Does Winter Camping Make You a Stormtrooper?

No Banthas were harmed in the writing of this story.

I don’t know if it was the lock down, the long winter, or some random alignment of the planets Hoth and Tattoine, but when my wife asked if we could go winter camping, I didn’t stop to question her motivation. I did however, pause a moment to consider; After all, we were in the icy grip of a “polar vortex” according to the Weather Network, a phenomenon that saw an arctic low pressure system sweep down into western Canada, and plunge the prairies into a record-breaking deep-freeze. And she had never joined me on previous winter camping adventures, although these were all tent-based. After a moment though, my obvious response was “When do we leave?”

At this point, I should confess that in addition to the rooftop tent that you saw last summer during Adventures in Trailering, we also have a travel trailer. It’s not a massive RV, but it is a nicely appointed 19 foot vee-nose camper with a rear slide out queen bed. Its just under 3000 pounds and is perfect for two plus a furry friend. Usually reserved for fairer weather, I winterized it last October, since winter temps would quickly compromise the onboard plumbing. If we ventured out in February then, there wouldn’t be any onboard running water, or toilet facilities. There would be power though, since our destination was a campground in the Kananaskis area of the Rockies that did have 30 amp service all winter long.

But first we had to get there.

We left around 4:30 on a Friday evening, despite the forecast. There was the potential for snow towards the mountains, and the temperatures were going to continue to drop. Our tow vehicle of choice was of course the UZJ100 V8 Landcruiser. It was shod with snow tires, and the trailer was managed by both a weight-distribution hitch and electric brakes. The roads were quite icy on the way out of town, so careful inputs of brake and throttle were applied, especially when in traffic. But by the time we were west of Calgary, the roads were clear, and this spontaneous weekend getaway was looking like a great idea.

Until we reached the mountains.

The temperature was fairly steady at a reasonable -18 degrees celsius (just below 0 degrees fahrenheit). But any thoughts of a relaxing, peaceful evening drive to the campsite suddenly evaporated, with the onset of heavy snow as soon as we exited the Trans Canada Highway onto a windy secondary mountain road. Within minutes we were in the thick of a winter storm, and the snow on the road was piling up quickly. The permanent 4-wheel drive Landcruiser was holding it’s own, but with 3000 pounds of trailer behind us, the steep climbs were beginning to find the limits of the usually stalwart Bridgestone Blizzaks. I locked the center differential and we motored on through the dark toward our mountain hideaway, constantly looking for the shoulder, so we wouldn’t end up too close to the edge of the road. (Yes, right hand drive has an advantage when the edge of the road is hard to find). Descents were a balancing act of gearing and occasional touches of the thumb control on the trailer brake controller, to slow the trailer down a bit and keep things tracking straight. After about an hour and half (on a stretch that would’ve normally taken about a third of that time, we came upon the sign indicating our park.

You Have Reached Your Destination

With a sigh of relief, we turned down the park road and plunged into even deeper drifting, as we made our way around the forested loops to locate our pre-booked site. After a few circuits in the dark, and some brief pauses to dig snow banks away from the sign posts, we found site number 4. I carefully reversed into the blackness, guided by my flashlight wielding partner, plugged into the outlet post, and powered out the slide-out bed. This was followed up immediately by a mad scramble to get multiple heat sources going, since inside and outside were at a frosty equilibrium.

After a quick supper, and some quality reading time in the dark stillness, it was time to bed down for the night. I had brought an electric heater to supplement our propane furnace, and as the temperature continued to drop overnight, the two sources kept our humble abode above freezing.

When we emerged the next morning, we were greeted by cold mountain air, and a 360 degree vista. Oh, and by “cold” I mean frigid. The temperature had plumetted to the leviathan depth of -27 degrees Celsius (minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit), and was predicted to drop some more the following night. Despite the wintery air, we walked our dog, and enjoyed some mountain views, before succumbing to the tenuous respite of the trailer and enjoying the splendour through the windows.

The following night the temperature went somewhere south (or is it north?) of MINUS THIRTY Celsius (-24 or so in Fahrenheit), and our two heaters (barely) kept up. In the morning, the truck started without too much grumbling (synthetic oil helped here), and we found the return trip was much less dramatic. The highway cleanup crews had been busy and the roads were mostly cleared of the deep snow.

Netflix OR CHILL?

Through it all, we enjoyed the solitude, the challenge, and even the brisk air, to some extent. It would’ve been way easier to stay at home and binge-watch away the weekend while the snow and temperatures fell. Instead we got out in the mountains, got away from the routine, and got outside our comfort zones. We also proved to ourselves that we could be safe, and comfortable while winter camping in extreme weather. And we are already booked for another getaway next month!

We have come to the conclusion that weather doesn’t have to limit the things we enjoy. With careful planning, reasonable expectations, and a bit of motivation, things that previously seemed insurmountable become something worth looking forward to. Being a Stormtrooper, ironically, is not at all like being a clone, when I consider how few other folks we saw out there braving the weather.

There is something special about the extreme cold. It sharpens everything, especially the silence, even as it reminds you how insignificant you are in the face of soaring mountains and plunging cold.

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