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Winter Camping Tips/Tackling Challenges - Hot Spring Camping in the PNW
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The Pacific Northwest is renowned for its lush forests, rugged coastlines, and vibrant culture. While summer may be the go-to season for camping, winter offers an entirely different, enchanting experience for the adventurous at heart. Imagine cozying up next to a crackling fire while the rain patters on your tent, or waking up to a snowy wonderland outside your campsite. Winter camping in the Pacific Northwest is a truly magical experience, but it does require some preparation and know-how.
I’ve already talked about why I love camping off-season (fewer people and more relaxing), but are you intimidated by camping during the off-season, particularly in winter? It makes sense if you are; you’re more likely to get worse weather, so you must be prepared. That’s why I’ve put together these winter camping tips and some information on tackling the common challenges of camping off-season in the Pacific Northwest.
Also, I’ve included some great hot spring camping destinations in the Pacific Northwest because who doesn’t love the idea of jumping in some hot springs during the colder months of the year?
Winter Camping Tips
Let’s jump into it! Here we will talk about everything you need to know about camping in the winter, from planning your trip to packing to staying safe.
#1 - Choose the Right Location
The Pacific Northwest boasts a plethora of fantastic winter camping destinations. I’ve already talked about the best winter camping destinations in the Pacific Northwest, but choose a location that matches your skill level and interests. If you’re new to off-season or winter camping, opt for a car camping location that is easier to access and consider whether or not the location has amenities (note: the availability of amenities may change during different seasons).
Also, check for campground closures or restrictions due to weather, and always have a backup plan in case conditions change.
Stay updated on weather conditions before and during your trip. Be prepared for rain, snow, and rapidly changing weather patterns. This knowledge will help you make informed decisions about your camping itinerary and what to pack.
#2 - Prepare for the Weather & Pack Smart
When winter camping, proper gear is your best friend.
Essential winter camping gear
Invest in a high-quality, cold-weather sleeping bag and pad with an appropriate temperature rating. The same way you think of layers when it comes to your clothes, think the same when it comes to sleeping - depending on the temperature, you may want more than one sleeping pad underneath you and a blanket on top of your sleeping bag.
It’s crucial to have a reliable winter tent designed to withstand snow and wind and keep you dry.
You also want a tent that can vent. Yes, it may seem counterintuitive to vent your tent in the winter, but you want to allow the vapour you release when you breathe to be able to escape rather than collect on your tent.
Essential winter camping clothing
Now, onto other clothing. Of course, layer your clothing to stay warm. This means base layer, mid layer, puffy jacket and waterproof shell and ensure to bring extra socks and gloves. The primary purpose of all these layers is to regulate your temperature to control sweating but stay warm (as the sweat dries, it will make you cold). So, don’t forget to adjust your layers as needed.
When it comes to clothes for sleep, always change out of sweaty clothes for something fresh before bed and always wear new, dry socks. Wear long sleeves and long pants to bed and cover your head. A toque is usually enough for me, but some prefer a balaclava that won’t slip off. You also may want to have a hot water bottle for sleep.
There is also some great technology out there that you may want to consider, like a heated jacket, hand and feet warmers, etc.
Other winter camping gear essentials
In addition to the usual camping gear, remember essentials like a headlamp with extra batteries, a multi-tool, and a first-aid kit.
- Pack ahead of time to ensure everything fits in your bag! With bulkier clothing, your regular summer backpack may not be big enough.
- Store your boots inside so they don’t freeze overnight.
- Bring sunglasses or goggles if you’re in the snow; it will help to protect your eyes.
#3 - Plan Your Meals & Stay Hydrated
Winter camping demands extra energy, so plan hearty and warm meals. Freeze-dried options work well, but bring a camp stove for hot meals and beverages.
Preparing warm food and drinks can be a morale booster on chilly nights. And think high-calorie foods like nuts, dried fruits, energy bars, and hearty soups to provide the energy you need.
It’s easy to forget hydration in cold weather, but it’s as essential as in the summer. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, and consider using an insulated water bottle to prevent freezing.
- If you have to pee in the middle of the night, do it. Yes, I know you don’t want to get out of your cozy sleeping bag, but I promise it’s worth it; you’re wasting energy keeping your bladder warm. (You could use a pee bottle if you really don’t want to get out of the tent).
#4 - Fire and Fuel
Check local campfire regulations, which may be restricted or prohibited in certain areas. If fires are allowed, gather dry firewood or bring your own. Dry firewood makes all the difference when starting a fire. And remember, you will likely use more firewood during the winter than in the summer, so ensure to bring enough.
If you don’t want to start a fire to cook earlier in the day, a portable camp stove is a reliable alternative for cooking. You can also bring a propane fire pit for during the day, but most don’t give off as much heat as a traditional fire and will use a decent amount of propane.
Ensure you have enough fuel to last your entire trip - it’s always better to have extra than not enough.
#5 - Safety First
Winter camping comes with its own set of challenges, including the potential for hypothermia and frostbite. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms and know how to respond. Always tell someone your itinerary and expected return time in case of emergencies.
You are also more likely to run into wildlife in the winter. While this can be a perk of camping during this time, you also want to ensure you are prepared for wildlife encounters, particularly for bears and cougars.
Winter camping is a unique opportunity to experience the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty without the crowds. Take time to appreciate the tranquillity, the snow-draped landscapes, and the remarkable solitude.
Don’t forget to respect the environment by following Leave No Trace principles. Properly dispose of trash, pack out waste, and leave the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest pristine for future generations to enjoy.
Best Hot Spring Camping in the PNW
Doesn’t a good soak in hot springs sound like the best thing when winter camping? Let’s look at some of the best hot springs in the Pacific Northwest. Note that natural hot springs are more challenging to find and often more complex to get to unless you have a good off-road vehicle, so I will also include some resort hot springs that your group can hit up on your way home from your trip.
Remember that hot spring access and camping availability may vary depending on the season, weather conditions, and facility closures. Check with the respective hot spring locations for the most up-to-date information and any necessary permits or reservations.
Note that most natural hot springs are clothing optional and often attract folks who prefer to enjoy the experience nude.
Natural Hot Springs in Washington and Oregon
- Olympic Hot Springs, Washington: Located in Olympic National Park, these hot springs are accessible via a trail that can be more challenging during winter due to snow. However, it offers a unique experience of soaking in natural springs surrounded by a winter wonderland. You can choose from at least twenty hot springs and pools, and they’re all completely natural. It’s about a 12km hike to the Boulder Creek campground from the Madison Falls parking area to get there.
- Goldmyer Hot Springs, Washington: This remote wilderness hot spring is accessible only by a forest service road (approximately 1-hour drive) and a 4.5-mile hike (each way). But it’s gorgeous when you get there. It offers a natural and serene experience in a beautiful forested area. Camping is available, and reservations are required for both camping and the hot springs.
- Terwilliger Hot Springs (Cougar Hot Springs), Oregon: These hot springs are nestled in the Willamette National Forest and are a perfect spot to soak during the fall and winter. The hike to the springs is relatively short, and there are a couple of nearby campsites. But because they are easy to access, they are a popular destination and often busy, so plan to go early.
- Umpqua Hot Springs, Oregon: These hot springs are an incredible destination along the North Umpqua River in Umpqua National Forest. The three gorgeous pools fluctuate between 100 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit and are tucked in travertine cliff faces. While there isn’t camping on site, camping is nearby, but if you plan to visit in the colder months (November to March), the forest service road is often closed. The closed road doesn’t necessarily mean you cannot visit the hot springs; however, it substantially increases the hike.
Natural Hot Springs in British Columbia
- Lussier Hot Springs, East Kootenays: These natural hot springs are nestled in Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park. The springs consist of a series of rock-lined pools along the Lussier River. The pools vary in temperature; visitors can choose their preferred soaking spot.
- Sloquet Hot Springs, West Harrison: In the lower mainland, Harrison is much closer to Vancouver for the city campers looking for a hot springs adventure. The area is the traditional territory of Xa’xtsa or Douglas First Nation. Travellers must go approximately 75 km on the In-shuck-ch Forest Service Road (also known as Lillooet Lake Road), which runs along the lower Lillooet River, just North of Harrison Lake. This drive definitely requires a 4x4. Camping is available, but there is a fee to use the hot springs for those who aren’t camping.
- Liard River Hot Springs, Northern BC: For those headed north, Liard River Hot Springs offers a beautiful location to stop, just off the Alaska Highway near the BC/Yukon border. The colder months almost guarantee relaxing in a steaming pool while the surrounding trees are covered in snow. You can camp at the nearby provincial park or the hot springs lodge. For those from Vancouver, you can book an all-inclusive BC Safari that includes time spent at the hot springs.
BC Honourable mention
Ainsworth Hot Springs in the Kootenay region of British Columbia gets an honourable mention because it features both a rustic and unique horseshoe-shaped cave with hot spring waters flowing through it and resort pools. Visitors can soak in the cave or outdoor pools while enjoying beautiful views of Kootenay Lake.
Resort Hot Springs Washington and Oregon
Onto some resort hot spring options in the Pacific Northwest for folks looking for a warm-up after their winter camping excursion or aren’t quite ready for winter camping and are looking for a cabin vibe.
The biggest downside with resort hot springs over natural ones is the cost.
- Sol Duc Hot Springs, Washington: Another gem within Olympic National Park, Sol Duc Hot Springs offers a resort with hot spring pools and cabins. The cabins give it a more rustic vibe that feels closer to camping than staying in a hotel, and they’re surrounded by beautiful evergreens. However, this resort only operates until the end of October and reopens at the beginning of March.
- Doe Bay Resort, Washington: Located in the San Juan Islands, the Doe Bay Resort is an incredible destination with beautiful outdoor soaking tubs that overlook the water. There are several types of accommodations, such as cabins, yurts and domes. There are also campgrounds on site, but there is a minimum number of nights stay, and you’ll want to make sure you also get a reservation for the baths.
- Crystal Crane Hot Springs, Oregon: Crystal Crane Hot Springs is located in a remote area of eastern Oregon, making it an excellent spot for stargazing during the winter months. It has a gorgeous large soaking pool as well as private pools.
- Summer Lake Hot Springs, Oregon: Just two hours south of Bend, Oregon, Summer Lake Hot Springs offers a semi-rustic experience where you can camp or stay in one of their cabins (no day use). There is a large indoor pool inside a 1920 bathhouse, but the best experience is the outdoor rock pools that boast 360-degree views of the mountains. This location is perfect for stargazing.
- Breitenbush Hot Springs, Oregon: This retreat center offers a variety of hot spring pools and is open year-round. While it’s not a traditional camping spot, they have cozy cabins, yurts, and platform tents for overnight stays, which may be more comfortable for some people than traditional winter camping. They also have unique accommodations like a hobbit-style Forest shelter made of wood and stone. Unlike some other resort locations, Breitenbush offers day-use access to the springs if that’s your preference.
Resort Hot Springs British Columbia
- Harrison Hot Springs: Located in the Fraser Valley, only a couple of hours east of Vancouver, Harrison Hot Springs is a popular destination on Harrison Lake, known for its natural hot springs. The Harrison Hot Springs Resort offers a range of accommodations and hot spring pools, making it a great option for a relaxing getaway in the southern part of the province.
- Nakusp Hot Springs: Nakusp Hot Springs is located in the Kootenay region and offers both hot spring pools and camping facilities. It’s in a picturesque forested area near Nakusp, providing a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere.
- Fairmont Hot Springs: Located in the Columbia Valley, Fairmont Hot Springs boasts Canada’s largest natural mineral hot springs. The Fairmont Hot Springs Resort offers a variety of pools and amenities, making it a family-friendly destination with accommodations and camping options.
Things to Remember When Visiting Hot Springs
When visiting hot springs, it’s essential to be well-prepared to ensure your comfort and safety. Here’s a list of things you may want to bring, but if you’re hiking into a natural hot spring, you’re going to want to be aware of the weight of your pack:
- Towel and Robe: Bring a towel to dry off after soaking and maybe a robe or a cover-up for walking around the area.
- Water Shoes: Some hot springs have rocky or uneven terrain around the pools, so water shoes can provide protection and traction.
- Change of Clothes: Have a dry set of clothing for after your soak and warm clothing for cooler weather.
- Waterproof Bag: To keep your belongings dry, especially if you plan to use any electronics.
- Water Bottle: Staying hydrated is essential.
- Snacks: Many hot springs are located in remote areas, so bringing some snacks is a good idea in case you get hungry.
- Cash: Some hot springs may not accept credit cards, so it’s wise to carry some cash for admission fees, rentals, or any other expenses.
- First Aid Kit: It’s always good to be prepared. Include basics like band-aids, pain relievers, and antiseptic wipes.
- Headlamp or Flashlight: A light source is essential if you’re visiting hot springs at night or in a dark area.
- Reservations or Permits: Check if you need reservations or permits for the hot spring you plan to visit. Some hot springs, especially in protected areas, may require advance booking.
Remember to check the specific rules and requirements for the hot spring you plan to visit, as they can vary significantly from one location to another. Being well-prepared ensures a safe and enjoyable experience while respecting the natural environment and other visitors.
Final Thoughts on Hot Springs in the Pacific Northwest
In the breathtaking landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, a world of relaxation and rejuvenation awaits. From the rustic allure of natural hot springs tucked away in the pristine forests to the comforts of resort-style retreats, this region offers diverse options for those seeking solace in warm, mineral-rich waters.
Whether you prefer the serenity of a backcountry soak amidst the splendour of the Cascades or the indulgent amenities of a spa getaway, the Pacific Northwest has something to offer. It’s a reminder that sometimes, the best adventures are the ones that allow you to slow down, unwind, and savour the simple pleasure of nature’s warm embrace.
So, next time you yearn for tranquillity, consider visiting one of these natural or resort hot spring destinations. It’s an experience bound to leave you feeling refreshed and reconnected to the beauty of the great outdoors.
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