(Photo: Imagine Golf/iStock)

Alberta’s Best Spots for Winter Camping

By Craig Moy

Even in winter, you sometimes need to get away from it all. Hence the growing popularity of winter camping. So long as you pack some extra gear and know-how, winter camping is an excellent way to enjoy Alberta’s national and provincial parks without the high-season crowds. Considering your first cold-weather excursion? Banff’s Tunnel Mountain Village II campground has many accessible, powered sites, as does McLean Creek Provincial Recreation Area in Kananaskis Country. For a more rugged Prairies experience, try hoodoo-studded Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. Wherever you plan to go, check weather conditions before heading out. The ideal temperature for winter camping is between -5 and -20 C. That’s cold enough that you’re unlikely to experience heavy snow melt, which can make camping miserable, but also warm enough that you should be relatively comfortable—assuming you’ve packed and dressed appropriately.

Your clothing—and how you layer it—has a big impact on your winter-camping comfort. It needs to release the excess heat and moisture that your body makes when you’re active, but capture and conserve heat when you’re at rest.

1. Base layer: Choose snug, sweat-wicking merino wool or high-performance polyester. 

2. Insulation layer: A fleece or wool sweater helps retain body heat—but is breathable enough to reduce moisture and ice buildup.

3. Wind-resistant outer layer: A soft shell prevents the loss of body heat through the movement of air across your skin.

4. Down jacket/parka: A thick coat for warmth—but only when you’re inactive. If you sweat while wearing your parka, the moisture will make you colder.

5. Hands and head: Use thin gloves for fine tasks, insulated gloves or mittens for warmth, and a wind- and water-resitant mitten shell. Your toque should cover your ears, which are vulnerable to frostbite.

6. Feet: Insulated boots with removable liners, big enough to accommodate two or three pairs of wool socks.

If you love the idea of winter camping but aren’t keen on roughing it in sub-zero temperatures, comfort camping is an attractive alternative. Near Lac La Biche, Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park has a number of heated cabins, each equipped with a fridge and stove for easy meal-making, while Cypress Hills offers both powered cabins and secluded, rustic huts. Or plan a road trip with the luxuries of home: CanaDream in Edmonton and Calgary rents nicely equipped, winter-ready camper-vans. AMA members save 10%.

Get expert advice on eating right while camping in the winter

Winter-wonderful things to do, wherever you pitch your tent

Fat biking is an adrenaline-pumping way to explore—on two extra-wide tires that provide traction for snow- and ice-covered trails. Give it a try in Jasper by renting a ride from The Bench Bike Shop or book a bike plus guided Bow Valley tour with Canmore’s Rebound Cycle.

If you don’t mind hauling extra gear, ice fishing is a great way to spend a winter’s day. Always test the ice before walking on it (it should be at least four inches thick). Or book an all-inclusive outing with an outfitter like Edmonton’s Get Hooked Fishing Adventures

There are practically as many cross-country ski trails in the Banff/Lake Louise/Kananaskis region as there are downhill runs. Farther north, try the 61 km of groomed track at William A. Switzer Provincial Park, including the Hinton Nordic Centre.