Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Winter treks can be easier with proper gear

By Joseph M. Dash

Oh the perils of winter camping – at least when you use modern equipment. I read the article, “A Winter Trail Too Far,” (posted Jan. 29, 2020 in the Adirondack Explorer) with great interest. My sympathies to the brave team hiking the Northville-Placid trail in winter. Hearing about the toil of breaking trail, frozen clothes, iced-over boots and the physical exhaustion from days  in the cold made me realize how inadequate modern equipment is for winter.

I admire the group’s effort but I take issue with their conclusion that the trail conditions in winter are just too harsh. Consider that the Native American Inuit traveled much further, in deeper snow and in far colder conditions than those encountered by the NPT crew.

Yet the Inuit survived, and thrived, year-after-year in these conditions. Why? Superior endurance? Acclimatization? Evolved specialized physical traits? No. The answer is they simply used superior methods and equipment, as European Arctic explorers eventually realized. Modern gear is not appropriate for winter camping and is even downright dangerous. Sometimes we have to look to the past for the best ways.

Believe it or not there is a method of winter travel that turns camping into an absolute paradise and it doesn’t involve a dog sled, horses or snow mobiles. Fortunately, Garrett and Alexandra Conover, two Maine guides, have researched this issue for us. They have rediscovered Inuit methods of winter travel and detailed how it’s done in their book “The Snow Walker’s Companion,” which is widely sold throughout the Adirondacks. Most of what I cover here appears in greater detail in the Conovers’ book.

Snowshoes

First and foremost are the snowshoes. Let me be blunt: modern aluminum snowshoes are garbage. To see why, watch Lure of the North’s video demonstration of snowshoe types on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoY4pkqwgO0. The LOTN spokesperson compares the performance of modern aluminum, traditional wood and hand-made Inuit snowshoes in deep powder.

The LOTN person first dons a pair of modern Tubbs-like shoes. As the LOTN person walks he sinks into the snow up to his knees. I can’t imagine breaking trail while sinking that far into the snow. The sheer effort of lifting one’s foot to take another step would exhaust even the most fit individual.

The problem with modern snowshoes, both aluminum and wood frame, is that they do not provide enough “float” for a fully grown adult. Modern wood frames have rawhide webbing with large spaces between the strands. Consequently, the weave allows too much snow through and a person sinks. Aluminum shoes are worse. The frames are far too small in area to support a person and the plastic “webbing” doesn’t provide any support at all in deep powder. Even if you increased the area of these shoes snow would fall on the solid plastic making you lift an inch or more of snow with each step. There’s a reason snowshoes are made with webbing. Leave both types of snowshoes at home and get yourself a pair of superior, hand-made Inuit snowshoes.

In the last few minutes of the video, LOTN dons a pair of tight-weave Inuit shoes. The results are dramatic: he sinks only an inch, at most, into the snow. And we’re talking powder! Why such superior performance? One look at Inuit shoes shows why. The weave of Inuit babiche (as it’s called) is incredibly tight and the spacing between strands extremely small. This provides excellent support while allowing snow to fall through the babiche with each step. Consequently the float is superior. It’s not clear why modern manufacturers can’t make their shoes with a tighter weave. But they don’t. Therefore, for extended winter travel in deep snow Inuit snowshoes are a must! But be warned Inuit shoes don’t come cheap. You can expect to pay from several hundred to a thousand dollars for a pair but they’re worth every penny. I see many of these snows for sale as antiques for very little money. I haven’t tried this yet but I wonder if a quick coat of varnish will bring them back to life? It’s something I plan to try down the line.

Clothing

Breaking trail wearing a winter parka, while sinking up to your knee in the powder is like jogging in a fur coat.  A better choice is a lightweight shell that keeps wind out while allowing moisture to evaporate. Enter the snow walker’s anorak and pants. In their book, the Conovers recommend a suit made from light Egyptian cotton canvas. This type of material is made from long-fibered cotton plants that allow for high strength and an extremely thin, and tight weave. The result is that the anorak keeps wind out while allowing perspiration to escape. Egyptian cotton cloth usually weights 4.5 oz per square foot so we’re not talking about the usual 10 oz duck one finds in outdoors stores and fabric shops.

Unfortunately, you can search the world over and you will not find Egyptian cotton canvas. The Conovers apparently bought the last batch. Luckily, there’s a substitute. No, it’s not GoreTex! Garrett Conover makes a good point about Goretex’s breathability. It breathes but it doesn’t breathe fast enough. Thus, Goretex allows perspiration to build up under the anorak where it freezes into crystals. Better is British-made Ventile.

Developed during World War II, Ventile is almost identical to Egyptian cotton. It’s made from the exceptionally long fibers of cotton plants grown in Peru. The fibers are then woven into a tight, windproof weave that is also breathable. The British coat Ventile to make it almost waterproof. Ventile, like Inuit snowshoes, is quite expensive. It takes four times longer to weave Ventile cloth than it does to make regular cotton fabric. I ordered “seconds” – fabric with tiny imperfections that do not affect the performance but prevent the manufacturer from selling it at top dollar. The lower price allowed me to have a custom sewn snow suit made for snowshoeing and there isn’t any noticeable imperfection I’ve noticed.

A thin cotton shell also allows for quick changes of clothing. If conditions get cold, stop and don a sweater under your anorak. If the going gets tough and you start to sweat, stop and remove a layer. Since the shell is thin, changing undergarments is quick and easy – no zippers and no bulky coat.

Shelter

Camping with a nylon tent and sleeping bag makes winter outings a miserably cold experience. There’s no way to thaw out your wet equipment. Worse still, your body is constantly burning fuel to keep you warm. Under these conditions, no matter how much sleep you get at night you’ll be exhausted within a few days. Hence, a different type of shelter is needed. Enter the “hot tent.”

The hot tent is a canvas tent, hopefully made from Ventile, with a heat-resistant silicone opening that allows a stove pipe to vent to the outside. There’s usually no floor but most people, myself included, cover the snow with a ground tarp. The outer rim of the tent has “snow flaps” –  foot-long extensions along the bottom that allow you to pile snow up around the tent edges, sealing out cold air.

A small wood burning stove is placed inside and the stove pipe run outside through the silicone opening. Light a fire and your entire winter experience is transformed from misery to absolute extravagance!

It’s the height of luxury to sit inside a tent warmed to 72 degrees by a camp stove when it’s sub-zero temperature outside. This type of tent allows you to dry out clothing overnight, regenerate your energy and get a great and restful night’s sleep. If your clothing is especially wet, then stay put a few days, let them thaw, and recharge. The hot tent transforms winter camping into a wonderland of enjoyment. Snowstorm? No problem, Many of these tents are pyramid or cone shaped allowing them to easily shed wintry winds. Just sit out the storm inside your cozy tent and resume travel when the weather improves. I bought mine from Tentsmiths in Goric, New Hampshire. Peter Marques, Tentsmith’s proprietor, is an encyclopedia of tent knowledge.

Obviously, with a hot tent a route and camping location must be chosen that provides an abundant wood supply to feed the stove. So plan your route to include stops at wood-accessible locations. Also, bring along full sized tools such as a snow shovel, an ax and a tree saw (a chain saw is probably overkill). When using a camp stove you want logs, not twigs or squaw wood.

Tobaggan

Camp stove? canvas tent? Full size ax and saw? How does this guy expect to fit this into a backpack? Enter the Inuit toboggan. You can pull a tremendous amount of gear easily using a toboggan. In fact, the great outdoorsman Calvin Rustrum, in his book “Paradise Below Zero,” wrote how the Inuit considered summer the doldrums. The absence of snow meant they couldn’t move. Consequently, they had to make a permanent camp and wait for winter to return.

Why not a snowmobile?  You can’t use them in deep snow or the back country. However, some people combine them with komatiks, a sled pulled behind the snowmobile on which they load gear. Personally, I don’t like the noise or the smell of a snowmobile but if you like them this type of travel is also good. The Moose Plains would be a great area for snowmobile camping.

Now caveats about toboggan travel. First and foremost is terrain. This must be fairly level. You can pull a toboggan up a hill and there are ways to lower it down again but you want to minimize the number of times you have to do this. Obviously, the toboggan is not for alpine climbing.

A bigger problem on the NPT that I see is water bodies. When lakes and streams are frozen, as they used to be in the Adirondacks before the days of global warming, crossing water presented no problem. But today, this is a changing as more and more of our waterways stay open during winter.

One solution may be to reroute to a narrower, or frozen over section of the water. You must be able to read ice with toboggan travel especially river ice. Probing with an ice chisel for thickness and safety helps. Another, especially for the 90 foot Stony Creek crossing, is to get thick neoprene boots that will enable one to walk through the steam. Then modularize your toboggan packing, i.e. pack gear in multiple backpacks or waterproof dry bags. When you reach the river unpack the sled and shoulder each bag carrying it across the river. When everything is on the other side, including sled, repack.

Conclusion

Besides the NPT, many Adirondack trails can be navigated using the “hot tent” method. Santanoni Road immediately comes to mind. There’s also Boreas Ponds. Even if Gulf Stream Road remains closed this winter, a six mile trek with a toboggan from the parking lot at the Blue Ridge Parkway is not a big deal. A one mile trek from The LaBier upper lot is even easier. One could even tie a lost pond boat on top of the toboggan for paddling. Powley-Piseco road in the Southern region is also an excellent choice. The possibilities are endless and I hope this writing inspires more adventurers to try this method of winter camping.

Sources of equipment include:

Shown here are three photographs of my gear:
1. My Egyptian cotton canvas tent
2. My titanium camp stove
3. My Inuit snowshoes
Joseph M. Dash, resides in Brooklyn, New York and works full-time as an attorney. On weekends, he spends as much time as possible camping and canoeing in the Adirondacks. Joe is currently exploring a through-hike of the NPT by toboggan for next February.  He hopes to introduce more people to the Conover Method so they can enjoy the Adirondacks more in winter.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at [email protected]




8 Responses

  1. SNAPPER PETTA says:

    Winter camping with a hot tent will totally adjust your thinking to being able to enjoy the outdoors in temperatures below zero. That said, some of the author’s preferred equipment is difficult to obtain; and also fairly costly for the average individual. At this point I defy you to find a tent or anorak that’s made with Ventile cloth. While substitutes are available, a quality hot tent or outer shell is still $$$. Snowshoes like the author’s are also difficult to find and very costly when you do; although Lure of the North does sell kits. Bottom line, I love winter camping with my traditional gear but I doubt it’s something most people can jump into unless they have a sizable bank account.

  2. Boreas says:

    Mountainsmith and likely others used to make the Armadillo (stupid name) sled that I believe was based on Nordic military equipment. It was far superior to a toboggan. It was basically a large backpack on a pulk. The skier wore a waist belt that attached to long aluminum tubes that attached directly to the front of the sled. You could ski uphill and downhill and through trees quite easily. It did require some changes in skiing technique, and often the sled could be used as a stabilizer you could lean back on on steeper downhills.

    My friends and I still own Armadillos that we are to old to use. But we found them to be the key to enjoying backcountry winter camping simply because of getting 65 pounds off of your back when trying to ski. You can easily carry 80+ pounds on the sled with little back strain. I don’t really understand why they were discontinued. Was there a decline in winter camping? Smartphones don’t work well in sub-zero?

    • Jack Wilson says:

      Boreas,

      Patrick Smith, the owner of Mountansmith sold the company in the 90s and went on to found Kifaru. Kifaru still makes toboggans for backcountry use as well as tipi style tents with portable woodstoves (though made of silnylon rather than cotton).

      • Boreas says:

        Thanks. I did come across that site when I did a quick search for pulls. I even found an Armadillo on eBay selling for about what they went for new. But it hadn’t been sold….

        Since I have been out of action for so long, what is the current popularity of winter camping today? It was getting quite popular in the 80s, but I don’t know if it still has the same popularity.

  3. Boreas says:

    We also tended to use lean-tos as destinations as well. It was just easier with more than 2 people. Back then it was almost incomprehensible that someone would be occupying a leanto in the winter backcountry. I don’t believe we ever ran into an issue.

    But a leanto could certainly be COLD. We never used fire pits. If it was windy or cold, we usually spread a nylon fly over the doorway to keep out the snow and wind. And you could get up for relief without crawling over others.

    Another thing we carried as a back-up to leanto were GoteTex bivy sacks. Kind of a pain if it snowed or rained, but they “worked”. They often would come in handy even in a leanto if the temps dropped below -10 or so, but I always felt they built up too much vapor and if i wore any clothing at all to bed, I slept feeling clammy.

  4. Zephyr says:

    Ha! I used to do a lot of winter camping when you wouldn’t see anyone. I can remember being the only car parked in the Loj parking lot. It dropped below 30-below on one trip and we survived using a summer tent, 3-season bags, hot food, and lots of layers! You could build fires in those days, which was welcome to warm up in the morning and dry stuff out too. The hardest part was starting the car when we got back out. Wouldn’t turn over until we lit a fire in a can under the oil pan for awhile. In any case, people seem to think we were all miserable and uncomfortable back in the day without modern gear, but we were just fine. We had down stuff, wool, pack stoves, could build fires. It really wasn’t a problem if you knew what you were doing with the old gear.

  5. Couldn’t agree more! Anyone interested in making their own snowshoes look up Country Ways at http://www.snowshoe.com

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