wintercamping


Looking for something new to try? Valens Conservation Area has become famous for its 'hang' campers, those brave souls sleeping en plein air in a hammock tied to the forest trees. 'That’s the extreme end of camping,' says Gordon Costie, the park's superintendent. If you like sleeping on the ground, tent camping is also available this winter. For those who prefer the comforts of home, Valens also offers winter camping for folks with RVs. (Photo courtesy Tim Gallagher)


Unleash your inner Canadian at Valens Conservation Area, winter camping headquarters with the comforts of home


News Archive BY LINDA MONDOUX
Daytime temperatures have dipped near zero, the ground is white and the lakes, rivers and ponds are frozen. All across Ontario, nature lovers are packing their gear for what many camping enthusiasts argue is the perfect season.  

True, winter camping is not for everyone. But according to Gordon Costie, park superintendent at Valens Conservation Area in Flamborough, you’re missing out on a whole lot of nature — and fun — when you spend winter indoors. “There is so much beauty in our winter season, but unfortunately, most people don’t see it,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.  

Valens, located a short drive east of Cambridge and just 35 minutes from downtown Hamilton, is unique in southern Ontario because it offers year-round drive-in camping — the kind where you arrive by car with your tent or in your fully equipped motorhome and set up shop on your private site amid the pine and spruce trees. The campground offers hydro hookups and heated washrooms with flush toilets and showers. There’s even laundry facilities onsite.  

With all the comforts of home at their fingertips, it’s little wonder that Valens’ long-term winter camping program, now in its second year, is attracting attention. Already this year, eight campers have signed up for the program, which allows you to bring your RV and park it in the Valens campground from Jan. 1 to April 30. Campers must prepay for 16 nights, which can be used at any time without moving the trailer in and out, and camp for additional nights on a pay-as-you-stay basis. For even more convenience, potable water is made available at the Hillman restroom facility.  

“There’s not too much roughing it — it’s more like a cottage on wheels,” says Costie of the long-term winter campers, whose RVs range from 14 feet to the monster 40-footers, some complete with fireplaces.

Who are these long-term campers? Costie says they’re mostly families and empty-nesters who have trailers and want to make year-round use of them. “For some, it’s the best time of the year,” he says. “There are no crowds — you have the whole park to yourself.”  

According to the online 4 Season Campers Forum, winter camping at Valens is hailed for “being so close and easy to do,” the fact you can park the camper and leave it there for the duration and the affordable fees, especially with a Hamilton Region Conservation Authority season’s pass, which gets you a discount. 
 

Valens famous for its group hangs

Valens also offers nightly winter camping, and many people — often first-timers — come for a weekend to try it out. “Some people do it for bragging rights,” Costie says of winter campers. “They can tell their friends they sat around a campfire, went skating and ice fishing and ask, ‘So, what did you do this weekend?’ ”  

If you don’t have an RV, you can bring your tent or even a hammock. Valens has become famous for its “hang” campers, those brave souls sleeping en plein air in a hammock tied to the forest trees. “That’s the extreme end of camping,” says Costie, who has experienced a slightly less perilous version of winter camping — overnighting in a hut while ice fishing on Lake Simcoe.  

Valens has become home base for hang camping trainees, who come out with hammock veterans such as Tim Gallagher of Waterloo. Gallagher, who spends his days at a software job at Research in Motion, joined the global hammock camping revolution three years ago. “I try to go out at least once a month,” says Gallagher, a former professional photographer who combines hammock camping with nature photography.

While the 41-year-old took up hammock camping as a hobby, he has since turned into a gear geek, making and testing his own hammocks and all the paraphernalia that goes with it, such as quilts and tarps. “It’s technically complicated,” he says, pointing to the Hammock Forums, the online place where hammock enthusiasts the world over talk mathematics and physics while sharing ideas on the best way to hang and how to keep the warmth in and the cold out. “Half the people on the forum should work for NASA,” Gallagher says with a laugh.  

Gallagher might soon qualify for his own NASA job: along with making his own gear — all designed for below-freezing temperatures — he now dehydrates his own food, using a vacuum sealer to increase its shelf life. You’ll find him at Valens cooking up his homemade chili over a campfire this weekend, when he will lead a group hang. About 10 people were expected to show up, all folks “from all walks of life” that Gallagher met through the hammock forum.
 

'The cold can get to you'

With newbies in the group, Gallagher makes sure he has some extra equipment along for those who come unprepared for the cold, which is the biggest factor that will determine whether the winter hang will become a once-only experience or a life-time hobby. “Valens is where people try it out for the first time because it’s good to know you’re 60 feet from a heated washroom,” Gallagher tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “The cold can get to you. And yes, some have fled indoors.”  

Gallagher enjoys the social aspect of sitting around the campfire and talking to people after a day of snowshoeing and nature photography — you’ll find him searching for moose and loons on his getaways to Algonquin Provincial Park. At Valens, where he has become known as one of the Hammock Guys, Gallagher is often pressed into action, serving up demonstrations for curious RV campers walking by to get a closer look. “I get a lot of joy out of doing it,” he says, adding that winter is his favourite season for camping.  

If you’re not quite ready to try out winter camping — whether in an RV, a tent or a hammock — Valens is a great place to spend the day with family. There are 10 kilometres of groomed trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, catch-and-release ice fishing for blue gill, black crappie and northern pike on the Valens reservoir, and skating on the beach area, which is cleared off by park staff.  

“Winter is a good time to be out,” Costie tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. There’s an ice fishing derby on the reservoir Jan. 28, and Ice Fest on Feb. 19 to celebrate Family Day — events include skating, pick-up hockey, wagon rides, ice-cutting and ice fishing demonstrations.  

Valens Conservation Area is located at 1691 Regional Road 97 in Flamborough (RR #6). For more information or to reserve a camping site, call 905-525-2183 or 519-621-6029 or email valens@conservationhamilton.ca.  

Elsewhere in Ontario, you can choose from car camping, backcountry camping and yurt camping. Yurt camping, something that Costie says may one day be introduced at Valens, is becoming popular in Ontario’s national parks. Yurts are a semi-permanent tent-like structure, circular in shape and can be as big as 20 feet in diameter. They come furnished with beds and often a woodstove and a large deck, too.  

Here is a list of national and provincial parks in Ontario offering winter camping: 
  

NATIONAL PARKS  

Bruce Peninsula National Park, Georgian Bay:  

Drive-in camping, Cyprus Lake Campground; no serviced sites or shower facilities onsite Yurt camping, Cyprus Lake (note: closed until mid-February while a new comfort station is being built)
Backcountry camping, Stormhaven, High Dump campgrounds with platforms for free-standing tents
   

Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Georgian Bay:

Pack-in, pack-out camping, Beausoleil Island, Chimney Bay and Cedar Spring campgrounds; access via snowmobile    

St. Lawrence Islands National Park, St. Lawrence River:

Primitive camping, campsites on 12 of park’s islands, composting toilets; access via snowmobile
   

Pukaskwa National Park, Lake Superior:

Front-country camping, Hattie Cove, pit toilets; ski, snowshoe or hike in
Backcountry camping, Coastal Hiking Trail campsites, tent pad, privy, bear box, fire pit    

PROVINCIAL PARKS

 

Algonquin:

Yurt camping, Mew Lake Campground, mounted on wooden deck two feet off ground, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, electric heat, lighting, propane barbecue
Backcountry camping, Mew Lake Campground 
 

Frontenac:

Backcountry camping, most with tent pads, privy toilet; access via ski/snowshoe    

Kawartha Highlands:

Backcountry camping, self-serve permit required, access via snowmobile  

Killarney:

Car camping, George Lake Campground, parking lot plowed, groomed ski trails
Walk-in yurt camping, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, electric heat, lighting, fire pit; access via ski/snowshoe
Backcountry camping, access via ski/snowshoe/snowmobile  

MacGregor Point:

Yurt camping, mounted on wooden deck two feet off ground, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, electric heat, lighting, propane barbecue  

Pinery:  

Yurt camping, mounted on wooden deck two feet off ground, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, electric heat, lighting, propane barbecue  

Silent Lake:

Walk-in yurt camping, mounted on wooden deck two feet off ground, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, electric heat, lighting, propane barbecue; access via ski/snowshoe  

Quetico:

Drive-in camping, Dawson Trail Campground on French Lake; comfort station nearby; self-serve  

Sleeping Giant: 

Drive-in camping, Marie Louise Lake Campground, fire pit, comfort stations on site  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — January 2012