There are benefits to winter camping in a lean-to. Lean-tos are spacious; although each lean-to can be different, typically there is adequate room for five campers. The lean-to provides a level, dry platform for changing clothes, setting up a stove, mixing food, or just plain sitting. They are usually unoccupied in winter.
On the other hand, lean-to’s aren’t particularly warm in cold weather – even if you close off the open side with a tarp. Also, they are usually situated in high-use areas. They can house rodents and the sleeping arrangements can leave you lying wide awake between two prodigious snorers.
Lean-tos are traditional open faced camping shelters. They are mostly found on State Forest Preserve Land in the Catskills and Adirondacks. Recently I hiked into John Dillon Park, an handicap accessible wilderness facility created through a partnership among International Paper, Paul Smith’s College and the State of New York. I was interested in viewing their handicap accessible lean-tos equipped with ramps and fold-down wooden sleeping platforms.
In 2008 an Adirondack hiking forum user, DSettahr, stated it was his “(long term) hiking goal… to spend a night in every single lean-to in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.” To that end DSettahr began an inventory and posted a spreadsheet. Over time, with the contribution of many hikers, he ended up with a spreadsheet of 295 lean-tos.
Lean-tos are also located along the Appalachian Trail. WhiteBlaze, an internet resource dedicated to the Appalachian Trail, has a forum devoted to Shelters & Lean-tos where users share their shelter experiences and discuss issues related to shelters of lean-tos from Georgia to Maine. Lean-tos are also found in Finland, where they are called laavus. They are especially common in the Pukala National Forest of Finland.
Lean-to Construction and Usage
In New York lean-tos are built mostly by hand with chainsaws and chisels and the logs are assembled using a scribe notching technique that results in a very tight fit of joints and allows the use of the entire length of logs. The floor space usually measures 12′ x 8′ in size.
New York State maintained lean-tos are open to any and all comers up to the marked capacity of the shelter. As is the case at other campsites, you may not stay at a lean-to for more than three consecutive nights without a free DEC permit. When using a lean-to, don’t hammer nails into the logs or make other “improvements.” It’s even illegal to set up a tent inside a lean-to!
Lean-tos are commonly available in the winter. In 14 years of winter camping only once have I encountered a lean-to in use by other campers. On one of my very first winter camping trips an intrepid Boy Scout troop preceded us into the popular John Pond lean-to in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area. We read their intentions at the trailhead register so we retrieved a tent from our vehicle and tented on the other side of the pond rather than try to share the lean-to with the troop.
Giving Back to Lean-tos
If you have used a lean-to and enjoyed the experience you can give back by volunteering through Adopt a Lean-to (or they can point you to Lean2Rescue).
Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adopt a Lean-to Program began in 1985 with the approval of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Typically Adopters make multiple visits to ‘their’ lean-to to keep it cleaned up and maintained.
Adopting a lean-to does not entail major reconstruction work, and adopters do not need to be ADK members. The adopters hailed from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Canada.
Read about Adirondack lean-to etiquette here.
Photos: John Dillon Park lean-to.