A JOURNEY OF WARMTH
by Chris Fenichel-Hewitt
Winter snows in our area typically start to blanket the ground in December and don’t let up until March or April. It seems like Mother Nature is trying to keep us indoors, but there are ways to get out to take pleasure in the winter landscape. Camping—an activity that most people enjoy in the summer—can be equally enjoyable in the heart of winter. With careful preparation, a winter camping trip can be an exceptional experience that no one in your group will ever forget.
In order to ensure that your memories are positive ones—sipping warm drinks by the roaring fire with the stillness of winter keeping you company—careful preparation is key. Ideally, you will know where you want to camp a couple months in advance so you can visit the area before the snow is too thick. This initial visit serves a few purposes: you make sure that the trail is clear, that the lean-to you’ll be staying in is still there (I once arrived at a lean-to to find it was burnt down), and that there is plenty of wood for your winter fire.
I typically head to my winter camp spot in November with a daypack that includes a lunch, plenty of water, and a sharp, light camp saw. Although you’ll be staying in a lean-to during the winter camp—partly because it cuts down the winter winds and partly because you know there’s a fire pit there—you want to hide your woodpile so it won’t be used up by someone else before you get there. Cut plenty of wood, stack it in a hidden spot about 100 feet from the lean-to, and cover it with a natural-colored tarp. By the time you come back in the heart of winter, the pile will be covered safely in snow. If you arrive at the spot and the wood has been used up, you may consider leaving, although it is still possible to cut enough wood to get you through the night (it’s just harder because you can’t see all the good dry wood hidden under the snow).
The next step in your camping preparation involves gear. The supplies that you bring can make the difference between smiling the night away or shivering. As mentioned, you’ll need a camping saw, just in case you don’t have enough wood prepared ahead of time. Other necessities are a camp stove, in case the fire won’t start, lighters, dry matches, a mess kit, headlamp, first aid kit, knife, rope, and a warm sleeping bag. I also bring my tent and set it up in the lean-to to further cut down on winter winds.
Your clothing is also very important. The old saying, “cotton kills,” usually pertains to extreme circumstances, like being soaked, because cotton doesn’t dry well and will keep you cold. A set of winter gear is very affordable: start out with synthetic thermal wear (Hot Chilis are a great product) and high-end thermal socks, throw in a couple layers of fleece outerwear, a pair of ski pants, and a good winter jacket and you’re good to go. You’ll be happy if you splurge on the socks, and bring a change for the morning. It’s a good idea to pack an extra set of clothing and wrap each piece separately in plastic bags, just in case your pack gets wet.
Once upon a time, a few years ago, I threw caution to the wind and decided we were going camping the second weekend of February, no matter what. Unfortunately it was five degrees that night, and even colder in the morning. It was certainly a test of strength, but not advisable. Choose a couple of potential weekends to go winter camping, and settle on the one that looks warmer. Shoot for temperatures over 20 degrees to make the night more enjoyable.
The Catskills are filled with hidden camping gems. Get yourself a set of NY/NJ Trail Conference maps to find all of the lean-to sites. A two-mile hike is good for winter camping because it takes a lot of work to get to the final destination but isn’t so far that you don’t have time for setup. Remember that the mountains have more snow than the valleys, so a pair of snowshoes could come in handy. There’s nothing worse than wearing a heavy pack and sinking into deep snow with each step—known as post holing. Think about choosing a parking area that isn’t too high up in elevation so it will be accessible.
One of the most pleasurable parts of winter camping is the warm meals. After setting up the fire and creating a thick bed of coals, it’s time for slow roasting. A head of garlic roasts nicely at the edge of the coals while potatoes and squash like to roast right inside the coal bed (you’ll just have to strip away the burnt skin). Bring along a dehydrated meal or two, like a box of rice pilaf or another packet that just needs water. It’s light to carry in and it creates a good foundation to the meal (melt and boil snow for the water). It’s a good idea to set aside one pan for constant snow melting. By bedtime, the water will be cool enough to drink, or keep it hot for bedtime tea. Aside from tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, bring along plenty of lightweight snacks like GORP, protein bars, or cookies. Bring a simple breakfast like oatmeal packets.
As the night draws to a close, with merry times behind you, it’s time to think about staying warm in the confines of the tent. The best source of warmth is another lively body in the sleeping bag, but if that isn’t an option there are other ways to find warmth. Yes, there are hand and foot warmers, even tent warmers, that become warm when exposed to air. But there are a couple of other tricks: try taking a few of those uneaten potatoes from the fire and bring them into the tent for a couple of hours of warmth—and you can nibble on them in the morning before meeting the cold outside. Or try melting and boiling snow before bed and put it in a Nalgene or water bladder to cozy up with.
Winter camping is not for everyone, but it’s definitely fun. The key to a successful journey is warmth. The hike into the forest should be a warm one, both with the adrenaline going and the clothes that make it possible. The arrival at the lean-to campsite should start with fire building, leading to a steady warmth that fills the lean-to and a bed of coals that create a rich heat to cook all the hardy foods.
Have fun and explore. Maybe I’ll see you out there.