TORONTO -- Fraser Johnson hits the winter trail every year for two reasons: the challenge and the serenity.

While the out-tripping expert leads his fellow Mountain Equipment Coop colleagues into the backcountry every winter, he acknowledges it's not for everyone.

But with the loonie heading south faster than snowbirds this year, enjoying winter could mean embracing the cold rather than jetting off to southern climes.

"Once you get through the first trip, you'll either never do it again and you'll have a great story to tell, or each subsequent trip becomes better and easier," he said.

Here's how to do it right and where to go, whether you're primed for a hard-core experience or a newbie.


Preparation and staying positive are key.

"If you're worried about being cold, you'll actually panic," said Toronto-based Johnson. "Panic can set into a tiny bit of shock, and you get colder than you would otherwise."

Johnson suggests these tips and tricks for first-timers:

  • Hike a maximum of 20 to 30 minutes from your car or ranger station in case you need to get warm pronto.
  • Rent expensive gear, like a -40 C sleeping bag and four-season tent, until you decide to become a regular and it makes sense to invest.
  • Pack extra white gas fuel (naphtha). Lantern or camping fuel will freeze in extreme temperatures. Staying hydrated is important and you'll need fuel if you find it necessary to melt snow.

Staying warm:

  • Wear layers to trap heat: a base layer, a warm layer, plus potentially another light layer, and a shell to hold the warmth in and keep you dry. Never wear cotton as it doesn't provide any insulation when wet and won't dry without heat.
  • Keep a warm drink in your coat or sleeping bag day and night. The heat from the bottle will help keep you warm and your water won't freeze.
  • Sleep with a change of clothes in your sleeping bag and get changed in the bag.
  • Keep boots warm overnight in your sleeping bag. Put wet boots in a garbage bag to keep your sleeping bag dry.
  • If you're out for a four- to five-day trip, dig yourself a quinzhee, a super-insulating snow structure that sleeps up to three people.
  • When nature calls, answer. "If you're sitting in your sleeping bag and you really need to go pee, the best thing you can do is go pee," Johnson said, explaining that the body uses a lot of energy to keep that urine warm.

Mountain Equipment Coop holds winter camping 101 courses across Canada for a low fee, or for $265 attend Canada West Mountain School and learn how to build an igloo.


Hot-tenting involves trekking a heavy-duty prospector tent and chimney-equipped, wood-burning stove to a remote area to make a warm and toasty base camp.

Make sure you get the right equipment and know how to use it. A source like Algonquin Basecamp Outfitters and Supply will even set it up for you. (They charge $150 per night for the first night, $100 per night after.)

Never use a propane stove inside a tent due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.


Glamping is all about experiencing the outdoors in comfort, ranging from a cabin in the woods to a simple yurt with bunk beds and an electric heater.

Many federal and provincial parks offer cabins and yurts year-round.

Gatineau Park has roofed winter accommodations from four-season tents starting at $87 per night, to cabins, and yurts starting at $115 per night.

The Societe des etablissements de plein air du Quebec offers a number of different winter glamping experiences across the province. Winter prices range from rustic shelters at $64 per night, to $119 for an EXP cabin (more modern with large windows), and $143 per night for a nature cabin. Children under 17 are free.

If luxury is what you want, book through a website like A cabin in Northwest Territories, for instance, lets you call your friends from the near Arctic while lounging in a hot tub. Starts at $456 per night.


If returning to your own bed at the end of the day is more your thing, day-tripping is an option.

No car? If you live in Toronto, Parkbus is transporting this winter for the first time to Arrowhead Provincial Park, with day trips on Jan. 30 and Feb. 27. Tickets include return bus fare and a park pass: $84 per adult, $76 per student/senior, $42 per child under 12.