Winter is a season we celebrate by getting outside here in Cook County. From skiing and snowshoeing, to snowmobiling and ice fishing, there are so many wonderful reasons to get outdoors and embrace this magical time of year.
Despite the cold temperatures that are known to visit us in Cook County, it’s not uncommon for people to end their day enjoying the outdoor winter wonderland by saying some version of the following: “Do we have to go home now?”
As it turns out, you don’t.
Winter camping continues to become increasingly popular throughout Cook County, including in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. There are many styles, distances and lengths of stay that make this unique method of outdoor recreation both rewarding and entertaining.
Truth be told, winter camping can also be challenging. It’s a means of recreation that is, quite frankly, not for everyone. However, with the right gear, a good plan and realistic expectations, winter camping can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone.
We understand that some of the gear required for a successful winter-camping experience can be hard to come by, visit both Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte and Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais for all your rental needs. Both local businesses have all the equipment required for a successful winter camping trip, including tents, sleds, cots, sleeping bags designed for cold temperatures, skis, snowshoes and more.
In this blog post we will explain some of the different methods of winter camping that can be done in Cook County, as well as a few locations where we’ve enjoyed pitching a tent on the ice and snow.
Types of Winter Camping in Cook County:
Hot Tent Camping is a the most comfortable and common type of winter camping in Cook County. It involves a sturdy tent (typically canvas) and a wood stove set up inside the sleeping area. The idea here is using wood to keep a comfortable interior temperature inside the tent. Hot tents are ideal for groups of two or more, or when establishing a base camp for your adventure.
Cold Tent Camping means a heat source is not included or involved inside the tent overnight. A strong, reliable four-season tent is necessary to withstand snow, wind and cold temperatures. Unlike hot tent camping, it is essential to have a very reliable low-temperature sleeping bag when cold-tent camping.
The Quinzee is the most unique way to overnight in Cook County during the winter months. Think back to your snowfort building days and you’re on the right track here. A quinzee is basically a hollowed out mound of snow. As snow is an amazing insulator, a quinzee can be excellent for overnight trips when built properly. The added bonus is that it eliminates the need to carry heavy tents into the backcountry. Quinzees take time to build, so allow extra time when incorporating one into your winter camping experience.
Where to Go:
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the ultimate destination for winter camping. Skiing or snowshoeing from lake to lake, crossing portage trails and the stunning dark skies make the BWCA one of the most amazing places in the United States for outdoor recreation during the winter months. Also, permits for overnight stays are free in the winter, though you do need to fill out a self-issue permit for any trips to the BWCA regardless of what time of year you visit.
Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail is a popular and easily accessible lake that is ideal for winter camping. Rose Lake is harder to reach in a single day than Seagull, but is another great option for winter camping in the BWCA.
After selecting your route, it is important to determine if you want to set up camp at a designated campsite or directly on the frozen lake. Two advantages to camping on the lake are the flat surface of the ice and the fact you can fish while in camp, assuming ice fishing is part of your trip itinerary. A disadvantage to camping on the ice is that the heat from the wood stove can create a slushy experience in the tent, including water pools underneath the stove. One advantage to sleeping off the ice and on solid ground is that you can hide easier from the wind and you don’t have to worry about water pools inside the tent.
If you’re looking for something easier than traveling through the Boundary Waters for winter camping in Cook County, the United States Forest Service does allow dispersed camping on Superior National Forest during the winter, meaning that you can stay outside of designated campsites throughout the year. As it goes for any type of camping on public lands, please make sure to clean up and remove all garbage and waste from your campsite. Follow the “pack it in, pack it out” guidelines and everyone will be better for it.
Ultimately, winter camping needs to have a few priorities to be done in a way that will make you one to do it again. At the top of the list is safety. Traveling across snow and ice is not easy. Check ice conditions no matter the time of year. Stay warm and be prepared to build a fire in an emergency, even if you are not hot tent camping. Bring a fully stocked first-aid kit. Take your time getting to where you want to be and enjoy the scenery. Winter is arguably the most beautiful time of year in Cook County. Winter camping is about embracing that beauty and taking things back to a simpler time. As always, reach out to the Info Center staff at Visit Cook County if you have any questions about winter camping or anything related to visiting Cook County!
For more on winter camping in Cook County, check out a recent segment on KBJR TV in Duluth. KBJR’s Adam Lorch recently visited the Gunflint Trail for a winter camping experience.
The WTIP Boundary Waters Podcast team from the community radio station in Grand Marais also have some helpful tips and suggestions on where to go winter camping.
In addition, Backpacker magazine did a recent article about winter camping in the Boundary Waters and the Gunflint Trail.