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

goEast Countdown to Winter Advent(ure) Calendar

For those who are more amped about snowy fun than Christmas Day, you can count down to the official start of winter with this 21-day advent(ure) calendar. Tick them daily for a treat-a-day leading up to December 21, or use it as a guide to the most wonderful time of year. Either way, you’re in for a whole lot of fun!

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Tim Peck

  • December 18: Not ready to tackle Tucks? Ski Mount Washington from the west along the more mellow Cog Railway.
  • December 19: Some argue the best skiing in New Hampshire isn’t found on the state’s biggest peaks, but rather in the woods. Check out some of the Granite State’s best tree skiing.
  • December 20: Conquer a classic multi-pitch ice climb with an ascent of Shoestring Gully.
  • December 21: Celebrate the first official day of winter in style—check one of the Northeast’s most classic mountaineering lines off your list with an ascent of the Lion Head on Mount Washington. Not ready to go it alone? The EMS Climbing School runs trips up the Rockpile all winter.

’Tis the season to be jolly, especially if you tick these awesome activities off this winter. Have other adventures schemed up for the advent of winter? If so, let us know about them in the comments!


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.


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

Video: Airplane Camping Under a Meteor Shower

“We’re going to go fly out into the desert and camp next to a giant cactus.”


Staying "Low and Local" During Coronavirus

For all the unpredictability of nature, and the chaos that can be the wilderness, the folks that love it tend to be planners at heart. Meticulous planners even: the kind who take expedition logistics to the point of obsession; zealots, who pour over maps and read guidebooks cover to cover; lovers of order, who chart their itineraries to the minute, and wrestle with every gram that goes into their packs. That’s why when COVID-19 established itself in the Northeast, and all of that came to a screeching halt, many of us felt the whiplash.

As cities and states shut down so too did the crags and trailheads. Travel was heavily restricted, people were asked to stay home, and our priorities shifted from reviewing the weather reports of far away mountain ranges to the very immediate matter of trying to contain an outbreak.

And so, our lofty goals got a lot further away—but as the higher, more distant summits receded, the outdoors didn’t actually go anywhere—and as we were encouraged to stay “low and local,” it seemed that the outdoors actually got a whole lot closer.

A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak
A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Rolling with it

With the rest of the world suddenly off-limits, we had to turn our attention to our own backyards. We all have our go-tos in the neighborhood, and in the first few weeks we covered a lot of familiar ground. It was refreshing to hike the local preserves and neighborhood parks before or after work, or even on a lunch break. They were different than they are on the weekends, and it was rewarding to see winter transition to spring in real time—something that isn’t immediately apparent from a desk in an office from nine to five.

As time passed, and spring progressed, we gradually expanded our definition of local. A ten minute drive to a trailhead became twenty and opened up that many more opportunities to get outside. With the changing weather though came the people. Folks cooped up with nowhere else to go turned their attention to the outdoors, and with this surge in usage came crowds, trash, and—as popular state parks became overwhelmed—closures. Once-quiet trails more resembled Fifth Avenue at rush hour than peaceful woodland singletrack and the only thing that exceeded the annoyance was the hazard presented by large, maskless groups that can’t socially distance because of the terrain.

We began looking beyond the ‘usual’ spots, taking to the internet and to apps like AllTrails and The Hiking Project, trying to find somewhere new. We went early, or late, or watched the forecast, seeking clouds rather than clear skies knowing that our favorite spots would be more safely passed in rain. Sometimes it was about improvisation—stopping at a trailhead we’d never heard of after turning away from a full parking area. Other times, having a plan B—and even a plan C—was the way to go. Flexibility is always a requirement in the outdoors and rolling with it felt natural—and stoked a small bit of a sense of adventure along the way.

Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak
Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak

Mix it Up

Not being able to climb at the height of the pandemic in the northeast was rough. It took what felt like forever before local organizations like the Ragged Mountain Foundation lifted their no-climbing advisory—and longer still before the Gunks reopened—and not being able to climb, even locally, had us bouncing off the walls. Staying low and local—and exploring new places close to home by doing so—opened up a ton of new territory. And that got us thinking about how else can we expand that newness in our own backyards?

Some of us mixed it up a bit. If we typically hiked a loop clockwise, we’d try hiking it counter-clockwise. We started to trail run our hiking trails and to hike our running trails. We may have dusted off an old family canoe and took to the water for the first time in a while. We may have picked up a used mountain bike and taken to the trails, both new and familiar, in a fresh way. Within the restrictions the pandemic assigned us, we persisted in getting out and doing things.

When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak
When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak

New Goals

A ton of us had high expectations for 2020. We’d trained for this season, seeking a summit or a thru-hike or a trail race. We’d sustained injuries, healed, trained up again. It’s hard to talk about things like climbing, hiking, or running in the context of a surging global pandemic but, simply put, seeing these sought-after objectives grow more distant, after years of preparation, really sucked.

We had to put those objectives on hold—so we found new ones. We redlined the hiking trails in our town. Or county. Or state. Or we sought and completed ridiculous virtual ultra-running challenges. Or we built our own hangboards and trained like crazy. There’s no replacing a Rainier summit or going end-to-end on the Long Trail but we found new challenges, we kept busy, and we made it work.

Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak
Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak

What Now?

Eventually, in the Northeast, we flattened the curve. Climbing started up again and trailheads reopened. Limited travel became a thing and we could get to the Whites and the ’Daks and Acadia safely. It’s still weird—we’re still masked up, taking separate cars, and sanitizing our hands until the skin falls off—but we’re still here and we’re still getting out. And while it’s hard to believe it’s been six months of this, and we seem to be staring down six more, it’s reassuring to know that staying low and local can still be rad. Now, as fall approaches, we’re going to keep on seeing what other cool, new stuff we can find in our own backyards. Winter’s just around the corner, and with any luck, it’ll be cold, long, and full of frozen waterfalls, deep powder, and bluebird days.


Explore Connecticut's Litchfield Hills This Fall

Nestled in Connecticut’s rugged Litchfield Hills, the town of Kent is the postcard-perfect image of rural Southern New England. From its charming center at the intersection of US-7 and CT-341, bucolic farmland gives way to dense second-growth forests, rocky hillsides, and pristine waterways—all a study in contrast to the densely populated suburban tableau that the Nutmeg State typically evokes.

What local hikers, trail runners, climbers, and paddlers already know though, is that Kent is more than just a pretty face. Miles of trails, awesome climbing, and plenty of water—both technical and flat—make Kent a full-value day trip. Throw in some excellent restaurants and a destination-worthy brewery, and you’ve got yourself a fine spot for a long weekend.

The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak
The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak

Hiking and Trail Running

From hilltop to hollow, Kent’s state parks, forests, and private land trusts provide access to miles and miles of high-quality trail fit for hikers and runners of all abilities.

The centerpiece, of course, is the venerable Appalachian Trail. 51 of the AT’s 2,190 miles run through Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills offering some of the loveliest low-elevation day hiking and backpacking options in the northeast. If you’re looking for an easy and scenic stroll, head south from Bull’s Bridge to Ten Mile Hill (4.5 miles, out-and-back), taking in a 19th-century covered bridge and a beautiful section of the Housatonic River along the way. For something a bit more challenging, head south from the Saint John’s Ledges trailhead on River Road, traversing Fuller Mountain, Caleb Peak, and Saint John’s Ledges while you catch views on your way to the AT’s junction with CT-341 (4.3 miles, one-way). Looking to fill your weekend? Just north of Kent, in Sharon, the AT–Mohawk Loop (39.4 miles, loop), is an excellent backpacking route that connects the Appalachian trails of the past and present—today’s Mohawk Trail actually traces the original path of the AT before it was rerouted in the 1970’s.

The AT isn’t the only game in town though. Just around the corner, Macedonia Brook State Park boasts an impressive network of trails that offer a not-so subtle reminder that “low-elevation” doesn’t always mean “easy.” Varied terrain, outstanding views, and a climactic rock scramble characterize the Macedonia Ridge Trail—a part of Connecticut’s Blue-blazed Trail Network and one of the state’s finest—as it works its way up and over Cobble Mountain (6.4 miles, loop).

A few miles northeast, Kent Falls State Park and its dramatic, stepped, eponymous cascade drops over 250 feet as it flows into the Housatonic River. Linking the Park Path up with the Red and Yellow Trails makes for a lovely, easy hike up and around the falls (1.5 miles, loop).

Trail Magic (5.9-) at Saint John’s Ledges in Kent is one of the most enjoyable single pitches of climbing in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Climbing

Connecticut climbing has a reputation for short routes, steep traprock ridges, and incredible sandbags, but Saint John’s Ledges, rising above the Housatonic River in Kent, offers climbers a bit of a diversion: slab. Right along the Appalachian Trail, a quarter mile in from the trailhead parking area on River Road, are the Upper Ledges, a long stretch of friction slab reaching well over 100 feet high in some places.

There’s a good range of difficulty but the majority of lines register as solid, enjoyable moderates with a mix of heady slab moves and jammable cracks—and though some are leadable, protection can be sparse (or non-existent), and top-rope is generally the order of the day. A 60-meter rope alone won’t do it on some routes so be sure to bring a 70 or plenty of static line to build anchors with. Everything is east-facing, and the top half of the Upper Ledges are sunny and warm in the morning, so climbing here can comfortably extend late into the season. Must-do’s include Half Bling (5.8+), Falling Bodies (5.6), and the excellent Trail Magic (5.9-).

There are a handful of areas, and a good amount of climbable terrain, at Saint John’s in addition to the Upper Ledges, including the Lower Ledges, a short, beginner-friendly cliff just off the trailhead parking area. With a pair of super-easy routes like Wilderness Crack (5.3) and Try (5.2), this is an excellent spot for first-time climbers—and if its popularity with groups and classes is any indication, the Lower Ledges may well be the best such area in the state. There is a little bit of something for everyone here though, and more experienced climbers headed for the Upper Ledges will enjoy a change of pace (and some shade) on stout face climbs like The Graduate (5.10-).

The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak
The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak

Paddling

From its headwaters in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, the Housatonic River travels 149 miles on its course to Long Island Sound, effectively halving the town of Kent from northeast to southwest in the process. Like the surrounding hills, the Housatonic is emblematic of Connecticut’s Northwest Corner—it’s also one of the finest destinations in the east to fisherman and kayakers alike. The river moves quickly and can be technical at several points, the most noteworthy of which is the Staircase, an obstacle just south of Bull’s Bridge, that heralds rapids up to Class V when the water’s high.

Those seeking gentler waters need look no further than Lake Waramaug State Park. Situated on the border of Kent, Warren, and New Preston, Lake Waramaug is a gorgeous lake in a stunning setting—absolutely perfect for an early morning paddle. The state park also has an adjoining campground, a great spot if you’re in for more than a daytrip.

Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak
Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Eating and Drinking

For a small town, Kent does really well on the food and drink. Get started in the heart of town at Swyft, a cool little joint in a restored 18th-century home that serves up modern, seasonal fare alongside a robust tap list. A local draft and one of their wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas tend to hit the spot after a big day on the trail or at the crag.

No trip to Kent is complete without grabbing a beer at Kent Falls Brewing Company. Located in Kent Hollow, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Lake Waramaug, Kent Falls Brewing Company is a brewery on a working farm specializing in locally sourced ingredients. Their beer menu is wide-ranging, ever changing, and always excellent and the setting is as bucolic rural Connecticut as it gets.


Level-Up Your Fall Photography at the Adirondacks' Heart Lake

With all due respect to the other seasons, there isn’t a more exciting time of year for wilderness exploration and photography than fall, and there’s no better place to be this time of year than the Eastern United States. Blessed with a variety of hardwood species like sugar maple and birch that turn practically every shade of color imaginable during the autumn season, there’s no shortage of fantastic foliage destinations in this part of the country. That said, there are some locations that stand out from the rest, such as the Heart Lake area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Located south of Lake Placid in the High Peaks Region, Heart Lake is a perfect fall hiking and photography destination. While the main sights can be seen in just a daytrip, to truly appreciate this special area, nothing beats spending a few nights in a classic Adirondack lean-to, several of which pepper the lakeshore and surrounding forest. Or if camping isn’t your style, the charming and cozy Adirondack Loj is also near the lake and offers the weary hiker heated rooms and home-cooked meals.

Another big advantage of staying at Heart Lake is that some of the best fall photography imaginable is right at your doorstep. The following tips will help you make the most of a fall trip to Heart Lake and to take your fall photos to the next level. While this article is focused on the Heart Lake area, most of the photography tips can be applied to any locale.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Time it Right

The first consideration when planning a fall photography trip to Heart Lake or elsewhere is timing. While difficult to predict and variable from year to year, peak fall foliage in this part of New York typically arrives in the last week of September and lasts through the first week of October. Peak fall color at Heart Lake the past two years has been right around October 5th. Once September arrives and preparation for fall kicks into high gear, the Adirondack Mountain Club posts a weekly Heart Lake foliage report on their social media pages that is an incredibly useful resource for monitoring the color progression remotely. If looking to explore other areas in the Adirondacks or New York State, I Love New York posts a weekly foliage report for the entire state on their website and social media pages.

Even if you miss peak color, there can be advantages to being a little on the early or late side. In the days leading up to peak color, the prominence of some trees with green leaves that have yet to change color can make the ones that have changed pop even more. Post-peak when the leaves begin to fall is a great opportunity to experiment with detailed macro shots of freshly fallen leaves and can provide the opportunity to catch the first snow of the season as autumn color hangs on before succumbing to the white of winter.

Scout It Out

One of the best ways to get to know an area and to take the best photos possible is to get out and explore and scout out different compositions upon arrival, especially if never having been to the location before. Spending at least a couple days in an area is also advantageous as it provides more time to study weather patterns and to get a better understanding of how the light interacts with the landscape at different times of the day. Scouting is rather easy to do in the Heart Lake vicinity, but there are a few classic spots where photography is worthwhile:

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake

The lake itself offers a bounty of photo opportunities, and a hiking trail leads around the eastern half of it and provides several access points to the lake. Even better, snag one of the lakefront lean-tos, which can be reserved up to a year in advance, and your own slice of private lakefront will be just steps away. A sandy beach on the north side of the lake is an excellent spot to photograph mountain reflections or a canoe beached on the sandy shore with a background of colorful foliage.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Jo

Rising above the north shore of Heart Lake, 2,876-foot Mount Jo provides one of the most phenomenal fall views and is one of the best bang-for the-buck hikes in all the Adirondacks. A typical rugged and steep Adirondack trail leads from the campground to the rocky summit ledges. Partway up the Mount Jo trail, the trail forks into the 1.1-mile “Short” Trail and the 1.3-mile “Long” Trail, both of which ultimately meet below the summit after a 700-foot climb. It takes roughly 45 minutes to get to the top, where a glorious view of mountains and fall foliage spreads out below. The opportunities for landscape shots with a wide-angle lens are endless, and since the view looks to the south, great sidelight can be had at both sunrise and sunset. While views from the official summit are nice, some open ledges below the summit provide an even more panoramic view with a clear perspective of Heart Lake surrounded by colorful autumn foliage with Algonquin and other High Peaks rising from the valley further to the south.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake Campground

Spending the night camping at Heart Lake opens up additional photo opportunities. Campers by a crackling fire and tents or lean-tos nestled in the forest are great additions to any fall photography portfolio and help to fully paint the picture of what fall in the mountains is all about. Lean-tos, tent campsites, and bunks in the Loj can be reserved onlineat the Adirondack Mountain Club’s. Lean-tos and tent sites cost $40 to $45 per night, and Loj rooms range from $70 to $160. For all Heart Lake accommodations, Adirondack Mountain Club members receive a 10% discount.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mornings are Magic

As difficult as it can be to crawl out of a toasty sleeping bag to feel the cold slap of predawn air, there’s no better time of day for fall photography than early morning. Winds at Heart Lake are typically calmest at dawn, better facilitating the reflection of colorful foliage and clouds in the lake. Fog rising from the lake on crisp autumn mornings is a common occurrence and provides some of the most dreamy and mystical photography conditions imaginable, whether photographed from the shore of the lake itself or from a higher vantage point up on Mount Jo. On especially cold mornings, frost might even coat the flora, adding a special touch to an already extraordinary time of year.

Look Beyond the Grand Landscape

When color is at its peak, the most obvious way to capture the beauty is to use a wide-angle lens to capture grand landscape photos. To create a more diverse portfolio and to truly capture the full essence of fall, though, it’s important to look beyond the landscape and find the subtle beauty of fall. One of the best ways to do this is to use other lenses besides a wide-angle. Utilizing a telephoto lens is a great way to isolate smaller sections of a landscape, and it can be a fun exercise in creativity to start with photographing the landscape using a wide-angle lens and then switch over to a telephoto to pick out different compositions from within the wider shot. From the shore of Heart Lake, use a telephoto lens to create a frame-filling shot of the most colorful group of trees, or a lone red maple amid a group of evergreens. From the summit of Mount Jo, hone in on morning fog floating over the top of the forest canopy, or a canoe on Heart Lake dwarfed by the immense scale of the Adirondack wilderness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from an expansive landscape photo, macro photography can reveal an intimate and abstract side of fall that often goes unnoticed. With macro photography, a small section of a single leaf can be as beautiful and profound as a grand vista filled with millions of leaves.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Pack a Tripod and Polarizer

Two of the most useful accessories for fall photography not only at Heart Lake but in general are a tripod and polarizing filter. Unless intentionally blurring some or all of a photo for creative reasons, it’s typically desirable for a photo to be in sharp focus from front to back. A tripod is often necessary to stabilize the camera and facilitate a sharp photo, especially at dawn and dusk when there’s less light and longer exposure times are required. A polarizer comes in handy throughout the year but is especially useful in fall. Much like the polarized sunglasses that you might own, putting a polarizing filter on a camera lens helps to decrease glare and haze. Using one helps to make fall colors really pop, especially when the leaves are wet. A polarizer also helps to deepen the color of a blue sky, although care should be taken not to overdo it and end up with an unnatural polarization gradient in the sky. To avoid this, twist the polarizer back and forth until the most pleasing effect is achieved, especially when photographing at a 90-degree angle to the sun, at which the polarization effect is most prominent.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Get Out and Explore

While there are enough interesting photography subjects at Heart Lake to keep a photographer entertained for days on end, there are also several other nearby locations that can all be reached on foot that are worth investigating if on an extended stay in the area. About a mile up the road from the Heart Lake Campground, a trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg begins off South Meadows Road and leads to another short mountain with an open, rocky summit that provides a different perspective than Mount Jo. En-route to the summit, pass a beaver pond that provides an excellent view of Mount Van Hoevenberg to the north. For a less strenuous diversion from Heart Lake, continue to the end of South Meadows Road by foot or car to photograph pretty meadows complete with a babbling brook.

Heart Lake also provides easy access to hiking some of the most popular High Peaks, such as Algonquin, Marcy, and Phelps. It should be noted though that while the tundra of these peaks can sport pretty autumn alpine grasses, the best fall colors will be well below these lofty summits.

For a more secluded leg-stretcher than hitting a High Peak, loop around the north side of Heart Lake to connect with the Indian Pass Trail. Reach beautiful Rocky Falls in a little over two miles, with the option to continue on approximately three more miles to rugged and seldom-visited Indian Pass.

On the drive to and from Heart Lake on Adirondack Loj Road, several open meadows are passed that make for perfect photography or picnic spots, just be sure not to encroach on any private land.

 

Whether spending just an afternoon or an entire week, Heart Lake is a perfect destination for fall photography. With the tips outlined in this article and an open, creative mind, you’ll be sure to come away from your visit with the best fall photos possible.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola