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Going backpacking in February? Sleeping out at -20°F? Covering 10 miles over snow five feet deep?

Most New England hikers know better. They hang up their lug-soled boots in November and leave them alone till April.

Unquestionably there is a strain of masochism in the winter backpacker. Unless you can decide that you like to be cold and to have a devil of a time trying to make one mile per hour if snow conditions are good, unless you want a challenge just to carry on life’s normal operations of walking, cooking, sleeping, tying a shoelace, unzipping a fly, looking at your watch—all of which take excruciatingly longer on the third day out below zero—then you won’t really enjoy the northeastern backcountry in February.

Just walking along the trail isn’t the simple pleasure it was in summer. Now in our mountains it’s covered with three or four feet of snow, five or six feet or more as you get up in elevation. This means the first problem is that your booted feet alone would flounder hopelessly.

So you wear cross-country skis or snowshoes. The former are becoming popular and chic, and an expert skier can travel smoothly over rough country. On a moderate downgrade, a glide on skis is 10 times as fast as a waddle on snowshoes.

Still, for climbing the steeper trails or bushwhacking, as we like to do, skis can’t make it. It’s unbelievable what you can get up, through, and over with snowshoes. Not the long Alaskan models, built for covering flat or rolling open country, but the short flat bear paws or modified beaver tails that you can work with in steep, broken terrain and through dense trees and shrubs.

But now you begin to learn some of the “attractions” of winter travel.

In the first place, that trail was cut in summer, blazes marked about four feet off the ground, and branches clipped to a height of maybe seven feet. You do the arithmetic with, say, five feet of snow: few blazes are visible, and a loose weave of snow-laden branches obscures the trail at many points. Furthermore, the snow has covered all the thick undergrowth that told you where the trail wasn’t in summer. So now all ways look equally open-or tangled.

In short, staying on trail is in itself a major challenge. We think you can tell an experienced winter traveler more by his or her ability to stay on an unbroken trail, somehow sensing the right way, than by almost any other indicator of winter experience.

To add to your troubles, your pack, which is bulging with winter-required gear, much heavier than your normal summer load, is now there in the branches getting tangled and shaking snow down your neck.

Next discover the pleasures of the spruce trap. This invention of an ill-humored Norse frost god on a morning when his wife had burned the toast is based on the principle that falling snow doesn’t pack in nearly as tightly around the branches of a small evergreen as it does elsewhere. Once a small tree is covered with loosely consolidated snow, the unwary snowshoer won’t see it as he tromps along an otherwise fairly well consolidated surface. One enthusiastically slammed snowshoe in the vicinity of those covered branches and the whole fragile structure of unconsolidated snow gives way in a whoosh.

Oh, the fiendish fate of a spruce trap victim! At upper elevations where snow is really deep, we’ve seen an entire adult with full pack disappear below the surrounding surface into a spruce trap. (At that elevation the true villain is likely to be a fir, not a spruce, but who wants to hear botanical niceties when you’re floundering with a 50-pound pack five feet below where you’d like to place your foot next?)

Once you’ve plummeted down inside a spruce trap, malicious little snow elves go to work far down there somewhere, weaving the tree’s lowest branches around your snowshoes in lacework of intricate complexity that defies your most vigorous efforts to extract your feet, to the accompaniment of language you never knew you had in you. Then there’s always the inconsiderate soul who wants to document your absurd contortionist acrobatics on film. “Great,” the would-be cinematographic artist cries. “Can you hold that position a second?”

Get out from down in there, dust off the snow, stop whimpering, and carry on till the grade steepens. You’ve strapped minicrampons on the bottom of your snowshoes. Without them you’d slip hopelessly back on steeper grades. But let the temperature warm up unseasonably and the snow takes on a wet, heavy consistency that introduces you to the experience of balling.

No, balling isn’t what you think it is, and not nearly as much fun. It refers to the tendency of warm snow to gather in great lumps between the points of your snowshoe crampons. As some snow adheres to the metal, more snow adheres to that snow, and presently you pick up a “ball” of nearly a cubic foot of heavy, packed snow with every step. Keeping your balance becomes difficult, your equanimity impossible. It’s a bit like trying to walk with a large and irregular basketball strapped to each foot.

But warm temperatures that produce balling are rare. More likely, you’ll be lucky enough to have it colder. . . and colder. . . and colder. . .

Dressing Up

Step out of the car at trailhead when it’s -15° below, and in the many minutes it takes to get under way you’re getting so cold that you put on all your warm clothing. Five minutes up the steep trail and you’re suddenly aware that you’re so warm with the exercise of breaking trail through soft snow with a heavy pack that you’re starting to sweat. A danger sign: sweating into your clothes is a basic no-no in winter, since wet clothes (from whatever source of moisture) lose much of their insulating value.

So you stop, off comes that 50-pound pack, off comes the parka or a couple of sweaters, on goes the pack (with no car to prop it against this time). But every time the trail turns downhill your exercise may be so much less that you start to get cold and need one of those sweaters. So again, the tussle with getting pack on and off.

Then the trail turns uphill, and you run into the inexorable operation of Fye’s Law-that for every 500 feet of uphill trail the pack increases in perceived weight by 10 pounds-and you start to sweat again. Off comes the pack, off the sweater, on the pack. . .

See what we mean about the “attractions” of winter on the backwoods trails? As for us, we love every minute of it.

It’s critically important to keep your body temperature just right in winter. Overheat and you sweat into your clothes—a potentially disastrous mistake. Lose too much body heat and it may be hard to get warm again. For this reason, most winter hikers use the Layer System in clothing. The Layer System consists of carrying several different shirts, sweaters, and a windproof nylon outer shell, rather than just one great big down parka. Then you can wear just what you need, not more. It’s a prudent approach, but it sure means a lot of stops and starts sometimes—plus a lot of taking that pack off and on.

That’s not counting the times you have to take it off because an uncooperative snowshoe binding keeps sliding off your toe or heel.

If you head for the challenging above-treeline terrain of Katahdin, the White Mountains’ Presidential Range, Franconia Ridge, Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, or the highest summits in the Adirondacks, not to mention the higher reaches of the western mountains, you’ll encounter a special world. There’s nothing like the raw bone-blasting power of the above-treeline tandem of low temperatures, hurricane-force winds, and no place to hide. Sometimes that alpine world is far more benign—just often enough to lull the novice into thinking it’s not so tough up there after all. But the weather can deteriorate with terrible rapidity.

Don’t test this world till you’re thoroughly at home below treeline in winter. When your experience has progressed and your common sense has deteriorated far enough, you’ll find the alpine zone an experience without parallel in the outdoor world.

But be ready. Here the price of foolishness runs high: frostbite, hypothermia, even death. But even when the weather spares you from its worst, travel will be slower than in summer, every simple operation maddeningly time consuming.

Fortunately, though, daylight hours are so much shorter in winter that you have to curtail your carefree stroll. The short days of January and February seem to end right after lunch, and you’ve made only about half the distance you’d planned on. But no matter: now you get to the joys of winter camping.

Mushing around on skis or snowshoes, you catch yourself gazing at that quiet glade surrounded by drooping hemlocks. What a lovely spot to camp! How still and peaceful the night! How comforting the rich mounds of snow all around your snug tent!

A Cozy Evening

The reality of winter camping is indeed a special paradise—but it may not turn out to be quite the idyllic scene you pictured.

First, when you stop moving those skis or snowshoes and start standing around doing camping chores, you find that you’re getting cold. Your body isn’t the efficient furnace generating heat the way it was when you were exerting yourself on the trail. So you put on every stitch of clothing in the pack and end up as rotund as Santa Claus. Warm (maybe), but hardly as mobile as you’d like to be for bending over, reaching around, and so on.

Now set up the tent. At 0°F you have to keep your mittens or gloves on for this process. Recall how easily the tent went up in summer? Now cold changes all. Tent stakes won’t hold in the soft snow. Drop one and it disappears in the bottomless fluffy whiteness. Tent poles won’t obey mittened hands. Take off the mittens and the metal sticks to your skin. Your hands are soon numb, as metal conducts heat away even through mittens. Leave your snowshoes on and you can’t maneuver; take them off and you plunge to the hips at every step. Tent lines are ticklish to get around stakes or trees. Knots take forever to tie. In fact, every little process takes two or three times as long. Meanwhile, light is fading fast, temperature’s dropping, maybe the wind’s picking up and changing direction from what you had in mind when you oriented the tent.

At last you’re inside, safe from the elements. But what’s happened to the tent? Great gremlins, it’s shrunk! No, it’s just all that winter gear—puffy, voluminous down sleeping bags, myriad articles of clothing, cooking gear, big winter boots, not to mention an enlarged you (you’re not wearing just T-shirt and shorts, remember)—all taking up a lot of space in a not-so-spacious accommodation. But if you think it’s crowded now, just wait until morning when a foot of fresh-fallen snow presses against sides and roof. No place for claustrophobics.

Now to get dinner! Somehow you have to spread out the cooking gear, stove, pots, and food, light the stove, melt great quantities of snow for water, get some of it into your canteen, get a pot of it boiling, cook dinner and wash up—all without spilling a drop or burning down the tent. Obviously impossible.

Many winter campers frown on cooking in a tent. They claim that unsafe amounts of carbon monoxide from white-gas stoves are dangerous in a closed tent. Carbon monoxide? Out here in this frozen wasteland? Sad, but true. Well, you’ll just risk it and make sure the tent is ventilated because at 0°F and a strong breeze getting up you know you are not going to cook anyplace else. You’re flying in the face of the conservative practitioners of the art, but you rationalize that there are times when you couldn’t keep a stove going if you were cooking outside the tent-above treeline in a howling gale, for instance—so you feel that it’s only right that you “practice” cooking in a tent (well ventilated, of course) now and then.

You want to be inside that sleeping bag, that beautiful buffer between you and the darkening winter world, with just your nose, eyes, and mouth showing, and two hands sticking out so you can get dinner.

Oh yes, dinner. You need food. The bag isn’t really warming you and that’s because you’re cold—from the inside. You burned up those lunch calories long ago. Well, you’ve already filled the snow bag—a garbage bag-size obstacle at your right elbow filled with snow to melt for water. It takes up a lot of room, of course. With faultless dexterity you’ve managed to light the stove, get the snow melted, even boiling, and now you’re having a warming cup of bouillon while you stir the pot. Things are looking a little less desperate.

But what’s this? Good grief! It’s snowing inside the tent! Impossible. This tent’s in perfect condition. You’re right twice—the tent’s fine, and it is snowing. Condensation from the boiling water vapor has, at 0°F, built a lovely layer of icy crystals on the inside of the tent-roof, walls and all. Now you know another reason why the conservative faction cooks outside. You open the tent door a crack and mutter incantations designed to direct the steam from the pot out the small hole in the tent door.

Whenever you brush against the tent wall a delicate shower descends, covering clothing, sleeping bag, and you in a white blanket that rapidly proceeds to melt. You’re horrified: water permeating your down sleeping bag! Wet down loses its insulating value—you’ll freeze. So with infinite care you avoid touching tent sides and roof, brush every bit of snow or frost off the bag. Not easy. The tent has shrunk still further.

Finally you’ve finished dinner. Even made a pass at washing up. Mixing last night’s dinner with breakfast oatmeal never did appeal to you. How could it have taken two hours? In summer you eat in less than half that. All the melting of snow for every drop of water takes time, and every tiny task takes twice as long with cold hands as it does in summer.

You sink luxuriously into your sleeping bag, savoring the last bit of light from the two candle stubs that had lighted the process of getting dinner. You are full. You are warm. What a nice secure place to be! Let the elements rage outside! What was it Miriam Underhill, America’s greatest woman mountaineer, said? “I don’t mind hardship, as long as I’m perfectly comfortable.”

Perchance to Dream

There is something overwhelmingly satisfying in lying there warm in a good sleeping bag, knowing that every square inch of air outside your bag (and those of your neighboring companions) for miles around is unrelentingly cold, cold, cold. As Herman Melville said in another context: “There you lie like the one warm spot in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

Oh dear. A tiny thought struggles within you. You try to ignore it. But there it is. From the depth of your sleeping bag you know that that stew and all that liquid you drank are not going to let you sleep through the night. What time is it? 7:30 p.m. Seems later. It’s been dark for hours. You’ll never make it until seven the next morning. You resign yourself to the inevitable and struggle upward out of downy warmth. Boots go back on, then gaiters. Then sweaters. You search for your flashlight. Finally you’re plunging through the snow into the trees, toilet paper in hand. Well, you think, you’re just glad you’re not camped above treeline someplace with the wind howling down on you. You painfully recall such a time when, at the crucial moments, the toilet paper was whisked away in a blast that nearly flattened you.

You’re back in your sleeping bag again, thoroughly chilled from being out. You feel slightly disgruntled as you wait for the bag to warm you. Let’s see. Boots are in the bottom of the sleeping bag (wrapped in a stuff sack) so they won’t freeze. Canteen is under your left knee, so you’ll have water. (You did get that cap on tight, didn’t you? Better check. . . a process inducing a gymnastic tour de force that Nadia Comaneci would envy.) The breakfast is sticking you in the side, but you don’t dare leave it out for forest beasties to rob. A few bulky items like sweaters squeeze you on the other side. You have to keep clothing in your bag or the condensation might fall on it if a wind comes up during the night. You try to find a spot for your feet. You don’t want them lying on your cold boots. No room. Oh well.

Morning. How difficult it is to stick a nose out of that womblike bag. Oops. Ice crystals falling on your face. The top of your bag is covered with rime ice where you breathed out of it all night. You inch yourself toward the laborious task of preparing breakfast. At least you have daylight to work in now. A good two and a half hours later you’re trying to stuff an ice-coated tent into its stuff sack. You lay it out, brush off the ice and roll it up again. Tighter. It barely fits in a sack it floundered around in all summer.

Your fingers are freezing now. In fact, you’ve got to get moving. All this inactivity of packing up camp has really cooled you down. Snowshoe bindings are stiff, awkward to get on. You hoist a heavy load-that water-soaked tent and sleeping bag have increased your weight-and mush on.

Idyllic winter camping? You bet it is. You can grow to love it. Wait till you try it above treeline. . . in freezing rain. . . two more nights to go and all your down gear wet. . . stove getting cranky about starting. . . ah, winter wonderland.

Tags : winter camping
Kathryn Vercillo

The author Kathryn Vercillo

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