For 21 years, I have led an overnight backpacking excursion to a different wild spot in Pennsylvania on a cold, preferably snowy, winter weekend.
We don’t do it to prove our mettle, but to immerse ourselves in a landscape of sights, sounds and light experienced at no other time of year. It’s also an antidote to seasonal affective disorder.
Nearly each year, several people among us are experiencing winter hiking and camping for the first time. Sometimes overcoming a lifetime of trepidation, they are thrilled to learn that being outdoors when it’s freezing can be quite comfortable as long as they are wearing appropriate layers of clothing and bring the right gear.
We also make a robust nightly fire a linchpin of our experience. Warming up by a crackling fire on a crisp winter night with stars twinkling through the bare branches is one of life’s great experiences.
Winter Hiking and Camping Has Its Own Unique Charms
What’s so special about being outdoors in winter? Let’s count the ways.
Gone are the mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy, sunburn and other nuisances of hiking and camping in warm weather. Also gone are most homo sapiens — a species given to quasi-hibernation in the winter.
With foliage gone, the landscape opens up. A forest shows itself in stark silhouettes, a matrix of limb patterns that creak and moan in the wind. Vistas expand and, with lower humidity, the views are crisper and reach farther. Stargazing is never better than on a crystal-clear winter night.
Wildlife is easier to see and sometimes track in the snow. We once deciphered the wanderings of a coyote that eventually leaped into the air and pounced on a vole in the snow. We marveled at a porcupine surprised while munching on catkins in a beech tree, and we were startled by a ruffed grouse exploding out of a snow drift. Migratory birds you won’t see in other seasons are around, too.
“There is this crispness of the air you don’t get the rest of the year,” said Kenny Fletcher, who has been hiking and camping in the winter since he was a boy, sleeping with buddies in a backyard.
“You hear this silence you don’t get the rest of the year, too,” he said.
Unique to winter are new sights and sounds like hoarfrost sparkling on plants, bobbing icicles in a stream, frozen waterfalls, the muffled crunch of boots on snow, and small avalanches of wispy snow that dust your neck when your pack brushes an overhead limb.
The quiet contrasts starkly with the buzzing and chirping of wildlife and stirring foliage of other seasons.
The stillness invites introspection. Fletcher remembers the time he hiked alone on the Appalachian Trail to a shelter where it snowed softly during the night.
“Just having that moment and time for reflections ... It was a perfect antidote for the work stress I was going through.”
A campfire is a just reward — some might say a necessity — after a full day of winter hiking. The first thing our backpacking group does after picking out a campsite for the night is to gather enough wood to keep the fire going until we head into our tents and sleeping bags.
A word of caution: Don’t let the urge to belly up to the fire get out of hand. I have seen boot soles melt and expensive clothing pocked with ember holes. Fletcher once saw a friend’s sleeping bag catch on fire. They had to drag it to the river.
Make sure the places you camp allow open fires. National forests do, and so do many state forests.
Preparation Key to Enjoying Cold Weather Camping
To be sure, being outdoors in winter demands preparation and caution. Storms and drops in temperature happen quickly.
I once backpacked with a friend to a trail shelter in a Pennsylvania state forest. We were staying in a shelter, so we didn’t bother taking a tent. The next day, a supposedly marked trail was nowhere to be found. As we bushwhacked up the mountain, ultimately lost, freezing rain started. It was getting dark, and we contemplated the real possibility of having to spend the night without shelter. Fortunately, we crossed a road and got our bearings, but the episode demonstrated how quickly things can change drastically.
And if there’s one mantra of those who spend a lot of time outside in the cold, besides “cotton kills,” dress in layers — and not just for warmth, but also for fine tuning. If you’re wearing layers, you can shed garments as the day warms, or as you warm up from walking, and then put them back on when the chill returns. It’s a simple concept too often ignored.
Against the skin, it’s important to have a layer of synthetic material to wick away sweat and dry out quickly so you don’t chill when you stop moving. Both a long-sleeved top and long underwear make up this base layer. They are often made of synthetic material such as nylon, rayon, spandex or polypropylene, silk or Merino wool and come in different weights suitable for various conditions. Do not use cotton, because it loses its insulating ability when wet.
Next comes an insulating layer to retain body heat. It may be fleece, wool, down or a synthetic material. In addition to covering the upper body, some people wear this layer over their long underwear as well.
Finally, you need a light outer garment, or shell, to keep the wind, rain or snow away from your legs and upper body. Hard-shell jackets are completely waterproof and windproof but can get clammy. Soft-shell clothing breathes better and is fine if it is not precipitating.
Round out your preparations with a beanie, insulated gloves or mitts, socks and boots. Take wide-mouth water bottles (they don’t freeze as fast) and keep them insulated in your pack or against your body. A sleeping bag rated to below freezing is a must if you camp out.