Wisconsin Winter Camping: A Snowy Delight

By Brian E. Clark
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

Let’s be honest, winter camping isn’t for everyone.

But if you consider yourself a hardy soul who enjoys the snowy season and likes to get away from the maddening crowd, winter camping in Wisconsin may be for you.

Before you attempt to do this with kids, try a winter camping trip to your own backyard. This way, if you have to head back indoors, your house is only steps away. Then, once you’ve decided to head out on a winter camping adventure, here’s what you need to know.

Where to Go for Campsites

Most Wisconsin state parks keep a portion of their sites open for winter campers – some even have electrical hookups – and you can snowshoe into a wilderness area in the Nicolet and Chequamegan National Forests up in the Northwoods.

If you’re especially rugged, you can ski across a mile or two of frozen Lake Superior and camp on one of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore’s 21 rocky islets.

Or check out the Kettle Moraine State Forest east of Fond du Lac where workers say setting up a tent at Mauthe Lake is popular because of the solitude.

Kerry Isensee, superintendent at Pattison State Park near Superior, says winter campers come to his refuge to ski, snowshoe and see the state’s tallest waterfall – 165-foot Big Manitou – which turns into a giant “root beer float” following freezing temperatures.

“Visitors can see lots of wildlife tracks in the winter,” says Isensee, whose park was chosen as the state’s most popular cold-weather locale for camping in a recent Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine survey. “One gentleman told us he saw a pack of five wolves playing on a trail. That was really something because they are usually pretty shy. But there’s not a lot of people around, and some days, you might not run into anyone else when you are out on a trail.”

The story’s the same at Door County’s Peninsula State Park, which usually sees all of its 600-plus campsites full in the summer. Come winter, Superintendent Gene Tiser says the park might have only a dozen or so winter campers, both in tents and travel trailers.

“They come for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, wildlife viewing and our sledding hill,” he says.

Tips From an Avid Winter Camper

Doug Van Horn, 42, teaches winter camping classes for the REI store on the west side of Madison. A native of Iowa and an avid ice climber, he first camped in the snow almost two decades ago at Willow River State Park near Hudson in northwest Wisconsin.

“It was a car camping trip, which is one of the best ways to go when you’re starting out,” says Van Horn. “If you don’t have the perfect gear and the weather turns bad, you’ve got a safe out.

“Besides, with winter camping there is less margin for error. People don’t realize how fast hypothermia can set in, and by then you can be in trouble,” adds Van Horn, who has camped at Devil’s Lake, Gov. Dodge and other state parks around Wisconsin.

His longest trip was a week’s outing in the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula. To get to his wilderness campsite, he used cross-country skis and pulled a sled.

What to Pack for the Cold

Though the cold can be chilling and sometimes downright dangerous, Van Horn says there is no need to get “freaked out,” as long as you prepare properly and bring the correct clothing and gear.

For starters, leave your cotton duds at home because cotton clothing holds moisture next to the skin and can make you colder if it gets damp. Conversely, synthetic fibers, silk and wool will wick moisture away from the body and help keep you warm, even if you are wet. Layering is also critical for warmth and you can always shed a piece of clothing if you overheat.

“You’ll also need an adequate sleeping bag (preferably a mummy bag) that will keep you warm down to zero degrees Fahrenheit at night and a tent for adequate shelter,” Van Horn says.
A foam sleeping pad to go under your bag that will provide a layer of air (and comfort) between you and the bottom of the tent is another requirement. It’s also good to pitch your tent on several inches of snow, which has better insulating quality than bare ground or rock.

When it comes to sleeping comfortably, Van Horn said he wears long underwear, sometimes tucking the clothes he’ll wear during the day into his bag for a little more insulation while camping in winter weather.

Another good winter camping tip, he says, is to take a couple of bottles filled with hot water to bed (he prefers the Nalgene brand) and put one at your feet and the other around your torso. Though they have screw-on caps, he recommends putting them in one-gallon Ziploc bags in case they should drip.

As for the all-important tent, Van Horn recommends a four-season model that can withstand a heavy snowfall and not collapse. They can sell for as little as $200 and run up to the thousands of dollars for mountaineering varieties used by climbers headed for major peaks such as Everest.

Van Horn is also a big fan of long-lasting down sleeping bags, but they can cost twice as much or more than synthetic fiber bags, which start at around $180.

What to Eat and How to Cook 

When it comes to staying warm, you need to consume a lot of food while camping in winter.

“You burn a lot of calories working or playing in the cold. You simply need more fuel to run your body,” Van Horn says. “You burn up a lot of calories because the body never stops working to stay warm.”

For the more adventurous, heading into the backcountry can be exhilarating. When Van Horn goes out, he pulls a “pulk” sled, which means he can bring a lot of gear with him, including plenty of food for multi-day trips and a heavy cast iron Dutch oven for cooking.

For most, however, a small cook stove is adequate for preparing grub. He prefers a white gas stove because the liquid does not smell if spilled and doesn’t leave residue. BUT REMEMBER… do not cook in a tent, for danger of carbon monoxide poisoning or fire. It’s better to cook outside – out of the wind – and use a foil base so the stove won’t sink into the snow as it heats up. He also suggests warming up gas stove pumps on cold days so they don’t crack from the cold.

Finally, he says, winter campers should drink plenty of water to stay adequately hydrated, but warns against eating snow because it will cool you down and could bring on hypothermia.

“The main thing about winter camping is it’s lots of fun to be outside in the winter, away from pretty much everyone else,” he says. “You can do it on lots of different levels. The key, of course, is that you need to be prepared to do is safely and comfortably.”

More Information

  • For details on winter camping Wisconsin’s myriad state parks, click here or call 608.266.2621 in Madison.
  • For information on the Chequamegon and Nicolet National forests, click here or call (715) 362-1300 in Rhinelander.
  • And if you’d like to go winter camping on an island in Lake Superior, click here or call the National Park Service at (715)779-3397 in Bayfield.