Albertans rush into the cold as winter camping 'fever' takes hold

·6 min read
Albertans rush into the cold as winter camping 'fever' takes hold

For Jennifer Botham, sleeping on the ice is a newfound obsession.

Botham, her husband Doug Sloane and their two Alaskan malamutes have taken to camping in a pop-up tent designed for ice fishing.

The Sylvan Lake, Alta., couple had not been winter camping in more than a decade. The boredom of the pandemic inspired them to brave the cold again.

"The fever has gotten us, we're just so excited," Botham said.

"I think with this pandemic, what it has done — not only for us, but for many people — has just kind of brought you back to the basics.

"You don't need all these movie theatres and malls, and all these big things that cost so much money, to go out and have fun. You don't need all that stuff just to enjoy life.

"This is what we love. We've got our animals with us, we're together, and that's all that really matters."

Jennifer Botham/Facebook
Jennifer Botham/Facebook

After exchanging new gear as Christmas gifts, Botham and Sloane camped out in late December. Then they headed back into the wilderness again to ring in the new year in the mountains, tucked inside their cozy red tent.

They sleep on cots loaded high with blankets, cook meals over an open fire and rely on a propane heater to stave off the chill.

Sloane said camping has helped him cope with the pressures of the pandemic. He had been feeling burned out at work and was struggling with relentless news about COVID-19.

A night under the stars leaves him feeling recharged.

"All the negativity that's going on in the world right now, just being out in the peace and quiet and hearing a fire crackling, it's just so motivational," he said. "I feel ready to go back. I feel revived."

Jennifer Botham/Facebook
Jennifer Botham/Facebook

Botham and Sloane are not alone in embracing the cold outdoors and overnight. Restrictions related to the pandemic response have inspired many Albertans to try winter camping.

While COVID-19 has closed the door on many activities, the Alberta wilderness remains open.

Dozens of campgrounds in provincial and national parks are open through the winter months. For those in search of more adventure, back-country camping and Crown land camping spots are also an option.

Landing a spot this winter, however, may prove challenging. Demand is high, and many sites that remain operational are first-come, first-served. Some campgrounds are closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Camping reservations up

In a statement to CBC News, Jennifer Dagsvik, a spokesperson with Alberta Environment and Parks said mild temperatures in fall, and so far this winter, have encouraged more people to extend their camping seasons.

For instance, 124 back-country reservations were made from Nov 1. to Jan 4, compared to 67 during the same time frame a year ago.

Eight front-country provincial campgrounds will be open for the rest of the winter with limited amenities:

  • Beauvais Lake Provincial Park

  • Crimson Lake Provincial Park

  • Dinosaur Provincial Park

  • Jarvis Lake in William A. Switzer Provincial Park

  • Kinbrook Island Provincial Park

  • Pigeon Lake Provincial Park

  • Sulphur Gates Provincial Recreation Area

  • Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

With the surging interest in winter camping, equipment has become harder to find.

Wood-burning stoves and winter tents are in high demand, with retailers from local stores to Amazon struggling to keep them in stock.

Courtney McMahon, manager of Everest Outdoor Store in Jasper, said the craze over winter camping is part of a larger trend. The pandemic has more Albertans getting outside and exploring closer to home.

"Equipment has been flying off the shelves," McMahon said. "Businesses are closed or kids are out of school for a little bit longer so there have been a lot of families coming in and a lot of people have been gearing up."

A warm introduction to the cold

Jenn Sauve from Beaumont, just south of Edmonton, is among them. She and her husband are preparing to take their two young boys on a winter camping trip later this season.

Sauve has already rented a small cabin in Rocky Mountain House as a "trial run" and plans to spend a weekend under a lean-to of tree boughs before the snow melts.

"It's so encouraging to see people trying to step out of their bubble," she said.

"I hope that this trend stays. I'd like to see that this isn't the only year that people, you know, get out of their houses and try some outdoor things and get back into outdoor living."

David Bajer/CBC
David Bajer/CBC

Dragan Uzelac and his wife Crystal Bezeau operate Niko Wilderness Education near Tofield, Alta. They offer annual workshops for those looking to get their first taste of winter traditional camping with snowshoes, toboggans, wall tents and hot stoves.

Health restrictions mean they've been forced to cancel most of their reservations this season but they're still offering equipment rentals and hoping that novice campers can enjoy Alberta's longest season responsibly.

"Winter camping can be pretty indicating for a lot of people," Uzelac said. "My goal and Crystal's goal is to introduce winter camping to people, to build their confidence to enjoy winter."

Watch as Uzelac explains the fundamentals of winter camping.

'Mistakes can be amplified'

Married couple Dale and Colleen Kiselyk operate Nature Alive Adventures out of Barrhead, 120 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. They offer camping and canoe trips, bushcraft and wilderness workshops.

The pandemic forced them to cancel most of their reservations this year but demand for their services remains high. Their bushcraft and wilderness workshops, now being hosted online, are booked solid and requests for reservations continue to pour in.

People are searching for an escape, Colleen said.

"I think the pandemic, it kind of I think squeezed us, made those four walls that we used to find not so confining become like a prison. Now, because we're told we can't leave, all of a sudden it becomes like a jail.

"People are, just purely for mental health reasons, wanting to get outside, needing that connection even more so with nature — with the open spaces, with fresh air, with the absence of traffic and people."

Nature Alive Adventures/Instagram
Nature Alive Adventures/Instagram

Dale said first-time winter campers need to do their research. Enduring the Alberta winter requires high-quality equipment and solid planning, he cautioned.

Campers may need to harvest their own firewood or haul in extra fuel. Clothes can become wet, creating a risk of exposure. Food and water supplies can freeze.

"Because of the difficulties with cold weather, with snow and with the gear that you need, it is quite a big jump. And what people will encounter straight away is a lack of equipment and a lack of experience," Dale said.

"It's harder. It's more difficult. The risks are higher. Mistakes can be amplified."

'Almost magical'

His advice to first-timers is to camp with someone who is experienced, or to set up camp close to home, not deep into the bush.

He recommends rookie winter campers test any new equipment in the backyard and avoid hike-in sites during their first season.

Despite the challenges of contending with the cold, winter camping is absolutely worth it, Dale said.

There are fewer people, no bears and no bugs. "Magnificent" boreal forest swamps and wetlands, inaccessible in the summer, become the perfect frozen vistas to hunker down in a canvas tent with a crackling stove.

"It's a really big energy expenditure," he said.

"However, once you learn how to do those things, and you settle in and it's very cold outside and you're in your hot tent with your stove going, it's suddenly surprisingly comfortable, warm, inviting and almost magical."

David Bajer/CBC
David Bajer/CBC