Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Backpacking: Battle of the Seasons

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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

12 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    I would just like to recommend
    for good information and entertaining reading regarding winter camping.
    Most of my winter camping has been in February and even March, when the days are a getting longer, the snowpack is usually as deep as it is going to be, and “balmy'” winter temperatures are more likely.
    Snoring seems to be a bigger problem camping in winter than at other times. I”ve often been in a leanto in winter with three or four other campers, and the morning conversation usually included heated discussion and accusatory finger pointing about whose snoring was the loudest and most persistent.

  2. Jim says:

    Great info & just a great read. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Brad says:

    I left comments for your first article and Pete’s…thinking that one thing both of you missed was that winter camping is a greater test of one’s sense of humor and ability to deal with trail tribulations and still say on the drive home, “I’ll do that trip again”.
    Fall by far is my favorite season to experience the ADKs on the trail or by paddling. There is a good balance there for my expectations.
    Wintertime. Fun? Yeah, sometimes fun is in short supply compared to the summertime.

    • Dan Crane says:

      I agree, a sense of humor is very important, Brad. I think a sense of humor is necessary regardless of the season though. It is a necessity for dealing with either numb hands and feet or hordes of biting flies!

  4. Mike says:

    I love winter camping, having grown up in Minnesota spending many happy days winter backpacking in the BWCA (Adirondacks with fewer people and more lakes). I think the biggest challenge to winter camping is the much shorter days. That and having to roust yourself in the middle of the night when it’s -20 to step outside and relieve yourself of those last few cups of coffee. The short days are a big deal though. Even with an alpine start (not as much fun as they used to be!) you have the whole drill of (re)building fire and melting water and feeding yourself enough calories to warm yourself and motorvate for the next few hours. Then break your probably more-significant winter camp, and hit the deep snow trail. If you’re lucky you’re on the trail by 9. Now you’ve got about 5 or 6 hours of slow travel before you start looking for the likely campsite for the night and reversing the whole morning drill.
    On the other hand it is beautiful winter and you are in the woods, and THAT’S a good thing.

    • Dan Crane says:

      I agree, Mike. The shorter days greatly limit the extent of one’s adventure.

      I spent a summer working in north-central Minnesota, and ventured up to the Boundary Waters many times. Very beautiful country; I hope to get the opportunity to return someday.

  5. Bill Ott says:

    Hi Dan,

    I had never noticed your large protruding ears before.

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

  6. Pete Nelson says:

    Okay Dan. I’m not going to win an argument against someone who wrote that he actually welcomes the lovely hoard of summer bugs – except when he’s running away from them.

    I presume you could wax equally rhapsodic about rain, mud, trail erosion, relative humidity that has every part of you dripping, the warm, lovely scent of deet, the happy feel of that bear canister shoving into your back, the joyful experience of coming upon garbage-choked lean-tos, the packed trail heads, the camaraderie with seasoned fellow campers hitting the trail in their Tommy Hilfiger sweats, jewelry and deck shoes – scads and scads of them who somehow didn’t stay away because of your bugs – and for the bushwhacker, blowdown, swamp and mire.

    Your summer oratory has dwarfed me sir! I stand down.

    • Dan Crane says:

      Don’t give up so easily, Pete!! I was hoping for another volley back onto my side of the court!

      Both seasons have their unique beauty, as well as their unique drudgeries. I just prefer the warmer months to the colder ones when all is said and done.

      Typically, I avoid many of the conditions you specified by avoiding the crowds of the High Peaks Region, and enjoying the relatively quiet and peaceful northwestern Adirondacks. I rarely see another soul there, even when I am not bushwhacking.

      Enjoy your colder months; they won’t last for long, especially with climate change coming to ruin the party.

      • Pete Nelson says:

        You know I’ll never really stand down, Dan.

        I avoid crowds as well… yet some of the people one sees in the back country, despite best efforts to avoid them, defy description. If they went winter backpacking that’d straighten ’em up right quick, so there’s another plus for my side.

        Now go get your tent out, Dan. Fair’s fair: I camp in all seasons, even spring, which I’m sure we can mutually pick on without mercy.

        • Dan Crane says:

          My tents are probably very dusty, as I have not used one in many years.

          Speaking of spring, my typical first foray of the year is in spring, just before Easter in either late March or early April. An injury cost me most of last year, so that trip shall be my first in a whole year.

          Plus, I love late spring. That’s when the birds are at their horniest (can I say that here?).

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