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.
But 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.
When we had our Roadtrek, we regularly attended an annual January rally at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It was a great source of fun each year to visit with friends we’ve made. And we always met a few new souls brave enough to explore the UP of Michigan in the cold.
We mostly took over the Tahquamenon Falls State Park campground. The staff is usually thrilled with winter campers. Campers pack the park every other season. But 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. There are hassles with winter camping that you don’t have in the summer. Mainly, you must deal with two critical issues: 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. Then you run on batteries or generator power depending on your rig’s set up. If you rely on solar, you have to compensate for much less sunlight hitting your panels on cloudy winter days.
Let’s talk about water first. Even a place like Tahquamenon that keeps its electricity pedestals on in the winter. But they do shut their water off. If you’re taking your rig into freezing temperatures, you generally will have to winterize it. This means you have to bring water in jugs with you. We suggest bringing different sized containers. Over the years, we have settled on Wolverine Tuff Bottles. They are quite sturdy and, when you’ve emptied them, you can collapse them nearly flat for storage.
Another side effect of no running water and no water in your freshwater tanks is that your toilet doesn’t function normally. The simple fix here is to use RV antifreeze. That’s the “pink stuff” that is nontoxic. 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. We also have become big fans of Venturewipes.
One additional inconvenience is not having running water for washing dishes. We normally do not use disposable plates or silverware. But winter camping is the one time where paper and plastic are advantageous since you can toss them away. 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.
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 used 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. 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. That 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, someone made 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.
We also own Heatshields for the summer months and those work well for short-term winter camping if you don’t want the hassle of carrying additional barriers. Ari did a review on the Heatshields that you can find here.
Is winter camping for you?
Only you can decide if winter camping is for you. But you should at least consider trying it rather than writing it off just because it’s “too cold.” There are ways to combat the cold. 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.
This is a drone video we shot at the lighthouse when visiting Whitefish Point. The lighthouse museum is closed in the winter. But you can still get out to the frozen beach and see a surreal landscape. Try to visit in the summer, too. The museum dedicates an entire area to the Edmund Fitzgerald. (That’s the ship 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.”