site (as they do at Tahquamenon) or you don’t, and you run on batteries or generator power depending on your rig’s set up. If you rely on solar then, of course, you have to compensate for much less sunlight hitting your panels on cloudy winter days.

Water Issues

Let’s talk about water first. Even a place like Tahquamenon that keeps its electricity pedestals plowed out and available throughout the winter still has to shut its water sources off lest they freeze. If you’re taking your rig into freezing temperatures, you generally will have to winterize it unless you are one of the lucky few who has an all-season camper. This means you have to bring water in jugs with you — we suggest bringing different sized containers so you can use them as needed for filling pots for cooking or using in smaller amounts for things like brushing your teeth.

Ice formations on Lake Superior beach
When it’s cold enough to do this to the water of Lake Superior, you need to make sure you don’t have water in any of your RV’s tanks!

Another side effect of no running water and no water in your freshwater tanks is that your toilet is not fully functioning. The simple fix here is to use RV antifreeze — the “pink stuff” style that is nontoxic and that you probably have on hand from winterizing your fresh and waste tanks anyway. The equation most follow is to use twice as much antifreeze as you do whatever else you deposit in the toilet bowl. That will keep the ratio of antifreeze to any liquids in your black tank high enough that you don’t need to worry about anything freezing. Later, when you need to dump the black tank, it works the same as it would in the summer, you just need to remember to put antifreeze back in afterward to keep it winterized rather than the water you usually would use.

Not having water can mean no bathing, too, but if you’re just going for a long weekend, you’ll do fine (as will anyone you’re with) if you just do a quick freshening up with a washcloth and water from a jug or a no-rinse, waterless soap (which is what we use and recommend).

One additional inconvenience is not having running water for washing dishes. While we normally do not use disposable plates or silverware, winter camping is the one time where paper and plastic does have its advantages since you can toss it when you’re done. For things we do need to wash, such as pots or pans, we heat water on the stove and do the dishes in a plastic tub that fits in the sink and toss the dirty water outside.

Heat Issues
Couple on Lake Superior beach in winter
The right choice of clothing is important when you’re out exploring in the winter — and don’t forget to account for windchill if you’re near one of the Great Lakes.

Staying warm is serious business when you’re like Ari and hate being cold. So plan ahead and think about what might help you stay warm day and night. Proper clothing that can withstand freezing temperatures is essential, and consider using hand warmers and toe warmers when you’re out and about.

When you’re in the rig and awake, you’ll need a good heat source. We use our onboard propane furnace to keep things toasty warm but supplement it with a small space heater if we have electricity available to cut down on propane use. When we have an electric hookup, as we did at Tahquamenon, we tend to warm things up well with the propane furnace, then turn up the space heater to maintain the temperature and turn down the furnace thermostat. The space heater running all night becomes white noise or, even if it cycles on and off, is less jarring than the big propane furnace kicking in. Also, we tend to sleep with flannel sheets, sleeping bags or heavier blankets to stay warm overnight, which also helps us use less electric or propane power. We will sometimes kick the furnace up a notch or two first thing in the morning to take the chill out of the air.

Another tip we picked up our first year when winter camping was to buy Reflectix. This stuff looks like the shiny reflector panels you put in your windows on hot sunny days, but it has extra layers of insulation built in to help provide a barrier for your windows. To oversimplify the construction, it’s virtually bubble wrap covered in aluminum foil. Cutting the roll to various sizes that tuck into your windows can make a big difference in keeping the cold out and the heat in rather than letting the two pass through your windows.

Is winter camping for you?
Couple at frozen waterfall at night
Yes, it’s cold in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in January. And nighttime hikes mean even colder temperatures. But seeing a waterfall nearly frozen over in the dark is a unique experience worth having.
smiling couple with ice formation
Even a guy like Ari who hates cold weather can smile when getting to see some of Mother Nature’s handiwork that is possible only when it’s well below freezing outside.

Only you can answer that question, but you should at least consider trying it rather than writing it off just because it’s “too cold.” There are ways to combat that, and besides, you don’t have to make a permanent commitment to living in the cold.

Just a long weekend up north can give you a great glimpse at some natural beauty you wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Plus, where else can you go camping and see significant natural attractions with very limited crowds, except in a place blanketed in snow and cold enough to see your breath? So check it out sometime. You may end up like Ari and fall for winter camping, at least now and then.

If you have any questions on things you’ve wondered or worried about when winter camping, drop a note in the comments section and we’ll do our best to help you.

Bonus video

This is a drone video we shot at the lighthouse when visiting Whitefish Point. Even though the lighthouse museum is closed in the winter, you can still get out to the frozen beach and see a surreal frozen landscape. If you can make it up there during the summer months, the museum has an entire area dedicated to the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was immortalized in the Gordon Lightfoot song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Having been up to the point, it’s eerie now to listen to that song and hear the words, “The searches all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put 15 more miles behind her.”

Items mentioned in this post that we use:

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