8 Reasons Not to Be an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

How many times have you said to someone, “Someday I’m going to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.” Probably a hundred times, at least? You’ve been reading AT books and trail journals, you drool over gear at the outfitter stores, you argue with your friends about how to hang a bear bag, and you brag about what great shape you’re in.

But maybe thru-hiking the AT is not for you. For every four thru hikers who start out at Springer Mountain, only one will make it all the way to Katahdin. Some don’t even make it up the approach trail. And why is this? It’s because thru hiking the AT is hard—really hard. Hikers drop out for all sorts of reasons, from injuries and family issues to boredom and loneliness.

But here’s the good thing: You don’t have to be an AT thru hiker to prove yourself to anyone, or to challenge your body beyond what it’s capable of doing. There are lots of fun challenges out there that will give you bragging rights and make you a well-rounded outdoor adventurer.

If you’re considering an upcoming thru hike, consider these 8 reasons not to do it, and what you can do instead. And just maybe, a thru hike on the Appalachian Trail will be in your future…or won’t!

Grayson Highlands is a favorite spot on the AT, known for its wild ponies, black bear, bobcat, red fox, ruffed grouse, deer, and wild turkey. | Credit: Troy Lair

Reason 1: Because you don’t want to sleep in the woods for 5 to 6 months.

Leaving your comfortable life to hike 5 to 6 months on the AT, covering over 2,000 grueling miles, sleeping on the hard ground in all sorts of terrible weather, is not for everyone, especially anyone who is a fan of their comfy bed at home, clean clothes, and food that wasn’t cooked on a Pocket Rocket.

Do this instead: Take a long section hike.

You don’t have to set aside 6 months to “complete” the AT—Section hiking, or doing it piece by piece as day hikes or shorter backpacking trips is an equally good way to get the Appalachian Trail experience. One of our favorite sections: Hike the AT from Damascus, VA to Pearisburg, VA for 165 miles. You’ll go through some of the most beautiful sections of the AT, including Grayson Highlands, with their wild horses and abundant wildlife, and if you’re in good shape you can probably do it in two weeks.

Avery Reekstin tackles the 4,000 footers of New Hampshire. | Credit: James Golisano

Reason 2: You don’t want to quit your job.

You’re young, you’re just out of college, and recently landed a great job in your field. Do you really want to give that up with the chance that you may not find another good job when you finish your thru hike?

Do this instead: Hike all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot summits.

You can have a major goal and impressive outdoor adventure in various different locations without giving up that much time. Instead, pick a peak bagging list like the New Hampshire 4000 and chip away at it on weekends.

Try a new sport if you’re not into hiking, like whitewater kayaking. | Courtesy: Nantahala Outdoor Center

Reason 3: Because you have bad knees.

You love to hike, but your knees say no way. Not everyone is built to take on a challenge like the AT. Your knees are not going to get any better or stronger on a long AT hike, in fact, you may very well suffer a painful injury walking miles a day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a new outdoor pursuit, and learn a new sport.

Do this instead: Take up whitewater kayaking.

There are lots of challenges out there besides long hiking trails, and whitewater kayaking is one of them. It’s a thrilling sport, an adrenaline rush like no other! But don’t just jump into the water quite yet. Visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in the heart of the Nantahala National Forest in NC, and take one or more of their whitewater kayaking courses. You’ll learn lots of new skills, like how to read the water, and how to “roll.” And since the Appalachian Trail passes right through their property, you’ll get to schmooze with thru hikers, too! And it’s easy on your knees.

Reason 4: Because you have small children at home.

You’re not getting any gold stars for leaving your kids at home while you’re hike the AT for 5-months. Your young children need you at home. But that doesn’t mean that an AT thru hike isn’t in your future.

Do this instead: Get your kids into hiking.

Kids love to hike in the woods. Start out with short walks, and keep them busy by identifying plants, trees, bird song, and insects. Take them on trails that have a wow-factor, like a beautiful waterfall, or swimming hole. Buy them their own hiking gear, like trekking poles and backpacks. Before long, they might want to join you for AT section hike trips, or other missions like these in the Adirondacks or these in New Hampshire.

Reason 5: Because you don’t have any money.

Let’s face it, you need money to hike the Appalachian Trail—It costs about $6,000 to support yourself on the trail, and that’s likely without any income. And that doesn’t even cover the cost of your gear. You may think you can live on less, and maybe you can, but you’re going to want to stay in towns, eat at restaurants, pay for shuttles, and have money at the end of your hike to rent a car to buy a plane ticket to get home.

Do this instead: Stick close to home.

Not everyone who hikes the Appalachian Trail does it as a thru-hike. Parcel it out into a section hike and take on the pieces closer to home which require less traveling and expense.

Fran Leyman hikes the Beehive Dome Loop Trail in Acadia National Park. | Credit: Carey Kish

Reason 6: Because you’d rather be at the beach.

Spending your summer in the mountains might be nice for a lot of us, but it means forgoing beach days and the ocean escapes you might be used to, here and there. What if there were a way to have the best of both worlds?

Do this instead: Visit Acadia National Park in Maine.

Acadia National Park is a coastal wonderland for folks who love the beach and love to hike. The Beehive Dome Loop Trail is a challenging hike that borders on exposed via ferratta. “The views of Great Head, Sand Beach, and Newport Coveen route are spectacular,” states Carey Kish, author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast, and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. “Over the top, the trail meanders on to the Bowl, a brilliant blue tarn tucked into the ridge below Champlain Mountain that makes a great place for a swim and a picnic lunch.”

Reason #7: Because you’ve had a recent surgery.

If you’ve had a recent surgery, spending 6 months walking probably isn’t in the cards. Save it for next year.

Do this instead: Get a professional personal hiking trainer.

For avid hiker Alys Spillman of Savannah, GA, who recently had foot surgery, she knew she’d have to get some help to get back on the trail safely. “I used Trailside Fitness to help with my recovery,” says Alys. “It’s an online training guide that’s helping me reach my fitness goals. I’m not ready for a thru hike yet, but these small shakedown hikes I’m doing on the weekend are getting me back in the game!”

Reason #8: Because your gear is old and heavy.

That old backpack and heavy boots might have been good enough for your grandfather, but they’re not right for you. A heavy tent and worn-out rain jacket will drag you down every minute you’re on the AT, causing you to get discouraged from the very first day out.

Do this instead: Spend a year buying new gear.

There’s no reason you need to rush to drop all that money on new gear in the month before you leave. Delay things a year, make a budget, do your research, and buy a piece of lightweight gear each month for a year. By next spring you’ll have everything you need for a successful thru hike!


Explore Follensby Clear Pond By Canoe

As the days grow longer, the temperature rises, and frozen lakes and ponds return to their liquid state, the serene waters of the Adirondack Mountains beckon the outdoor adventurer to stow away their snowshoes and skis and break out a canoe or kayak for long sunny days of aquatic exploration. Home to over 3,000 lakes and ponds (including classics like the Seven Carries), a paddling destination suited for every taste can be found in the vast Adirondack Park, but for a fine introduction to what backcountry canoe camping in the Adirondacks is all about, head to Follensby Clear Pond in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest.

Credit: Joey Priola

Finding Camp

While small enough (roughly 1.5 miles from end to end) to explore in a day, the beautiful waterfront campsites, plentiful wildlife, and options for further exploration make Follensby Clear an ideal basecamp to call home for a few days. After launching from the parking area at the south end of Follensby Clear Pond on State Route 30 (where a dock facilitates the loading and unloading of boats), glide through the placid waters as you bid adieu to civilization. Trace the sinuous shoreline, keeping an eye out for herons hunting in the shallows, and scout out the numerous campsites that pepper the shore. Note: The DEC periodically closes campsites and builds new ones in popular locations such as Follensby Clear, so give the regional DEC office a call ahead of time to find out the most up to date status. Contact info and other details and regulations can be found at the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest DEC website.

While the closest campsites are a mere stone’s throw from the parking lot, press on to the quieter northern half of the lake to avoid most of the day-tripper traffic and to discover primo island campsites (including one of the only lean-tos in the area) as well as a large and beautiful campsite on a peninsula that extends from the western shore in the north end of the pond. All campsites are first come, first served and have an outhouse or open-air “thunderbox” as well as a fire ring, but no picnic table or food storage lockers. While bear canisters aren’t necessarily required in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest, they’re highly recommended to avoid having pesky rodents and raccoons getting into your food bag, even if it has been expertly hung.

Credit: Joey Priola

Side Trips

Once camp is established, spend your days either lounging around camp or heading out to some of the enticing destinations that make for perfect daytrips from camp.

Horseshoe and Polliwog Pond

For a half-day loop that visits three additional ponds and has very short portages, find the portage trail on the west side of Follensby Clear, located about midway up the pond and just southwest of the island that has the lean-to campsite. Take the short portage trail down to the landing at the eastern corner of lovely Horseshoe Pond and explore the interesting peninsula (complete with a killer campsite) that can be seen across the pond from the landing. After enjoying the solitude of Horseshoe Pond, paddle to the northwest corner of the pond to make the short portage to small and boggy Little Polliwog Pond. The portage trail intersects with the Horseshoe Pond Trail, which makes for a nice leg stretcher and heads north to Polliwog Pond or south back to Horseshoe Pond. Once on Little Polliwog Pond, paddle northeast to the downhill portage trail to much larger Polliwog Pond and take your time exploring Polliwog as you work your way to the northeast corner of the pond and the short portage trail back to Follensby Clear Pond.

Fish Creek Ponds to Upper Saranac Lake

For a longer, seven-plus mile excursion from Follensby Clear that’s best saved for a calm day, paddle back towards the launch site at the southern end of Follensby Clear and carefully work your way along the shallow creek that’s just east of the launch site and parking area. This creek section of the paddle is short but in late summer may require a wet carry through some shallow sections, so dress accordingly. After entering the east side of Fish Creek Ponds, head south to the channel that leads east to Fish Creek Bay on Upper Saranac Lake (be aware of motorboat traffic, particularly on summer weekends). Continue paddling east out of the bay, and if the weather is calm, continue to Buck Island and its interesting shoreline dotted with campsites and perfect picnic spots on sunny rock slabs. Return the way you came to arrive back at Follensby Clear.

Credit: Joey Priola

Whether the day has been spent paddling to distant waters or relaxing at camp, there’s no finer way to end a wonderful day on the water than by taking a dip and laying out in the sun to dry. As night approaches, light up a campfire and listen to it crackle as the haunting call of loons echoes across the lake, quite possibly the most Adirondack way to cap off an exhilarating day of paddling in the vast Adirondack wilderness.


Sweaty vs. Wet: Should You Get Waterproof Hiking Shoes?

The decision between waterproof vs. non-waterproof hiking boots, shoes, or trail runners is among the most contentious arguments in the outdoors. Advocates on both sides of the issue are quick to point out the superiority of their preferred footwear while spotlighting the shortcomings of the other. But the truth is that both waterproof and non-waterproof footwear have their pros and cons, and understanding them can help you make an educated decision about which type of footwear is right for you.

Credit: Tim Peck

Why Go Waterproof

Waterproof footwear is worth its weight in gold when conditions call for it. But many hikers swear by waterproof footwear even when the skies are clear. After all, why would you want to rock hop across a stream or mud puddle when you could simply plow right through it?

The main reason for choosing to wear waterproof footwear all the time is that it keeps your feet dry (for the most part), which is particularly important in regions like the Northeast, where the weather seems to change by the minute. Waterproof boots and shoes allow you to deal with a variety of conditions common to the Northeast—from crossing shallow streams to navigating puddles to trudging through snow—without having to worry about your feet getting wet.

Credit: Tim Peck

Why Opt for Non-Waterproof

Those who favor footwear of the non-waterproof variety agree that shoes and boots featuring a waterproof membrane have their place when it’s raining heavily, but otherwise believe that it’s unnecessary.

The primary reason for choosing non-waterproof footwear is that waterproof membranes trap sweat inside the boot, leading to your feet getting wet from the inside out, especially in warm temperatures. Conversely, non-waterproof shoes (particularly those with mesh uppers) help move sweat from your feet and socks to the shoe where it evaporates. Similarly, waterproof membranes are also a barrier to footwear (and your sock and feet) drying out once they’re wet on the inside. So, if you’re recreating in dry, warm conditions, non-waterproof footwear is likely the better choice.

Non-waterproof footwear fans are also quick to point out another obvious deficiency of waterproof shoes: That no shoe is truly waterproof, anyway. Water can sneak in the top of a shoe when crossing too-deep puddles and streams, rainwater can simply fall in through the top, and water can run down your legs into the shoes.

The Case for a Quiver

Every outdoor person dreams of ultra-versatile gear that excels at everything, but the fact is that gear that does everything well, rarely does anything exceptionally. If you’re the type of hiker who’s going out in all seasons and all types of weather, you’ll want a few pieces of footwear.

For example, waterproof footwear is a wise choice for soggy spring hikes in cooler temperatures, while non-waterproof footwear is an ideal option for the dog days of summer which are typically dry.

Warning: A quiver can start off as simply owning a pair of waterproof shoes and a pair of non-waterproof shoes, and evolve into a much more niche undertaking—such as owning waterproof boots for early spring, hiking shoes for rugged terrain, trail runners for moving fast, waterproof trail runners for logging lightning-fast miles in cool and damp weather, and winter-specific waterproof boots for hiking in cold, snowy conditions.

Credit: Tim Peck

The debate over whether to go waterproof or not is sure to rage on, but in the end, we have better things to argue over—like what do with all the hikers visiting the mountains these days. If you can only have one pair of shoes, think about the conditions you hike in most often and how sweaty your feet get before making a decision and if you have the luxury of owning multiple pairs of footwear, consider having a pair of each represented in your quiver.

Got a hot take about waterproof footwear? We want to hear it. Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


The 6 Northeast Backpacking Classics that Should be on Your List This Summer

High, alpine summits, pristine waterways, and dense, impenetrable forests—for a region as densely populated as the Northeast, there is plenty of wilderness available to keep even the most avid hiker busy for a while. In the parks, preserves, and forests of New England and New York, it seems the trailheads are endless—and while the day hiking of these places are in their own right spectacular, the real gems are accessed with a couple of days, a solid pack, and a readiness to put in some work. Here are some must-do classic backpacking trips that you should put on your list this summer.

The view from Gothics looking toward the heart of the Great Range. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Great Range Traverse

Often described as one of the Northeast’s tougher routes, with more than 9,000 feet of elevation gain in over 20 miles, the Great Range Traverse in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains is as classic as it gets. Over its course, the Great Range Traverse climbs eight 4,000-plus-foot summits—including Mount Marcy, New York’s highest—and offers unrivaled, wide-open views of the vast High Peaks wilderness. Often attempted as a single day outing, the Great Range Traverse is dotted with campsites and is best approached as a multi-day outing, leaving time to savor the absolutely magnificent setting.

Looking back over the Lakes of the Clouds to Mount Washington. | Credit: John Lepak

Presidential Traverse

It’s hard to imagine a more revered or sought-after northeast backpacking trip than the Presidential Traverse. It’s 21.7 miles (thru-hike-style) follow the high ridge of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range through a sustained and airy alpine zone, summiting eight 4,000-foot mountains—including the inimitable Mount Washington, the Northeast’s highest—in the process. It’s not uncommon to do a Presi Traverse in a day, but the huts of the Randolph Mountain Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club provide plenty of options to stretch the trip or to wait out the range’s notoriously harsh weather, making it ideal as a 2 to 3 day trip.

A Catskills sunset as seen from Orchard Point on the Devil’s Path. | Credit: John Lepak

Devil’s Path

With an ominous moniker and a reputation to match, the Devil’s Path in New York’s Catskill Mountains, is as challenging as it is classic. Despite their relatively low elevation, the Catskills are known to be steep and rocky—in its 25 miles (as a loop), the Devil’s Path gains more than 8,000 feet in elevation. Add to that the absolute dearth of water in high summer, and you’ve got yourself a real task at hand. It’s not all hard times though—plentiful backcountry campsites, stellar views, and a genuine wilderness round this trip out as an definite must-do, again ideal for a weekend or long weekend.

A view deep into the Pemigewasset Wilderness. | Credit: John Lepak

Pemigewasset Loop

Affectionately known as “the Pemi Loop,” this circuit hike traces an incredible 28-mile loop around the western half of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, accessing some of the White Mountains’ highest, most coveted ridgelines, including the soaring, airy Franconia Ridge and the wild, remote Bonds. The gains are stiff but the payoff—at least 10 of the region’s 4,000-foot summits and the views that come along with them—is more than worth the effort. And though it can be done in a day as a burly trail run (not-so-affectionately known as the “Pemi Death March”), the Pemi Loop is best savored, as a 2- to 3-day backpacking trip, taking advantage of the numerous, well-spaced-out campsites and huts to enjoy everything the wilderness has to offer.

Sweeping views from the Monroe Skyline section of the Long Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Monroe Skyline

Vermont’s Long Trail is doubtless on the bucket list of hikers all over the northeast, but it’s 272 rugged miles—following the high ridge of the Green Mountains from Massachusetts all the way up to the Canadian border—may be a bit ambitious for a long weekend. Fortunately, the best of the LT can be found in the Monroe Skyline, a 47.5 mile (one-way) segment that tops three 4,000-foot peaks and several lower ones that—like the open summit of Burnt Rock Mountain—offer some of Vermont’s finest vistas. Being a long-distance trail, the LT is dotted with well-spaced shelters—perfect for a couple days out in the woods. The route is best done in 4 or 5 days.

Courtesy: Haley Blevins

100 Mile Wilderness

In the Great North Woods of Maine, as the Appalachian Trail nears its northern terminus at Katahdin, there is a 100-mile stretch of trail undisturbed by paved or public roads. The 100 Mile Wilderness is as remote a backpacking experience as there is in New England and, should you find yourself there early or late in the season, may be one of the last places in the northeast to find true solitude in nature. This may be a bit heavy for a few-days’ hiking—despite the low elevation relative to others on this list, the hiking can be rugged and most folks complete this section in 10 days or so. The trail is crossed at points by logging roads, including the Kokadjo-B Pond Road near its midpoint, enabling time-pressed hikers to tackle a “half-a-wilderness.”


How to Waterproof Your Backpack

If we in the Northeast never hiked in the rain, we wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of hiking would we? It is still possible to have an enjoyable hiking, backpacking, or camping trip in wet weather, but it certainly comes with its challenges. One major challenge is keeping you and your gear from becoming soaking wet, which is not only a safety concern for clothing and sleeping bags, but can also make for a heavy, sloppy, and uncomfortable trip. Rain jackets and pants are easy to think of for traveling in the wet, but when it comes to keeping your pack and its contents waterproof there is more than just one option. 

Option 1: The Pack Cover

So here’s an obvious solution to keeping your pack dry: Wrap it in a waterproof material! Pack covers are a simple and effective way to keep your pack and its contents out of  the elements. 

These covers come in a variety of sizes that approximately match the size of your pack (so you may need one for your backpacking pack and one for your daypack, for example), with a shape not unlike a giant, oblong shower cap. To that effect, what holds the cover onto the pack is the elastic stretched along the edge. Simply stretch it on when it’s raining, and peel it off when it’s time to get into your pack.

The main limitation with rain covers is that you need to take them off to access anything that is inside your backpack or its pockets, exposing everything to the rain or snow when you do. Of course, if you’re slick and organized you can still minimize the time that the cover is off. 

Another consideration when using a rain cover is that although it will keep your backpack dry, it could make you slightly wetter, as the water runs off and onto your shoulders. That in mind, if you have a pack cover on, you’ll likely have a rain jacket on as well. 

Option 2: A Pack Liner

There are certain activities and situations where having a cover on the outside of your backpack is not the best option. This could include trips where wet weather is a possibility but not too certain, and more commonly when you will be carrying things on the outside of your pack, like trekking poles or an ice axe (Sharp items are best kept apart from the waterproof fabrics for best results). 

Enter the pack liner bag. This is essentially the same as the pack cover, besides two things. The first is obviously that these line the inside of your backpack’s main compartment, with all of your things inside of the liner. The second is that these liner bags tend to have more of a closure on them, making them less like shower caps and more like a roll-top dry bag that you’d see on a river trip, only thinner. 

Using a liner means you can use all of your pockets and move axes on and off the pack at will, and while the backpack itself may get wet (and potentially heavy), the important things stay dry on the inside. 

 

Option 3: Dry Bags

Of course there is a great difference between water resistance against rain and complete waterproofing. This is the domain of the dry bag. These are specialized bags and backpacks designed for use in water like in paddling sports, where complete immersion in water must be accounted for. 

Dry bags are typically made from very heavy duty PVC and polyester with a roll-top closure, which create a dependably dry interior for whatever fits inside. While pack covers and liner bags are waterproofing additions to backpacks, a proper dry bag like the NRS Bill’s Bag are more like a waterproof sack with additions to mimic a backpack. 

These are not what you’d carry on a backpacking trip, as they are not made for carrying comfort, but they will keep things dry better than any alternative and are great options for car camping or paddling trips where you want durable waterproofing and won’t be carrying them on your back for extended periods. 


Don’t Be a Fool: 10 Things to Avoid While Spring Backpacking

After a long winter, spring is time to bust out the backpack, hit the trail, and fill up on mountain time. It’s also a particularly tricky time of year for traveling in the mountains—not winter anymore but not summer yet, it’s easy to get fooled by everything from weather to trail conditions to ourselves. Keep reading to ensure a safe and fun first backpacking trip into the mountains this year.

Credit: Tim Peck

Duped into a Big Trip

You were pounding out Northeast classics like the Pemi Loop and Carter Range Traverse in the fall, but tackling a big backpacking trip is no barrel of laughs if you haven’t hiked or donned a heavy pack all winter. Start small, build fitness, and work out the kinks before tackling bigger objectives. Not to mention, if trail conditions are still wintery, you’re going to move slower than you expect.

Whacky Winter Trail Conditions

The joke’s on you if the nice weather in your backyard tricks you into not packing your winter gear. Ice and snow linger at higher elevations much longer than you think—it might not just be Mother Nature pulling your leg if you leave your traction and flotation devices at home.

Credit: Tim Peck

Temperature Tomfoolery

Spring weather is a prankster. It’s often warm and sunny just long enough to have you consider leaving behind layers only to spring unexpected cold, rain, or even snow on you. Have the last laugh by packing a hardshell, rain pants, more layers than you think you’ll need, and accessories like a winter hat and gloves.

Belly Laughs

Whether it’s the extra effort needed to negotiate tricky shoulder-season trails or extra calories to keep you warm, spring backpacking works up an appetite. Fuel your trip with plenty of nutritious and delicious food like this backpacker special to avoid a side-splitting adventure.

Credit: Tim Peck

Tent Trickery

A “three-season” tent implies that it is suitable for use in spring, summer, and fall, but that is not always the case. While a lightweight three-season tent is fine for camping at protected sites and platforms, it’s a joke for the extreme weather found above treeline on early season attempts of the Presidential Traverse—avoid chicanery and don’t test it in the high winds that dominate Northeast ridge lines in the spring. Also, remember to only camp above treeline when there’s two or more feet of snow on the ground.

Sleeping Bag Surprise

Spring and rain go hand in hand, which makes choosing a sleeping bag that can fend off water and insulate when wet extra important. Using a sleeping bag filled with synthetic insulation or hydrophobic down is a favorite trick of seasoned backpackers.

Pad Put On

Shoulder-season backpacking commonly means sleeping on warmth-sapping surfaces and a sleeping pad with the “right” R-value can prevent buffoonery at bedtime. An insulated pad is a popular choice, as is pairing a closed-cell foam pad with an air pad for a silly-comfortable (and warm) combination.

Credit: Tim Peck

Waterproof Wind Up

Wet weather is no laughing matter for spring backpackers, especially when it soaks essential gear. Work a waterproof pack cover, pack liner, or individual dry sacks into your bag of tricks for storing stuff like your sleeping bag, extra layers, and food.

Gear Gag

Gear has a funny sense of humor, especially after a long winter. Before hitting the trail, spend an evening checking that your gear is in order—make sure all your tent’s pieces are in the bag, your sleeping pad holds air, the batteries are charged in your headlamp, and your stove starts. The more kinks you can work out at home, the less kooky things will be in the backcountry.

Have the Last Laugh

Creating a list of everything you need before packing your bag is a good strategy if it’s been a while since you last backpacked—forgetting those little-but-essential items like a lighter for your stove is a sure-fire way to look foolish.

Have any other tips to keep spring weather from making you a laughingstock on your first backpacking trip of the year? If so, we want to hear them! Leave them in the comments below.

Credit: Tim Peck

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!