Finding the perfect place for winter camping in Illinois can be tough as most campgrounds close for the off-season. We’ve pulled together the best state parks, local campgrounds, and private spots to spend a weekend warming over the campfire.
Where to Go
Winter Camping in Northern Illinois
These campgrounds are open throughout the year for winter camping options in the northern side of the state.
Starved Rock State Park – The most popular state park in Illinois, Starved Rock has limited campgrounds available through December as hunting season is active. Unfortunately, the campgrounds are completely closed between January and March so you’ll need other options for winter camping in Illinois.
White Pines Forest State Park – White Pines is open for walk-in camping from November through April as long as the weather permits. The Illinois DNR cautions that the campground occasionally closes during March and April because of soft ground conditions and recommends calling ahead during these months to check the status of the campground.
Lowden State Park – Just on the other side of the river from White Pines, Lowden State Park offers access to local hiking trails and primitive campgrounds for an extra private experience
Winter Camping Near Chicago
For winter camping near Chicago, try out these options:
Cook County Forest Preserves – Some cook county campgrounds are open all year round
Adeline Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park – From October onward, Illinois Beach State Park is open for walk-in campers as the weather gets cooler. This is a great way to get a lakeside campsite for the offseason!
Winter Camping in Southern Illinois
Benton KOA – One of the only private campgrounds open for winter camping in Illinois, the Benton KOA offers nearby access to the Shawnee National Forest
Wayne Fizgerrell State Park – Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area overlooks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 19,000 Rend Lake Reservoir. Their campgrounds are open for walk-in reservations during the offseason from November through March
Where to Find Cabins in Illinois
If you’d rather enjoy the outdoors with the safety and security of a cabin to return home to, there are plenty of places to do that across the state!
19 of Illinois’ State Parks have cabins that are able to be rented by the night and offer unprecedented access to the state parks that otherwise have almost no development.
For cabin camping closer to Chicago, the Cook County Forest Preserve operates cabins at campgrounds just outside the city.
What do you need for winter camping in Illinois?
In addition to the regular gear you need for camping, winter camping in Illinois means you need to be prepared for temperatures to drop well below freezing.
While your normal tent will likely suffice with some preparation, you’ll want to have to ensure you can make it through the night safely and comfortably when winter camping in Illinois! Either add extra insulation through floor blankets and overlapping tarps or splurge for a 4-season tent that has less ventilation but offers more heat retention.
Sleeping Bag & Sleeping Pad
Even if you don’t usually use a sleeping pad during summer camping, make sure you have something to separate your body and sleeping bag from the cold hard ground below for better insulation. Take a look at a sleeping pad’s r-value to understand its insulation capabilities and be sure to go for a higher R-value to stay warmer!
The sleeping bag itself may also need an upgrade if you’re used to sleeping in 60-degree weather. Check your label and model to see where your bag is rated down to and either bring extra blankets or upgrade your sleeping bag to ensure you won’t freeze if the temps drop below 0!
Clothing – Layers are Everything
You probably won’t need to buy anything else as long as you already have some non-cotton gear ready to layer up. While that Canada Goose jacket does great for walking in the city, layers are the key to ensuring you stay warm and are able to adjust with the sun throughout the day. Winter camping in Illinois can easily go subzero with limited notice so pack more over less!
Layers to Bring Winter Camping
Underlayer / Wicking Layer – This layer is what is against your skin. Consider long johns or long sleeve shirts but avoid cotton to prevent hypothermia risk as cotton will soak up any of your sweat and become very cold very fast
Base Layer – A sweatshirt or other heavier materials that add heat retention while still being comfortable
Outer Layer – The coat or jacket layer. This keeps the wind out and really packs in the heat while allowing you to adjust by opening the jacket to let heat out or even take it off as the sun reaches its peak.
Don’t forget lots of socks!
Other Equipment Considerations
Water bottles are not only important for keeping hydrated but also can be useful for keeping you warm. Add warm water to a Nalgene, tighten the cap, and stick it in the foot of your sleeping bag before you go to sleep to keep the water from freezing overnight and provide a little warmth.
Cold weather can cause your electronics to lose power quicker than indoors. Consider bringing an extra battery pack to ensure you still have a working cell phone in the morning!
What to Do
Winter Activities in Illinois
While the state might be flat, there is a lot to do across the different campgrounds mentioned above!
Ice Fishing – If your campground or park has a lake, you’re probably allowed to ice fish when it freezes! Check out specific regulations and available fish for this unique opportunity for catching your own winter dinner.
Cross Country Skiing – One of the benefits of the flatter nature of the state is that cross country skiing is much easier to try and get the hang of. Many forest preserves and state parks offer rentals so check out your nearby options!
Snowshoeing – Check out the nearby state parks for snowshoe rentals to hike in deep snow!
Hiking – Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you can’t go hike! Snowy days can create a silent atmosphere and fewer people outside makes for a peaceful and serene hike at any park or campground.
Sledding – Many state and local parks have some of the only hills in the area so check out your local park for any hills that would be good to bring a sled to! One example is Blackwell forest preserve which has a tubing hill that is available anytime it snows more than a few inches!
Birdwatching – Winter brings unique birdwatching opportunities. When the cold weather freezes the rivers, bald eagles flock to Starved Rock to feast in the patch of water created by the nearby locks.
Illinois Winter Camping Safety Tips
While winter camping can be a ton of fun, it doesn’t come without risk. The biggest risk is going to be the temperature. Ensure you have enough layers and the right equipment to stay warm and dry and avoid hypothermia. If you find yourself wet or damp, be certain to change clothes to try to stay dry and avoid falling ill.
As with any camping trip, food and drink is going to be important too! Being outdoors in the cold will increase the number of calories your body uses so you’ll need a little extra food to ensure you’re replacing those calories and able to maintain your body heat.