Oh, the thrill of solitude. Winter camping is a snowy, white world of enjoyment—after hurdling the physical and psychological barriers. It’s an adventure not to fear but to embrace—for its peace, dead quiet, stars and inversion-free air. For winter-lovers or unyielding recreationists, many destinations are accessible by car, the easiest camping option.
Without the hassles of backpacking—plus offering security and comfort—this style of camping simply involves dumping out your equipment and setting up.
First, some precautions are required: “The most important aspects of winter camping are being knowledgeable and being safety-oriented,” says Andy Church, sales manager at Kirkham’s. Avalanche awareness is the first step. Contact the Utah Avalanche Center (888-999-4019, UtahAvalancheCenter.org) for current conditions and forecasts. Also, basic knowledge in avoiding environmental threats is essential, such as risks for hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re a bookworm, The Winter Camping Handbook by Steven Gorman should get you started.
You’ll also need a high-quality tent, warm sleeping bag, a thick sleeping pad and stove, among other toys and trinkets. “It’s cool that you can go out in freezing temperatures with proper gear, and you’re not uncomfortable. It’s even enjoyable,” Church says.
His top winter car-camping selections are below:
Tent: Springbar Campsite 3, $450
Sleeping Bag: ALPS Big Horn, 30 degree rectangle bag, $149
Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp, $75
Stove: MSR Whisperlite International, $90.
More of Kirkham’s Sales Manager Andy Church’s top gear picks:
Stove: Jetboil Cooking System, $100
Backpacking Tent: Mountain Hardwear Trango 3, $550
Backcountry Snow Shovel: Black Diamond Deploy 7, $66
Avalanche Beacon: Pieps Freeride, $200
Avalanche Probe: Black Diamond Quickdraw 190, $40
Other Kirkham’s products
Pots: MSR Quick 2 Set, $70
Dutch Oven: Lodge Logic 8 Quart, $60
Camp chair: GCI Everywhere Chair, $45
Headlamp: Black Diamond Cosmo, $26
It’s expensive buying proper equipment, and if you’re venturing into a new hobby, you might not want to break the bank. The University of Utah’s Campus Recreation Services (801-581-8516) rents top-notch goods—everything from sleeping bags to stoves. If you own nothing besides clothing, you could drop less than $40 a night, with price breaks for additional days.
Be ready to provide for yourself for the extent of your stay. A fully stocked first-aid kit, ported water (ensuring that it doesn’t freeze) or ability to melt snow, wood (winter foraging is near impossible) and a fire pan— to name a few provisions—are must-haves.
Finally, mentally prepare: An inner toughness and fortitude are required to deal with extreme elements.
Here is a sampling of destinations for your snowy excursions. “Wherever you choose, be aware of and adhere to the ‘Leave No Trace’ principles,” says Salt Lake ranger Steve Scheid.
Big Cottonwood Canyon: Since camping at Spruces is no longer permitted, Jordan Pines—off Cardiff Fork Road—is the only option close to Salt Lake City. Though often frequented by Boy Scouts, it’s open in the winter without a host, and you can reserve up to 25 spots. A permit is required and is obtained for $1 per person through the Department of Public Lands (801-466-6411). From the parking lot, walk approximately 1/8 of a mile in. Contact the Salt Lake Ranger District (801- 733-2660) for more information.
American Fork Canyon: The next choice is 25 miles south of Salt Lake City. Here, the summertime day picnic areas turn into winter-camping spots. The required permit is free with a $6 entrance fee into the canyon. Three to four miles up the road are three sites: Mile Rock, Martin and Roadhouse. The ranger station recommends Mile Rock because it sits across the river, so it’s farthest from the road and has an easy 1/2-mile hike to a lake. Contact the Pleasant Grove Ranger District (801-785-3563) for more information.
Spanish Fork Canyon: Still farther south, Diamond campground offers free camping—one loop of campsites is open to the public. To get there, drive 10 miles up Highway 6, turn off at Diamond Fork, and drive eight miles to the site. For more adventure (and potential nudity), hike 2 miles to the trailhead of the hot springs, then another 1-1/2 miles to the springs. Contact the Spanish Fork Ranger District (801-798-3571) for more information. (Check out CityWeekly.net for more carcamping around the Salt Lake-area, such as Strawberry Reservoir, Mirror Lake Highway, East Canyon and Rockport State Park).
East of Heber, on U.S. Highway 40, this area is a frequent destination
during the winter for kite surfing, snowmobiling, accessibility, and
overall beauty. The road winding past the Visitors’ Center is called
West Side Road, and you can camp on the west side, which is opposite
the reservoir. Once plowing begins in January, several parking lots
will be available, including Co-op Creek, Strawberry Creek, and Mud
Creek. The Ranger Station recommends snowshoeing up a quarter-mile,
into the trees from Mud Creek. By staying in the lower camping areas
away from steep slopes there is less avalanche danger, says a local
ranger. Contact the Heber-Kamas Ranger District (435-654-0470) for more
Mirror Lake Highway: Along this scenic road, camping is permitted at dispersed sites. Yellow Pine, Northfork, and Soapstone parking areas are all plowed for accessible parking. Camping is not permitted at established campgrounds, but walking a marginal distance from them and setting up is okay. Mirror Lake Highway is plowed to mile marker 15 in the winter. Contact the Kamas Ranger District (435-783-4338) for more information.
East Canyon: The campground is maintained and open in its entirety during the winter and is only 28 miles from Salt Lake City. Drive east of Salt Lake and turn at State Route 66. Prices range from $20-25. Call 801-322-3770 for more information.
Rockport State Park: 45 miles east of Salt Lake City off of I-80. Prices are $10-20, depending on hook-ups, for a site at the established campground. Call 435-654-8294 for more information.
Upon returning to the city, “You will feel a sense of completion and problem-solving,” says Utah Mountain Adventures director Tyson Bradley. “The small problems of the office seem minor in comparison to surviving in -20 degree weather. You are able to let the little things roll off your back.” It will also entitle you to bragging rights with your burly friends.