Winter Camping at Indiana State Parks

By Scott Roberts

Earl Reagan of Linton loves a roaring campfire when the snow is falling – while he’s camping outdoors. 

“There’s something about that contrast of the senses, drinking some hot chocolate you just made,” Reagan said.

Reagan has been camping for nearly 60 years, in all seasons, and he likes winter camping nearly as much as summer camping. The tranquility and the privacy suit him, because campgrounds are usually emptier during winter, and he likes the challenge of testing himself against the elements. 

“It’s an entirely different feel than camping in the summer,” Reagan said. “I like to get away from people when I’m camping, and that’s definitely more possible in the winter.”

Marie Laudeman, interpretive naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton, said Reagan is not alone in his fondness for winter camping. Studies have shown people feel happier when they are outdoors and that they feel the need to get some fresh air, even when that air is near freezing. On some winter weekends she’ll see five to 10 campers in the state park’s campground. Many are camping in RVs, but there are a few hearty souls who camp in their tent, including Reagan. 

By Frank Oliver/DNR Indiana Dunes State Park

Kaitlyn Sproles, interpretive naturalist at Chain O’Lakes State Park in Albion, said winter is one of her favorite times because it’s easier to see the park’s wildlife. That’s because foliage is off the trees, and because animals are more active in winter because campgrounds are less active.

“You can see a deer or turkey walking through the lot next to you, you can see otter poking their heads out through ice fishing holes, you never know what you’ll see when you open the door to your tent or camper the next morning,” Sproles said.

While winter camping has its advantages, doing it takes a different mindset from camping in traditional seasons. Preparation for the elements is key if a winter camping trip is to be enjoyable, starting with looking at the forecast to see how cold it will get, and planning accordingly. Don’t go if the weather is predicted to get uncomfortably cold, factoring in projected wind chill warnings. 

Getting dehydrated is one of the simplest mistakes to make in the winter. Because campers are so focused on staying warm, they are not thinking about their thirst until they get too dry. Some state park campgrounds have water available for winter campers, and some will have one comfort station open. See stateparks.IN.gov/9655.htm for a list of what is open during winter at a campground near you.

Hiking at Indiana Dunes State Park

While you want to drink water, you want to avoid getting wet. That’s why it’s important when spending extended time in the winter elements to dress in layers, with a moisture-wicking layer on bottom. Laudeman said she’s seen many campers who are too cold because they got wet because they were sweating and then the moisture dried on them. Over the wicking layer, add a warm layer or two before putting on your jacket. Dressing in layers also allows you to adjust to outdoor temperatures, as does including waterproof shoes or boots. 

Having a source of heat on or near your campsite is essential for warming up after a long day of hiking, skiing or wildlife viewing. Tools to start a fire, firewood, kindling, and an igniter should be at the ready. A propane lantern can be another concentrated source of heat, provided you have ample fuel. 

Reagan said he supplements his fire by creating a backstop to push the heat toward the campsite and the tent. You can do so using a tarp and something to keep it upright. Sproles said a good way to keep warm at night is to heat some water over the fire and place it in water bottles in the sleeping bag or around a bed. 

If you’re tent camping, make sure there are enough pads or cots to keep campers dry and off the ground, as well as sleeping bags rated for the elements. Reagan said too many campers try to use the same sleeping bag they use in the summer and just bring extra blankets, but they are always too cold. A sleeping bag rated for 0 degrees Fahrenheit should be enough to keep warm most nights. 

Stanley School House, Chain O’ Lakes State Park

Make sure the food you bring is warm and hearty, Reagan said. Meals can include soups and stews, and of course hot dogs and hamburgers, which are easier to prepare on a fire. Meals can be prepared over an open flame or propane stove, but, before you set out, make sure all equipment is working 

Tell someone where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone and when you’ll be back, so they’ll know to look out for you. Bring a survival kit that has a solar blanket, water, an ignition source for fires, and some energy bars or other food if you plan to leave your campsite for a few hours. Reagan said 2,500 campers each year have to be rescued because they went on a hike and got lost or injured, and the hikers who do the best in that situation are those prepared with a kit to sustain them until they are rescued. 

If winter camping sounds like a bit too much for you, no need to stay home—state park inns offer a chance to access the outdoors with a warm place to sleep each night and no fire required. And inn restaurants have hot food. During weekdays in the winter, guests can stay two nights at state park inns and get the second night free. See dnr.IN.gov/parklake/2435.htm for more information. 

For more information on camping at Indiana State Parks read: https://travelindiana.com/indiana-state-parks-offer-reserved-camping-year-round/

Chain O’ Lakes State Park