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Expedition Essentials: Ultimate Guide to Winter Camping near Detroit

Now that Arctic temperatures have retreated north, the Detroit region is in peak condition for winter camping expeditions! Here is our #ExpeditionEssentials guide to the best gear, destinations, and best practices for your next winter camping adventure near Detroit.

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"Ah, so this most qualify as 'snowing' out here."


I said those words mockingly as flurries started to drift down from the overcast skies at Grand Canyon National Park. It was early March in northern Arizona, and my buddies and I had just spent a full, mostly warm day exploring the South Rim. None of us knew if yet, but that trip would be the first of countless "squad camping trips" that would bind us together despite a decade of significant life changes.


We also didn't know that we were about to experience winter camping. Calorie-burning, bone-chilling, and immensely humbling winter camping. The type of experience that makes you question your entire being: your passions, grit, ambitions, experiences. Every decision that led you to this exact moment, shivering in a tent, in the desert, in 19ºF whiteout conditions.


If you're reading these words, then you know that at least I survived that harrowing night (yes, we all did). That night - and the two nights that followed - all qualified as "sufferfests" where Mother Nature unsparingly taught us not to underestimate her power. We arrived at that campground thinking that our northern acclimation would carry us through off-season temperature swings. We were gravely mistaken, and paid for it in lost sleep.

Dear reader, here's the good news: our sad story does not need to be repeated. In fact, the whole introduction to this article could've been largely omitted if we would've done the slightest amount of research into winter camping. I would've recognized immediately that my base layers, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag were all inadequate for the conditions that I was heading into. Even my trail shoes could barely handle the icy conditions near the Grand Canyon's rim.


As our research has proven, winter camping can represent a fun, rejuvenating, and crowd-less means of experiencing the Detroit region's trails in the "offseason." That being said, trekking out to a backcountry campsite in January vs. July simply requires more prep work. From gear selection to route preparation, colder temperatures mean extra decisions - but very, very important ones to make.


This article is your cheatsheet to preparing for your next winter camping venture near Detroit. The exact article that I wish had existed before shivering through three sleepless nights in the desert. The type of resource that the Expedition Detroit team hopes will fuel your intrepid adventures all year long.

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Winter Camping Essentials

Let's start with the obvious: this article is intended for anyone interested in winter camping in the Detroit region. What that means is that we will not venture into the extreme mountainous or polar genre of winter gear that 99.9% of winter camping articles tend to cover. Crampons, avalanche beacons, shovels, ice axes, and other extreme winter survival gear will be omitted here.


Stated differently, if you are looking to thru-hike the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail or Potawatomi Trail this winter, then you're at the right place. If you're preparing to camp in the Cascades next month, well, you might want to do a little more research beyond this article.

Shelter: Building your Winter Base Camp

If you're a fan of any survival reality show like "Alone," then you're already familiar with the four basic pillars of a wilderness survival scenario: water, shelter, fire, and food. While either bringing or obtaining potable water reigns supreme as the key survival element, the second most important - shelter - rises to a very close second when winter camping. Even if you're just car camping for the night, picking the right shelter area, packing the right tent, and bringing the right sleep system will determine whether you sleep or shiver.


Purposefully selecting and preparing your shelter area is a critical first step towards an incredible winter camping experience. Start by picking a location that sheltered from the wind and protected from potential hazards like falling tree limbs. You should also consider whether your tent will have direct sunlight access coming from the east so that your morning will be as warm as possible. Last, prep the actual location for your tent by packing down the snow so that any loose snow won't melt from your body heat.

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Tent Specifics

Contrary to most winter camping articles on the web, Detroit region campers most likely do not need a "Four Season Tent" in order to embark on offseason camping adventures. Even with Detroit's harsh winters, a typical "Three Season Tent" should work fine unless the forecast calls for unusually high levels of wind or snowfall.


In general, Four Season Tents come with sturdier poles and heavier fabrics than their Three Season counterparts. While those beefed up features add weights, they are much better suited to withstand powerful gusts of wind and heavy snow loads. Four Season Tents also have less mesh (i.e., more insulation) and the rainflys extend close to the ground to keep swirling snow from getting inside.

Sleep System 

When it comes to winter camping, your sleep system is just as valuable as your shelter. Actually, we may argue that it's even more valuable. For me personally, I've spent far too many sleepless nights in offseason conditions due to poor insulation, unreliable mattresses, and simple lack of knowledge concerning adequate sleeping gear.


Please - don't be me. Educate yourself on proper sleep system selection and maintenance. Pack the right gear for the conditions. Your reward will be a blissful night's rest in the backcountry, which is worth its weight in gold.


Let's start with the choice of sleeping bag. For winter camping, you should always err on the side of being too warm for the projected conditions. My cold weather bag is rated to 10ºF, which I use anytime the nighttime lows are expected to dip under 45ºF. You can also add insulation to your sleeping bag by using a sleeping bag liner to add 15ºF of warmth to a 3-season sleeping bag.


Another lesson that I learned far too late in my backpacking career is proper sleeping bag storage. A cold weather sleeping bag should NEVER be stored long-term in a stuff sack or similar compression bag. While stuff sacks are lifesavers for maximizing space while backpacking, subjecting your sleeping bag to extended compression while have devastating effects on the longevity of its insulation. Instead, loosely roll up your bag for storage after letting it air out post-trip.


For your sleeping pad, the two key components are essential insulation and cushioning. If you expect to camp on top of compressed snow, then most experts advise utilizing two pads to keep from losing body heat. More specifically, it's recommended that you use a closed-cell foam pad directly next to the ground and a self-inflating pad on top of that. You should also utilize sleeping pads that have an R-value of 4.0 or higher for winter camping (higher R-value means better insulation).

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Staying Warm: Layered Clothing

As the famous Norwegian saying goes, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing." For winter weather, you should always dress in layers, especially for the cooler-to-freezing temperatures that fluctuate in the Detroit region during the winter.


Here's a refresher on layering:

  • Base Layer ("underwear layer"): Arguably the most important layer; the goal is to wick sweat off your skin. For winter camping, midweight long underwear is a good choice for all-around use. Lightweight is best for mild conditions and heavyweight for below-freezing temps. Look for fabrics like polyester or wool that wick perspiration away from your skin and dry quickly.

  • Middle Layer ("insulating layer"): Should retain body heat to protect you from the cold. In general, thicker/puffier equals warmer. For your upper body, most winter campers prefer a puffy down or synthetic insulated jacket. If you prefer fleece, make sure your jacket is heavyweight fleece. For your legs, fleece pants or heavyweight long underwear are good options,

  • Outer Layer ("shell layer"): Largely weather-dependent; shields you from wind and rain and provides extra insulation. In winter, it is important to have a fully waterproof jacket and pants rather than merely water resistant. However, these also need to be breathable so that perspiration wicked away by your base layer can escape.


You should also add in a few "accessory items" to your winter clothing kit. These include a basic wool or synthetic beanie, insulated gloves with waterproof/breathable shells, glasses or googles, and non-cotton socks. With regard to socks, extra-thick pairs will not keep your feet warm if your boots become too tight.

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Fuel Up: Best Camp Stove Options

If you've ever spent a cold night in a tent, then you hopefully know the life-giving sensation of waking up to a hot mug of camp coffee. Easy to use camp stoves like those produced by JetBoil are a must-have in the backcountry, although "canister stoves" without pressure regulators cab depressurize in extremely cold temperatures, resulting in a weaker flame. Fortunately, cook systems like those produced by JetBoil feature pressure regulators on top of their lightweight, compact, and user-friendly technical aspects.


Another camp stove option includes "liquid-fuel stoves." These stoves run on white gas, which burns hot and clean and performs well in below-freezing temperatures. But, they tend to be heavier and slower to boil than canister stoves, and you typically have to prime them before you can cook.

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The Best Winter Camping Destinations

Now that you're fully-outfitted for your next winter camping adventure, let's zero in on the best winter camping destinations near Detroit. While our region is blessed with several beautiful and unique campgrounds, most of the Detroit region's camping destinations shutter for the offseason right around when hunting season kicks off. For general camping considerations, that's a huge bummer.


On the other hand, for those of us interested in winter camping - the expeditious, intrepid audience that inspires the Expedition Detroit team every day - that reality amounts to a massive blessing. The complete absence of fair weather campers means that our region's most secluded backcountry campsites will be free for the taking by those willing to venture out and seize them. Even popular campgrounds that are booked solid May through September will be readily reservable during winter.


If you're looking for blissful solitude this offseason, then here are the Detroit region's top four winter camping destinations waiting for you:

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1. Blind Lake Campground |  Pinckney State Recreation Area | Pinckney, MI


The top winter camping destination is without a doubt Pinckney State Recreation Area's Blind Lake Campground. Conveniently located along the Detroit region's first thru-hiking trail, the Potawatomi Trail, this campground is a hike or bike-in only destination that features 10 highly sought-after campsites. Site 3 is Blind Lake's most desired site due to its location along a wooded rise overlooking Blind Lake.


Recommended Trail: Potawatomi Trail


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2. Pines Campground |  Waterloo State Recreation Area | Chelsea, MI


Thru-hikers of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail are already very familiar with the wooded refuge of Waterloo's Pines Campground. However, even campers looking for a more manageable overnight backpacking experience can enjoy a night under the pines without committing to a ~40 mile adventure via the Grass Lake Trail. Setting out from the Glenn Road trailhead and following the Grass Lake Trail counter-clockwise, you will reach the Pines Campground at mile marker 8.5.


Recommended Trail: Grass Lake Trail


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3. Bishop Lake Campground  |  Brighton State Recreation Area | Brighton, MI


While Brighton State Recreation Area's Bishop Lake Campground does not provide the backcountry experience of the above destinations, the campground more than makes up for that with other natural amenities. First, you will be camping just a stone's throw away from the famous Penosha Trail - one of the top day-hiking destinations throughout the entire State of Michigan. You will also be within striking distance of Brighton's tasty mountain biking trails, one of the three "Black Diamond"-rated trail systems in the Detroit region. Last - if you're daring enough - the frigid waters of Bishop Lake will invite you to take a cold plunge to rejuvenate your body and mind.


Recommended Trail: Penosha Trail


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4. Portage Lake Campground  |   Waterloo State Recreation Area |  Chelsea, MI


Last but certainly not least, a stay at Waterloo's Portage Lake Campground provides the perfect gateway to an unforgettable winter adventure. Scenic Portage Lake represents much more than a picturesque modern campground along the banks of stunning Portage Lake. The trailhead located just north of the campground also provides the primary starting point for the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail - Detroit's preeminent backpacking trail that does remain accessible and conquerable throughout the winter months.


Recommended Trail: Waterloo-Pinckney Trail


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Quick Safety Add-Ons

Before signing off on this article, we wanted to close by sharing the following winter camping safety and best practices as prepared by the talented team at REI. Each of these best practices are key not only for enjoying your time camping under the wintry stars, but also mitigating your exposure to serious health risks like frostbite and hypothermia:


  • STAY WARM, DON'T GET WARM. By dressing appropriately, you can maintain a comfortable temperature, which is much simpler than trying to warm up after getting too cold.

  • DON'T TRY TO TOUGH IT OUT. If you feel your fingers or toes getting cold, stop and take the time to check on them and warm them up. Placing cold fingers in your armpits or cold toes on a partner’s warm stomach are good ways to warm up. Using hand warmer and toe warmer packets is also effective.

  • EAT FOOD FOR WARMTH. Your body generates heat as it digests food, so if you’re feeling cold try eating some food. Before you go to bed, have a snack to keep your metabolism going and keep a candy bar nearby if you get cold in the middle of the night.

  • MULTI-USE YOUR FOAM PAD. Use your foam sleeping pad to sit or stand on while you’re cooking. It helps you stay a little warmer and drier.

  • FILL YOUR TENT'S FLOOR SPACE. A bunch of empty floor space inside your tent will make it hard to warm up the interior space. Bring your backpack and other gear inside (avoid sharp items that could rip your tent) and place it around you on the floor of your tent to act as insulation against the cold ground.

  • LIGHT EXERCISE BEFORE BED. Crawling into your sleeping bag cold is a sure way to shiver all night long. Do 50 jumping jacks, jog in place, or run a quick lap around camp. When your heart is pumping and you’re feeling warm, get in your sleeping bag and zip it up tight.

  • GO PEE WHEN NATURE CALLS. By emptying your bladder, your body will use a little less energy to stay warm. If the idea of getting out of your warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night seems unbearable, use a pee bottle. Women can use a pee funnel to go into the bottle.

  • SLEEP IN CLEAN CLOTHES. Over time, body oils, sweat and dirt will rob your sleeping bag of its insulating power. Change into clean long underwear and socks for sleep.

  • STOW YOUR WATER BOTTLE UPSIDE DOWN. Water freezes from the top down, so by stowing bottles upside down, the bottle tops are less likely to freeze shut. Just make sure your bottles lids are screwed on correctly and won’t leak.

  • KEEP YOUR ELECTRONICS WARM. Cold temps can zap battery power. When not in use, stow things like your headlamp, cell phone, GPS and extra batteries in your sleeping bag or a jacket pocket close to your body.

 

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources makes reserving any of these campgrounds effortless through their online booking platform. You can also reserve "glamping" winter camping options via their platform, including Waterloo's "Green Lake Yurt" and other rustic hut lodging destinations.


Have fun and be safe out there, Detroit - we'll see you around the fire ring!

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