Large climate chambers are suitable to simulate, at or close to field scale, the annual freezing and thawing of layered peat in subarctic active layers above permafrost. An experiment in a climate chamber at the University of Western Ontario was designed to freeze and thaw four peat cores 60 cm in diameter. This paper describes the climate chamber and experimental setup, and evaluates their ability to maintain one-dimensional change in soil moisture and temperature profiles. Preliminary results on soil water content (liquid and total) indicate that active-layer freezing resulted in an upward movement of water towards a freezing front that propagated downward. The physical simulations will contribute towards improving conceptual and mathematical hydrological models for permafrost regions. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.