If you consider camping only a spring-to-fall affair, think again. For outdoor enthusiasts—of which there are many in Minnesota—the urge to camp during the year’s coldest season burns just as hot as it does the rest of the year.
Perhaps it’s the sense of accomplishment that comes with roughing it when everyone else is huddled inside warm homes. It could be experiencing the remarkable quiet of a snow-covered landscape, or the twinkling of thousands of stars on a clear, crisp night. Or maybe it’s just that camping in the winter can be an out-of-the-ordinary but remarkably fun (and yes, even family-friendly) adventure.
When camping in the winter, preparation is key. There’s perhaps no greater challenge than winter camping in the vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Campers here use special tents that can handle wood-burning stoves and that reduce the build-up of condensation inside the tent.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Visitors who come to the wilderness during this time of the year have a very different kind of experience than those that visit during the summer season. You are less likely to run into other visitors and can experience a sense of solitude and self-reliance in a way that few other places allow. Winter wilderness travel requires a high degree of preparation, planning, skill and self-reliance.”
In addition to the Boundary Waters, Minnesota’s two national forests, Chippewa and Superior, allow what’s known as dispersed camping, whereby campers can stay outside of designated campsites throughout the year. The same goes for Minnesota’s 58 state forests. These are truly primitive experiences, in that amenities such as bathrooms and running water aren’t available. Voyageurs National Park and three state parks—Frontenac, Itasca and Tettegouche—also offer winter tent camping in designated campgrounds.
Thankfully for some, tent camping is only one of the options available in winter. For those who prefer a little more distance between themselves and the elements, there are camper cabins and yurts, which can be found at public parks and private campgrounds alike.
Camper cabins are available during the winter at 20 state parks and recreation areas throughout the state, as well as Minneapolis-St. Paul-area parks including Baker and Elm Creek, the Instagram-worthy Whitetail Woods, and True North Basecamp in Cuyuna, recently featured in Outside magazine. Camper cabins are a step up from sleeping in a tent, but more rustic than a hotel room. Those open during the winter are heated (electric, propane or wood-burning), and most also offer electricity.
With the exception of crockpots and coffeemakers, cooking isn’t allowed insider camper cabins, but all of them have a grill and/or fire ring outside. Cabins also have benches, tables, and bunkbeds with mattresses. Pets are not allowed in any of the cabins listed above except for True North.
Three state parks and recreation areas—Afton, Cuyuna and Glendalough—also offer yurts, which have their roots in ancient Turkey, where they were used as portable shelters. The yurts range in diameter from 16 to 20 feet. Each has a wood-burning stove, domed roof, windows, bunkbeds and a table. None have electricity, and neither cooking nor pets are allowed. In addition to state parks, campers also can find yurts in Ely and on the Gunflint Trail.
Other Winter Activities
There’s something to be said for spending a winter day hanging out in a camper cabin, tent or yurt, but there are a variety of other winter-based activities for campers to enjoy. Minnesota has a great network of snowmobile trails, for example, while those looking for a little exercise may want to give cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or fat biking a try.
Ice fishing is another popular option. Many of the parks and recreation areas that offer camper cabins and yurts are close to lakes with good fishing, and people who don’t want to leave the lake can set up a tent and camp atop the frozen water.