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Where to Camp (and Play) in the Wisconsin Snow

By Brian E. Clark
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

Some folks consider winter a dreary burden that must be suffered through. They dream of moving to Hawaii and count the days until spring.

Not Jim Bishop, a retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources public affairs manager in Spooner and an avid outdoorsman for all seasons. Bishop has spent numerous winter nights camping outdoors and has built at least nine “quinzee” (igloo-like) snow shelters in parks and national forests around the state. 

One was large enough for him and six friends to spend the night in. Why, he’s even camped out under the stars without a tent when the temperature sank to minus 40 degrees. But because he was prepared and had the proper gear, he said he stayed toasty warm.

Beginners find seasonal perks

Bishop would never recommend what he did for a first-timer, and he recommends that novices go winter camping with a friend, or at least start out setting up their four-season tents not far from a warm shelter, house or car to which they could retreat if something goes wrong – or it simply gets too darn cold.  Similarly, he said building a quinzee shelter should only be done under the guidance of someone with experience because it could collapse. 

But the rewards of winter camping are worth the effort, he said. There are no bugs, hardly any people around and there’s lots of room to roam. Officials say cross-country skiing is the most popular winter activity in the state parks, 20-plus of which are open for camping in the chilly months. They have nearly 700 miles of trails for skiers to explore and almost 1,000 miles of trails for snowmobilers.

Better yet, adds Adam Remus, manager for the Fontana Sports store in downtown Madison, it’s actually recommended that you eat things like candy bars at night because when you wake up in the morning they provide fuel to keep you warm.  

Parks become a snowy playground 

In addition to state parks and forests, some county parks allow winter camping, and most of them offer activities such as cross country skiing, bird watching, animal tracking, ice fishing, snowmobiling, hiking, snowshoeing and even ice climbing.

How about camping on an island? You can ski a mile or two across the frozen surface of Lake Superior to primitive sites on 19 islands out of the 21 that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore offshore from the Bayfield area.

Then there’s the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, which covers more than 1.5 million acres of the Badger State’s Northwoods.

Paul Holtan, a spokesman for the DNR, said the Northern Highland/American Legion State Forest near the border with the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of the premier areas in Wisconsin for winter camping and has “fantastic opportunities” for snowy recreation with at least six groomed cross-country trails. Some of the campsites are in plowed campgrounds.

More adventurous winter campers, Nordic skiers, snowshoers and hikers can head into the backcountry if they get a permit from the forest headquarters in Boulder Junction or the Woodruff DNR regional office. 

The Brule River State Forest also has some plowed and walk-in sites. Holtan said the groomed After Hours trail is excellent for cross-country skiing. The Flambeau River State Forest has 29 winter camping sites, some of which are plowed. It also has great cross-country skiing, he said, and offers backcountry permits. 

In southern Wisconsin, he recommends Blue Mound State Park west of Madison, in part because it has the highest elevation in the region, with more than two dozen walk-in camping sites and lots of cross-country skiing.

Devil’s Lake State Park has group camping sites, where Holtan said individuals can reserve sites, and offers cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice climbing on frozen waterfalls – as does Wyalusing State Park at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Wyalusing has 32 winter camping sites, too, both plowed and unplowed.

Last but not least, the north and south units of Kettle Moraine State Forest have numerous camping and backcountry options, with three-sided Adirondack-style shelters that offer protection from the wind.

Ready to give winter camping a try?

Learn more from the Wisconsin DNR about winter offerings in state parks, visit the USDA Forest Service for information on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and check out the National Park Service if you'd like to go winter camping on an island in Lake Superior.


Check out our tips for winter camping before you head for the park to pitch your tent.

This entry was posted in Camping Winter Activities