For a long time, I have also been curious to try winter camping. In January, when we finally had an opportunity to visit Koli National Park, instead of fancy hotels and fully equipped holiday homes and cottages we wanted to experience Koli as close to nature as possible.
So we decided to book a wilderness cabin, Ikolanaho rental hut, in the middle of the National Park. It’s a very simple cabin for hikers that is maintained by the government and has no luxury what so ever. Not even electricity. Just bunk beds, a little gas cooker, table and chairs and a fireplace. The rental hut seemed like a good option, even though from the aspect of winter camping it sounded a bit of a wuss choice. But you have to start somewhere, right?
For us, it was the first night ever in this kind of wilderness cabin. You can find them all over Finland; some of them cost a little, some of them are free when available. If you choose the one with a small rent, like the one we booked for 35 euros per night, you can be guaranteed you are the only one using it for the night.
Once we arrived in Koli we picked up the keys to the cabin from the National Park info. The staff was nice and warned us about the conditions we were about to face; the first extreme winter temperatures had just hit Eastern Finland, and as the cabin hadn’t been in use for weeks, the indoor temperature was estimated to be around -25 degrees Celsius.
We were adviced how to start warming up the cabin and we also got an extra tip about the nearby hill, Mäkrävaara, which would be ideal for admiring the sunset. The staff also noted that even if there are both, a pond and a well at the cabin, they would most probably be frozen, so we’d need to carry our own drinking water to the cabin.
The nearest car park is about 700 meters from Ikolanaho hut. By the day of our arrival we had already stayed for a week in a fancy cottage in Vuokatti, so we had a lot of stuff with us we wouldn’t need in the hut but we just couldn’t leave all of it freezing in the car overnight. So we had a lot of vain stuff to carry, but 700 meters hike didn’t seem like a big deal, not even if the temperature was close to -30 degrees.
So we started walking with our load towards the hut when it hit us; oh yeah, we are in the hills of Eastern Finland! Of course, the path leading to the hut is covered with untouched snow and uphill all the way!
Believe it or not, walking in a fresh snow uphill with lots to carry can be sweaty, no matter how cold it is outside! We felt so relieved once we finally spotted the hut, as we were a bit worried about getting lost without any clear path or footprints to follow. We really were sweaty when we arrived, so the temperature inside the cabin didn’t seem too bad. At least not yet.
Do you know the feeling when you have been walking directly uphill in a thick snow with a heavy load for about a kilometre, and after reaching your destination you realize that you left all the drinking water in the car? Yeah… it feels really goooooood!
As the kind staff at the info was guessing, the pond and the well were indeed both frozen. At first, we thought, clever as we are, that we would melt clean snow for drinking, but after a second thought, we decided to return to the car and get our 5 litres water bottle up to the cabin. Before leaving we set the first fire to the fireplace and let it burn down to get the heating started.
We were away for about half an hour and were secretly hoping the hut would already be a bit warmer, at least closer to zero than -25. We really wanted to climb on Mäkrävaara hill to see the sunset, but we didn’t want to leave the flame on while being away.
As it turned out, it takes a good while to get an ice cold wooden cabin warm. A gooooood while. So we had to admire the sunset from the yard and spend the whole evening next to the fireplace.
It’s quite important to know how this fireplace works, not only for the story but also for information, in case you are ever going to visit this or any similar cabins. What you should do is to burn a couple loads of wood, wait until the flame is down and then close the hatches. Only after the hatches are closed the fireplace starts giving the heat out. But when it’s so cold it really starts to get inside your skin you just want to keep sitting next to an open flame; not only for the heat but also for the atmosphere. Such a complex situation.
So there we were, spending a Friday night in the middle of Koli National Park, wrapped in our sleeping bags, next to a fireplace in an extremely primitive cabin illuminated with candles, trying desperately to heat the hut at least close to zero degrees. There are not enough words to describe how happy we were for the huge amount of cut and dry wood; chopping big logs in such extreme conditions would have been a real pain in the ass, maybe even impossible.
At that very moment, I wasn’t sure if it was an awful or a lovely experience. In the future, when looking back at our night in Koli National Park, would I only remember how freezing it was, or would I think of an unforgettable experience close to nature?
One thought was extremely clear on my mind at that moment; this is NOT the time and place when I want to notice my well-served sleeping bag is broken!!!
At least we had prepared ourselves with flashlights, matches, enough snacks and warm clothes. We even had a little bit of red wine, which warmed us nicely from inside, even if it got quickly very cold even next to the fireplace. We were following the indoor temperature with the help of our coffee milk placed in a plastic bottle; when the frozen milk started to melt, we knew we were getting there – slowly but surely!
Yes, it was cold, but it wasn’t all bad. It was amazing how quiet it was everywhere. Besides our chattering, we couldn’t hear a thing. Indoors or outdoors, not a sound. When I opened the door, all I saw was snow. Forest and snow. And the sky full of stars.
All the time we knew that once we hit the beds and close the hatches on the fireplace the hut would finally get warm. By the morning we would probably feel way too hot to be in our sleeping bags.
Except that didn’t happen. In the morning even our 5-litre water bottle was ice instead of liquid water. I stayed awake freezing in my sleeping bag for the whole night, unlike Daniel who was snoring so loud the whole cabin was shaking.
Was a night in Koli National Park worth all this after all?
The sun had been up for a while once we finally started our hike to the top of the Mäkrävaara hill. This time we were able to see footprints in the snow that lead us all the way to the top. The view didn’t let us down, there was nothing to hesitate; Yes, the view was definitely worth a freezing night in a cabin!
Would I do all this again? Yes. Would I do something differently? Yes, definitely. Was the night in the rental hut too much of a wuss choice for the first winter camping experience? Not at all!
In case you are wondering why would we even consider accommodation like that in such cold weather, I’d like to point out that at the time of our reservation the weather forecast was predicting -10 degrees at the most. We really didn’t expect the night to be three times colder, and we didn’t expect the cabin to be so difficult to get warm. When it’s this cold, you should arrive in the morning to make sure you have enough time to get the cabin nice and warm by the evening and stay longer than one night only! Don’t do as we did; we arrived late in the afternoon, wasted the whole evening trying to heat the cabin with wrong methods and left home once the cabin was finally ready for a comfortable temperature. Oh well, next time.
Did I gain an unforgettable experience? Oh yes, definitely!
Did you already read how we arrived at Koli National Park? Check it out here: Cruising on Europe’s longest inland ice road! You should also have a little look at these unedited photos from Koli that will make you fall in love with Finnish winter!
How was your first winter camping experience, or have you had any? Was it as extreme as our first winter camping trip in Koli National Park?
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