In the dead of winter, when many Canadians flock south to warm, tropical beaches, Hans Hogers heads in the opposite direction, seeking isolation in the dark, frigid wilderness.
The information technology manager leaves his Toronto home for a remote forest in northern Ontario and spends a week braving -30 C wind chills with only a small tent and sleeping bag for protection. He eschews organized tours or formal camps, preferring the challenge of facing nature with just a friend, some warm clothing, snowshoes and a few basic necessities he can carry on his back.
It’s physically demanding, and dangerous for those who are not properly prepared for the skin-freezing weather, but winter camping enthusiasts say the experience leaves them with a Zen-like, peaceful state of mind.
“There’s something about knowing that you’re the only people out there. It’s like being on another planet,” Hogers said.
“In everyday life, we have huge to-do lists … and you’ve got a whole bunch of stuff on the go all the time, and you’re always multi-tasking. When you’re winter camping, you’re not multi-tasking.”
Hogers won’t reveal his secret location, saying only that it is on unoccupied Crown land far from any community. He and his companion walk miles away from any railway or road to ensure they are truly on their own.
If a medical emergency arises, it could take hours to get back to a spot where they might find help, and hours more to flag down a car or train on roads and railways that are nearly deserted.
Hogers’ annual trek is among the more extreme examples of winter camping. Across Canada, there are organized tours that range from the somewhat cushy to bare-bones survival challenges.
In Algonquin Provincial Park, some 250 kilometres north of Toronto, Outward Bound Canada offers multi-day dog sled tours which allow participants to spend their nights in large, walled canvas tents that contain a wood stove.
“Initially, people are a bit intimidated by the cold and the winter season, and they wonder how they’ll adapt to the conditions,” said executive director Dave Wolfenden.
“But they soon realize they can sleep outside quite comfortably with the right kind of sleeping bag.”
As the campers gain confidence, many decide by the second night that even the small comfort of the tent is too refined and sleep under the open sky in the dog sleds.
“The dogs are kind of gathered around and they’re howling at night, and there are wolves throughout Algonquin park, so they often howl at night in response to the dogs,” Wolfenden said. “It’s quite magical.”
Outward Bound Canada offers a three-day, two-night package for $595 per person, including training, food and special clothing designed to withstand the winter chill.
North of Quebec City, the Pourvoirie Du Lac-Beauport offers dog sled, snowshoe and snowmobile tours with overnight stays in either an igloo or a large prospector’s tent close to the community.
The outfitter’s snowshoe package with one overnight stay costs $100, while a two-night snowmobile package costs $395.
On the web
• Outward Bound Canada: www.outwardbound.ca
• Pourvoirie du Lac-Beauport: www.quebecweb.com/plb