How to Stay Warm While Winter Backpacking

Getting and staying warm is often the crux of a winter backpacking adventure. Do it right and sleeping outside in the off-season can actually be enjoyable: A change of scenery spices up even your most familiar campsites, not to mention you have the option to mix in skiing and other winter sports into your overnight. But do it wrong and you’ll be miserable or unsafe. Keeping comfortable while winter camping is a practiced skill that can take a lot of trial and error, specialized gear, and long-perfected personal techniques, but a couple simple rules and an understanding of how we get cold can go a long way to making your winter excursions memorable (for the right reasons).

What makes you cold?

Understanding how to get and stay warm starts by understanding how we cool, and not all situations are alike. You probably learned a lot of these terms in science class, but how do they apply to adventuring outside?

Radiation: The ongoing transfer of heat from your body to its surroundings. The heat’s got to go somewhere, otherwise we’d cook ourselves! The colder the environment, the more quickly this effect takes place, or so physics would tell us.

Convection: The acceleration of radiation by wind. This is the culprit behind the idea of wind chill, as the moving air is stealing away our heat. The faster the wind, the greater the effect.

Conduction: The loss of heat through direct contact with cold objects. You notice very quickly which things are better conductors of heat when you touch a cold fuel bottle or a foam pad. The more effectively an object conducts heat, the faster it will draw heat from you. 

Evaporation: We see this process everywhere: Things dry, and as they do they become cooler. Again, more physics at work here. This is the reason why we sweat (thermoregulation), and the reason why staying dry in the winter is critical for staying warm. 

These mechanisms are always in motion in our everyday lives, whether we pay attention or not. When we transition to a backpacking environment, we tend to realize in painful clarity how our fur-less, (mostly) blubber-less, soft and delicate bodies are not adapted to living out in the cold and snow. The trick to surviving and enjoying your winter excursions is to get warm and to stay warm.

How to Get Warm

You can’t stay warm if you aren’t warm to begin with, so finding ways to heat yourself up is a critical place to start for winter camping.

Movement

The quickest way to get warm is to get moving. In order to do anything physically, we need to burn calories, and this burning of our body’s fuel can create massive warmth. Use caution though: Working too hard will make you sweaty (read: freezing as soon as you stop) and can exhaust you, which also works against your ability to stay warm.  

Nutrition

The body is an incredible machine that turns food into energy, and subsequently, warmth. We are operating a biological furnace, and in order to keep the fire stoked we need to continually add fuel by consuming calories from food. Getting enough calories in the winter is a full time job, but it means you can eat all the comfort food that you keep yourself from eating the rest of the year (chili mac with a cheese spoon anyone?). There are helpful calculators to help determine how many calories you need to keep going in the winter, like this Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator. You can expect to take in more than twice your normal daily BMR for a successful winter camping mission, depending on how hard you’re working and how cold it is. 

Enter the Macronutrient

The name may not be familiar, but we know these as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, seen in bold print on your nutrition labels. Each are important to a healthy diet, especially for doing something active like backpacking. There is a lot of science behind the roles of these “macros,” but instead of going off the deep end we can over-simplify to focus on creating warmth. Largely speaking, protein doesn’t do a whole lot for warmth, although it plays an important role in muscle recovery. For carbs and fat, it can help to think of building a fire. You start with quick-burning kindling (carbs) to get started, then you can add larger sticks and logs (fat) to keep the fire burning hot.

Hydration

It can be difficult to motivate to drink enough when it’s cold outside, because your water is probably cold too, and it feels counterproductive to ingest more cold stuff. However, proper hydration is almost as important as adequate nutrition for keeping your body producing heat efficiently. 

Artificial Heat

When your puffy jacket and peanut butter can’t get your temperature up, you may need artificial warming, including chemical warmers, your camp stove, and fire. These are indispensable resources for getting warm, especially when you no longer can on your own. Keep a few handwarmers “on-hand” and always bring materials with which you can start a fire in addition to your stove.

How to Stay Warm

Nights spent winter camping are long and cold. Once you’ve spent all day hiking and eating to get warm, holding onto that heat is critical to getting a good night’s sleep and staying comfortably safe as the temps dip even more after dark.

Clothing

The fundamental and often misunderstood role of clothing is not to make you warm, but instead to keep you warm. Clothing itself does nothing to produce heat (except for those fancy modern heated socks and gloves). The reason we can use layers of clothes to stay warm is because they trap warm air and prevent it from escaping, thus insulating us from those mechanisms of heat loss. 

You can’t wear your warmest layers all the time, otherwise you’ll sweat through them and the trip will be over. Knowing how and when to use your layers is its own discussion entirely, but just remember when you’re moving and getting warm, you don’t need as many layers, and when you’re not moving it’s time to put on the layers to trap your heat.

A layering system is only as effective as the materials that make it up. There is no good reason to wear cotton in the winter (cotton kills, as they say), because once it gets wet it loses all insulating qualities, and takes forever to dry out. Be careful, as the same thing is true for down insulation, even though it it the most effective insulator by weight when it is dry. 

A warm puffy jacket is great but you’ll still get cold if there are sneaky exposed areas elsewhere: your head, neck, wrists, and your plumber’s crack will all act as heat loss sinks. Make sure to cover up everything to keep a tight warmth seal, and tuck your shirts into your pants to avoid those nasty gusts.

Footwear

You can have the highest-performing layers money can buy, and still end up cold if your footwear is lacking. Anyone who’s stood in the snow for any length of time will tell you how cold it is, and this is because of how quickly conduction works to move heat from your body into the ground. Using adequate boots, meaning insulated, supportive, water-resistant, and not too tight, is one of the most important practices for having an enjoyable backpacking trip in the winter.

Shelter

Now that you have good winter boots and warm clothing, you will probably need some sort of shelter to keep out of the weather overnight. Having a good shelter is yet another critical piece of the puzzle to staying warm while out for multiple days. 

The ways that shelters help keep you warm are mainly these: They will trap radiative heat and allow the interior air space to stay warmer, and they will block wind and precipitation, keeping you dry and away from convective currents. 

There are certainly many types of shelter out there, from the simple tarp to an expedition tent, bivouac bags to snow quinzhees, there is something for each winter outing. The trick is to learn what each option provides (or doesn’t) and understand what you need it to do for you while you’re out.

How to Sleep Warm

We spend a lot of time sleeping, and rest is important for success in the backcountry. If we can’t sleep well, then it’s hard to do anything. Sleeping warm is crucial for proper recovery, and while you may not sleep through the whole night, here are some tips to help maximize your Z’s:

  • Start warm: As with clothing, a sleeping bag only insulates. When you first get in, do some sit-ups or leg raises to warm it up, and chuck a (tightly sealed) hot water bottle in there as well. 
  • Sleep with snacks: Fats, sugars, easy things that aren’t too messy. Make sure it’s something that won’t freeze solid. I keep a Snickers bar or two in my hat for a midnight pick-me-up.
  • There are few things more pleasant than changing into dry “pajamas” for bedtime, especially the “vampire socks,” so called because they never leave the darkness of the sleeping bag. Bring enough layers to always have something dry to sleep in.
  • As always, staying hydrated is paramount to an efficient metabolism. Keep taking in fluids, especially warm drinks or soup to get nice and toasty. But be mindful of the byproduct.
  • I know it’s cold outside but you’re not going to sleep well if you hold it, I promise. If it’s too rugged outside to consider venturing out, become a pee-bottle practitioner (practice at home before you ruin your sleeping bag). 

How to Choose The Right Jacket for Winter Adventures

Whether it’s to keep us dry, help us stay warm, fend off the wind, or shed snow, we ask a lot of our jackets—this is why so many hikers, climbers, and skiers are obsessed with them. On any given trip, our hiking packs likely contain three to four coats, which allows us to adjust for the ever-changing weather found in the mountains. There’s a difference between pulling a coat from your pack and grabbing the “right” coat from your pack, especially when Mother Nature rears her ugly head. Here’s how to dial your outer layer setup this winter.

Insulation

Down puffies like EMS’s Feather Pack and synthetic puffies such as the EMS Primapack offer exceptional warmth for their (very light) weight, making them incredibly versatile jackets to have in your quiver. The EMS Feather Pack and Primapack are favorites for cold-weather activities like winter hiking, backcountry skiing and snowboarding, ice climbing, and mountaineering. Since these jackets take up minimal space in your pack and provide exceptional warmth, they’re common additions to three-season hiking packs for chilly summits or to use in the event of an emergency. Walk any city street and you’ll notice that puffies like the Feather Pack and Primapack are extremely popular for everyday wear as well.

A word of caution: the thin nylon face fabric used on many lightweight puffies—including the Feather Pack and Primapack—can rip when exposed to sharp stuff like ice tools, ski edges, and tough branches. Consequently, they’re best worn under a hardshell or softshell during tear-prone activities such as tree skiing or when used near the sharp picks and points of ice tools and crampons.

Down Insulation: The Feather Pack

The Feather Pack’s down insulation provides unrivaled warmth-to-weight—down is, pound for pound, the world’s best insulator. The Feather Pack, and jackets like it, are popular with a broad spectrum of users who covet their superior warmth, minimal weight, and small size when packed. However, down is susceptible to moisture (like snow and rain), and while some jackets, like the Feather Pack, are made with hydrophobic down to improve water resistance, there are better options for wet-weather activities.

Best Use: Insulating jacket on cold, dry days when aerobic output is low and weight and space are at a premium.  

Synthetic Insulation: The Prima Pack

Synthetic puffies like the EMS Primapack offer many of the same advantages as those of down puffies, namely, they’re light, packable, and warm. Synthetic insulation generally outperforms down in wet weather—it provides insulation even when wet and dries more quickly than its down counterparts. As a result, synthetic-insulation jackets, such as the EMS Primapack, are popular with those living in wet climates or participating in activities where moisture is inevitable. The downside of synthetic insulation is that it does not pack up quite as small as comparable down jackets.

Best Use: Daily driver on cold days and for outings where warmth is critical and the conditions are likely to be wet. 

Active Insulation: The Vortex

Active insulation, like that used in the EMS Vortex, is a must-have for on-the-move athletes in cold-weather—think heading uphill while backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, and fast-paced hikes. Active insulation is designed to breathe during high-exertion activities and move moisture from the inside to the outside, making it an awesome part of any layering system. Active insulation pieces like the Vortex work great on their own, but what allows the insulation to breathe also allows the wind to penetrate through it. Consequently, they’re best paired with an outer layer, such as under a hardshell or softshell, in windy conditions.

Best Use: Higher-output aerobic activity in cold weather like hiking, climbing, or backcountry skiing. 

Hardshell: The NimbusFlex

Another key piece of the outerwear puzzle is a hardshell, such as the EMS NimbusFlex Rain Jacket. An outer layer like this has minimal insulating value itself but plays a critical role in your insulating system by keeping the elements (such as rain and snow) off the layers you’re wearing underneath. An added benefit of hardshells is that they do a great job blocking the wind.

Best Use: As an outer layer when it’s wet (resort skiing, ice climbing, hiking during a storm) or very windy (above-treeline travel).

The EMS Clipper

Softshell: The Clipper

Bridging the gap between true insulating layers (like the Feather Pack,  Primapack, and Vortex) and traditional hardshells, a softshell like the EMS Clipper is a great option for active pursuits. Typically worn over a base layer, the Clipper offers wind and water resistance in addition to providing some insulation. Breathable, stretchy, and rugged, you’ll see many folks wearing softshells while climbing, skiing, and hiking.

Best Use: Daily driver for aerobic activities on spring, fall, and mild winter days. 

Three-in-One: The Nor’easter

Where a softshell molds the best features of a hardshell and insulation together, a three-in-one jacket like the EMS Nor’easter zips them together. These jackets feature a burly hardshell with an insulating layer zipped inside, giving you the option to wear just the hardshell over a baselayer on a warm-but-wet day, just the insulation (in the case of the Nor’easter, it’s a fleece) when you need warmth and breathability but no weather protection, or zip them together to make a burly do-it-all coat.

Best Use: Skiing (especially at a resort), cold and/or poor weather aerobic activities in deep winter. 

Putting It All Together

The best jacket choice is often activity-dependent, and finding the right combination of layers for you involves many personal preferences. One common practice in the Northeast for hiking, backcountry skiing, and climbing is a base layer and softshell, with users donning a puffy (rest breaks, exposed ridgelines, and emergencies) and a hardshell (precip and high winds) at appropriate junctions. On colder days, consider swapping the softshell with an active insulator like the Vortex.


Solitude in the Southeast: Paddling the Congaree River Blue Trail

After a year unlike any other, what you really need is a sandbar to yourself. What you need is a river you can’t rock hop across. What you need is a forest so dense that you can’t even see others nearby. Cue river trails, like the Congaree River Blue Trail in South Carolina for example. Wide enough to socially distance from start to finish, your chances of encountering crowds are slim while your chances of having a rivers-side campsite to yourself are high. But most importantly, the blue trail takes you to Congaree National Park, a pristine old growth forest set within 27,000 acres of isolation.

The author and her husband looking into Congaree National Park. | Credit: Carla Francis

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park didn’t exist 20 years ago. Sure, the virgin forest and its champion trees have been there forever, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the land was upgraded from a National Monument to a National Park. Twenty-seven thousand acres and the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Southeast was preserved for you and me.

A 20 mile drive from South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, it’s an easy day trip by car. Schoolkids ride the big cheese out in the morning, attend a ranger-led program, and return to school before the bell rings. No knock on visiting by car—it’s free and the miles of boardwalk through the old growth forest immerse you into a primeval world of giant trees while protecting you from impaling yourself on a cypress knee. It’s good family-friendly fun if the Mosquito Meter is a 3 or below (levels 4 [severe], 5 [ruthless], and 6 [war zone] are to be avoided).

Checking the map on the Congaree River Blue Trail. | Credit: Carla Francis

The Congaree River Blue Trail

But the most adventurous way to access the park is by river, via the Congaree River Blue Trail. The launch point is in the capital city of Columbia but the takeout is in a different world, 50 miles downstream at the eastern boundary of Congaree National Park. A few outfitters offer shuttle service and gear rental, but if you know someone in town, try bribing them with Sushi Yoshi to shuttle your car to the takeout (with windows down and masks on).

Once you’re past the outskirts of Columbia you’re on your own; The next public bail point is about 47 miles downstream. Bring everything you need and know that drinking water from the Congaree is not recommended. The park itself is about 25 miles downstream, so the harder you paddle on the first day, the faster you’ll get there.

Most people overnight before entering the park, and luckily sandbars (aka campsites) pepper the length of the blue trail. Outside of the park, camping permits aren’t needed, giving the trip a “choose your own adventure” feel. This map shows all of the sandbars and has recommendations for keeping yourself safe and off of private land. The camping situation on the blue trail is one of the biggest perks—every night you have your own beach, a blazing fire, and what feels like your own riverside fiefdom. Just be sure to check the water level before setting out as all but a few larger sand bars will be underwater at around 10,000 cfs.

On my trip, taken in February to avoid mosquitoes, we traveled about 18 miles on our first day, anxious to get to the “good part.” Those first miles are decent; you’re out in the open enjoying the solitude and exercise, but you’re still passing through stretches of civilization. It’s not until you get closer to the park that things start to feel more remote, that the frog calls get a little louder, and that you start to feel like you’re out there.

Camping directly across the river from Congaree National Park. | Credit: Carla Francis

Beach Oasis

It’s a heady feeling visiting a new National Park, especially when you’re nearly alone to enjoy it. Around mile 25 when you come across an old access road next to a sandbar, you’ve arrived in Congaree National Park. Here, the blue trail meets the River Trail: It’s a 5-mile hike to the Visitors Center. Stretch your legs and experience one of the last remaining forests of its kind. Until about 150 years ago, 52 million acres of floodplain forest like this existed in the Southeastern US, most of which has since been lost to logging. Giant trees provide shade, which after a day or so on the river is a welcome reprieve.

For good reason, the park doesn’t allow backcountry campfires so we spent our second night on a sandbar across the river and downstream, out of the park boundary. From our perspectives, it felt equally remote but on the opposite side of the river from where we’d seen feral hog evidence while hiking. We spread out on the  “beach,” playing frisbee, reading, and as soon as sunset was on the horizon, building a fire from beach scraps. A barred owl called, asking the forest “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you alllll,” and as darkness settled in our headlamps began reflecting back at us in the eyes of raccoons.

Our campfire built and food secured against woodland creatures, we brought out the star chart. Even given its proximity to Columbia, the sky is much darker than most of America’s urban areas. We tried to identify the constellations that were rising from the park’s horizon: the Big Dipper, Taurus, Cassiopeia, and a lot of unknowns.

We woke in the morning to little hoof prints around camp—turns out feral hogs are on both sides of the river. Our last day was slow-moving as we didn’t have many miles to go but we wanted to enjoy the day. The left bank remained wild, and the right bank was mainly wild, but showed evidence of a local hangout or two. Even when we passed the Cedar Creek tributary, where paddlers who launch in the park spill into the Congaree, we didn’t see anyone.

Not too long later we arrived at the takeout, tanned, sandy, and planning our next river trip. And as always after visiting a national park, grateful to have visited one of our nation’s natural treasures.

Credit: Carla Francis

Alpha Guide: Hiking the Burroughs Range Traverse in Winter

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Three high peaks and arguably the best view in the Catskills make a winter traverse of the Burroughs Range one of the finest day hikes in the Northeast.

Alongside the Devil’s Path and the Escarpment Trail, the Burroughs Range Trail (also known as the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail) is one of the most enjoyable—and justifiably popular—routes in the Catskills. Over its 9.8 miles, it traces the highest ridgeline in the 47,500-acre Slide Mountain Wilderness—the Catskills’ largest wilderness area—traversing three distinct high peaks in the process: the Wittenberg (locally known known as the Wittenberg, with no “Mount” or “Mountain” required) with it’s steep upper reaches and sweeping summit views; Cornell Mountain, a viewless summit accessed by a fun, semi-technical rock formation known as the Cornell Crack, and; Slide Mountain, the highest peak—and one of only two 4,000-footers—in the region.

While each mountain has its own, individual charm, the trail is invariably, characteristically Catskills—rugged terrain, steep ascents, and a wilderness feel beyond what you’d expect for somewhere so close to New York City.

Quick Facts

Distance: 9.8 miles, one-way
Time to Complete: Full day for most.
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: December through March (as a winter hike)
Fees/Permits: None*
Contact: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/9150.html

*While there are no fees or permits in winter, day-use fees are applicable from mid-May to Mid October, when the campground is open.

 


Turn-By-Turn

This is a one-way ticket, so the first thing you’ll need to do is post a shuttle car at the Slide Mountain parking area on CR-47. From the Thruway, take exit 19 for Kingston/Rhinecliff Bridge. Follow the exit ramp to a rotary and bear right onto NY–28 west. After 30.7 miles, take a left onto CR-47 and continue for 15 miles. The Slide Mountain parking area (42.00889, -74.42756) will be on the left, just 2.0 miles after the hairpin turn.

From here, getting to the start of the trail is as simple as backtracking to NY-28, taking a right, and heading east for 7.7 miles. Take a right at Woodland Valley Road, and continue for 5.0 miles to the Woodland Valley trailhead parking area, just before the Woodland Valley State Campground’s main entrance. Find the trailhead by crossing the road and heading back east, following the red blazes to where the trail departs the campground (42.03600, -74.35665) between sites 45 and 46.

The expansive view from Wittenberg’s open summit. | Credit: John Lepak

The Wittenberg

As it exits the campground, the red-blazed Burroughs Range Trail—also known as the Slide–Cornell–Wittenberg Trail—crosses a brook on a wooden footbridge and immediately begins climbing at a moderate grade, passing a trail register. This is a popular route, so unless there’s been a recent snowfall of significance, you’ll likely have a well-established snowshoe trail to follow. After 1.3 miles of moderately steep climbing through mixed hardwood forest, the grade eases a bit and the trail starts to bear left (southeast), skirting the rim of a deep ravine to the north. Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain are visible through the leafless trees.

At mile 2.6, the yellow-blazed Terrace Mountain Trail breaks off to the left (42.01869, -74.34056) as the Burroughs Range Trail takes a right. Just 0.2 miles later, the recently-constructed, blue-blazed leg of the Phoenicia–East Branch splits off the left as well.

From here, the ascent becomes steep, and the trail winds its way up and over three, successively steeper ledges, steadily gaining the Wittenberg’s upper reaches. Eventually, the grade eases slightly, and the mountain runs out of ledges to throw at you as the trees change over from mixed hardwood to densely packed pine.

At mile 3.9, the trees give way to an open ledge (42.00839, -74.34692) and the summit of Wittenberg (3,780 feet). An extraordinary easterly view, including the mountains of the Devil’s Path and the Blackhead Range to the north, the high peaks of Friday, Balsam Cap, Peekamoose, and Table Mountains to the south, and the distinct figure of the Ashokan Reservoir front-and-center.

With a good chunk of elevation gain behind you, the open summit area is a great spot to grab a breather. Get in the lee of the wind and enjoy one of the best views in the Catskills.

The Cornell Crack, an ice-filled cleft in the rock just shy of Cornell’s summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Cornell

Head west across the open summit to continue on the red-blazed Burroughs Range Trail. Very quickly, the trail descends over a few icy ledges before flattening—This short but pleasant little col is commonly referred to as Bruin Causeway. At mile 4.5 the trail starts to climb again, steeply in places, until it reaches a formidable cleft in the rock known as the Cornell Crack (42.00256, -74.35564). This obstacle is tricky in the summer, but even more so in winter, when it fills with snow and ice. If you’re willing to carry them, a pair of front-point crampons and an ice axe make this a breeze.

Past the crack, at mile 4.7 the wooded summit of Cornell (3,860 feet) waits, indicated by a short spur trail to the left (42.00146, -74.35666) that offers limited views. Just beyond though, before the trail starts to descend, an open, west-facing ledge offers a preview of what’s up next: Slide.

Slide’s broad, open—but viewless—summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Slide

Begin descending Cornell’s slope by continuing west, passing several excellent viewpoints. At mile 5.5 the grade eases, marking the low point of the saddle. The trail is relatively flat in this area and several designated campsites make it a great place to set-up camp for anyone looking to spend the night. The trail begins climbing again past the campsite to another good view to the northeast, gained via a short spur trail that diverges to the left. The grade increases, climbing over snow-covered wooden stairways and stone steps until the summit ledge is finally reached at mile 7.0.

A bronze plaque celebrating the memory of the naturalist John Burroughs, for whom the range is named, marks the occasion. The summit of Slide (4,180 feet) is broad and open but with limited views (42.99892, -74.38578). Crossing the summit of Slide, the Burroughs Range Trail begins to descend very gently until another extensive view opens up to the north. Several more Catskill High Peaks are visible, including Hunter (the region’s only other 4000-footer), the Devil’s Path, the Blackhead Range, and Kaaterskill High Peak, which was at one point thought to be the highest in the region (until Slide was properly surveyed, of course).

The grade is easy and the trail is wide here, following the track of an old woods road built to service an erstwhile fire tower. At 7.7 miles, the Curtis-Ormsbee Trail—a beautiful way to climb Slide from the west—splits to the left (42.00117, -74.39668). Keep on following the red blazes of the Burroughs Range Trail until, at mile 9.1, it reaches its confluence with the yellow-blazed Phoenicia–East Branch Trail. Head right, following the Phoenicia–East Branch trail as it continues to descend another 0.7 miles  in before reaching a water crossing—easy if iced-over, a bit of rock hopping if not—and the Slide Mountain parking area on CR-47 (42.00889, -74.42756).


A vignette from Cornell’s summit proper, accessed by a short spur trail. | Credit: John Lepak

The Kit

  • The Catskills can get very cold in the winter and traversing the Burroughs Range makes for a long day in freezing temperatures. The EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket (men’s|women’s) is an ideal insulating layer for a trip like this—warm enough to keep the body heat up when you’re resting, packable enough to stash in the bag when you’re not.
  • Some hot coffee, tea, or water in insulated thermos—like the Camelbak 20oz Hot Cap Water Bottle—won’t take up a ton of room in your pack and will make a big difference on a frigid day in the Cats.
  • The upper reaches of Wittenberg and the Cornell Crack require some handwork, so bring a good pair of gloves like the Black Diamond Arc. If it’s really cold or really wet, throw some hand warmers in an extra pair of liners and toss them in your pack for later.
  • Heavy annual snowfall, steep terrain, and local trail etiquette make a pair of snowshoes with climbing bars, like the MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes, a necessity.
  • Cell service is sketchy in the Catskills at best, so a compass and a paper map are essential. The Catskill Mountains Trail Map from the Appalachian Mountain Club is waterproof and covers the whole region in detail.

Early morning on the way up the Wittenberg. | Credit: John Lepak

Keys to the Trip

  • The Slide Mountain Wilderness Area is incredibly popular with both day hikers and backpackers year-round. The crowds are a little less of an issue in winter, but—with the exception of the remote col between Cornell and Slide—it’s unlikely you’ll be on your own all that much. Please help mitigate the human impact on this area by hiking responsibly, signing in at the trail registers, and following Leave No Trace principles.
  • Provided you’re comfortable starting and finishing a hike by headlamp, the Burroughs Range in winter is totally doable as a long, single day hike. Some folks do, however, opt to split this into a two-day affair, which is not a bad idea since backcountry camping above 3,500 feet is only permitted in the Catskills in winter (December 21–March 21). Be prepared to set up camp in the snow and always adhere to New York State DEC rules and guidelines.
  • The range and trail are named for John Burroughs, a naturalist and advocate for the region. His 1910 essay In the Heart of the Southern Catskills details his first experiences exploring the area now known as the Slide Mountain Wilderness. It’s an interesting historical perspective and a great read to build the pre-hike excitement or to reflect maintain the buzz long after the aprés.
  • Warm up after a long day in the cold with a post-hike bite at the perpetually hopping Phoenicia Diner. Think classic diner meets modern weekender. Breakfast served all day.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Burroughs Range Trail recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


How to Choose Sleeping Pads

Tents keep you dry. Sleeping bags keep you warm. It’s easy to give the love to other parts of your backcountry sleep system. Sleeping pads, as far as many people believe, just add some comfort. In reality, they’re as critical to keeping you warm and comfortable as your sleeping bag: Without a good sleeping pad, not only could you be kept awake by the rocks and roots underneath you, but you’ll be missing insulation from the ground and getting cold quickly, and likely not getting a good night’s sleep.

But with the number of sleeping pads of different types, sizes, warmths, materials, widths, and more, it can be hard to know where to start in picking the right one.

Knowing how or where you’ll be using your sleeping pad is the first step. For example, a great pad for car camping may not be great for long backpacking trips, and your ultralight air pad may not be enough for winter expeditions. Think about where you’ll be using your pad, as well as what you’ll be doing when you’re there. Keeping these thoughts in mind will not only lead to more effective pad choices, but will also allow you to use your pad to its full potential.

GO: Shop For Sleeping Pads

Credit: Lauren Danilek

What Are Sleeping Pads Made Of?

The first fork in the road to choosing the best pad for you comes with the decision between the two main categories of sleeping pads: foam or inflatable. There are pro’s and con’s to each category, and there is not necessarily one best option, although each has its superior applications.

Foam

Foam pads, generally closed-cell foam (which provides better structure and support than open-cell) are the simplest, least expensive part of a sleep system. They are foolproof to use, naturally lightweight, and practically indestructible, making foam a reliable and time-tested asset to a weary camper. They’re also highly effective insulators from the ground.

These pads are not typically made very thick to save on weight and bulk, and as such do not always provide the “sleeping-on-a-cloud” feeling that one desires after a hard day, but that does not mean that a foam pad is not comfortable, especially when you’re roughing it out in the wilderness. Because they only roll or fold up rather than deflate, they also don’t pack particularly small and are generally kept on the outside of a backpack.

Foam pads are popular in winter settings, doubling up with an air pads, as well as for backpackers or thru-hikers who need the ultimate in durability and reliability, as well as a light weight

Inflatable

The more high-tech alternative to foam pads are the inflatables—light, packable, and increasingly comfortable, these sleeping pads offer a lot to any camper, especially for backpackers and people looking to limit backpack size. A far cry from the air mattress you’d find in a friend’s guest room, modern inflatable pads are getting smaller, lighter, and tougher than ever before. These can actually be broken down into two more categories: self-inflating and air pads.

Self-inflating pads use a clever membrane of open-cell foam inside the pad that will enable it to expand and fill with air all on its own, assuming the valve is open. This generally will get you most of the way, then you may still want to top it off with a couple breaths for more support. The extra foam layer means that these can be slightly warmer than air pads, and they’re obviously easier to set up, but aren’t as packable.

Self-inflating pads are popular for shorter overnights or car camping where size and packability isn’t as much of an issue.

Air pads are essentially just a bag with a valve, and must be inflated by mouth, or increasingly commonly, with a separate inflating bad. These are the lighter option and often more comfortable because of the generally thicker inflated size, and they pack down smaller to boot.

Air pads are the bread and butter of backpackers, packing small and adding exceptional comfort and insulation.

Inflatable sleeping pads of any type can offer exceptional weight savings and surprising comfort, albeit at a higher cost. Of course, the possibility of puncturing an inflatable pad is an important factor as well—they’re much easier to damage than a foam pad. So make sure you know how to field-repair an air pad (it’s not hard).

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Sizing

Most sleeping pads come in a length enough to fit an adult, head to toe, but there may also be options for short or long pads, or even pads in different widths. Look at the size options of that specific pad—they may be different from model to model or brand to brand.

Regardless of your height, there may be cases where using a full-size sleeping pad is not exactly what you’re looking for. Particularly in ultralight applications like thru-hiking and alpinism, where every gram counts and pack space is at a premium, some users find that smaller pads, some creativity, and a little sacrifice of comfort can pay off for performance and weight savings.

Sleeping in the Cold

The winter is objectively the hardest time to camp comfortably. Cold conditions and a frozen sleeping surface make for rapid heat loss. Having an effective sleep system is crucial for winter camping (as well as the chilly shoulder seasons) to not only stay safe, but also to enjoy the experience. As for sleeping pads, the more insulation the better, and that often means bigger, or simply more pads. Sleeping pad insulation can either come inherently from the foam making it up, larger air chambers, or even a layer of synthetic insulation not unlike what you would find in a winter jacket on the inside of the pad.

What buyers need to look for in effective cold-weather pads is the associated R-value of the pad. This is the metric used to measure thermal resistance, in other words how well a material insulates. Read lots more about the R-value here, but remember that higher numbers mean better insulation. R-values are also additive, so you can combine two pads (for example, a foam pad and an air pad) to increase the insulation.

Use this chart to get a general sense of the recommended R-value of the sleeping pad you should use for each season:

  • Summer: 1+
  • 3-Season: 2+
  • Winter: 3+
  • Extreme Cold: 5+

Also keep in mind that sleeping pad temperature ratings assume you’re using a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5.4. If you’re sleeping bag is rated to 30 degrees but your sleeping pad only has an R-value of 3, you’ll likely be colder than you would expect.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Stuff Sacks and Inflators

Today, the stuff sacks of numerous sleeping pads serve double duty as an inflation bad. A single puff into it can be the equivalent of 10 if you were simply blowing into the valve, allowing you to blow up the pad quicker, easier, and without using all your breath. If a sleeping pad doesn’t come with an inflator, they make worthwhile accessories.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Valves

Take a look at the valve on the sleeping pad you’re considering purchasing. Some use a simple twist-closure which allow you to inflate the pad then quickly spin the valve to seal it off. Others use convenient one-way valves which let you blow in and catch your breath without worrying about the air escaping. A secondary opening that bypasses the one-way valve deflates the pad quickly when it’s time to pack up. Pay attention to how easy the pad is to inflate, deflate, and even how easy it is to let out small amounts of air, customizing the firmness when you lay down at night.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Durability

Balancing a sleeping pad’s lightweight and packability, and its durability can be a tough compromise. Pay attention to the denier of the material making up a sleeping pad: Higher numbers mean greater durability. Weigh this against the weight and packed size of the sleeping pads. If you’re someone who cowboy camps a lot, placing your pad directly on the ground, or is generally rougher on your gear, you may want to sacrifice and bring something a little heavier but more durable. If you’re careful with your gear and plan to sleep in a tent, you might be able to get away with something a little lighter but less durable.

Maintaining your sleeping pad is simple and easy most of the time. With regular use, wiping down dirt and letting pads dry out completely after using is almost all that needs to be done.


My 16-year-old and His Friend Hiked Vermont’s Long Trail...By Themselves

As I watched my 16-year-old son and his friend walk into the woods at the Massachusetts/Vermont border to begin their northbound thru-hike to Canada—alone—I fought the urge to run up the trail with them. Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

Happily heading into the woods. | Credit: Sarah Hunter

The boys first approached us about this adventure a year earlier, after returning home from camp. They had spent ten days that summer backpacking a section of Vermont’s Long Trail, a 272-mile footpath through the Green Mountains, with six other friends and two counselors. It had been hot, their packs were heavy, and the mountains were steep, but they loved it. They wanted to return the following summer to hike the entire trail, by themselves.

Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

We knew they had the experience and training to do it. They had hiked and paddled hundreds of miles with their families and with each other for the past five summers at camp. They practiced Leave No Trace and impeccable trail etiquette, and both were certified in Wilderness First Aid. This adventure was well within their skill-set and it had all the makings of a true coming-of-age experience. We couldn’t let our fears hold them back. We said yes.

In the spring, they planned their route, including evacuation options and resupply stops. They developed a meal plan based on the calories, fat, and weight of each item. They made a packing list, assessed their gear, and determined what they had and what they needed. Soon packages were arriving regularly at our doorstep: a JetBoil, gravity water filter, and the all-important two-way satellite communicator that would track their route and allow them to check in with us at the end of each day.

Sunset on Killington. | Credit: Silas Hunter

When summer arrived, my son and I tested his new gear during a weekend backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, during which he cooked our meals, filtered our water, and hung our bear bag each night. All I had to do was hike. My husband had the even easier task of following along from home, watching our path on the website. With one click, we sent him a message each evening: We’re checking in; everything is fine. It worked like a charm. We were ready.

The day before their start day, though, I broke down in a panicked what-did-we-agree-to moment. Even though they were prepared to go, I realized I’d never be fully prepared to let them go. But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

Over the next three weeks I followed the map as they made their way north through the Green Mountains. I checked the weather. I worried. But each time I met them for a resupply my spirits were buoyed. They were doing fine. Better than fine. They were swimming in clear, quiet ponds, climbing fire towers, hiking in the dark for mountain-top sunrises. They were doing great. My worrying didn’t help them, or me.

When we met them at the northern terminus of the trail on the Canadian border we were overjoyed, and so were they. They were visibly tired and sore and dirty and also thoroughly, deeply, happy. For 21 days they had taken care of themselves and each other while traversing rugged peaks and steep valleys again and again. They faced countless decisions every day. Important decisions. On their own. Their reward for their perseverance, fortitude, and bravery, and ours, was etched on their faces. They had completed an incredible journey, one that they will carry with them always. It came at the expense of sore muscles and blisters (for them) and several more gray hairs (for us), but it was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

Resupply day! | Credit: Sarah Hunter

Escape the Leaf-Peeping Crowds by Boat and Boot at Indian Lake

Autumn is upon us, and the vast hardwood forests of the Northeast are putting on their annual show that rivals any natural spectacle in the world. While the fall season has always been a popular time for hikers and roadside tourists alike to get out and explore, larger crowds than usual are expected this fall due to COVID-19 and the fact that being outside is one of the safest ways to get away from home during these tough times. The Adirondack Mountains have long been a haven for stressed and overworked city dwellers to get back to nature, and unsurprisingly the ever-popular High Peaks region has been experiencing record visitation throughout the summer and early fall. Hoping to avoid the maddening crowds while simultaneously exploring a part of the Adirondacks that we had yet to properly experience, my wife, dog and I recently went on a canoe camping trip to Indian Lake that quickly became our all-time favorite camping trip.

Credit: Joey Priola

The Island Campground

Located in the Southern Adirondacks, approximately a 70-mile or 90-minute drive southwest from Lake Placid, Indian Lake is a 12-mile-long reservoir that runs southwest from the tiny town of Indian Lake. While not quite as wild (the west shore has some development) as some of the more remote ponds and lakes of the Adirondacks, Indian Lake still has a relatively remote feel to it, especially on the eastern shore which is largely Forest Preserve land. The lake is peppered with several rocky islands, ranging in size from nothing more than a few boulders to over 1,000 feet in length. The best thing about Indian Lake is that it possesses the Indian Lake Islands Campground, which consists of 55 campsites (each with a picnic table, an outhouse, and firepit) spread along the lakeshore and islands that can only be accessed via boat. Sites can be booked up to 9 months in advance, and while they’re incredibly popular during the summer, as the temperature begins to drop in the fall, so does the visitation.

Note: Due to COVID-19, the DEC and New York State Parks has temporarily lifted the 9-month reservation window restriction for camping at New York State Parks, including Indian Lake Islands, and bookings for 2021 are currently being accepted.

Credit: Joey Priola

Exploring Kirpens Island

While all of the campsites offer privacy and outstanding views, nothing can beat the experience of camping on your very own private island. Of the 55 campsites at Indian Lake, five of them are on an island with no other campsites. Of this handful of select sites, the most outstanding site might be campsite 2 on Kirpens Island, which offers several advantages compared to the other sites.

Situated due east from Indian Lake Marina, the campsite on Kirpens Island can be quickly accessed via a 20 to 30 minute, mile-long paddle if launching from the marina, as compared to the 8-mile-long paddle if starting from the access point and campground check-in center on the south end of the lake. Kirpens Island is also one of the largest islands on Indian Lake, with countless nooks and crannies along the shore to explore, as well as some informal trails that lead to the far reaches of the island from the camping area on the north side of the island. A number of smaller islands surround Kirpens and make interesting photography subjects, especially in the fall when the berry bushes, maples, and birches that are prevalent on the islands show off their fall colors.

The view from Baldface Mountain’s summit. | Credit: Joey Priola

Multi-Sport Adventure

What really sets Kirpens Island apart from the other sites at Indian Lake, though, is its proximity to the Baldface Mountain Trailhead. The trailhead is a quick five-minute paddle east from camp into a quiet bay and is only accessible by boat. This difficulty of access greatly minimizes the crowds, and on a beautiful Saturday with near-peak foliage conditions, we had the trail and summit all to ourselves. After beaching your boat on the shore near a large boulder marked with white paint, an easy 0.8-mile-long trail with red trail markers and 550 feet of elevation gain weaves through the forest before breaking out on a rocky ledge perched just above the treetops, with the long blue swath of Indian Lake and its islands spreading out in the distance. Fall views don’t get any better than this, as the predominantly hardwood forest that surrounds Indian Lake bursts with a vibrant array of red, orange, yellow, and purple in late September to early October. After enjoying the view from Baldface, head back down to the lake and explore the islands near Kirpens, marveling at the banded metamorphic bedrock that the islands consist of, which makes for fantastic photo opportunities.

Once back at camp, cap off a spectacular day of autumn exploration in complete solitude by watching the sun set over Indian Lake and Snowy Mountain from an open ledge high above the lake on the west side of the island, and perhaps raise a glass of your favorite beverage to toast your own private piece of autumn heaven.

Credit: Joey Priola

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Four Incredible Fall Backpacking Trips in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands

With fall foliage that rivals New England, a unique topography reminiscent of the Alaskan and Canadian tundra, and a bevy of wilderness areas flush with epic views but lacking crowds and complex permit systems, the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia possess some of the finest fall backpacking trips in America. From a quick and easy overnight to a multi-day odyssey far from official trails, it features some of the best backpacking you could find anywhere, for backpackers of all ability levels. Put these trips at the top of your backpacking to-do list this fall.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Table Rock

For an easy introduction to what fall backpacking in the Potomac Highlands is all about, head to the Canaan Mountain Backcountry Area and tackle the 2.4-mile roundtrip trek to Table Rock. With a short distance, minimal elevation gain, and astonishing views, Table Rock might be the best bang-for-your-buck hike in the entire state.  Even better, this trail receives surprisingly light hiking pressure since the majority of backpackers head to the nearby Dolly Sods Wilderness.

From the small trailhead parking lot on Canaan Loop Road, take the Table Rock Trail through a pretty forest of hardwoods that will be bursting with color in late September and early October. After 1.2 mostly flat miles, break out of the forest onto appropriately named Table Rock, and behold a 180-degree view of mountains and the Cheat River Valley. Be mindful of crevasses in the rock as you explore, and then set up camp at a protected campsite back in the woods that was passed just before reaching the overlook. Or, if the weather is clear and calm, consider sleeping under the stars out on Table Rock. Wherever you decide to camp, be sure to pack in all the water you’ll need, as there isn’t a water source on this trip. Rise early the next morning to have your coffee while watching the sunrise illuminate the fog-filled valley and colorful autumn foliage before making the return trip to the car.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness is one of the most popular and well-known wilderness areas in West Virginia, and for good reason. With a vast network of trails, a bounty of campsites and several overlooks that provide panoramic views of nothing but seemingly endless wilderness, there are countless routes in Dolly Sods that are perfect for a fall backpacking trip. Since Dolly Sods is a designated Wilderness, be prepared for minimal or no trail markings and to ford creek crossings, all of which helps to preserve a true wilderness feel as much as possible.

For a 19.4-mile (3 nights is best) lollipop loop that showcases the best of Dolly Sods, take the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail north from the Dolly Sods Picnic Area on Forest Service Road 19. In 2.5 miles, the first great views of the trip can be had from a rocky outcrop just off the trail. This overlook on the edge of Red Creek Canyon provides some of the best views in Dolly Sods, with Red Creek Valley below framed by Breathed Mountain and Rohrbaugh Plains. While only 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the view from here is so astounding that it’s worth spending a night at one of the campsites dispersed in the woods near the overlook. Sunsets from here are incredible, and on cool fall mornings fog often fills the valley below, making for truly dreamy photo conditions.

After breaking camp, continue on the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail and pass the Wildlife Trail on the right at 3.1 miles. Continue straight and drop down into Red Creek Canyon and cross Fisher Spring Run at 3.4 miles. Follow Fisher Spring Run Trail down to Red Creek, and pick up the Red Creek Trail to begin a 10-mile counterclockwise loop. Reach Rocky Point Trail on the left at 4.4 miles, which makes for a great side trip (add roughly 2 miles roundtrip) up to Lions Head, a rocky overlook that provides one of the best views in Dolly Sods, and possible campsites nearby. Continuing north from the junction with the Rocky Point Trail on the Red Creek Trail, reach the Breathed Mountain Trail at 6.0 miles. This trip takes you left down the Breathed Mountain Trail, but one could also continue straight down the Red Creek Trail to arrive at a fantastic and popular camping area near some waterfalls on Red Creek called “The Forks.”

Back at the junction with the Breathed Mountain Trail, take this trail west for 2.4 miles and travel through a beautiful forest of spruce and blueberry bogs. This combination of forest flora is more commonly found in the boreal forests of Canada than the Appalachian Mountains, and is especially beautiful in autumn when the berry bushes turn bright red and are a perfect contrast to the dark green spruce forests.  Arrive at the Big Stonecoal Trail at 8.5 miles and turn left to head south down this trail for 2.4 miles before arriving at a trail junction with the Dunkenbarger Trail. Excellent campsites along Big Stonecoal Run can be found here.

Continuing south on Big Stonecoal Trail, the western end of the Rocky Point Trail to Lions Head is passed on the left at 11.6 miles, and in 1.4 more miles ford Red Creek and arrive back at Red Creek Trail at 13.0 miles. The banks of Red Creek possess several wonderful campsites, and Red Creek (named for the reddish-brown tint of the water caused by a high tannins concentration from decomposing red spruce and hemlock needles) is perfect for cooling tired feet after a long day on the trail. Continue heading northeast along the Red Creek Trail for 1.5 miles before hitting the intersection with Fisher Spring Run Trail, at which point you’ll be retracing your steps from the start of the trip back to the parking lot.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

North Fork Mountain

For fans of ridge hikes with near constant views, it doesn’t get any better than an autumn trek along North Fork Mountain. The full length of the ridge hike is 24.7 miles in total from end to end and makes a great shuttle hike if a car can be dropped at both trailheads (it’s about a 40-minute drive one-way between the north and south trailheads). It’s also possible to break this up into smaller shuttle sections, especially if starting from the northern trailhead. From the northern trailhead on CR 28 (Smoke Hole Rd.), ascend switchbacks for 1.6 miles to gain the ridge. Once up on the ridge, views and campsites abound, and there is minimal elevation change. Hike south and take a short side trail on the right that leads to Chimney Top, which provides a spectacular view of distant mountains and autumn foliage peppering the pastoral countryside far below. Countless other vistas await further down the trail, as the ridge never strays far from a clear view.

Three quarters of a mile further south, pass another fine vista, Table Rock (not the same Table Rock as the one previously discussed at the start of this article). If short on time or energy, this makes for a great stopping point, and several nice campsites can be found dispersed in the forest not far from the trail that provide easy access to sunset views from the ridge. From Table Rock, the trail ambles south and passes two spur trails that descend east off the ridge: Landis Trail and Redman Run Trail, reached 4.1 and 8.2 miles from the north trailhead, respectively. Taking either of these trails would provide a shorter shuttle hike alternative.

The main disadvantage of being up on the ridge is the scarcity of water. Save for a semi-reliable spring that’s passed halfway through the trail, there’s no water sources up on the ridge, so it’s best to pack in enough water to last the length of the trip in case the spring is dry.

The views continue on the southern portion of the trail, with so many overlooks that they don’t even have names. While the north half of the trail is more interesting, the southern half to the southern trailhead is still beautiful, and completing the full length of the trail is a rewarding and recommended experience.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Roaring Plains

For the seasoned backpacker looking for a trip that’s as challenging as it is scenic, there’s no better destination in the Potomac Highlands than a part off-trail wilderness sojourn in the Roaring Plains West Wilderness. Backpackers with the necessary skills are rewarded with some of the most incomparable solitude, views, and campsites to be found not only in West Virginia, but the entire East Coast. Given the largely off-trail nature of this route, it’s wise to budget extra time in case you get turned around, and to pack a map and compass and know how to use them. A GPS could also be incredibly useful for this trip.

There are several possible routes that can be taken into the Roaring Plains, with the eastern fork of the South Prong Trail (which begins just a half mile down FS 19 from the start of the aforementioned Dolly Sods Wilderness trip) offering a pleasant, relatively flat portal to the rugged terrain that lies ahead. After heading south for approximately 2.5 miles on the oftentimes wet and muddy South Prong Trail, the real fun begins. Look for an unofficial trail on the left, not marked with a trail sign but often marked with a cairn, which heads in a southwest direction through the forest. Take it slow, keeping an eye on your compass and be on the lookout for more cairns marking the way along the faint trail, known as the “Hidden Passage.” After almost a mile of picking your way through the forest, break out into an open meadow with expansive views. Soon after arriving at the meadow, the trail passes one of the finest campsites imaginable, nestled in the flame-red berry bushes and with the kind of expansive, open views that are hard to come by when backcountry camping in the East. This area makes a great basecamp option to do day hikes from, with the top hiking option being an off-trail journey along the rim of Long Run Canyon.

To get Long Run Canyon from the meadows campsite, follow a faint, unmarked trail for about 0.7 miles through the open meadows, until reaching the Pipeline Swath (essentially an old dirt road). A small trickling creek located at this junction is one of the only water sources if camping at the meadows and for the duration of the loop along Long Run Canyon, so top off water bottles here and be sure to treat the water. Take a left to head southeast on the Pipeline for about 0.3 miles until arriving at the remains of an old road, where the real adventure begins.

Turning right, dive into the bush and head in a west-northwest direction to reach the rim of Long Run Canyon. Scan for a faint path possibly marked with cairns or flagging, and budget extra time for this section of the hike, as it’s the sketchiest part from a navigation standpoint. Once you arrive at the canyon rim, the trail is much easier to follow. When in doubt, ensure that the canyon is on your left. The next 2.5 miles are some of finest hiking miles imaginable, with almost constant views out across the canyon into the vast West Virginia wilderness. Heath thickets, spruce, and rocky outcroppings combine to form an incredibly beautiful and unique landscape unlike anything else in the East. While there is minimal elevation change on this section of the hike, since this is an unmaintained trail, there will almost certainly be downed trees to navigate around.

While base-camping at the meadows will make the hike along the canyon rim easier, for the hardy backpacker there are several options for camping along the canyon rim. Although water is hard to come by along the canyon, the views and solitude more than make up for the extra effort of hauling in water. Some of the best campsites are just past possibly the finest view of the day, at a spot called “The Point,” reached 1.5 miles into the hike along the canyon rim. From The Point, head northwest and in one mile arrive at a large campsite with a fire ring. On the north side of the campsite, look for a cairn and the start of your journey away from the canyon rim on the Tee-Pee “trail.” Another unofficial trail that can be a pain to follow, it’s best to set a northeast compass bearing and do your best to follow the faint boot path while sticking to the compass bearing. A half-mile bushwhack will lead to the Roaring Plains Trail, which is an official Forest Service trail. Turn right (east) onto the Roaring Plains trail, and in 0.9 miles again reach the Pipeline Swath. Turn right onto the Pipeline, and head southwest for one mile before arriving back at the base of the meadows, where you’ll turn left and retrace your steps from earlier in the day to return to basecamp in the meadows, having completed one of the most rugged and beautiful fall hikes imaginable.


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