If the thought of winter camping in the northern Michigan wilderness sounds a little too chilly, cozy up instead inside a trailer, motorhome, or even a camping yurt, like those available at select state parks.
Regardless of how you do it, if you’re camping in a Michigan winter, it takes planning, knowledge, and the ability to deal with some of the issues warm-weather campers don’t face. Here are some ways to experience a comfortable few days outdoors this time of year.
Rent an RV or trailer at one of a handful of dealers listed at the Michigan DNR’s website for winter camping rentals, says Ryan Krenek, general manager of Krenek RV in Coloma, in southwest Michigan. He’s also current board chair of the Michigan Association of Recreation Vehicles and Campgrounds, which presents annual RV shows. Krenek RV rents trailers and motorhomes for both summer and winter use, and can even deliver units to campgrounds, usually within a 100-mile radius of its location.
Winter RV stays generally mean being thoughtful, especially about water use. Trailers with undersides that are exposed to midwinter temperatures are highly susceptible to frozen water lines, which can burst. Solutions to keep that from happening include placing inflatable insulating pillows around your camper’s perimeter.
Since water lines are usually turned off at most campgrounds for the winter season, Krenek says you typically have to bring your own water in containers — and RV toilets must be flushed with RV antifreeze.
“We don’t get a ton of people who rent for going north, so we keep the trailers winterized for the current climate,” Krenek says. His company provides a full walk-through orientation, which includes sharing the do’s and don’ts of dealing with the cold. Trailers usually rent starting around $400 for a weekend, while motorhomes are typically double that price.
Darren Ing, MARVAC director, agrees that winter is a great time to experience the state. He says some RV manufacturers are now building units intended to be used in an off-grid setting.
“They’re built with heavier-duty chassis, and more rugged tires and suspensions,” Ing says. “You can absolutely be off the grid and still have comforts like a refrigerator and bathroom, but you don’t need to be tied into a full-hookup campground.”
Some units offer optional extra insulation, as well as heated water lines and tanks. While they’re still not built to the standards of a house, they’re meant to withstand colder temperatures. Technology such as long-lasting, solar-powered heated lithium batteries also help keep you comfy.
Cabins or Yurts?
Here’s a softer way to land a campsite in winter: A cabin or yurt at select state parks offers a great opportunity to spend time in the outdoors and still have the comforts of an indoor setting. One location with these options is Waterloo Recreation Area in southern lower Michigan, near Chelsea.
While the campground on Green Lake closes from Dec. 1-April 1, the yurt — a circular, tent-like structure — stays open for those wanting to camp. It’s easy to find.
“We have a gate to the yurt for winter campers. They enter the combination and close the gate behind them,” says Matt Schweda, supervisor at the 20,000-acre-plus park.
The yurt sleeps up to five, and has solar-powered lighting. Inside, two futons fold down into beds, and there’s a single top bunk. Bring your own bedding/sleeping bags and pillows. The sides are insulated.
Water is available in the campground at a hand pump, and there’s a vault toilet. Inside, a thermostat-controlled propane stove provides heat. There’s a camp stove for cooking (bring your own propane canisters) and a fire ring outside, as well as an outdoor charcoal grill.
“We recently put a bigger heater inside, so it stays pretty warm,” Schweda adds. The yurt also is ADA-accessible.
According to Schweda, one activity that’s becoming more popular at the park is winter mountain biking. The DTE Energy Foundation Trail, for example, is a four-loop, 22-mile system in the park with sections of varying difficulty. It’s open in winter for fat tire mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers when conditions permit — and, lucky you, the “green,” or beginner’s trail, is near the Green Lake yurt.
And while it’s not set in winter, the DNR has produced a video tour of one of the loops.
When it has safe ice, campers can go ice fishing for panfish on Green Lake. All that, Schweda says, has attracted more people to camp and play in winter.
“It has been very popular. It’s something unique. You’ve got a beautiful view of the lake and the place to yourself. It’s the uniqueness of staying in a yurt. The solitude. Winter camping in general is becoming more popular. You’ve got heat and it’s a completely different experience.”
Reserve a yurt stay at Waterloo Recreation Area by visiting the DNR’s reservations page. Check the Michigan DNR’s list of RV dealers with all-season rental units as well as a list of state parks, state parks with cabins, and rustic state forest campgrounds that are open for winter stays.
MARVAC says these private campgrounds remain open for winter stays: Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort, Traverse City; The Bluffs on Manistee Lake RV, Manistee; Rippling River Resort, Marquette; Sno-Trac Village Campground, Grayling; Jack Pine Lodge, Resort and Campground, Manistique; and Waldenwoods Family Recreation Resort, Harland.
Winter and early spring is RV and camping show season. Visit michiganrvandcampgrounds.org for show dates and details.