When I recently wrote about missing the winter camping experience, I never imagined there would be anything other than a tepid response. Who could possibly have a strong reaction to a middle-aged man reminiscing about his past winter backpacking experiences? I certainly did not expect any type of counterpoint to appear defending winter backcountry adventuring in all its frigid glory.
Yet, a recent Lost Brook Dispatch made an effective argument extolling the virtues of backpacking during the winter months, including a good-natured cajoling from author Pete Nelson for me to get back into the Adirondack winter camping game. This article serves as a counterpoint to his counterpoint, including a description of why I feel the warmer months offer a vastly superior backcountry experience in the Adirondacks than the colder months of winter.
The obvious main difference between backcountry adventuring in the warmer versus the colder months is, drum roll please, the temperature. It is just plain colder during the wintery months. This lower temperature imposes itself upon almost every facet of a winter backcountry adventure, including the type of equipment, the length of the adventure and just about any other aspect imaginable.
The specialized equipment necessary for the enjoyment of the colder months is greater than any gear required for the warmer months. Although insect repellent, shorts and water filters are unnecessary, the weight of extra winter gear to fight off the ever-present chill of the frigid temperatures vastly outweighs the few things left behind until the snows melt and the leaves remerge.
Thick sleeping bags, white gas stoves with extra fuel for snow melting, water bottle cozies, snowshoes and poles, heavier clothing and a wide assortment of gloves, hats, mittens and socks are just a few of the extras needed to tolerate the winter conditions, yet alone enjoy it. With all this heavier equipment comes a concomitant increase in weight, often requiring a larger backpack to haul all of the extra gear.
My back is throbbing just thinking about the burden!
Although the risk of hypothermia may be greater during the warmer months, the risk remains in the winter months. The colder temperatures demand warmer clothing, and although layering helps to modulate body temperature somewhat, it is nearly impossible avoiding becoming saturated in one’s own sweat during the required vigorous activity. Thus, the threat of hypothermia remains a threat during the winter months.
Colder months are just less comfortable than the warmer ones. The constant colder temperatures lead to chapped lips, rough fingertips, and numb hands, feet and ears. The risk of frostnip and frostbite are constant, as numb fingers and toes remind us. Waking up in a cool sleeping bag, regardless of the quantity or quality of the down stuffed inside the nylon shell of a sleeping bag. This may be less of a concern to burly individuals, but to slimmer ones with large protruding ears and poor circulation in their hands and feet, this is a major disadvantage during the wintery months.
One often cited advantage of winter backcountry adventures is the absence of bugs. Despite the risk of a stoning at the suggestion of such an insane notion, I find the opposite to be true. That is right, you heard it here first, I actually MISS the bugs during the winter month. Although, you might hear differently if you encounter me in the backcountry running from a cloud of ravenous black flies, screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs.
My opinion has always been that the biting insects are an essential part of the experience of exploring the Adirondack backcountry. As one of my ecology instructors was fond of saying, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Black fly, mosquito, no-see-em and deer fly hordes ensure this axiom is true, as they function as the price of admission for enjoying the Adirondacks backcountry during the warmer months. Although the lower temperatures may keep the riff-raff out of the backcountry during the wintery months, the biting insects do the same during many of the warmer months too.
Some wildlife experiences are more plentiful during the colder months. Tracking wildlife requires less effort in the snow, making discovering some animals much easier for those with enough persistence to follow the tracks to their source. In addition, animals appear tamer during the colder months, probably due to the desperation brought on by the lower temperatures. Some outdoor enthusiasts take advantage of this desperation to get a closer look, despite the risk of the animals seeing them as a nice snack wrapped in layers of fleece, nylon and polypropylene.
These winter wildlife experiences pale in comparison, at least in quantity, to those found during the warmer months. During the colder months, the vast majority of wildlife is either hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to the south or hiding somewhere, spending the colder months in a seasonal torpor, awaiting the return of more acceptable temperatures.
Nothing during the wintery months can compare to waking early in the morning to the cacophony of an Adirondack bird chorus like that found in late spring. Being a life-long birder, watching the forest come alive with avian life before the rays of the sun pierce the forest canopy and listening to the familiar songs of these fascinating creatures is unparalleled by anything found in the colder months of the year.
Although I miss colder weather backpacking during the seemingly long winter months, I miss the warmer temperature backcountry adventures more. So as we experience a mid-winter thaw, I begin planning those week-long treks into the Adirondack backcountry, battling hordes of biting insects, enjoying the plentiful bird songs and spending hours in the outdoors free of numb fingers and toes.
Photo: Queen Lake in winter conditions in 2004 by Dan Crane.