At this point you may be asking yourself why anyone would want to drag themselves out of the warmth of their home in order to brave the cold of the Indiana winter — even a relatively mild winter, as the one we’ve had. Winter camping can help burn calories, cure cabin fever, get your kids interested in nature and the environment, and be a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Also, unlike summer camping, there are no bugs.
In fact, according to the Outdoor Foundation, most winter camping trips last two days, which is longer than the average camping time for both spring and fall trips. Sixty-three percent of campers are married couples with children, meaning winter camping can be a family-friendly activity.
Understanding your skill level is the most important part of picking a location for your winter excursion. The veteran backpacker and the parent bringing three kids should not plan the same type of trip. Long, multiday winter hikes can require specific, expensive gear. They also require a range of knowledge on subjects like first aid, wilderness survival, and bushcraft. So, for now, let’s focus on camping in state parks and recreation areas, leaving the 50-mile hike to the more advanced outdoor enthusiast.
While major state parks, such as Brown County and Turkey Run, are good options, don’t overlook other locations. National and state forests, such as Charles C. Deam Wilderness and Yellowwood, are much less crowded.
“Part of [the appeal] is being out there by yourself,” says nature enthusiast Peter Slothower. “It’s very peaceful and very quiet. You don’t have to fight the crowds.”
But there is a trade off: Smaller state parks typically have fewer amenities and activities than large state parks.
After deciding on location, it’s important to pick the correct time. Typically, you want to shoot for the dead of winter, like January or February. Temperatures below freezing are preferable. “If it’s hovering around or above freezing, that just means it’s muddy and cold — and you’re just gonna be miserable,” Slothower says.
According to backpacker Clayton Cunningham, the best time to go winter camping is anytime after the first snowfall. The snow can bring out people who want to explore the winter wonderland, and, unfortunately, high traffic can make parks a loud, muddy mess.
Check the weather forecast to see the chances of there being snow on the ground and not a layer of ice. But be prepared for either. Snow, while not essential to the winter camping, adds to the experience.
If you’re not ready to dig your tent out of a snowdrift, then reserving a cabin may be a good idea. Most cabins are insulated and provide you with better protection against the winds of winter. Some also have bathrooms, eliminating the unpleasant but inevitable midnight hiking trip to the latrine. Be aware, however, that only larger state parks offer cabin rentals. You may also want to check with the specific state park to make sure they are open in winter and have the amenities you are hoping for.
What you’ll need
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear, says Cunningham.
The most important thing to pack when winter camping is warm clothing that wicks away sweat. “Make sure you have a good base layer — not a cotton-like material,” says search-and-rescue worker Joe Blattner. “Something to go over that would be like a fleece top. And then some kind of shell — a water-resistant top layer.”
In addition to the three basic clothing layers, you’ll also need wool socks. Warm socks are crucial, as they can prevent major medical issues such as blisters and frostbite.
A subzero sleeping bag is also a necessity — they seal in body heat better than a standard bag. If they’re too expensive, you can look at borrowing one from a friend or renting one. A fleece sleeping bag liner, which will help improve the warmth and thickness of the sleeping bag, is also a good idea.
A campfire is your best bet for warmth. Most state parks have stores where you can buy dry wood. And for many parks, that’s actually the only way to get firewood, as it is illegal to chop down any tree, and collecting firewood on state park territory is not permitted. If you purchase firewood outside the park, consult the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website to be sure it’s approved.
A kerosene heat lamp is a good substitute for a fire, but never use it in your tent. That rule goes for any open source of heat. The tent is a strict no-fire zone. Any source of flame could get knocked over while you’re sleeping and ignite the flammable tent material.
Instead, bundle into your sleeping bag to keep warm. You can even toss some hand warmers, which can warm more than just hands, into your sleeping bag ten minutes before you go to bed so you can enjoy a warm bag when you get inside.
Another important provision is food. High-calorie foods are essential, since many outdoor activities become more demanding if there’s snow. Always pack more food than you think you’ll need, and take an extra ration with you at all times.
For more suggestions on what to take with you on your trip, backpacker.com provides a list of winter camping essentials.
What to do
Campfire food is the best part about winter camping, hands down. Step aside hot dogs and marshmallows — it’s time for hearty winter meals. Bring an old muffin tin and go for something like these eggs, some aluminum foil for foil packs (a personal favorite), or a Dutch oven for something heavier to keep you full and happy when the winds are howling.
Don’t worry about the calories — you’re going to burn them off during your winter adventures.
If you’re more the independent-activity type, then the solitude of nature has a lot to offer. Try a winter sport like cross-country skiing or snowshoeing during the day, which can be rented from places such as Indiana University Outdoor Adventures. Winter hiking can also offer some beautiful sights, especially due to less underbrush and fewer leaves. Outdoors.org provides a list of several winter activities that are fun for all ages.
If you want an easy excursion to test your mettle in the cold, the DNR offers guided, noncamping events throughout the winter. A complete list of their events is available at their website.
No matter what you do, get away from your campsite for the day to explore. Relaxing activities that would be fine in the summer can get quite cold in winter, so keep moving throughout the day to keep warm.
Even if it’s not a camping trip, get outside and enjoy an activity this winter. With preparation, Indiana’s wilderness can be every bit as exciting in winter as in any other season.