Camping was a great way to spend a pandemic summer: you got social distancing as a matter of course, you didn’t have to spend time indoors with anybody you don’t know, and, provided you chose a place near home, you didn’t have to deal with navigating the risks of airports and mass travel. Well, here’s your winter alternative: cabin camping.
Many state parks offer cabins, and some private campgrounds do as well. Check with your favorite state park system or campground to see what they offer during the winter. Some cabins are only meant for summer use; others may be available year round, and these often have heat.
The key to planning a cabin camping trip is to recognize that there is no single definition of what a “cabin” provides. I a spent one summer weekend in a cabin in Bowman Lake State Park in New York that was just four walls surrounding a cluster of beds. Another year, I brought my family to a cabin in Raccoon Creek State Park in Pennsylvania that had a full kitchen and bathroom, including a shower and a fridge. Most cabins will fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
Often, it helps to learn the park system’s lingo. In Pennsylvania, a “modern cabin” has different amenities than a “rustic cabin.” In some places you might find yurts, lodges or other structures to stay in.
The list of features on the park’s website may not tell you the full story, so I always like to check out photos, especially of the interior. This is how you’ll find out whether or not the kitchen has a microwave, or whether there is a dinner table indoors or not. You can also look for reviews and further photos on social media, perhaps by scrolling through photos tagged with the campground’s name or location.
G/O Media may get a commission
Don’t expect a hotel-level experience where everything is provided for you. In most cases, you’ll still need to provide some of the basics yourself.
The cabin beds I’ve stayed in often have a vinyl-coated mattress and nothing else. You can bring your own bedding, including sheets and pillows, and make yourself a bed like you would at home. Another option is to bring a sleeping bag and just sleep in the bag on top of the bed.
If you are bringing sheets, make sure to check the sizes of the beds. Twins and fulls are common, but you never know. If you aren’t sure, a flat sheet plus corner straps may be more versatile than a fitted sheet.
If sheets aren’t provided, towels probably won’t be either. Plan on bringing your own bath towels, washcloths, and hand towels (including kitchen towels, if your cabin has a kitchen).
Cabins won’t necessarily have bathrooms, so check out the toilet and shower situation before you leave home. You may need to schlep your toiletry bag to a separate building every night, making camping-style toiletries more convenient. Better than assuming you can sprawl your things out like you might in a hotel bathroom.
Often, a cabin is supplied with a fire ring and picnic table, or a similar setup for eating outdoors. Check what’s offered. Even our cabin with the full kitchen had a fire ring and a charcoal grill in the yard. Consider bringing your s’mores supplies and any cookware you’d use over a campfire. (Always buy firewood at your destination to be sure you aren’t bringing invasive pests to new territory.)
Camp chairs aren’t just for tent camping; they’re also a great addition to the porch of a cabin. You might also want to consider other handy items like a folding table if the furnishings in the cabin are pretty bare-bones. A floor mat by the bed can also be a nice touch on a chilly morning.
Garbage bags are the kind of thing you take for granted in a house, but when we’re cabin camping we don’t assume anything. Bring garbage bags, and bring at least some basic cleaning equipment.
Once again, I’ve experienced both extremes. The decked-out cabin had a full complement of cleaning supplies and we were expected to use them before checking out. The most basic cabin I’ve stayed in didn’t even have a broom to sweep out the dirt we accidentally tracked in.
If we’re talking about cold weather camping, the first thing you should check is whether the cabin is heated. And then realize that even if the cabin has a heater, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be warm. On a cold night, there may still be drafts and it’s always possible that the heater won’t be able to keep up. So pack those warm sweaters and socks—or, better yet, fuzzy slippers.