Winter Camping on the Icefields Parkway
This coming April will mark our third year in a row of winter camping along Canada’s most scenic highway, the Icefields Parkway in Banff. We like to wait until “spring” when temperatures are warmer and days are longer, but make no mistake – it’s still winter in April. Snow drifts will be 2 metres deep and we’ll spend our days sledding, snowshoeing, and playing in snow caves.
The secret to winter camping for our family is in finding a shelter to stay in so that we don’t have to sleep in tents or brave the cold morning and evening temperatures outside. Sometimes we hike into backcountry cabins and other times we stay at front country wilderness hostels where we can drive right up to the door. Either way, we “rough it” with just enough comfort to convince friends to join us for our crazy adventures and to keep the kids enthusiastic about doing these annual trips.
Rustic Winter Camping at the Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel
When we camp on the Icefields Parkway, we always stay at the Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel. This small rustic property only accommodates 6 people and so we rent the full hostel for a weekend and go with another small family. One of the bunk beds is a double so in a pinch, we can always squeeze an extra small child into the group too.
The Hilda Creek Hostel has two cabins, one for sleeping and the other for eating/living/hanging out in. We like this arrangement because we can still play cards and talk as adults each evening after the kids have gone to bed. (Much harder to do with tents.) The two cabins are also conveniently located side by side on the same deck area so we don’t worry about something happening to the kids while we aren’t in there with them. (And if you were concerned, you could always bring baby monitors with you.)
What we love most about Hilda Creek is that it gives us a winter backcountry experience without having to hike into the real “back country.” The hostel is located right beside the highway and is accessed via a short 5 minute walk. We use snowshoes for the short trek in and haul our coolers/food/clothing, etc. in with sleds. The kids feel like they are staying in the middle of nowhere thanks to the hidden nature of the hostel (you can’t see it from the highway) and we definitely experience off-the-grid camping with no wi-fi, no cell coverage, and no amenities for over 100 km.
The Hosteling International website describes a stay at Hilda Creek as “not for the faint of heart” due to its remote location in Banff National Park. The hostel is located roughly 130 km from Lake Louise to the south and 110 km from the town of Jasper to the north. It is a short drive from the Columbia Icefields Centre and the Athabasca Glacier if visiting in summer, but the Centre is closed during the winter along with the Saskatchewan Crossing Visitor Centre that one could also retreat to in the summer. Visitors staying at Hilda Creek in the winter have to be prepared for a true wilderness experience with full gas tanks, enough food for the journey, and spirits ready for adventure.
What to Pack for Your Trip to Hilda Creek
Fortunately, the hostel has a stocked kitchen with all of the basic dishes, pots and pans you will need. Don’t expect sharp knives or wine glasses but “most” of the basic things you need should be provided. Gourmet chefs may want to supplement hostel supplies with their favourite frying pan or knife, and wine connoisseurs may want to bring in their own supply of camping wine glasses. Other than that, the kitchen has propane hot plates for cooking on (no oven) and there is a simple “cold box” that can be used to store perishable food.
The hostel also has mattresses on the beds so you can skip packing those. You will need to bring in your sleeping bags though and a pillow case if you want to use the hostel pillows provided. Other than that, pack your clothing, your child’s favourite stuffie, and other comfort items you’ll need for your stay (think books, cards, games, or coloring books for the kids.)
Other important items to remember
- Toilet paper (just in case the bathrooms, pit toilets located in a separate cabin outside, are empty)
- Head lamps or flashlights for those evening trips to the outhouse bathroom
- A camping lantern to add extra light to the kitchen cabin (there are solar lights but they do not provide a lot of light in the evening)
- A lighter (just in case you can’t find one at the hostel )
- A first aid kit (always wise)
- Sleds for hauling in gear and for playing with during the day
- Garbage bags – you must haul out ALL of your garbage!
- A Parks Canada Park Pass (which can be purchased when you enter into Banff or Jasper National Park)
- Indoor shoes or down hut booties (the floors get cold)
- Wet Wipes and Hand sanitizer
- Toiletries and drugs (it’s a long ways to drive for children’s Tylenol if you need it during the night)
- Hiking gear if planning day trips
Important Safety Notes
While Hilda Creek is considered to be “front country” accommodations, there is no running water at this hotel. Drinking water has to be brought in with you in camping jugs or you’ll have to boil snow. Occasionally we are able to get running water from the stream near the hostel but it still has to be boiled before it is potable.
Second, there is no hostel manager or custodian on site. You must be secure in your backcountry camping skills. You’ll have to turn on the propane heaters in both cabins when you arrive and you will be responsible for your family’s safety, warmth, and comfort. Again, it will take you at least an hour and a half to drive to the nearest town.
Third, you are in avalanche country on the Icefields Parkway. If you don’t have the proper training and equipment, it is not safe to venture far from the hostel. We usually hike up the creek a ways in the company of experienced adults who have avalanche training and know how far we can go safely. Without this training, it is best to enjoy the hostel and to play in the immediate surrounding area.
If you want to go for a safe outing with the kids, you can drive up to the Columbia Icefields Centre five minutes away and hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier. This is a fun trip and there are often ice caves to see. (Note that should you decide to go IN the caves, you do so at your own risk and it isn’t recommended.)
For more information and to make a reservation please visit the Hostelling International website at http://www.hihostels.ca/westerncanada/1719/HI-Hilda_Creek_Wilderness_Hostel.hostel
By Tanya Koob