While the Rocky Mountains draw many over Reading Week, Saskatchewan has just as much to offer in the realm of winter sports.
For beginners, winter camping may seem daunting but it doesn’t have to be the freezing hell many expect. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing can easily replace hiking as your mode of transportation, quinzees and tarp bivys can take the place of tents and fire cooking may be a nice, warm change from using a camp stove.
University of Saskatchewan student and outdoor enthusiast Joe Sartison shared some of his tips and tricks for students wanting to venture out into the wild this Reading Week.
If you’re planning a snowshoe trek, keep in mind that its wider stance and more cumbersome nature will have a drastic effect on your speed. Sartison said a beginner hiker can plan to cover eight to 10 kilometres per day, but a beginner snowshoer should aim for five to seven kilometres per day — keeping in mind that the winter months have less daylight. Sartison recommends 10 kilometres per day for intermediate snowshoers.
To keep yourself warm without breaking the bank on expensive winter gear, Sartison recommended packing clothing made of wool or synthetics — both available at Value Village for less than $10 per item. In some cases, enough wool can replace sleeping pads.
“There was one night my sleeping pad deflated so I took all the wool I had and laid it under myself and it kept me just as warm,” Sartison said, adding later that two sleeping bags can easily be combined for warmth instead of investing in a technical sleeping bag and that wrapping the foot of your sleeping bag in your jacket can help keep your feet warm and dry.
Staying warm and dry can pose a challenge especially if you plan on being quite active during your trip. An easy way to keep from getting wet is to avoid sweating too much.
“If you’re standing before the hike and you’re warm, you’re way too dressed,” Sartison said. “Take off some layers either before you start hiking or make an agreement with the group like, ‘We’ll walk five minutes to really warm up our bodies and then take a sweater off and keep going from there.’”
Getting wet can really put a damper on your trip, especially when it can lead to hypothermia. However, dehydration can equally be an issue, so be mindful of your water intake as well as how much you are exerting yourself.
Food-wise, Sartison said packing in a stew is one of his favorite winter camping meals — if he can keep it from freezing. Otherwise, he said dehydrated food is quick to make and light to pack for your main meals. As a energy fueling snack, brownies or muffins that are made with a lot of butter or oil won’t freeze and will provide you with enough calories to help get you through the day.
Winter camping is often bulkier than your average summer trip because of all the clothing that is needed. For any of the following trips that are snowshoe or skiing based, it is recommended to invest in a $5–10 sled if you plan on trekking in a lot of gear.
The Grey Owl’s cabin trail is a popular trek for beginner hikers in the warmer months and makes for an equally enjoyable beginners’ trip in the winter. With the trailhead just north of Waskesiu Lake in Prince Albert National Park, the Grey Owl’s cabin trail skirts along the eastern side of Kingsmere Lake up towards Ajawann Lake where the cabin is located. The trail is well-established but will most likely require snowshoes. From the trailhead, Grey Owl’s cabin is 20 kilometres away with designated campsites four, 6.7, 12.7 and 16.7 kilometres in. With so many sites available, a trip can be planned based on how many nights you want to stay and how far you want to trek each day.
For students wanting to head out of town for a night or two but aren’t interested in snowshoeing or skiing, Blackstrap Provincial Park has campsites that you can set up a tent or build a quinzee in. Blackstrap is a good location for a weekend getaway as it is only 40 minutes south of Saskatoon. With sites near the parking lot and on the lakefront, packing in heavy gear will not be as much of an issue and you can easily haul in an auger and some line for a day of ice fishing. Don’t forget to buy your fishing licence if you do choose to drop a line.
Building a quinzee is a great afternoon activity while you set up camp. All you need is a shovel and enough snow to make a pile with diameter large enough that you could lay down inside. If you pack the snow down as you make the pile, then you can start carving out the inside right away. For a warmer shelter, keep the ceiling as low as possible so that there is less air that needs to warm up. An advantage of using a quinzee instead of a tent is that the thick layer of snow will insulate you from the cold air outside. To add light and help warm up the shelter, make small ledges to put tea lights on.
Checking the weather before you head out can literally be a life-saving choice. It can also be a tent-saving choice. Sartison speaks with the voice of experience when he warns of using a tent when a large snowfall is expected. The extra weight on the tent poles can cause them to snap. If a heavy snow is a possibility, try to set up your tent in a treed or sheltered area.
If you are looking for a more challenging trip, the Nisbet Provincial Forest is 15 minutes North of Duck Lake, Sask. and has many activities for the winter enthusiast.
The forest is home to Eb’s Trails, a provincial hot-spot for cross-country skiing. There are two entrances to Eb’s Trails that are two kilometres apart. Each has a parking lot with toilet facilities and warm up shacks. Patrons are asked to keep their dogs off of the trails.
Fitting into the intermediate and advanced level, this Nisbet trip would require campers to break their own trail. It is highly recommended to have some orienteering skills in case wind or snow covers your tracks. With infinite site selection available, you are able to set up camp not too far from the parking lot if you’re wanting a shorter trip or in case of emergency.
A more advanced trip could be planned along sections of the 120-kilometre long Boreal Trail in Meadow Lake Provincial Park. While a popular hiking trail in the summer, the Boreal Trail is not groomed in the winter and is sometimes used by snowmobilers so keeping your eyes and ears open will be important. Orienteering skills will also be an asset. Along the way, compost toilets, barbecues and food lockers are available at each backcountry site. Although there are no park entry permits during the winter, park officials do ask anyone heading out on the trail to register with the park either online or by fax.
Snow-permitting, a cross-country ski trip in Grasslands National Park offers a change of scenery from the otherwise heavily forested areas previously listed. While finding firewood may be an issue, both the East and West blocks offer trails to follow throughout the year. As a precaution, always bring a map and a compass to keep yourself on track during your trip.
Grasslands National Park is an Dark Sky Preserve, an area protected from light pollution. This means that once the sun goes down on a clear night, you will be left with a breath-taking view above you. To lighten your pack and to help take in night sky, try sleeping under the stars one night. Using a spade to make a wind block and incorporating a tarp, you can help divert wind and blowing snow. However, keep in mind that this is a colder sleeping arrangement so warm sleeping gear is highly recommended.
No matter where you go or who you’re with this Reading Week, make sure to stay safe and to stay warm so you can take in all of Saskatchewan’s lesser-known winter beauty.