Mission: To survive a week of free camping in the Canadian Rockies in cold weather.
My daughter Indigo arrived at the end of October, and with her came my excitement to get back on the road; in particular taking on the challenge of some cold-weather van-camping. My logic was that being “brave and hearty” would be more achievable together.
Before I describe what we learned, I’ll define “cold weather” and “camping” because it’s different for everyone. I live in a four-season climate in Eastern Canada. My cold weather includes the chance of snow, ice pellets, sleet, black ice on roads and below-zero temperatures. It does not involve mountain weather, which we would be facing.
I don’t have a heating unit in the van (other than the heat that runs when the van is running) and my kitchen pulls out the back. So, my capacity for winter camping is limited to mild to moderate winter weather by Canadian standards. Not “dead of winter” camping.
We began our journey in Edmonton at the end of October; travelled through Jasper and the Icefileds, went to Revelstoke, Hope and finally arrived on the west coast of Canada. We then joined family on Vancouver Island. It was an amazing journey through some of the most beautiful land Canada has to offer.
Here are some tips and tricks we learned from our week travelling through the Canadian Rockies, where daytime temperatures ranged from -5 to 8, and night temperatures ranged from 1 to -13.
Do not leave things to chance when there is a possibility of winter weather. Weather changes quickly in the mountains, and through the passes. Be methodical in your collection of information. Take the information seriously.
• Consult Environment Canada frequently
• In addition, use a dependable weather app, but realize you may not always have cell service to access it
• Always visit an info centre just prior to going through passes, to be advised of conditions and open routes. Some routes close once snow begins. Twice we had to change plans due to emerging weather.
• Be aware that overnight weather may prevent you from leaving sites you easily parked at the night before
• Fill your gas tank at every opportunity; I prefer to always drive with more than a half tank of gas. Service stations are limited through much of the West
• Carry extra water, food and emergency supplies. If you have van troubles or health issues on the road, there are MANY areas without cell coverage, and you will need to wait for help. Highways are much quieter during late fall and winter
• That said, it is advisable to have roadside assistance program if possible. At least when someone finds you, you can be towed.
• Let friends or family know where you are and when you expect to be off- grid. It’s important your absence is missed by someone… anyone!
• Plan your day so you arrive at your destination well before dark. Driving after dark is dangerous due to elk and mountain goats and sheep on the road and makes setting up difficult.
2. Have the right stuff:
Opinions on what one should carry on board during the winter will differ from person to person. You need to have the equipment that you are comfortable using. Our ”right stuff” for this trip included:
• Down duvet and winter (-8 degree) sleeping bag
• Adequate winter clothing (warm fleece, hats, mitts, scarves, socks)
• Window snow scraper
• Insulated window coverings
• 12V mattress pad warmer
• Emergency rubber treads (to give wheels traction if you slide off road)
• A way to heat up food and drink (we have a propane stove) and thermoses to keep it warm
• A mechanically-sound vehicle – this is no place for your vehicle to break down! Have your adventure-mobile serviced beforehand
• First Aid Kit • An extra key secured firmly to underside of van
3. Nourish Thy-Self!
Travelling and sleeping in cold weather is demanding on the body and can take a bit of a toll on your emotions too. It takes a lot of calories to stay warm and having hearty, warm meals will keep spirits from freezing over and your sense of humour thawed. It will also help keep you healthy. Here are some things that helped us eat well.
• We kept it simple. Cans of soup, beans, broths, and stews were our friends. The less time outside cooking, the warmer our hands stayed and the better our dinner tasted.
• We often made enough for two hot meals, and put half in a thermos for later
• We drank a LOT of hot beverages. Coffee, tea, hot water and lemon or just hot water helps warms you from the inside out, and also warms your paws.
• We often delayed breakfast until the sun came up. We travelled during the cold morning hours because it felt good to get the van started and to turn on the heat right away. It was a bit too jarring to jump out of a warm bed into the cold!
• Get as much physical activity as is healthy and enjoyable for you. A good brisk walk, or any physical activity outdoors will warm you up, especially your hands and feet, and especially just before getting into the van, or bed. Indigo was a wonderful motivator, and we did a lot of hiking and climbing during our week!
4. Use Community Resources:
Perhaps one of the most important things we learned was that when the weather is cold, the last thing you want to do is sit in a cold van. Hiking and other outdoor activities (our usual) were also unpleasant in ice-rain, so it was important to find other things to do. Here are some of the things we did to keep warm and enjoy our winter van-venture.
• We visited the local pool in Revelstoke to enjoy a swim, sauna, hot tub and shower. For $5 each, we came outta there new women. We also met great people and learned about the community.
• We took advantage of a Flying J Truck Stop, which have showers (we paid $12.60 for an hour), where we treated ourselves to a whole room complete with shower, toilet, sink, mirror and towels. Real, laundered towels! They also have laundry facilities if your socks are getting stinky. Or frozen. Or both.
• We spent an afternoon at Hope Public Library. This allowed us to get out of the cold, do some research, access wifi, and let our friends know we were alive.
• We took time to explore local galleries and shops. Even if it’s not your thing: it’s warm, people are friendly, and it gets your body moving during times when hiking isn’t appealing. I like to “get my steps in” no matter what the weather.
• We like to visit each “thaw-zone” as we entered a new area (read: Information Center). Spend more time than you need. Arrive with questions. Get great information. Brush your teeth. Stay until you’re warm.
This is no time to set unrealistic expectations for yourself. We all have physical and emotional limits. Honour them. We set out to have a challenging, but enjoyable week. Suffering was not on our list of things to do. Here are some things that helped us survive, and make some great memories along the way.
• We learned to be very flexible moment to moment. If you’re getting cranky, assess the situation. Are you hungry? Tired? In desperate need of a shower? Cold? Missing your partner? Tired of your current travelling companion? All of the above? TAKE ACTION IMMEDIATELY. Eat something. Take a nap. Find a shower. Write a letter. Go for a walk. Refrain from pushing your travel buddy from the nearest lookout point. Make your travel buddy tea if you were mean to them.
• Even though we limited our time sitting in the van, there were definitely hours in the evening that found us there, and they demanded a strategic approach. Now, imagine this scenario without cell service. I journalled, kept a record of our daily activities, read, and we played Scrabble and HeadsUp! on my phone. I have art supplies, but, honestly, it was way too cold to use them. We went to bed early and slept longer than usual. Like a hibernating bear. Remember, nights are LONG!
• If you can, budget a little extra money to enjoy an hour or two at local cafes on a regular basis. For under $5, you can thaw, visit local folk, read the community newspaper, and get the insider scoop on what’s interesting to see close by. All with a hot bevy and maybe a cookie.
• Sleep with a knitted hat, gloves and neck warmer. Make sure ankles are covered and socks are totally dry.
• I don’t drink anything after dinner, to limit the need to go out to the bathroom at night. It doesn’t matter, I still have to go out, but maybe it will work for you.
• If it gets too cold in the van in the night, start it up and run the heat until you are warm/er. If you feel unsafe or worried about being too cold, drive on to stay warm. Listen to your body and your emotions. Take care of yourself. This isn’t a contest, although it may be a bit about knowing your limits. Everyone has them!
• If you run the van for a little while, make sure your muffler is free from snow or ice. Exhaust fumes end a vacation immediately. And permanently.
Just a little note about travelling with a dog in cold weather. Know the limits of your dog’s breed (if they have any in cold weather) and ensure they have everything they need to be happy and healthy. Pippa doesn’t like a lot of outdoor activity in cold weather, but with a warm coat tolerates half hour at a time.
When Indigo and I were out of the van, I filled her kennel with fleecy blankets to burrow into, and put a blanket over the kennel to keep in the heat. We would rarely leave her longer than one hour, and she was always sleeping and warm when we returned. At night, she slept under the covers with me, where we were both toasty.
In conclusion, this was a week of being comfortably uncomfortable. Finding our limits and being kind to ourselves.
Physically, it was challenging. We often worked to stay warm while cooking, cleaning up, going to the washroom (outhouses almost always), changing clothes, walking Pippa and taking in the many beautiful sights. A couple days later, sitting next to a roaring fire with family, Indigo and I reflected that we felt proud and very happy to have the memories to look back on, but were in no hurry to be cold again anytime soon.
When you are uncomfortable, it’s easy to get grumpy. Try not to get too grumpy. Kindness, patience tolerance and humour has a warmth of it’s own, and when it’s minus 13 degrees on an ice field, you will want to muster all the warmth you can.
We created a little video about our adventure. You can view it here: