4 Winter Hikes for Aspiring Catskill 3500ers

Rough terrain, remote locations, and harsh weather make tackling any of the Northeast’s peak-bagging lists a difficult achievement. Whether it’s the high peaks of the Adirondack 46’ers, the 4,000-footers of New England, or the summits of the Catskill 3500 Club, membership is hard-earned.

Unlike the stewards of New England and the Adirondacks, however, the Catskill Club challenges its aspirants in a different way, by requiring that four of its 35 listed peaks be gained twice—once in winter—for a total of 39 climbs. It’s a wrinkle that ups the ante and affords hikers two unique experiences on some of the region’s finest summits.

As with any winter outing, be prepared for frigid temperatures, shorter days, and potentially nasty weather. Always be sure to check the forecast and trail conditions before heading out. If you’re new to winter hiking, start here.

So which are the must-do winter climbs in New York’s southern range?

A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Slide Mountain

At 4,190 feet, Slide Mountain is the tallest peak in the Catskills and, together with Hunter Mountain, complete the region’s contribution to the NE115 list. It’s Slide’s superlative status that makes it a mega-popular place to be at any time of year, so be prepared to negotiate the crowds on the weekend.

On a bluebird winter weekday though, it’s about as good as it gets. The Curtis–Ormsbee Trail, though neither the most direct nor the easiest route to the top—but decidedly less crowded than the alternative—is an outstanding bit of hiking. Those willing to take on the extra effort though are rewarded with two stellar, sweeping viewpoints, from which several of the Catskills’ higher peaks are visible.

The allure of ticking another 4,000 footer—and a winter one to boot—is also hard to deny. There are a good lot of harder hikes in the Catskills, but Slide definitely has that 4,000 footer-vibe about it.

A 6.6-mile loop hike linking the Curtis–Ormsbee and Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trails is one of the best short hikes in the Catskills. For the more ambitious, a full traverse of the Burroughs Range—one of the region’s premier hikes—is an awesome longer (9.8 miles as a shuttle, 14.5 miles as a loop) option.

Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak
Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Blackhead Mountain

High and rugged, the peaks of the Blackhead Range loom large over the northeastern Catskills. From west to east, Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and the eponymous Blackhead account for the fourth-, third-, and fifth-highest mountains in the region, respectively, and are traversed by a network of well-signed, well-maintained trails.

It’s easy to see why the architects of the Catskill 3500 Club’s bylaws chose this place—and specifically Blackhead Mountain (3,940 feet)—for one of their four required winter hikes: the ice.

As winter lays siege to Blackhead’s upper reaches, the steep eastern ledges grow dense with thick, accumulated ice, making an approach from this direction substantially more challenging. In fact, the hardness of the ice and the steepness of the terrain often demand that hikers ditch the light traction for real-deal crampons—a pretty unique requirement for a day hike in the Northeast.

The most popular way to bag Blackhead is by way of a 4.3-mile loop from the parking area at the end of Big Hollow Road on the Batavia Kill, Escarpment, Blackhead Mountain and Black Dome Range Trails. Doing it clockwise will have you ascending the heavy ice and descending on gentler ground with prolific views of Black Dome, the best on the hike.

The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak
The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak

Panther Mountain

Panther Mountain (3,730 feet) and its north–south running ridgeline are best known for offering some of the best views in the Catskills. For better or worse, this is a widely known fact, and a nice weekend day can draw a crowd, particularly at Giant Ledge, a bit south of Panther’s summit.

The snow and ice of winter will thin the crowds a bit, especially past Giant Ledge where the higher-precip years, snow can really pile up enough in the col that even the most intrepid post-holer will turn back (hint: bring snowshoes). Beyond, the moderate ascent is made easier with a good snowpack. Some ledge work will still need to be negotiated and switching between spikes and snowshoes will add some time to the trip, but that’s winter hiking for you.

The terrain is generally moderate and enjoyable, but this hike is all about the views—views that are magnified with winter’s absence of leaves. Unlike in leaf-out season you can really feel the scale of the place the whole time—not just at the viewpoints.

The most direct route up Panther—a 6.4 mile out-and-back on the Phoenicia–East Branch and Giant Ledge–Panther–Fox Hollow Trails—can be made from the south, starting at the hairpin turn on CR-47. A northern approach from Fox Hollow, with a substantial view just before the summit offers a longer (8.8-mile), far-less-traveled option for those looking to avoid the crowds.

The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Balsam Mountain

Balsam Mountain (3,600 feet), in the Catskills’ Big Indian Wilderness Area is the shortest and most westerly of the required winter 35’ers. Though the summit itself is viewless, a little ledge just to the north offers an outstanding easterly view, and the broad, flat character of the ridge makes for a pleasant, relaxing stroll—all the better with a good snowpack.

The main attraction of Balsam, however, is its location. Proximity to easily accessible trailheads, shelters, and other high peaks make it a great mountain to revisit: alone, as a day hike, or as a longer, overnight trip by linking up with the semi-trailed Eagle and Big Indian Mountains to the south.

Despite its generally moderate grades, winter on Balsam presents would-be summiteers with yet another unique seasonal challenge: water crossings. Climate change certainly hasn’t made mountain weather any more predictable and unseasonable thaws can cause high water, making even the simplest of brook crossings a challenge. Be adequately prepared and know when to turn around.

Beginning at the Rider Hollow Road trailhead and linking the Mine Hollow, Pine Hill–West Branch, and Olivrea–Mapledale Trails makes for an excellent 4.9-mile loop up and down Balsam’s western flank.


Northeast Mountaineering Climbs for All Abilities

Each year, the onset of winter transforms the mountains of the northeast. With the shorter days and plummeting temperatures comes a brand new world of icy, wind-scoured summits and long, snowy approaches. The hiking trails and climbing routes of New York and New England, easily accessed in summer, become entirely different challenges, rife with logistical considerations and objective hazards. Meanwhile, terrain that is beyond reach in the summer opens up—the gullies fill with snow, the waterfalls freeze, and beautiful, blue ribbons of ice adorn the cracks and corners of cliff faces from the Catskills to Québec. Come wintertime, the mountains of the Northeast are a playground for those bold enough to brave the cold.

For the vertically-inclined, it’s winter that makes the Northeast an excellent, low-elevation training ground—what the high peaks of the Adirondacks and the Whites may lack in height, they more than make up for in heinous weather, high-quality routes, and a long history of daring ascents. This is the place to be for mountaineers of all abilities—from those who are just starting out, to more experienced alpinists seeking grander objectives, to the west or overseas.

Should you be among those looking to test their mettle in the east, the following five mountains—and these all-time classic routes—will most certainly oblige.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Easy Snow: Franconia Ridge

High and exposed, the Franconia Ridge—including two summits above 5,000 feet—stands at an important place in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Its western slopes plummet into Franconia Notch, a hub of hiking and climbing in all seasons, while to the east, its flanks drop into the Pemigewasset Wilderness accounting for a sizable chunk of the Pemigewasset Loop, a top-notch classic backpacking trip. By many accounts, Franconia Ridge is the finest high route in the Whites.

While it doesn’t have as many noteworthy technical routes as, say, Cannon Cliff, its neighbor across the notch, it does have a few worthwhile moderate endeavours like Lincoln’s Throat (WI3) and Shining Rock (WI2). It’s Franconia Ridge’s merits as a winter hiking destination, however, that make it an ideal introduction to traveling the mountains of the Northeast in winter. A hike linking the Falling Waters, Franconia Ridge, and Old Bridle Path trails makes for a long, fun day in the mountains. As the trail breaks the treeline and gains the ridge, the exposure and weather combine to create an excellent, non-technical environment to try out some of the tools and techniques required of a true mountaineering objective.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

WI2/Easy Snow: Mount Colden’s Trap Dike 

At 4,714 feet, Mount Colden is the eleventh highest peak in the Adirondacks, a bonafide 46’er, and may appear as a somewhat diminutive selection for a catalogue of classic, Northeastern mountaineering routes. But for one striking feature, however, does Colden draw attention year round: the Trap Dike, a heavy cleft in its northwestern face.

In summer, the Trap Dike is one of the Adirondacks’ main attractions, bringing hikers from far and wide to its base at Avalanche Lake. The lengthy approach is made worth it by the steep, class 4 climbing, and the thrilling exposure of the upper slabs. At times, even in the best conditions, climbing Colden via the Trap Dike can feel like splitting the difference between a hike and a climb.

In winter, the combination of weather, shorter days, and frigid temperatures take hold, and the water that flows in the dike freezes, introducing in turn a new feature to negotiate: waterfall ice. The Trap Dike (WI2, Easy Snow) opens with two pitches of ice climbing, interspersed with some easy snow, before the route opens onto the exposed upper slabs. While not steep, the slabs are extremely exposed, and be downright terrifying in thin conditions. Easier options for descent abound, though none are short—a frozen Mount Colden is a day-long affair, at least, and a stout challenge for newer mountaineers.

WI2/Easy Snow: The North Face of Gothics

The Great Range, in the heart of the Adirondacks, is one of the most spectacular places in the Northeast. Rugged, remote, and wild, a full traverse covering its eight high peaks—over 20-plus miles—is an all-timer, and arguably one of the hardest hiking objectives in New York State.

At its midpoint, miles from the nearest road, rises Gothics, a steep, dramatic mountain recognizable from afar by its steep, bare north face. Though it’s summit only measures 4,734 feet above sea level, Gothics punches above its weight—even the normal hiking routes are aided by fixed cables on the slabby upper reaches. From any direction, at any time of year, Gothics is a tall task.

Come winter, the North Face (WI2, East Snow) route up Gothics is one of the Adirondack’s premier mountaineering challenges—when it’s in. More often than not though, the season conspires to create sub-optimal conditions, ranging from verglass to bare rock, that can seriously have you questioning the validity of its WI2 grade.

When it’s right though the North Face is a thrilling, exposed climb up a sheer 1200-foot wall. The wide flow offers numerous lines of ascent, with varied difficulty and opportunity to place protection, so experience reading ice and snow is critical. Between that, the scenery, and the approach—a true haul—Gothics’ North Face is a legitimate, must-do objective.

Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns
Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns

WI3: Pinnacle Gully

Simply put, Mount Washington is the centerpiece of mountaineering in the Northeast, a hulking mass around which all other objectives in the region orbit. At 6,288 feet, it rises, literally, above everything around it for a thousand miles, and its remarkable features—from the deep ravines and soaring buttresses of its eastern slopes to its rugged summit cone—are host to some of the most spectacular hiking, climbing, and skiing to be found anywhere.

However, it’s Mount Washington’s “character and hostility,” as legendary climber and author Fred Beckey once put it, for which the mountain is probably best known. The unique topography of the White Mountains, and Mount Washington’s location at the confluence of two, ever-churning weather patterns can result in some famously horrendous conditions. Dangerously cold temperatures, heavy snow and high wind—with gusts reaching hurricane-force—are a regular occurrence in winter. As a direct impact, Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range have a very low treeline (around 4,500 feet) and a ton of exposed, alpine terrain, over which many outstanding winter climbs can be found. One line up “the rockpile” stands out, however, making “best-of” lists left and right: it’s the über-classic ice climb, Pinnacle Gully (WI3).

Ice begins to form early in the north-facing gap between Pinnacle and Central Buttresses in Huntington Ravine. The flow it creates—three pitches of incredible, aesthetic, ice climbing over 600 feet—is about as good as it gets. At WI3 the grade is relatively moderate, making Pinnacle Gully an accessible and popular route in an alpine environment that is unique in this part of the country.

A day on Mount Washington should never be taken lightly, though—the weather is always a factor and even on a bluebird day, high traffic can mean a shower of falling ice. Bring a helmet and enjoy the best of what the northeast has to offer.

WI4: The Cilley-Barber Route on Katahdin

Rising some 4,288 feet from the forest floor, unchallenged, the Katahdin massif dominates the landscape of Baxter State Park, its bulk of rock and ice without rival against the backdrop of Maine’s Great North Woods. Katahdin is wild, remote, and unforgiving at any time of year but it is doubly so in winter, when an ascent by any means is a serious challenge—one that is perhaps unequaled in New England, including Mount Washington.

Already removed from the population hubs of the Northeast, Katahdin becomes significantly more remote come winter, when the seasonal closures of Baxter State Park’s access roads makes for a rigorous, committing, 16-mile approach. Further complicating matters—and adding to that expedition-like vibe—access to Baxter State Park is subject to strict regulations, and winter climbers must apply for permits. Factor in the extreme cold and harsh weather that you’re bound to encounter at some point on a trip to Katahdin, and you have a real-deal, multi-day, winter adventure. It’s fitting then, that its name comes from the Penobscot word for “the greatest mountain.”

The steep headwall of Katahdin’s South Basin, scarred over with dramatic, icy gullies, is the frozen jewel in the crown of New England mountaineering. Classic, technical climbs, have been put up here in all seasons since the early twentieth century. The routes are long and committing and objective hazards—like avalanches and icefall—are very real dangers, and moving fast is absolutely critical. This is as alpine as it gets in the Northeast.

Among these coveted lines is the Cilley–Barber (WI4), a dramatic, ice-and-snow-packed cleft in headwall that soars some 2,000 feet from the bottom of the cirque to the top of the Knife Edge arête. It is a long, sustained, and difficult ice climb—one that is often recognized as one of the best of its kind in the east. The approach, permitting, and weather may lend themselves to the feeling of an expedition, but they also thin the crowds out a bit, and cultivate a wild feel—one unique to the Northeast, that should have a place on everyone’s tick list.


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52 goEast Resolutions for 52 Weeks of 2020

With the new year approaching, it’s time to start looking ahead and planning our next outdoor adventures. With that in mind, we’ve gathered some of our favorite articles from the past year to put together the ultimate outdoor-focused list of New Year’s resolutions. Put these ideas on your to-do list for 2020.

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Winter 2020

  1. Ski the wrong way (or is it the right way?) and go uphill at the resort.
  2. Get a great night’s sleep in Siberian-like weather.
  3. Spark joy by getting organized.
  4. Explore an abandoned ski resort—on skis.
  5. GBA: Granite Backcountry Alliance or Great Backcountry Areas? You decide.
  6. Sharpen your skills on some easy ice climbs.
  7. Brush up on these basics before tackling the Rockpile.
  8. Sleep in the snow like a star.
  9. Ski Tuckerman Ravine like a guide.
  10. Take your hiking above the trees.
  11. Don’t let winter keep your four-legged friends from hiking.
  12. Keep your puffy looking pristine.
  13. Get on New York’s super-highway of skiing.

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Spring 2020

  1. Cook up some haute cuisine on an early season camping trip.
  2. Paddle to a sweet campsite for you and your kayak.
  3. Kick off hiking season on Cape Cod.
  4. Enjoy the ultimate pairing of recreation and relaxation: bikes and brews.
  5. Send in the Gunks like a guide.
  6. Break in your camping gear on these early season overnighters.
  7. Lay low this mud season.
  8. No joking matter, stay safe on April Fools Day.
  9. Don’t dirty the reputation of hikers, play properly in the mud.
  10. Get out of the rock gym and climb outside!
  11. Go on a hike that everyone will enjoy.
  12. Perfect your picture taking and add some action shots to your Insta account.
  13. Get down and dirty trail running.

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Summer 2020

  1. Add a pitch of paddling to your rock climbing.
  2. Take your running off road.
  3. Develop your dirtbag skills and learn how to find free car camping.
  4. Slide into summer on this off-the-beaten-path adventure climb.
  5. Hike the White Mountains’ most historic trail.
  6. Beat the heat and find cool climbing at warm-weather destinations.
  7. Style singletrack this summer.
  8. A trip with “great” in its name is a trip worth taking.
  9. Hunt for history in New Hampshire’s Presidentials.
  10. Take a short paddle on the longest canoe trip in the Northeast.
  11. Go on a multi-sport adventure across the Empire State.
  12. Storm the Adirondacks and hike a hurricane.
  13. Run Rhode Island, along the City by the Sea’s coastline.

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Fall 2020

  1. Visit New England’s neighbor to the north.
  2. Peep these trails and avoid Franconia Notch’s busy parking lots.
  3. Get the beta on building a rack and gear up for Sendtember and Rocktober.
  4. Step up your hiking on Acadia’s legendary ladder trails.
  5. Go fast and light this fall.
  6. Don’t let these simple mistakes keep you from sending.
  7. The only thing frightening about this New Hampshire ghost town is that you haven’t visited.
  8. Find heaven and hell on the Catskill’s most challenging trail.
  9. Step away from the NH48 and hike one of these 4,000-footers that didn’t make the cut.
  10. Break away from the grind on one of these shorter thru-hikes
  11. Or, go for a long paddle
  12. Or, take an even longer long road trip.
  13. Just remember, you’re never too old for adventure.

 

Of course, this list is just a starting point. If you need even more inspiration, you’ll find 52 more adventures on our 2019 list, and 52 more on our 2018 list.


Winter Off-Trail Hiking in the Adirondacks

Overuse on Adirondack trails—especially in places like the High Peaks—is a big problem. One solution to reduce your impact? Get off trail. As winter sets in and snow and ice blanket the park, the solitude of these beautiful and remote places gets even more intense. For those hearty and adventurous explorers who seek a challenge beyond the trail, and are well prepared, winter bushwhacking in the Adirondacks can be both challenging and rewarding. 

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

How to Prepare to Go Off-Trail

Preparing to venture off trail in the rugged terrain of the Adirondacks, especially in winter, requires some vital skills, proper gear, and careful risk management. 

One of the most obvious requirements is developing navigational skills. While modern GPS technology can be tremendously useful, it is important to have adequate map and compass skills before leaving the safety of marked trails. Start by taking an introductory course or practicing in an area like a local park or small trail network where the consequences of becoming “lost” are minimalized. 

Prepare as always for winter hiking with proper gear and clothing, snowshoes, and crampons or microspikes. Learn to read snow conditions and think about if you will be using crampons on an icy hardpack or breaking unconsolidated powder; when in doubt preparing for all possibilities. Realize that moving through tight snow filled woods results in you being constantly wet and snow covered, so often some extra layers, gloves, and even another shell are crucial. 

Trip planning and risk management also become even more vital when bushwhacking in winter months when an unexpected night or two in the woods can have dire consequences. Use traditional maps, online tools like CalTopo, and trip reports from others to carefully plan your route and consider timing of off trail hikes. 

Understand that winter bushwacking often involves breaking trail through deep snow, pushing through thick forests, and bypassing unexpected obstacles like blow down and icy cliff bands. This results in a much slower pace and greater energy use than trail hiking; consider this when planning for both timing and food and water supplies. 

Seeking assistance for an injury or other serious issues is typically a much harder task than on trails or in summer so be sure to prepare at all times for an evening in the cold, let others know a detailed itinerary, and consider use of a personal locator beacon. 

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Our Favorite Hikes

There’s a way to get away from the trail for every hiking ability level, in the Adirondacks. 

Beginner 

Morgan Mountain: This Wilmington hike is a short hop off an easy trail with a nearby pond, lean-to, and slide to explore if interested. Views are limited but the area is still beautiful.

Number 8 Mountain: Number 8 is one of many open summits with nice views of Brant Lake from ledges accessed by the relatively easy bushwacking of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness area.

Advanced 

Elizabethtown #4: Herd paths approach this Keene subpeak, there are loads of open rock for views, and Spotted Mountain is a nearby add-on. Use caution near the beautiful but frigid waters of the South Fork of the Boquet River.

Wallface Mountain: An ADK 100 highest list peak and home to one of the largest cliffs in the Northeast, it’s a great hike on its own. A recent search and rescue left a massive clearing on the summit allowing for unique views. 

Credit: Neil Luckhurst
Credit: Neil Luckhurst

Expert

MacNaughton Mountain: Some hikers call MacNaughton the 47th high peak. There are many different approaches to this one and some are becoming faint herd paths, but it’s still a challenging and long day in winter. This summit has a sign and a pleasant summit ridge. 

Sawtooth #2: The entire Sawtooth Range (not to be confused with Sawteeth Mountain) includes some of the most remote and wild land in the park. None of the peaks in this range come easily, especially in winter. The approach from the Averyville side is preferred. Viewpoints feature Lake Placid, the Sewards, MacNaughton, and beyond.


4 Tips for Finding Wintertime Solitude in the Adirondacks

Finding peace, solitude, and quiet in our day-to-day lives gets harder every day. Sometimes I head into the woods looking for a more social natural experience. I like to see other people on the trail or at a campground. It makes me feel even more comfortable if I am alone, or it is getting dark. In some circumstances, I’m expecting to see other friendly dogs for my dog to meet, other hikers to chat with on the summit, and the trail to be worn from other snowshoers so my walk will be a bit easier.

But other times, I am seeking solitude. I want to experience the quiet, untrammeled parts of wilderness. I want to experience the natural world as many people have before me, for hundreds of years. I want to hear birds, and water rushing. I want to have a chance to see wildlife. I want to find an overlook to enjoy the view in seclusion where I can fully let my body relax, look over valleys, rivers and marvel at nature’s wonders.

The reality is that we must share our wildlands; They belong to all of us. However, there are a few things you can do to find a little more solitude if that is the experience you’re seeking when planning your next outing in the Adirondacks this winter.

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Venture into the wilderness outside the High Peaks.

The High Peaks Wilderness area gets a lot of attention for being home to the tallest peaks in the Park. But there are many other Wilderness areas that offer unique outdoor recreation opportunities. There are many mountains, lakes, rivers, and ponds that have trails that connect and offer opportunities to explore the Adirondacks. 

Avoid using apps to find your hikes.

These apps can be helpful, but especially in the Adirondacks, there are so many trails that are not listed on them. You can find more reliable and comprehensive information (and quieter places to visit!) listed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), town websites, regional land trusts, or the Champlain Area Trails. If there is a trail listed on apps or on a review site with many recent reviews, consider picking another location.  

Explore summer destinations.

Snowshoe/ski into popular paddling areas and primitive campgrounds that would be otherwise busy in warmer seasons. Make sure to call the land manager (many times the DEC) beforehand for permission to use the closed seasonal roads first.  

Start from a quieter town.

Whether you’re a local or coming from far away, consider planning your outing in a town that is a bit sleepier during the winter season. You will be much more likely to step out of your car and into solitude. Plan ahead if you’re hoping to make it an overnight trip, as some businesses may be shut down for the season. This may mean bringing your own provisions and cooking a cozy meal in your AirBnB. For locals it may mean bringing dry clothes and a thermos of something hot to keep in your car for a comfortable ride home. 

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It’s our responsibility when we get to any natural place, to leave it better than we find it. Even if we are the only person that visits a place, the next person will feel like they have just discovered a place for the first time too. That also means thinking about how you share your experience on social media after your trip.  

It’s also worth mentioning, that if you’re going to take the responsibility of venturing into more remote, less populated destinations, you should especially be prepared for the conditions for the outing. Understanding the safety implications of where you are going, what you’re doing, and if there is cell service where you are. Even if you’re only planning to be out for a day, have enough gear to survive overnight in case you get stranded. 

At the end of the day, no matter what, even if you’re sharing your experience with many other people, a day spent in the Adirondacks is a good day. However, there are many places in the Adirondacks where you can go and have a quiet winter day. There is a certain magic when we have a moment in winter solitude to experience the gifts of Mother Nature and realize why it is all worth protecting for everyone. 

How do you find solitude, and when do you enjoy a more social nature experience?


Thanksgiving Week vs. The Feather Pack Jacket

When word came through that EMS was releasing a new and improved version of the Feather Pack jacket (men’s/women’s) to call me excited would be an understatement. I’d been eyeing a couple of down jackets for a while, as an alternative to my synthetic puff jacket—to use as an insulating layer on colder hikes, or as a belay jacket while ice climbing—and the Feather Pack appeared to fit the bill. It’s lightweight, packable, and warm. Moreover, it’s a handsome looking jacket, as fit for a day in the mountains as a night on the town. Which got me thinking: How can I appropriately test-drive such a versatile piece of outerwear?

Just like autumn in the northeast, the week of Thanksgiving is a time of change. It opens with a bit of work, transitions into family time and a day of feasting, and culminates in the form of a beautiful long weekend—the perfect opportunity to get outside. And so, to put the Feather Pack to the test, I’ve invited it to Thanksgiving, adopting it as my go-to jacket for the week, to see how it performs in town and country alike.

Wicked early on the way into work. | Credit: John Lepak
Wicked early on the way into work. | Credit: John Lepak

Monday and Tuesday: Commute, Work, Commute Again

A short work week is a work week all the same, so Monday is about putting the Feather Pack to the test on my heavy-duty commute. From my home in the woods of western Connecticut, getting to my office in New York City each day is a haul. Being on time means leaving before the sun rises, and any outer layer I’m bringing along needs to deal with two different climates. The temperature in the city tends to be incrementally warmer so what works on a freezing-cold Metro-North platform may be a bit heavy once I get into town.

Good news for the Feather Pack—it’s lightweight and it packs down well so, when I needed to shed on the subway or on the sidewalk, it fit right into my work bag.

Cold fingers but pretty warm otherwise. | Credit: John Lepak
Cold fingers but pretty warm otherwise. | Credit: John Lepak

Wednesday: Meal Prep

Each Thanksgiving, as sure as there is turkey and mashed potatoes, there’s an aspect of cooking Thanksgiving Dinner that moves the show outside. Occasionally, a warm fire or grill is involved, but more often than not, it’s shucking oysters and littlenecks en masse for a stuffing, a stew, or to just eat straight-up—this is New England, after all. It’s a bit wet and a bit cold so a warm layer is critical. The Feather Pack made a nice addition to this year’s wetter-than-usual shellfish prep session: the insulation did its job—I was toasty—and the durable water-resistant coating held up well against a little bit of rain.

Warming up after a breezy 5k. | Credit: Hans-Peter Riehle
Warming up after a breezy 5k. | Courtesy: Hans-Peter Riehle

 

Thursday: Run. Then Eat.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, the best way to kick off a day of overeating is with a little bit of exercise. Enter the traditional Thanksgiving morning road race. Since I’ve been running it, the Newtown Turkey Trot has been a cold affair, with temperatures rarely above freezing. Getting out of a warm bed and going out into that is a neat trick. I threw the Feather Pack on over my running clothes before leaving the house with a plan of wearing it until it was time to run and then throwing it back on once the race was through.

This year, while the day was a balmy 44° under partly cloudy skies, the wind was up and it felt a whole lot colder. The jacket was absolutely perfect during warm ups—super warm against the wind chill. Five kilometers later, it was back on again, keeping that body heat close.

Gearing up at the base of Thrills and Skills. | Credit: John Lepak
Gearing up at the base of Thrills and Skills. | Credit: John Lepak

Friday: Crag Day

The leftovers have been packed away, the kitchen is clean, and the day is free. With the masses in town, shopping their little hearts out, it’s finally time to get out and really run the Feather Pack through its paces. A couple of laps at the local crag are in order.

We headed up to Saint John’s Ledges in Kent to do some top roping on the long, slabby Upper Ledge. The Feather Pack, not nearly as weary as I from all of our activity the previous week, was again packed neatly away into my bag.

Typical of late-season rock climbing in New England, it was cold, and once we reached the base of the ledges—accessed via a short, steep section of the Appalachian Trail—the Feather Pack came right out. It was handy keeping warm while setting up the anchors and belaying. The roomy hood—also very warm—fit over my helmet, a Black Diamond Vapor, quite comfortably as well.

Carry out what you carry in. | Courtesy: Katharina Lepak
Carry out what you carry in. | Courtesy: Katharina Lepak

 

Saturday: Family Time

Getting out needn’t be a physical challenge all the time, and more mellow terrain makes access easier for the whole family. A local park or preserve with some easy trails is a great way to be outside together. Connecticut’s share of the Appalachian Trail offers several easy, scenic stretches along the Housatonic River that fit the bill perfectly.

Being a cooler day on less trying ground gave me good reason to try the Feather Pack in an active way. It also afforded me the opportunity to try it on over a baby carrier, complete with a baby strapped to my chest. I’m happy to report that both the jacket and the baby provided ample warmth.

 

Warming up on a quick break, trying to beat an incoming winter storm. | Credit: Katharina Lepak
Warming up on a quick break, trying to beat an incoming winter storm. | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Sunday: Take a Hike

Closing the book on another successful Thanksgiving weekend also means the opening of the holiday season, and the countless tasks and to-do’s that come with it. A couple of miles in the woods is the perfect reset before diving into all of that.

An impending winter storm meant staying local, and getting out early. I hit the Zoar Trail, a 6.5-mile loop trail in Newtown’s Lower Paugussett State Forest. For a shorter trail, the Zoar Trail offers a little bit of everything: river views, a waterfall, rock hopping, and a decent bit of elevation gain—a good test for an insulating layer like the Feather Pack.

I donned the Feather Pack leaving the house and wore it on the ride out, packing it away at the trailhead. Hiking the Zoar Trail clockwise gets the majority of the climbing out of the way early. I hoofed it, trying to beat the storm. Near the crest of the last hill, I stopped, put the Feather Pack on, and took a breather. As it had all week, it delivered the warmth. I took a drink, had a quick snack, and moved on.

The second half of the loop trail skirts the edge of Lake Zoar. It’s generally flat, so I threw the jacket back on to finish the hike. Soon after, the freezing rain moved in, and I again got a chance to test out the DWR coating. A few miles later, I was warm, dry, and in my truck headed home to watch the snow.

Verdict

The Feather Pack jacket held its own over the course of a long holiday week. It excelled as a resting insulation layer—Whether it was a quick water break on a hike or a longer stretch belaying a partner up a climb, it trapped escaping body heat and kept away the cold. It also served itself well as an around town jacket. As part of the test, I wore it everywhere, from hustling to an office in Manhattan to picking up a turkey in rural Connecticut and it never felt uncomfortable or out of place—a testament to its design, equal parts form and its function.
The best endorsement I can give it though, is that when Monday rolled around again, as I was stepping out into the predawn morning to scrape the ice and snow off my truck, the Feather Pack was the jacket I grabbed. And it’ll be in my pack when I’m back on the trails this weekend, too

A State-by-State Guide to Giving Tuesday in New England

Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday—so much of our time (and money) around Thanksgiving is spent trying to find the perfect gifts for friends and families that it’s easy to lose sight of the organizations working to make our communities better. In recent years, the idea of Giving Tuesday has become popular, reminding us to support the organizations protecting our crags, keeping our waters clean, advocating for open spaces, and exposing the next generation of outdoor lovers to our favorite sports. If you’re in the giving mood, here are some New England outdoor non-profits that could use your support.

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Rhode Island

It makes sense that the state nicknamed the Ocean State is home to awesome water-based organizations. One of the most notable is Save the Bay. Turning 50 years old in 2020, Save the Bay is a 20,000-member-strong group dedicated to protecting one of Rhode Island’s most valuable natural resources, recognizable landmarks, and playgrounds for paddlers and surfers: Narragansett Bay.

Another ocean-inspired Rhode Island organization that will be amped if you hang ten (or more) dollars on them this holiday season is Spread the Swell, which is working to share the stoke by offering free, non-profit surf camps to underprivileged Rhode Island kids.

While the Ocean State is best known for its surf, it’s also home to some of the best bouldering in New England. Spot the Southeast New England Climbers Coalition a donation and assist them in their work to help protect and establish access to crags, along with maintaining popular destinations like Lincoln Woods.

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Massachusetts 

The Pan-Mass Challenge is synonymous with summer in the Bay State, as cyclists push their limits on a variety of rides, raising money for a cause everyone is on board with: defeating cancer. Go the extra mile this year by donating, fundraising, or committing to volunteer at the August event.

Helping keep cyclists safe as they train to tackle the Pan-Mass Challenge’s 187 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing is the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike). Help MassBike keep the wheels in motion toward creating a more bicycle-friendly state with a donation or by volunteering your time.

Investing in the sports we love is about more than merely maintenance and access. Chill Boston introduces underserved youth in the Greater Boston Area to board sports such as snowboarding, SUPing, and surfing. Drop in and hook them up with a donation to keep our board-based sports healthy and diverse, while also teaching young people valuable life skills.

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Connecticut

Connecticut is home to outdoor activities as diverse as its landscape, ranging from hiking to rock climbing to cycling. A donation to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA) can put a spring in the step of the Nutmeg State’s hikers. The organization is committed to connecting people to the land to protect Connecticut’s forests, parks, walking trails, and open spaces for future generations.

Enthusiasts of Connecticut’s high and wild places will want to tick a donation to the Ragged Mountain Foundation (RMF) off their list. The RMF currently owns 56 acres of land in Southington, Connecticut—including Ragged Mountain—and is focused on stewardship, protection, and public access to the state’s cliffs and crags.

The Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program (CCAP) provides the state’s youth with an organized state-wide cycling league, allowing them to grow within the sport and develop values and skills that transfer to other parts of their life. Ride into the holidays feeling good with a donation to this great group.

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Vermont

Locally grown food, amazing craft beer, and outstanding outdoor experiences are commonly associated with Vermont. One of the orgs aiding Vermont in sustaining this reputation is CRAG Vermont, which is dedicated to preserving access to and maintaining the state’s climbing resources, along with giving hungry and thirsty climbers a place to play. Help CRAG Vermont over the crux with a donation this year.

Vermont is a destination for mountain bikers from across the US and Canada. The Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) consists of 26 unified chapters dedicated to advocating, educating, and promoting mountain biking in the Green Mountain State. Your donation will facilitate the trails remaining fast, flowy, and flush.

If you think of Vermont’s mountains as more white than green, check out the Vermont Backcountry Alliance (VTBC) this Giving Tuesday. Cutting a check to the VTBC helps keep the state’s legendary tree skiing properly maintained, while also protecting and advancing access for human-powered skiing.

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New Hampshire 

It’s no surprise that the Granite State is a mecca for New England climbers. Friends of the Ledges is an org focusing on stewardship and access to the climbing found in the eastern White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine. Keep this awesome group sending in the future—they secured nine-acres of land critical for access to Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse Ledge in 2019—with a donation this year.

Accidents happen in the mountains to even the most experienced hikers, climbers, and skiers. If you happen to have a mishap in the White Mountains, you’ll be glad you came to the aid of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR) with a donation this year, as they assist various agencies with search and rescues in the region.

If you pedal your bike in central or southern New Hampshire, you’ve likely spent time on the techy trails built and maintained by the Friends of Massabesic Bicycling Association (FOMBA). A donation to this awesome org helps keep their relationship with Manchester Water Works rolling, and access to these terrific trails open.

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Maine 

Maine is home to the only national park in New England: Acadia. The first U.S. national park originally created by private land donations, you can join in the park’s philanthropic tradition by becoming a member, making a donation, or volunteering with Friends of Acadia—a group helping to preserve, protect, and promote the region’s only national park.

Another incredible private land donation (and the Northeast’s best hope for a second national park) is the 80,000+ acres donated by the co-founder of Burt’s Bees known as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. While you probably can’t match enormous donations such as this, you can help preserve and protect this parcel by joining or donating to the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, taking part in the tradition of selflessness and generosity that birthed this area’s creation

If you’ve ever climbed Mount Katahdin and marveled at the wildness of Baxter State Park, you owe a debt of gratitude to Maine’s 53rd governor, Percival Baxter, who gave the park to the people of Maine with the mandate that it remain forever wild. Get in the giving spirit of the former governor with a gift to the Friends of Baxter State Park, who are working to preserve, support, and enhance the wilderness character of the park.

Do you know of another nonprofit that could use some support this year? If so, leave it in the comments so our readers can check it out.


How to Leave no Trace on Winter Adventures

Backcountry use in the winter is gaining popularity, and for good reason: The solitude is greater, the views are wider (when the weather cooperates), and there are fresh, beautiful layers of powder to play in. Advances in backcountry skiing and snowboarding equipment and better access to Federal and Public Lands have driven more people to become cold-weather outdoor enthusiasts.

But all this increased use can lead to greater impacts on the landscape, wildlife and others seeking similar experiences. Winter can leave resources and wildlife more vulnerable to the damage of recreational users and there have been cited issues with trash, human waste, excessive noise and disturbances to wildlife that can be easily avoided with some knowledge of Leave No Trace principals.

In general, Leave No Trace encourages visitors of the backcountry to treat the outdoors with respect and limit the impacts of recreation on the environment and wildlife within it. For the most part, the guidelines are pretty straightforward and can be applied to varied seasons and conditions, but there are a few changes you should be making to your LNT practices in the winter.

Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

Planning & Preparation

Planning ahead is especially important in the winter because it increases our safety and enjoyment while minimizing damage to vulnerable backcountry resources. Poor planning or underestimating conditions can result in putting yourself at risk and lead to damaging natural and cultural resources. Venturing outside in the snow is attached to higher risk. Extreme temperatures and wind, fast-changing weather, elevation and avalanches can lead to emergencies like frostbite and hypothermia. To manage your risk and prevent environmental damage, take the following actions:

  • Educate yourself on conditions in the area you’ll be traveling and always ensure you’re prepared with appropriate gear and proper clothing.
  • Monitor snow conditions frequently. The night before, the morning of, and at the trailhead if you’re able.Mountain-Forecast.com is a great resource to find accurate reports for specific peaks or mountain ranges. Weather can change quickly in the mountains and understanding your timeframe can be crucial. Wind draws heat from our bodies, making it feel much colder than it is, so be sure to check the wind speed too. Prepare for extreme weather by bringing extra layers, a headlamp, emergency hand warmers, and fat-heavy snacks.
  • Don’t rely on electronics for navigation. Keep headlamps, phones or other battery-operated devices close to your body heat and consider carrying an portable battery pack if you’re out overnight. Choose waterproof maps and have an excellent understanding of how to read them.
  • Backcountry skiing preparedness is a bag I won’t open here, but you should be highly experienced and carry proper emergency equipment (avalanche beacon and shovel).
  • Don’t go out alone and always let someone know what your plans are. Even the experienced outdoorsman or woman shouldn’t take on ambitious routes solo in winter conditions.
Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

Backcountry Waste

Ever come across a wad of toilet paper alongside a popular trail during the Spring melt? It’s not pretty, and certainly not ethical. In the winter months, we need to give extra consideration as to how we pack out our trash and human waste during backcountry visits. Human waste (poop!) has serious impacts on ecosystems, so we need to do our best to properly dispose of it to ensure the area is not compromised when the snow melts. While the objectives of proper human waste disposal are pretty straightforward—minimize chances of polluting water sources and spreading disease, while promoting healthy decomposition—this can be much harder in the winter due to the temperature:

  • Use established toilets when possible. Some land management areas will continue to maintain trailhead and backcountry facilities in the winter. Research prior to your trip.
  • Scatter your liquid waste. Always urinate away from the trail and established camps. To help naturalize the area, throw some fresh snow on top (for your dog too).
  • Be prepared to carry out your poop. That’s right, the best way to Leave No Trace is to take ALL of your waste with you. Decomposition of solid waste is much tougher in the winter months and the ground is much too cold to dig a proper hole, so instead it ends up in a pile of snow. It simply freezes until the snow melts and results in potential ecological damage and spread of disease. The best way to dispose of waste in a sanitary and socially acceptable way is by using a WAG Bag (which contains a gel to help break down waste), or something similar. It’ll likely freeze inside the bag, making it easier to pack out until you reach a trash receptacle (not a pit toilet). Dogs typically don’t do their business in the proper LNT area, so it’s especially important to carry theirs out too. Check out the Poo Vault for safe and odorless packability. Check local regulations for recommended methods on high peaks.
  • Dig a cat hole as an alternative. At the very least, human and dog waste needs to be buried in a 6- to 8-inch cat hole at least 200 feet from water sources, camp, and trails. Be aware if you’re in a direct drainage where water will flow in the spring by looking at the vegetation and slope of the surrounding area. All toilet paper should be packed out in a separate ziplock covered in duct tape to help be discreet.
  • Pack out all trash. Minimize your waste and weight by choosing foods that won’t freeze and repackaging when necessary. Always carry extra ziplocks to pack all of your food waste out, this includes compostable food scraps like apple cores, fruit pits and banana peels. Practice good trail karma by picking up any micro-trash (small pieces of wrappers) left behind by others and help keep spring runoff free of plastic.
Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

Path of Travel

We are simply visitors of the backcountry and we want to avoid any damage to the land as we travel through it. While it may appear that surface vegetation is protected by snow in the winter, the routes we take now will impact the trail later. By traveling on packable snow we can prevent soil erosion and the development of unintended trails.

  • Travel on durable or packed snow. By packing down deeper snow or walking on ice (using MICROspikes), the surface vegetation underneath is left unimpacted and our tracks will simply melt away come spring. If you’re breaking trail, gently shake snow-weighted trees and avoid avalanche paths, steep slopes, cornices and other unstable snow.
  • Separate ski and snowshoe tracks. Be courteous to others by establishing hiking, snowshoeing or biking paths separate from skin tracks used by uphill skiers and split-boarders. When ascending, yield to downhill traffic. If you are a skier or snowboarder, courteously avoid coming down the hiking trail.
  • Avoid creating new trails. In muddy spring conditions, do your best to stay on the snow, or walk in the middle (yes, in the mud!) to avoid creating new paths and damaging trailside plants. Watch out for thin snow where you may fall through.
  • Respect other adventurers. While the camaraderie of groups in the outdoors is a powerful thing, many skiers/riders/hikers/mountaineers come for the solitude. Keep noise to a minimum and help promote a cooperative, supportive culture by sharing safety information offering help when needed.
Courtesy: Dave Moore
Courtesy: Dave Moore

Camping

The great thing about camping in the winter is the surface area is coated in snow so our impacts are minimal. We’re left to our own devices to create a safe and comfortable campsite using the appropriate gear and the following strategies:

  • Camp on durable snow at least 200 feet from water sources. Stay clear of the trail and prep your site by packing down snow to create a durable surface for your tent (don’t forget longer stakes!). Choose a flat spot away from avalanche paths, steep slopes, and cornices. Trees can provide an ideal spot sheltered from the wind.
  • Dismantle any snow shelters or wind breaks. Naturalize the area before you leave.
  • Use huts or shelters where available. There are many backcountry shelters available for use (some require a fee) to make your winter camping experience more comfortable. Always leave them in better shape that you found by cooking outside when possible, sweeping before you leave and carrying out all trash to prevent mice intruders. Be considerate of other users and follow any instructions relating to the shelter.
  • Minimize campfire impacts. Where fires are permitted, use an established ring or keep them small. Cut only small dead or down trees and burn all wood to ash. Be sure all fires are out completely and leave a clean site by clearing your ash and never burning trash.

Curious to learn more? For the complete list of LNT practices, see here.


How to Keep Warm in the Winter Wind

Shorter days, colder temperatures, and the possibility for wicked weather are all factors to be considered when getting outside in the winter time. The winter wind is one such factor that, if unaccounted for, can sour even the bluest of bluebird days. Here are some tips to help keep you warm when the temps are down and the wind is up.

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Be Prepared

The first and best thing to do when considering a winter excursion is to be prepared. Local weather and trail conditions reports are critical, as is understanding how the wind—and the windchill factor—can affect temperatures. One useful tool is the National Weather Service’s Wind Chill Chart, which uses sustained wind speed and temperature to calculate the amount of time skin can be exposed before frostbite begins to set in. This is super important, especially for those fast-and-light, alpine-style objectives, where spartan packing lists may cause an important item to eschewed for the sake of weight.

Cover Up

Exposed skin is the most vulnerable to frostbite when the windchill index dips down—so cover it up! Boots, pants and jackets are obvious but make sure to also wear gloves and a hat. A good balaclava or neck gaiter are also essential to protecting your face, which is almost always exposed in other circumstances. Ski goggles, in addition to keeping your eyes out of the wind, limit exposure as well.

Pack Hand Warmers and Start Them Early

As the body cools, circulation slows, and the extremities—starting with fingers and toes—become extremely susceptible to freezing. Nip this in the bud at the trailhead by stuffing your gloves and boots with hand warmers. Do yourself a double favor by packing extra gloves and socks and stuffing them with activated hand warmers from the get-go. Should you wind up losing a glove or getting your socks soaked, you’ll have warm replacements ready to go.

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Layers on Layers

Layering is always important while traveling in the mountains but when the wind is up, it’s doubly so. A wicking base layer will keep you dry while an insulating mid-layer will help trap your body heat. On top of those as an outer-most layer—while moving, at least—should be a waterproof, windproof, hardshell jacket. Hardshell jackets are designed specifically for conditions like the biting winter wind—they tend to be lightweight and packable too, so they’re not too much to throw into a pack until you need it. Finally, have a packable insulated jacket to pop over everything else to keep that heat in on breaks. As an added bonus, the air trapped between each layer also acts as additional insulation.

Eat and Hydrate Well

Before heading out into the cold, fuel up with a big meal. It’s more energy to keep you moving and digestion helps bring the body temperature up. While you’re out, keep hydrating—it’ll encourage circulation and spread the warmth to vulnerable extremities.

Warm Up from the Inside-out

Warm up from the inside-out by carrying an insulated thermos full of something hot. A little coffee, tea, or plain-old hot water can make a huge difference, raising core temperatures and spirits alike in the coldest of conditions. Alcohol, despite it’s common renown for cutting the cold, is best avoided when the windchill factor is severe as it actually causes the body to lose heat faster—so save it for the aprés.

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Stay in the Lee of the Wind

When the wind is really bad, do what you can to stay out of it. In most cases this is as simple as staying in the woods but above treeline it means being strategic about route selection and where to take your breaks. Use natural and artificial features like boulders and cairns to catch your breath—the relief of even a minute spent out of the wind can make all the difference, mentally as well as physically.

Keep it Moving

The best way to combat frostbite when the windchill factor is high is to keep moving. Aerobic activity keeps the heart rate up, increasing circulation and spreading critical warmth to vulnerable fingers and toes. Remember to capture that body heat and keep your core temperature up while resting by throwing on an additional insulated layer.