Poland Lake Snow Camping

One of my favourite activities every winter is to go snow camping! Carolyn and I have been going for 5 years running and the trip has expanded to include Brandon and Steve. Every year we plan where we want to go and then always end up having to change plans at the last minute. You have to be flexible when going into avalanche terrain and every year it seems that the avalanche bulletin likes to mess up our trip plan at the last minute. We have a very low tolerance for risk in the winter, so we’re always changing location to ensure the safest trip possible.

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This year we’d been planning to go to Pump Peak (on Seymour), but Vancouver had a particularly warm spell of weather the week before the trip, so we decided to switch to Manning Park instead in hopes of finding fresh powder. It was also calling for beautiful sunny weather on the weekend we went, so we decided on Fat Dog trail in Manning Park, which is supposed to have nice views of the park above the treeline. Then Avalanche Canada issued a special warning a few days before the trip about how the backcountry was experiencing spring-like conditions due to thaw, which meant higher risk, so we decided to change our plans once more.

I don’t think Fat Dog is a particularly high risk trail, but you do pass through a valley that is in the run-out zone of avalanche terrain at the start of the hike, so we decided to do Poland Lake instead, which we read didn’t have avalanche terrain and is shown as simple terrain on Avalanche Canada. Poland Lake has been on our radar for years, but for some reason we thought it wasn’t a very nice trail and always considered in a back-up trail.

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We’re so glad we went to Poland Lake, because we ended up loving this location! To access Poland Lake, you have to drive almost to the end of the resort road and park at Strawberry Flats. You can save about 2kms if you hike directly from the ski resort, but there’s no overnight parking at the resort, so if you’re camping, you need to leave from Strawberry Flats. The trailhead is on the north side of the road near the end of the lot where the cross country ski trail starts back towards the lodge. There’s an off-shoot trail that heads up towards the ski resort, running parallel the road. This is the route we took, but we regretted it because it is all uphill and adds 2km’s of hiking. If we did it again, we would plan to leave our bags at the resort and just walk up the road.

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If you do the trail right, you’ll eventually reach a small fork in the trail where the left branch heads back down towards the road and the right branch heads up to the mid-point of the ski hill. In the summer, you can reach Poland Lake via the middle of the hill, but this route is not practical in the winter. You’re supposed to go back down to the bottom of the ski hill and hike up along the western edge of the large green run called Horseshoe. But there was no signage on the left fork and nothing shown on our GPS apps, so we continued along the summer route unknowingly. This was definitely our error, we should have read more about the trail description instead of relying just on GPS, so I caution you here to go back and start from the resort base. In our defense, the resort route is not marked at all and does not look like a proper trail, so we gave resort staff some feedback.

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In any case, we continued up to the midpoint of the ski resort and ended up having to snowshoe ski runs across the entire mountain. This is definitely dangerous as the runs are not wide or intended for snowshoers. Our only saving grace was that the slopes were extremely empty and we didn’t encounter many skiers. Eventually we got off the ski runs and ended up in some of the glades. We didn’t encounter any more skiers, but it was very steep terrain and had we not been in the middle of a resort (where avalanche risk is managed), we would have turned around. There’s no signage because it’s not a winter route, so we relied entirely on our GPS and way-finding to get back on the trail. Eventually we tracked down the official entrance to the Poland Lake trail (which is at the top back of the ski hill) and saw tracks leading in from the other side of the resort, which is clearly where we were supposed to come up.

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By this point we were really tired from so much uphill travel and worry about where the trail was, but happy to finally be on a proper snowshoe trail. We’d already hiked about 4kms and it’s another 4kms to the lake, but fortunately the trail is a lot flatter along this section. There’s lots of ups and downs, but they are very gradual. It still took us a long time though because we were very tired and by the time we reached the lake, it had taken us just under 5 hours to go 8km. One of the other contributing factors to our pace was that we ended up having to break the trail for the better part of 3 kilometres! We were sharing the trail up until shortly after the 1km mark, but then the tracks abruptly stopped and we had to create the trail to the lake. This is such a rare occurrence in BC, where the trails are always busy, so we were excited to snowshoe in fresh powder and the prospect of having the lake all to ourselves. It is a lot more work to break trail though, so it did slow us down.

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We’re still new to avalanche terrain, but we were surprised while hiking along the Poland Lake trail that it was said not to have avalanche terrain. It is marked on Avalanche Canada as simple terrain, but it is below some challenging terrain and we thought the trail could easily be in the run-out zone of an avalanche along some sections. Fortunately we all had avalanche gear, so we crossed some of the more sketchy looking sections solo to minimize our risk, mostly around the mid section of the trail, south of Grassy Mountain.

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The sun was starting to set when we finally reached Poland Lake and we quickly got to work setting up camp. The official campsite is on the far side of the lake and there is a small emergency shelter over there. Due to imminent sunset, we opted not to go around the lake and found a nice spot to set up camp with a view of the sun setting over the lake. I’m not sure if we’re just getting more experienced, or if it was just that the snow was super light and fluffy and easy to shovel, but we were particularly quick in digging holes for our tents on this trip and it didn’t take us too long to get shelter up. We broke our headlamps out just as we were finishing setting up the tent, so fortunately we had daylight for most of it.

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Unfortunately, we never took the time to build a proper snow kitchen on this trip. Once we got our beds set up it was dark and we were too tired to put in the effort. But we did have a delicious dinner! Brandon made us all miso soup and then me and Brandon had peanut soup and Carolyn and Steve had chicken soup. I tried something new and made bannock for dessert! It makes for a good backcountry bread because there’s no yeast, you just need to bring a bit of oil for frying. Honestly, it was delicious – I had practiced it at home, but it tasted way better in the backcountry. I just added the water right into the bag with the mix and kneaded it in the ziploc, so it didn’t even make any mess!
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It had been a bit hit and miss with the sun all day, with it flitting in and out between the clouds, but in the evening all the clouds moved off and we had a completely clear night for stargazing! I bought a little star chart and had a good time trying to identify some of the constellations. I wasn’t planning to do any night photography, but the conditions were so good I ended up taking photos in the snow for the better part of an hour. I always get great star photos at Manning because it’s so far away from any ambient light!

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Carolyn and Steve slept like the dead all night while me and Brandon listened to the cacophony of their snores. We had a bit of a lie in (for us) and got up around 8:30am. Meals are always a bit slow on snow camping trips because it takes so long to melt snow and boil water. Brandon decided to use his alcohol stove on this trip, which works well once it get’s going, but takes a long time to properly heat up. We concluded it’s good for cooking, but the traditional white gas stove is better for melting snow because the condensation on the pot was dripping into the alcohol stove and suppressing its burn.

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After a leisurely breakfast we packed up everything to head back down the mountain. As always, when you’re done, make sure to fill in your holes so as not to leave hazards for future skiers. It was about noon when we left the campsite, but we made a much quicker descent than our 5 hour trek in. The actual Poland Lake trail is about 4km and it felt a lot easier after a day of rest. We went the correct way down the ski hill on the way back and hiked along the edge of the green run. We did see some signs pointing into the woods the for “Poland Lake trail”, but it was clearly a brand new trail that the resort was promoting and it didn’t look marked or established, so we opted not to use it. We did run into a resort employee in the parking lot and he confirmed it was new and said they were hoping to improve it, so hopefully next time we visit we’ll be able to use that trail!

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We did encounter one odd thing on the trail that I wanted to bring up. When we were hiking along, we saw that someone had written “help” in the snow. It was right at the point where the previous tracks had stopped (where we started breaking our own trail), so we assume the individual turned around and went back. We did search around the area for anything suspicious and blew our whistle and did some voice calls, but didn’t find anything. We reported it at the resort before we left and they hadn’t received any missing person reports, so we think it was probably someone just messing around. Maybe it wasn’t, but something to think about when you are in the backcountry and what kind of message you are leaving for others.

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Anyways, it only took us 2.5 hours to get to the bottom of the resort and then Steve and Brandon kindly offered to walk back the road to strawberry flats to get the cars. Me and Carolyn hung out and ate lunch while they were gone. I’ve been really into cold soaking my lunches lately and tried a cold soak taco salad that turned out amazing and was so delicious to eat! I’m working on lots of recipes for the upcoming summer season and hope to share them on the blog before then!

Otherwise it was a pretty uneventful trip back to Vancouver, although we did get a gorgeous sunset over the mountains driving back through Chilliwack! Definitely recommend Poland Lake after this experience, just make sure you take the winter route!

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Lightning Lakes Snow Camp

I know I said I was done with writing about Manning Park, but in addition to doing day snowshoe trips in the park, I have also snow camped there, so I want to share about that adventure too!

It’s been a challenging year for everyone with COVID-19 and our limited ability to travel and see friends. Fortunately the outdoors is a relatively safe space to spend time with friends, so we decided to go on our annual snow camping adventure. We made some notable changes – we all drove separately, prepared our own meals, and brought multiple tents. It wasn’t ideal because Brandon is the only one who owns a winter tent, but Carolyn decided to make do with her 3-season tent and we convinced Steve to join us this year! Steve did avalanche safety training with us this year, so he was interested in expanding his horizons.

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Originally we wanted to do Zoa Peak, but the avalanche risk was particularly high the weekend we went, so we decided to do Lightning Lakes instead since there is very little avalanche terrain there. To be on the safe side, we still rented avalanche gear and practiced finding each other’s beacons to get more familiar and comfortable with the gear.

I won’t spend too much time on trail details as I just wrote a separate post about the Lightning Lakes trail. It was possible to hike on the lake, so we crossed once on the first lake and then followed the trail along the edge of the second lake to the back. I’ve never gone beyond the edge of the second lake, but it’s not too far to snowshoe to the next lake, which is Flash Lake, so we decided to check it out. We weren’t keen on camping on Lightning Lake since there’s a lot of foot traffic and we thought Flash Lake might be more secluded.

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We didn’t see anyone along the Flash Lake trail, but the creek between the two lakes was not frozen and the head of the lake looked very sketchy. If we’d continued further, it likely would have improved, but we decided to turn around and instead found a nice clearing in the woods between the two lakes to set up camp.

Surprisingly there wasn’t actually a huge base of snow at Manning this year, so we didn’t have to dig too deep. In other years we’ve shared shovels, which made digging a bit slower, but this year we each had our own shovel, so even though we had multiple tents to dig out holes for, it ended up being a bit quicker than normal (or maybe we’re just getting better at it?). We dug deeper for Carolyn’s tent since it’s not a winter tent and we made sure to pack in a lot of snow around the edges for extra insulation. Fortunately it was only about -7 degrees overnight and with two people in the tent, they didn’t have any trouble staying warm.

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We all upgraded some of our gear this year, so Steve inherited some of Carolyn’s old snow camping gear and I got to test out my new -30 degree rated sleeping bag. It took me a bit longer than I anticipated to warm up in the bag (you’re only as warm as the heat you bring in with you), but after about an hour I finally got toasty and after that, quite warm. I ended up having to unzip a little bit and slept most of the night with one arm out of the bag, so I’m optimistic it will hold up in colder temperatures. There are very limited options for winter camping sleeping bags and even fewer are available in Canada. I still think some of the features of my bag could be improved, but I do think it was the best option available to me as a side sleeper.

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Like any snow camping trip, by the time you get to your destination, dig out your tents and make your snow kitchen, it’s more or less time to start getting ready for dinner before you lose daylight. We spent some time boiling water and enjoyed hanging out while we cooked our meals. I made the snow kitchen this year and I have to say I thought it turned out quite well! I made the counter/couch out of the pile of snow Carolyn shoveled out for her tent and then shoveled out a pit for one of the stoves. It snowed gently for most of the day and evening, but the clouds did clear a little bit and we got a glimpse of the stars before bed.

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It was around 7pm when we crawled into our tents. I read until around 8pm when I finally got properly warm and then hit the sack. I woke up around midnight to pee and then slept the rest of the night until 8am – definitely one of the better nights sleep I’ve gotten snow camping!

After breakfast we took down camp and then spent some time playing around with our avalanche gear before heading back out to the cars. It doesn’t take too long to hike back along the edge of the lake and we did a few photoshoots along the way. We all have a bit of an obsession with Gregory packs, so we take turns making attempts to get ourselves Gregory sponsorships – so far, no luck, but we still have fun!

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So overall it was a great first snow camping trip in Manning Park. Manning is a bit intimidating because it can get really cold there overnight, but fortunately for us it was pretty comfortable when we visited. Definitely have plans to go back and try camping at some of the other winter trails!

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First Time Snow Camping

The weather in Vancouver is pretty mild most of the year, but the weather in the mountains is a completely different story. Spring hits Vancouver in March and April, but it’s often late June or even early July by the time the snow finally melts in the mountains, only to come back again in October. So the backpacking season isn’t that long. There are lots of trails you can do at lower elevations, but some of the more scenic mountain trails have a short window in which to hike them.

For this reason, me and my friend Carolyn got it into our heads that we wanted to try snow camping to get in some more backpacking trips in the off season. I only started backcountry camping in the summer of 2016, so it was definitely a bit of stretch for me to take up snow camping so quickly, but we did a bit of research and built up some of our gear and decided to give it a try last winter.

Camping gear is expensive, so we tried to be as thrifty as possible in acquiring winter gear. We both bought Teton synthetic sleeping bags on Amazon that are rated to -15 degrees celsius. I wouldn’t normally recommend Amazon for camping gear, but good winter sleeping bags cost hundreds of dollars and as newbies, we weren’t ready to sink that kind of cash into a sleeping bag. But the Teton bags are actually really compact and come at a great price, so neither of us have regrets about this purchase. We’re both cold sleepers, so for a bit of extra warmth, we also purchased the Sea to Summit Reactor Extreme bag liner, which claims to add another 14 degrees celsius to your bag rating. I don’t believe it actually adds that much, but it certainly warmed up our bags. Finally, we each bought cheap “closed cell” foamy sleeping pads to put under the 3-season pads we already owned. A sleeping pad with a R-value higher than 5 is recommended for winter camping, but these pads run in the neighborhood of $200-300, so doubling up our sleeping pads with a $20 foamy worked better for us.

These were the main items we bought to prepare for the trip. Fortunately I had an old 4-season tent that had been handed down to me from my parents, so we decided to use that, despite the fact that it’s old and weighs 10 pounds. I doubt many people have that option available to them, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The tent is from the 80’s and it didn’t really work for snow camping, but hey, live and learn, we still survived. The only other items that really differed from our normal gear is that we brought a small shovel with us, a thermos, and some extra layers of clothing.

For our first adventure, we decided to try Manning Park. Manning is one of my favourite parks near Vancouver and they have a snow camping site located just off the main road. We thought this was the safest plan because then we wouldn’t be too far from our car if we got really cold in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, nothing about our trip went according to plan and we ended up having to do a fair bit of improvising, but we still ended up having a really good time.

One thing you should know (or probably already know) about me is that I’m a big talker. Throw me and Carolyn together in a car and we’ll have a great time, chatting and laughing the whole trip. I’m usually a pretty decent navigator (and I maintain that I do have a good sense of direction, mostly because I love maps), but put me in a car with Carolyn and I will forget everything I know about navigating because I always get caught up talking and telling stories. We’re pretty good at getting lost because I tend to think as the driver Carolyn know’s what she’s doing and she tends to think as the passenger (and more often then not, trip planner), I’ll tell her what to do. So we tend to get lost a lot.

On this particular trip we got re-routed because an accident closed one of the highways, so we were a bit out of sorts (read, hungry) and when we left Hope, I thought it was just a straight shot to Manning and settled in for the 45 minute drive. 40 minutes later, just when I think we should be hitting the Manning Park lodge, I see this tunnel ahead that I know is actually on the Coquihalla highway (not the Manning highway) and realize the depth of my mistake. Hearing one “uh-oh” from me was all Carolyn needed to hear to know we’d made a mistake along the way (I will take full credit for it in this instance). We were pretty hangry from being re-routed once already and not into the idea of driving another hour and half in the opposite direction, so Carolyn quickly pulled us over and started making lunch, telling me I had until we finished eating to come up with a plan B.

Fortunately, we had landed ourselves in the Coquihalla Summit Rec Area, an area I hadn’t previously explored, and I had just enough cell coverage to check the avalanche risks for the area and work out a quick back-up plan. Instead of going back to Manning, we decided to commit to snowshoeing about 1.5km to camp at the trailhead to Falls Lake. The 1.5km is actually a forestry road that’s just not plowed in the winter and the “trailhead” is really just a parking lot, but hey, we’re adaptable. Plus, at the end of the trip, we both agreed that missing Manning was one of the best mistakes we could have made, because we ended up having a great time at Falls Lake and it forced us to camp further away from the car and to really commit to snow camping.

There wasn’t too many people around because we were about 2.5 hours away from Vancouver, but Falls Lake seems to be a popular hangout for snowshoers who want to check out the lake and backcountry skiers who want to hike up towards Zoa Peak and ski down. We did neither of these things, but we did have a nice flat area (parking lot) to try out our snow camping skills! Plus, we were the only people who stayed overnight.

We ended up having a blast! It was about -10 degrees celsius overnight, so it was pretty cold, but we worked up a nice sweat hiking in and then spent a fair bit of time digging down in the snow to set up our shelter, so the cold never really kicked in until later in the evening when we didn’t have anything to do anymore. We dug down about a metre and then stamped the snow as flat as we could with our snowshoes. We set up the tent and our bags just like any other trip and then started building ourselves a little snow kitchen. This mostly consisted of a kind of counter area where we could sit and put our stove.

After we finished setting up, we threw on some more layers to stay warm. I think one of the biggest things about snow camping is to avoid sweating in multiple layers of clothes, but to layer up as soon as you start moving to trap your body heat from exercising and to prevent yourself from ever getting cold. We didn’t find cooking in the winter to be any different than summer, we just made sure to use Carolyn’s white gas stove instead of my propane one because propane is prone to freezing in cold temperatures.

One of the biggest challenges actually proved to be melting snow for drinking water and cooking. As you can imagine, it takes a while to melt snow and a full pot of snow doesn’t translate into very much water. We kept filling up the pot and boiling a tiny amount of water, just to have to add more snow to do the whole thing again. One tip that we learned is that it’s best if you add a bit of your drinking water as a base and then add snow slowly as it starts to heat up. Don’t bother boiling the water until the end, just keep it hot enough so that any snow you add melts and then wait for it to heat up again before adding more.

Our second lesson learned was that you need to give yourself lots of time to set up camp, ideally about 3 hours. Fortunately we did have enough time, but digging a hole (with a single small shovel) takes a long time and so does melting snow, so give yourself enough time to set up camp because doing all those things in the dark wouldn’t be fun. The hardest part about snow camping was that it gets dark so early in the winter and there’s really nothing to do once it gets dark and you’ve finished eating supper. We’d been planning to maybe play cards in the tent, but it’s too cold once you stop moving that all you really want to do is climb into your sleeping bags. So prepare for an early night. I read to Carolyn on my kindle for a bit, but I think an audiobook might work well in the future.

Keeping warm at night is really the most important and challenging part about snow camping. We survived the night, but we definitely learned some trips to keep in mind for our next trip. I thought my sleeping bag and liner together would be enough to keep me warm, but you definitely need to wear the right clothes to bed. We initially didn’t wear enough layers and we were quite cold when we got into our bags. After about an hour, we got up again to put some additional layers on and that definitely helped. You want to have enough clothes on to keep you warm, but not too tight or too many layers that don’t allow you to trap some heat in your bag. It’s also important to stay away from the edges of your tent because your body heat will cause condensation on the inside of the tent that will then freeze and be really cold if it’s touching you. We’re both side sleepers, so our butts were getting cold from touching the side of the tent. It’s also better to sleep on your back because you get more warmth reflected back at you from your sleeping pad (easier said then done though if you never sleep on your back).

But we made it through the night! We had some lessons learned, but the tough bits weren’t enough to deter us from trying it again. We witnessed a beautiful purple sunset over the mountains and did a little hike in the morning up a nearby hill to get the cutest photos of our little tent down below. It’s not the easiest experience, but I had a lot fun trying something new with Carolyn and it makes you feel like a real bad-ass to sleep outside in the winter! We never did make it to Manning for snow camping and this was the only snow camping trip we tried in 2018, but stay tuned because we recently went on our second snow camping trip, which I’m working on a follow-up post for!