The pandemic has obviously been draining and awful for everyone, but it’s definitely given me an appreciation for all the trails that are still within close driving distance to the city. I love getting away from the city and out into the wilderness, but there’s still a lot of wilderness right at our doorstep.
Metro Vancouver is lucky to have so many regional parks scattered throughout the lower mainland. Minnekhada is one I’ve spent a fair bit of time in over the past year, so I decided to write about it because it has definitely become one of my favourite local parks.
Minnekhada is wedged in the mountains between Coquitlam and PoCo and offers a nice escape from the city. It’s not that large of a park, but the reason I like it so much is for the diversity that you’ll find along the trails. The trail network consists of a figure 8 trail loop around two ponds that are just bursting with wildlife! There are several beaver lodges scattered throughout the ponds and it’s a great place for birdwatching. Metro Vancouver has a lodge at the south end of the park that used to run events pre-covid and has a bird-blind for watching the pond.
You can customize your trail length by either doing one or both of the pond loops. The trail crosses in the middle providing beautiful views of both ponds and the surrounding mountains (actually in reality this is one pond with a dam/causeway trail going across the middle). It seems like most people just do the southern loop, which is shorter, so we often take Sadie dog-walking around the northern loop because she’s still pretty nervous around dogs and strangers and we rarely see anyone there.
The highlight of the trail network though is the hike up to Low Knoll and High Knoll. Low knoll is a small branch off the southern loop to a forested viewpoint looking out over the ponds. High Knoll is known as the “Quarry Rock of Coquitlam” because it’s a steep hike to get up to the rocky outcrop that provides a scenic view of the tri-cities and Pitt-Addington Marsh. The view isn’t quite as stunning as Deep Cove, but in my opinion it’s a shorter and easier trail to the top.
The first time I did High Knoll was a few years ago when I took my parents up there, but more recently I went up on a foggy morning in early December and stumbled upon some of the best views I’ve seen in the park. It was a sunny day, but the fog from the Fraser River was hanging low and had drifted into Coquitlam. It made for some stunning foggy views around the lake, with the sun streaming through the trees in sunbeams. But when we got up to High Knoll, we were treated to the most beautiful inversion. We’d hiked up above the clouds and could see the fog hanging over the city with the skyscrapers just poking up through. Steve treated us to some hot tea while we enjoyed the views.
The shorter loop trail clocks in at around 3.5km, while doing both loops with High and Low Knoll side trails clocks in at around 8km. So you can really customize the trip however you want. However, Minnekhada is also well known for bears, so you should always practice bear safety when walking in the area. We went on an unfortunate hike in October where we ran into either 2 bears, or the same bear twice (we’re not sure). We first encountered it near the Low Knoll trail and it wondered off when we started making noise, but as we continued around the north loop trail, we encountered it again, but this time it did not leave us alone. It didn’t seem like an aggressive bear, but it was definitely curious about us and did not move on when we started making noise (nor was it deterred by our pre-emptive bear calls, which we’d been doing since the first encounter). We ended up abandoning the loop and backtracking and it didn’t follow us, but it did make me really nervous and I’d been arming myself with rocks in case in pursued us. There are bears all throughout the park, but we felt more vulnerable on the North loop because there are less people.
Anyways, don’t be deterred by the bears, just hike with a friend and bring a horn with you, especially in late fall when the bears are bulking up for hibernation. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen them and I’ve been there a half dozen times. Overall, I think it’s a beautiful, under-rated park and I’d definitely recommend checking it out!
To-date, I’ve written about all of my snow camping adventures (find them here). All of my posts include useful information and lessons learned about snow camping, but I decided to make a guide to Winter Camping to compile the key things I’ve learned in one place for those debating taking up snow camping! It’s a lot more work than summer camping, but I find it hugely rewarding! Please keep in mind that I am still only a novice snow camper/snowshoer – I always stick to low risk avalanche zones and sleep in a tent – if you’re looking for advice on snow shelter construction or ski touring, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Safety is the number one consideration if you’re thinking of taking up snow camping. I know the pictures of us hanging out and camping in the snow look awesome (at least I think they do, others *Emily* think it looks like a nightmare), but if you think snow camping may be beyond your ability or you’re not prepared, do not go. It’s not something you do for the ‘gram, it’s dangerous. But if you think you’re ready, be prepared with the 10 essentials and lots of warm clothing and sleeping gear. Wear proper footwear and bring lots of hand and foot warmers with you. See my blog post on personal safety for more information about the 10 essentials.
But the most important consideration is avalanche safety. Avalanche Canada is a wonderful resource for assessing avalanche risk and always check it before you go. There are lots of places to snowshoe and camp outside of avalanche terrain, but if we’re going into avalanche terrain, our personal rule is that we won’t go anywhere that’s higher than moderate risk, end of story. We’ve all taken the Avalanche Safety Training and Brandon owns a transceiver, probe, a shovel. Me and Carolyn just own shovels right now, but rent probe and transceiver when needed.
Even with training, we still avoid high risk areas, but taking the training allowed us to learn how to start identifying avalanche terrain and risk so that we are equipped with the knowledge to make decisions. Avalanche safety is about a lot more than just checking the bulletin. Even on days where the risk is low or moderate, you can still trigger avalanches and get into trouble if you don’t understand how to assess the conditions and control your exposure to risk. When in avalanche terrain, it’s not enough for 1 person to be experienced. Everyone needs to be equipped with the proper gear and knowledge.
I think that gear is probably the biggest bottleneck to getting into snow camping. Camping gear in general is expensive and in the winter you definitely benefit from warm and lightweight gear. It took us a while to get started with snow camping because we were weary of investing in a ton of expensive gear for something we might not enjoy, so we cut a lot of corners and bought some cheap gear to try it out. The downside was that because we loved snow camping, a lot of the gear had to be replaced again, which is a bit wasteful, but can generally be sold secondhand. Plus check what you can get second hand in the first place to help you get started!
My main tip for saving money is to supplement your existing gear. Buy a cheap blue foamy to go under your existing sleeping pad and a warm sleeping bag liner or blanket (or both) to increase the warmth of your existing sleeping bag. The downside is that this is not lightweight and you can expect to have a heavy pack on the first trip. The other alternative is to rent gear, which is a great option if you really think you’re going to love it. See the sections below for more detailed information on specific gear.
Shelter is obviously one of the biggest considerations when you’re snow camping and is one of the things that can be the most expensive, or the cheapest. The first time me and Carolyn went out we took my parents ancient 4 season tent, it held up, but was definitely not meant for snow camping and weighed a whopping 10lbs. Fortunately (for us) it was only a 2 person tent and Brandon decided he wanted to be included on these adventures, so he decided to invest in a winter tent so that the 3 of us could go together!
The main feature of a winter tent is that it’s double walled, so basically it has no fly and the poles are exposed, but the double wall and lack of mesh keep you warm inside. Brandon’s tent works great, but it came at a super high price tag, so it’s not practical if you’re just starting out. If this is the case, one thing you can consider is building your own snow shelter. I’d really like to try this some day, but we were a bit overwhelmed with everything we had to learn about snow camping that we didn’t want to add shelter building to the list. It’s something we hope to explore in the future though.
However, even though we use tents, there is still a lot to consider when making camp. You want to protect yourself from the elements as much as possible and of course you can’t just set up a tent on top of powder. We always start with digging a hole big enough for the tent and then stomping down the base with our snowshoes to make it as compact as possible. Location and weather conditions will usually dictate how deep our hole is. I recommend approximately 1 metre, especially if it’s windy because the snow walls will provide a natural shelter, as well as insulation. One tip for when you’re setting your tent up is giving consideration to how you will peg it. In the snow, the risk of losing your pegs is super high, so we either tie rope on the peg, or just skip pegs altogether and bury the rope. The snow will freeze around the rope, so when you’re done, it’s a lot easier to pull the rope out than to dig out frozen pegs.
We have also tried snow camping in a 3 season tent. It’s not ideal, especially if it’s really cold, but if you pack the sides of the tent with snow for insulation, it’s actually not too bad. We made sure to pack the snow up so that it closed the gap between the fly and the inner tent to avoid a draft, but because most 3 season tents are made of mesh, it’s unavoidable that it will be cooler than a true winter tent. Finally, make sure you fill in your hole at the end of your trip to avoid creating a hazard for future users. If the hole fills with powder, it may confuse a skier and could easily result in a broken leg if they don’t know it’s there.
So like I said, when we first started, we cut some corners on our sleeping gear. Depending where you’re going, you’ll want a really warm sleeping bag and a sleeping pad with a combined R-value of 5 or higher. Eventually we all ditched our double pad system in favour of the Thermarest Neoair XTherm, which is rated to R6 and can be used on it’s own. After camping in -20 degrees celsius at Elfin Lakes, Brandon invested in a -30 sleeping bag (Thermarest polar ranger), but Carolyn and I continued to use cheap -15 synthetic bags from Teton paired with a liner and blanket. I’m not going to link the bag because honestly it’s not very good and I think I’d be just as warm in my quality -7 down bag. If you already have a good summer bag (-7 or warmer), you can probably get away with pairing your summer bag with a liner and blankets, provided it’s not super cold. This year me and Carolyn finally gave in and bought North Face’s -29 Inferno bag and Marmot’s -18 Lithium bag respectively and to date, it’s been a lot easier to sleep warm. When picking your bag, I recommend sticking to down and checking what the sleeping bag’s comfort rating is.
I can’t lie, staying warm at night is a lot of work when you’re snow camping. In addition to my gear, I sleep in fleece lined leggings under a pair of pants, several merino layers under a puffy jacket, balaclava, hat, gloves, and socks with slippers. I put foot warmers in my slippers and Carolyn stuffs all her pockets with hand warmers. We also all boil water to put in our nalgene bottles before bed to use as hot water bottles in our sleeping bags. I have an insulator for my nalgene to keep it warm longer.
I take my blanket into the sleeping bag with me (it’s warmer this way and less likely to fall off) and then to finish it off, I overlay my parka over my middle/butt area because I’m a side sleeper and line my snowpants between my bag and the tent to avoid a draft and stay insulated if I accidentally touch the side of the tent. With my new bag, I’m able to leave the liner and blanket at home. It can take a while to get warm in the sleeping bag because it takes a while for your body to heat the space. Try doing sit-ups in your bag right after you get in to warm it up. As a side sleeping, I also recommend starting on your back (it’s warmer this way because your sleeping pad reflects your body heat back at you), then switch to your side once you’re toasty warm.
My last tips are to cocoon into your sleeping bag, but avoid breathing into your bag as this will introduce moisture into your bag, which will make you colder. If you find yourself needing to pee, just get up and do it. Everyone hates getting out of the warm tent, but a full bladder will make your colder and keep you awake. I find that I will usually be a lot warmer after getting up to pee just by virtue of moving around. Your boots will likely freeze overnight, so know that they’ll be a challenge to put on when you leave the tent.
Winter camping is all about layers. You don’t want to dress too warmly on the snowshoe in because you are going to sweat and you want to avoid sweating into all your layers. I usually just wear a thin merino sweater (Costco) under a fleece (Columbia). If I’m still cold or it’s snowing, I’ll add the shell of my ski jacket (but not the liner because it’s overkill). The removable liner was one of the main features I wanted in a winter jacket, I’m on my second “interchange jacket” from Columbia and really like it. I usually start with the shell and ditch either the shell or the fleece once I start sweating (pending if I need the waterproof layer on top). On bottom, I usually wear a pair of tights under my normal water resistant hiking pants. MEC’s sandbagger pants are my favourite and I hike in them in all seasons, although just searching them now I’m sad to find they don’t make the women’s version anymore! Then I pack a pair of snowpants to put on when we get to our campsite and my lightweight puffy for sleeping.
Merino is key when you’re snow camping. It really does still keep you warm when wet and it dries a lot faster than other fabrics. I’ve slowly been accumulating merino layers over the years and one of the best finds for me was switching to merino underwear and bra. It’s expensive and surprisingly hard to come by, but I love how much more quickly they dry. I recommend SmartWool and Icebreaker for merino undergarments. Changing your underwear is really hard and cold in the winter, so switching to merino meant I could go the whole trip (I’ve only done 1 nighters to date) without having to change my base layer. If I did 2 nights, I would bring a second set.
The other trick to winter camping is to bring lots of hats and mittens. Make sure you have a separate toque for sleeping as you don’t want to have to sleep in the hat you’ve been sweating into all day (or is wet from snow). I usually bring several pairs of thin gloves for mobility, a pair of waterproof insulated ski mitts, and another thinner pair of mittens for sleeping.
Don’t skimp on footwear. Having a comfortable pair of boots that will keep you warm and dry all day is essential. I used to use a pair of snow boots from Sportchek that had really good waterproofing, but I found my feet would get cold after a while. Lots of boots have temperature ratings and I recommend getting something really warm, but not too bulky if you can avoid it.
Last winter I decided to try snow camping in mukluks and I love them. Manitobah Mukluks is a Canadian, indigenous owned company and I thought who would know better about how to keep your feet warm! I love my muks for warmth, but they can be challenging to pair with snowshoes. They don’t have thick soles like a lot of boots so it’s a challenge to get a really tight fit on the snowshoe, which is another important consideration when picking both your boots and snowshoes. What I do love about these boots though is that they are super warm and because they’re made with natural materials like rabbit fur, they did not freeze on me overnight! Plus a lot of their boots are waterproof – I tested mine snowshoeing in heavy rain for 5 hours and they stayed completely warm and dry!
Being prepared with both snowshoes or microspikes, depending on your trip, is also very important. Most of our snow camping has been done in remote locations with high snow accumulation where snowshoes were definitely required. My snowshoes were from Costco and getting a bit dated, so I picked out a new pair this year, MSR’s Lightning Ascent. The main reason I picked them is because the basket where you connect to your shoe is really comfortable and gets a tight fit to your boot. The straps on a lot of snowshoes can dig into your feet after awhile. Depending where you’re going though, you might be better off with microspikes. We used them when we camped at Keyhole (see photo under ‘clothing’), plus I use them a lot in the shoulder seasons on day hikes. I recommend Kahtoola, but I’ve heard Hillsound is great too.
Cooking when snow camping is not that different from backpacking, but there are a few considerations to keep in mind. The first is fuel. Avoid propane and iso-butane mixed gas when snow camping because they can freeze. Stick to white gas stoves if possible or find some way to insulate your fuel canister to keep it warm. Second, up your calorie intake. Being out in the cold for a long time burns a lot of calories, so be prepared with high energy treats that won’t freeze.
The last consideration is water. As I learned on my first trip, melting snow takes a long time and unless its super fresh, it tastes really bad. Melt the snow until its warm and then start adding more to the pot, each time warming it but not boiling. It takes a long time to boil, so once you get enough water, just boil it all at once at the end. It’s not required it you’re boiling it, but consider filtering the water anyways to improve the taste, or bring drink mixes to make it palatable. Also, avoid your platypus on snow trips as the straw will freeze. I usually take a nalgene and a thermos that I pre-fill with tea to keep me warm along the trail. Then I refill my thermos before bed for a nice warm treat when I wake up (or if I get cold overnight).
Building a snow kitchen is one of the fun parts of snow camping though! Plan ahead when digging your hole and pile the snow in one area for your kitchen counter. It’s not a difficult concept, we usually just consolidate the snow into a bit of couch/counter combo so that have somewhere to hang out. I always bring my inflatable sit upon to provide insulation against the snow. We’ll either put the pot right on the counter, or dig a little pit for it if it’s windy.
Unless you go to Elfin Lakes (or somewhere that caters to winter visitors), it’s unlikely you’re going to have access to an outhouse. Even if where you’re going has outhouses, they’re likely to all be buried in the winter. The good news is, digging a hole is a lot easier in the winter! Just be mindful that your poop is going to stay frozen until Spring, so make sure to use the bathroom somewhere discreet once the snow melts. In winter though, you have to take all your toilet paper with you – there’s no burying paper in the winter.
In some cases, depending on location, you may need to bring a bathroom bag with you to carry your waste out. I’ve written a whole blog entry on backcountry bathrooms, so check it out for more information.
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, I’m happy to share my experience – snow camping is tough, but it’s rewarding and me, Carolyn, and Brandon look forward to it every year!
I had one of the best backpacking trips to close out the season this year. I wanted to try and get one more overnight trip in the fall and planned a mid-September hike with Carolyn and our friend Tiiu, who is looking to get more into backpacking. We bounced around a few ideas for hikes and decided on the Rainbow Lake trail in Whistler. You can’t actually camp at Rainbow Lake because it’s the Whistler water supply, but you can camp a few kilometres further at Hanging Lake, so that was the plan.
This was one of those trips where nothing seemed to go right. It was super, don’t-go-outside-you’ll-kill-your-lungs, smoky in Vancouver the week before the hike from the fires in the States, so we decided not to go. Which we regretted a little because the smoke did end of clearing out the night before we were supposed to go, so we probably could have gone, but it was too late to change plans. So we rescheduled for the first weekend in October.
Again, the smoke started to come back the week before the hike, but it was much lower on the air quality index than the last time, so we decided to go for it anyways. Otherwise, the forecast was great and it was a cloudless sunny day when we left Vancouver. We got to the trailhead and there was a sign saying that the trail was closed because of a bear, but then underneath the sign it said “trails above flank closed, trails below open”. As non-Whistler locals this had absolutely no meaning to us and we spent forever studying the map trying to find the Flank trail and determine what “above” meant (North? physically above on the map? what?). Eventually we decided that Rainbow Lake was below what looked like a flank trail junction and decided to hike up to the junction and see if there was more clear info.
It was a bit less than a kilometre to the junction, where we found the same sign, which was no more clear than the first. However, in this case, there were two trail branches and it was located closer to the Rainbow branch, so we thought that likely meant it applied to Rainbow as well. We couldn’t get a hold of anyone at Whistler Municipality on the phone (they manage the area), so we decided not to risk it and go back. There was a conservation officer at the car park when we returned and it turns out the trail was closed, so we made the right decision and had a good conversation with her about how the sign could maybe be more clear, so hopefully they improve it for future users. She was very nice and gave us some alternative trails to consider instead.
It’s not mine and Carolyn’s first time having to make last minute adjustments to our plans (see our first snow camping adventure), so we decided to head south on the Sea to Sky highway while I looked up some other trails. We agreed Brew Lake sounded like a good alternative and made for the trailhead.
Brew Lake is a lower trafficked trail near Callaghan Valley, just across the highway from Brandywine Falls. Information on trail length is a bit confusing. According to AllTrails, it’s a 17km trail that’s partially on forestry road and partially on trail. According to my “105 Hikes” trailbook, it’s an 8km trail at the end of a 2WD service road. After doing a bit more research, I’ve seen it listed as several different lengths, so I think everyone just disagrees on what parts of the service road are really driveable.
The entrance to the forestry road is right next to the Whistler RV park, it’s so narrow we legitimately didn’t see it on our first drive by, so we decided to just park there and walk it. We figured we’d had enough setbacks for one day and didn’t want to get Carolyn’s SUV stuck down there. Having now walked it, I’d say that about 3km are drivable and after that you can make a decision about how far you’re willing to take your vehicle. We passed about 5 other cars at various intervals of the trail, so that seemed to be the common approach.
After an easy 5km along the road, we reached the forest trailhead. It was a very hot day, though still a little smoky. The only people we saw on the road were a family of ATVers, so it seemed that the trail wouldn’t be too busy. Since we’d had a late start from Rainbow Lake, we decided to have lunch soon after we reached the forest. We just picked a little rocky outcropping and settled in for a break.
Because we’d followed the AllTrails route, we had about 17km of hiking and 1000 metres of elevation gain, however, our GPS clocked it at 18km and 950m, so somewhere around there. We’d done 5km in just over an hour, but only 200m in elevation gain, so we figured we had a pretty steep hike ahead of us. The next 2 kilometres meanders through some really interesting topography in the woods. It’s quite unlike any other hikes I’ve done in the area and reminded us a bit of hiking on Vancouver Island because it was all through the woods with lots of small hills and valleys. But it still wasn’t that steep and we were wondering when we would finally hit the major elevation gain.
Turns out most of the elevation gain is in the last 2 kilometres. You hit a giant boulder field that proved to be a bit confusing. The whole trail is pretty well marked, but you definitely have to watch for the markers because the trail itself is not super obvious. We got a little off course in the boulder field – we missed the marker that indicated the trail goes up the edge of the field and instead started hiking up into it. The boulders are REALLY large, so it’s not conducive to hiking over it. Eventually we found our way back to the trail along the edge and went from there.
Around this section we passed a few day hikers on their way down. They (mistakenly) told us once we finished the boulder field we were pretty much done, so we were very excited. It’s definitely steep though and after you finally get across it, there’s an even steeper rope section up a hill side that we had to take one at a time. After that we figured we should be almost there based on what the other hikers had said, but it really didn’t look that way on my GPS and we had to trundle along through several more uphill sections after that, much to our disappointment.
Because of the trail mix-up, it was turning into a pretty long day and we were all ready to get to the campsite. It was around 4pm and we thought we’d finally reached the last peak, only to crest it and see another peak we’d have to climb before maybe reaching the end. I was starting to get a little discouraged at this point, but the moment we finally crested the last peak and the view opened up, all the other thoughts melted away and I was super pumped to be there.
The trail is really all in the forest, so it’s a little weird when you finally pop out of the woods to this completely open alpine lake, surrounded by meadows and low mountain peaks. From the lake you can continue up to Brew Mountain, where there’s a hut, but fortunately our plan was to end at the lake.
I LOVE swimming and I’d really been hoping to go for a swim in the lake, but I didn’t dare voice the desire out loud for fear it would be too late or too cold when we arrived. But it had been a super hot day and the sun was still up over the lake when we arrived, so it took barely more than a look between me and Carolyn to agree we were going in the water (she loves swimming just as much). We could tell the sun was soon going to dip below the mountains, so we didn’t waste any time in setting up camp or anything first. When you swim so late in the season you really have to do it right away, before your body adjusts to the temperature and cools off. So we stripped down and were in the water within minutes. We had the real privilege of having the lake completely to ourselves, so we decided to enjoy it in our birthday suits, an rare opportunity in BC, where the backcountry is usually so busy.
After that we made camp pretty fast. Daylight is so much more limited in October, so we got the tents up and then I started making dinner while Carolyn and Tiiu got to work on a bear cache. We were alone in grizzly bear country, so it was pretty important, though a real challenge with not that many trees around. They were successful, but I am starting to think it may soon be time to invest in a bear canister.
We had my dehydrated chickpea curry for dinner and Tiiu had some chocolates and rye to share, while Carolyn had brought a little dessert surprise. It was a freeze dried ice cream sandwich! I’m not sure where she got it, but it was definitely one of the more bizarre treats I’d had on a camping trip. The whole thing becomes this kind of brittle, almost spongey-chalky type texture, but once you chew it, it really does have all the flavours of an ice-cream sandwich. I don’t know how astronauts stand eating so much of that stuff, but it made for a fun experiment for us.
We didn’t stay up too late, but since the sun sets a lot earlier now I did stay up and take a few star photos, not my best photos, but still fun to play around with the camera. It was no where near as cold as I was anticipating and I was quite comfortable hanging around outside. I had hiked Frosty Mountain the week before and it had been FREEZING, so I’d come a little over prepared for Brew Lake since we were having much nicer weather. I never bothered with my sleeping bag liner that I’d brought and Carolyn had just bought a new -18 degree bag, so we were toasty warm in her tent. However we forgot to open the vents and I’ve never seen a tent so covered in dew in the morning. Although to be fair, everything was covered in a crazy amount of dew. Must be the season.
Unfortunately, it clouded over in the night and it did drizzle on us a little when we were making breakfast, but not enough to really cause any trouble and the sun did eventually poke through the clouds. It felt mystical with the fog clinging to the tops of the surrounding mountains, but it was clear near the lake.
We took down our tents and said goodbye to Brew Lake, which had been extremely good to us considering the circumstances. As soon as we left the lake though we descended straight into the fog and didn’t catch anymore views the rest of the trip. It was a cooler day than the previous day, but still super humid, so even though it was all downhill, we were sweating a lot. Brew Lake is definitely one of those trails that’s harder on the downhill, so we were pretty cautious as we came back down the boulder field. Always leave space between yourselves on scree as its easy to knock rocks down on your friends.
We finally popped back out of the woods and then had a long walk back along the forestry road. It drizzled on and off, but not enough to warrant digging out our rain coats. Finally we made it back to the car and as soon as we got back on the highway, the rain started for real, so we were pleased with our timing! We decided to finish off the weekend with a trip to the new cider place in Squamish, Geo Cider, where we each enjoyed a flight and some pizzas!
So overall, it was not at all the weekend we’d planned, but I wouldn’t change anything about it because we had such a great time!