Hardcore winter camping in tents staked in snow is probably not your idea of simple family fun. But enjoying the hushed tranquility of nature's off-season is. To do that, you don't have to go far, and you don't have to go to a lot of trouble. You can even stay toasty-warm doing it.
A cabin in the woods. There's nothing like a mini Henry David Thoreau Walden-style overnight in the woods to reconnect you with your family, yourself, and nature. With kids along, the path of least hassle is to choose accommodations that put you out in the woods but not out in the elements. Make a cabin your camp. This way, you have shelter and a home base, a relatively comfortable place from which you can foray into the outdoors and to which you can return when you've had your fill of chill.
Finding a cabin. Check your local state, county, and national parks for those that offer cabin-like accommodations; the Web site for your state's department of natural resources should list camping areas and the amenities at each, including those with cabin camping. Or do a search on the Internet with keywords like "cabin camping" and the name of your state or region or the area you'd like to visit. Make your stay especially easy by choosing a cabin that has electricity, and running water and toilet facilities nearby or in the cabin.
In the Yosemite Valley in California, for instance, you can stay in elevated canvas cabins with wood floors. Though not much more than glorified unheated tents, at least you're out of the wind. And warm showers and bathrooms are just a (sometimes muddy or snowy) walk away. In the winter, it's a veritable city of skiers, snowmobilers, backpackers, and rock-climbers -- an instant community of like-minded nature lovers.
In Oklahoma, the Army Corps of Engineers built wonderful cabins in state parks across the state; some have full kitchens complete with microwaves and hearth-like stone fireplaces. Outside of Vail, Colorado, the Tenth Mountain Division ski-hut network offers 24 cabins connected by 300 miles of cross-country ski trails. These European-style huts are communal, so you might bunk and eat family-style with others -- and make new friends because of the experience.
The point is that there are many versions of cabin camping across the country. In your area, there are bound to be interesting accommodations in rural or wilderness settings that provide the rustic rush of country with the comfort of a roof over your head. Regardless of where you are going and how "dead" you think it will be in the off-season, reserve ahead of time. Be sure to check what amenities are provided so that you can bring any bedding or cooking and eating utensils that you might need.
What to eat. Keeping it simple always helps keep the tenor of the trip low-key. Prepared foods that pack well and carry easily are a great option. If you need to keep things cold, make sure there's a fridge on-site or bring plenty of ice and a cooler. Some parks have concessionaires that stick it out through the winter (call ahead to find out). For something a little different, buy so-called MREs at an Army-Navy surplus store or similar outfitter. MREs are military rations -- "meals ready to eat"; they give you an entire meal in a heavy airtight plastic pouch. They come in offerings suitable for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and contain everything you need to have a complete meal -- including plastic eating utensils. All you'll need is a plate or bowl in which to serve the food. MREs are novel fun for the kids.
Remember to plan for every meal and to provide for travel snacks, as well. If you plan on doing any extended walking or snowshoeing, pack some "gorp" -- a backpacking must-have that stands for "good old raisins and peanuts" -- in baggies. To make gorp, mix granola, M&Ms, peanuts, and raisins -- or whatever high-calorie food pumps up your energy and replenishes salt. The adventure-travel site GORP offers many gorp recipes you can try.
What to do. You're out of the city, you're away from the TV. Now what? Enjoy! Here are just a few ideas on how to spend your time cabin-camping:
Staying safe. The best plan is a conservative one, especially with kids. You don't need to venture far from your cabin to immerse yourself in the wonders of the winter wilderness. You can enjoy the geometry of the frost on your windowpane, the snow sculptures hanging from the boughs of pine trees, the silence of morning and twilight -- even the crackling warmth of a wood stove -- without walking very far from your cabin door.
Be smart, be prepared. Frostbite and hypothermia are the greatest dangers to winter campers. Be prepared with proper warm clothing and don't become overexposed. Wearing wool is a good idea because of its wicking properties: You will stay warm even if you get wet. Gore-Tex and other high-tech water-repellent outer layers are also a must. Approach the dangers of the wilderness in winter with information and safety-consciousness. Also, be sure to have an emergency plan -- carry emergency and basic first-aid items in your trunk and on your person. Include a cell phone in case you get stranded or hurt. Also, read up ahead of time on the area you'll be visiting. Depending on where you're intending to explore, you might be in avalanche country, or there may be other dangers you should be well aware of.
The serious stuff. Winter travel can be hazardous. To understand the nature of winter travel and the potentially serious nature of winter camping, check out the "Outdoor Action Guide to Winter Camping," a comprehensive article by Rick Curtis on Princeton University's Web site. It covers trip planning, personal equipment, food, winter water, winter shelters, leave-no-trace camping in winter, winter travel, avalanche basics, snowshoeing basics, and winter hazards; it also provides equipment checklists. Aimed mainly at winter-camping diehards, it nonetheless provides novices who are cabin-camping with valuable information about preparedness and the dangers of going into cold-weather conditions.
Have fun. Nature throws a spectacular off-season bash and invites the whole family. If you're prepared and safety-conscious, your mission to have fun will be easy to accomplish. Rent a cabin and head out of town. You'll be on your way to warm cabin memories of family winter fun that will last a lifetime.
Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Dallas, Texas.