Video: The Icycycle

No more slipping on those mid-winter rides.


10 Tips for Transitioning from Hut Trips to Winter Camping

Trekking through a beautiful winter landscape with the promise of a warm hut at the end of a long, cold day is an experience that keeps hut goers coming back year after year. But this winter, when huddling up around a blazing wood stove with friends and friendly strangers doesn’t conjure the same cozy thoughts as it once did, some adventurers are making the transition to camping. With a few adjustments to gear, planning, and expectations, you can trade your bunk for a sleeping pad under the stars this winter.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

1. Rethink your stove and fuel

If you’ve become accustomed to using a full hut kitchen with shiny stainless steel appliances, or you’ve been putting in your breakfast and lunch order with the cook before you tuck yourself into your bunk, winter camping may feel like a long fall from grace. To make matters worse, your beloved backpacking canister stove, which has nourished you on many an outdoor adventure, may need to stay behind. Many of these stoves utilize a combination of isobutane and propane, and these often won’t work when the temperature hovers around freezing, and they stand no chance of working at 10 degrees or less. Instead, you’ll need a camp stove that runs on white gas. If you’ve never used one, you’re in for an altogether different experience—one that might involve a few spontaneous creative combinations of curse words. Read the directions and practice before you go. It gets easier and less terrifying each time.

2. Get organized

Winter camping requires more gear than a hut trip, and that means more gear to organize. You may have a fanny pack filled with items you need easily accessible (map, compass, hand warmers, snacks), a backpack filled with items you need while traveling (layers, more food, thermos, headlamp, and a first aid kit), and a pulk sled with group gear, skis or snowshoes, sleep system, more clothes, stove, food, shovel, and emergency supplies. Make a list (or a drawing) of your bags and the items they contain. Study it. You can’t spend time searching for something when you need it. You may need to know how to locate any one item of gear at any given moment. 

Credit: Willow Sherwood

3. Dial in your sleep system

Your sleeping pad, bag, and bivy system work together to keep you warm. A sleeping pad with an R-value rating of 6 or more (or multiple pads to reach that rating—they are cumulative, so 3 pads with a 2 R-value will get you to 6), combined with a 0-degree sleeping bag is a good choice for New England winter camping. But the ratings on the pads and bags are usually designed to keep you alive at the established temperatures, not to keep you comfortable. Bring a winter liner, quilt or a wool blanket to provide additional warmth, and test your sleep system out before you go. If possible, pick a clear, cold night and set yourself up in your yard or in a front country campsite where you can hop in your car and drive home if necessary. 

Tip: Sleeping bags lose their insulating properties over time (even when stored properly: uncompressed), so if your bag is older, don’t assume it’s as warm as it once was. (Also, you might be older, and might require more warmth than you once did.)  

4. Dress like a child

Think A Christmas Story here. Big, bulky snow pants and a parka. The sleek layers that keep you surprisingly comfortable when you’re in motion won’t work once you’re in camp. Bring enough clothes to keep you warm while staying put. These extra clothes can be brought into your sleeping bag for added warmth in the night, too.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

5. Bring an ax and a bow saw

In general, trails that lead to huts are maintained throughout the winter and it’s usually fairly easy to get intel on the status of the hut trails. Winter camping is (strangely) not embraced by as many folks and so it’s entirely possible (likely, even) that you could be the first group heading out to your campsite or lean-to. Give yourself plenty of time to maneuver blow downs, and bring tools to help clear the trail in case you encounter something you can’t navigate. The saw will come in handy for building a fire, too (use dead and down wood only).

6. Get ready for things to take longer

If you pride yourself on your ultra-fast break-camp time on your hut trips, winter camping will be different. Unless you chose your trip-mates extremely well, you’re not likely to wake up to coffee brewing. Instead, expect to start your day by slowly inching your way out of your warm bag into the frigid air, wrestling cold boots onto your feet (even though you keep them in your bag, they’ll be stiff), and melting a lot of snow for water. 

Credit: Sarah Hunter

7. Allow at least one luxury item

Winter camping is tough. Some things make it less tough. A comfortable camp chair is an ingeniously simple and beautiful thing and it might just be your favorite thing after a day of hauling your pulk sled through miles of thick blowdowns.  If it’s light and it will help make you comfortable, bring it.

8. Remember your ABCs: Always Be Consuming (Calories)

You need energy to stave off the cold. Bring a variety of your favorite foods so you don’t get bored. Eat regularly, and plan to eat more than you usually do on a cozy hut trip.

Credit: Sarah Hunter

9. Keep an eye on the weather

Weather is a factor in every backcountry trip, in all seasons, but its importance is elevated on winter camping trips. Without four walls and a wood stove, you’re vulnerable to dangerously cold temperatures. Make plans, but watch the weather in the days leading up to your trip, including the extended forecast, as fronts can move faster than expected, and be flexible with your dates. Since most intrepid adventurers tend to be detailed planners, flexibility can be one of the toughest components to winter camping, but it’s key to the safety and success of your trip.

10. Leave your itinerary with friends or family

This is a good practice anytime you head into the backcountry, but it’s especially critical in winter. Mistakes, accidents, and the unexpected can happen on any trip, but the margin for error on a winter camping trip is substantially reduced. Make sure people know where to find you and when to expect you back. Don’t deviate from the route you share with others. The goal is always to go out on the next trip.

Camping in the winter is a truly spectacular adventure.  If you can gather the proper equipment, enlist a group of like-minded adventurers, and maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity, you’re in for a real treat.  It’s tougher than a hut trip, but with great effort, comes great reward.


The Gear You Need to Climb Mount Marcy in the Winter

For a winter adventure that’s equal parts unforgettable and challenging, it’s hard to beat a winter ascent of Mount Marcy in the Adirondack High Peaks. Checking in at an elevation of 5,344 feet, Mount Marcy is the highest peak in New York and offers commanding views of the surrounding mountains, lakes, and valleys in all directions. With over 3,000 feet of elevation gain and a round-trip distance of nearly 15 miles via the shortest route to the summit, Mount Marcy makes for a long and challenging hike any time of year, but especially in winter when the temperature drops, the wind howls, and the days are short. Along with possessing the necessary fitness and knowledge, having the proper gear is paramount to completing a winter summit bid not only successfully, but also safely. In addition to common essentials such as a winter hat, gloves/mittens, snowshoes, and waterproof (and possibly insulated) hiking boots, the following 10 gear items are critical for any winter climb of Marcy.

Traction: EMS Ice Talons

Proper traction in winter is absolutely essential, and it seems like every winter weekend an unprepared hiker in bare boots (or even tennis shoes) slips and gets hurt in the High Peaks. With the amount of snow and ice varying from week to week in the winter, as well as with elevation, it’s wise to be prepared for hiking in both deep powder and ice-coated rock slabs on any winter ascent of Marcy. Even when the trail leading to the final summit approach is covered in feet of fluffy snow, the exposed, wind-swept rock slabs that comprise the summit dome are often largely devoid of powdery snow and are instead coated in a thick layer of ice. Snowshoes are typically too clunky and don’t offer sufficient traction for such terrain, but this is where traction devices such as the EMS Ice Talons really shine. Lighter and much more user-friendly than classic crampons, the EMS Ice Talons will allow you to confidently and safely navigate the rime ice and crunchy snow that will almost certainly be encountered below Marcy’s summit.

Trekking Poles: Leki Makalu Lite Cor Tec

The use of trekking poles while hiking is largely a personal decision, but they can be especially handy on a winter ascent of Marcy. In addition to alleviating some lower body stress (especially on the knees while descending), trekking poles can provide critical stability on the exposed final summit push where the wind can be so strong it can throw off your balance and sometimes even knock you on your feet. For hiking in powdery snow, be sure to put some wider baskets at the end of the trekking poles. Similar in concept to snowshoes, broader winter baskets give trekking poles better flotation in deep snow.

Snow Goggles

Snow googles will serve two purposes on this hike. For one thing, they’ll keep your eyelids from freezing shut if the summit is windy (which it often is) and snow is blowing in the air. Secondly, most snow goggles also act as sunglasses to protect against snow blindness, which can occur when unprotected eyes are subjected to extended periods of bright sunshine reflecting off of white snow. While you might be able to get away with using typical sunglasses for eye protection on calm days, mountain weather is unpredictable and winds can whip up in an instant, making snow goggles a prudent accessory to toss in your pack for a winter climb of Marcy.

Wicking Base Layer: EMS Lightweight Synthetic Base Layer Tights and Crewneck Long Sleeve Shirt

Sweating too much while hiking in the winter is one sure-fire way to get into a dangerous, hypothermic situation. Dressing in layers is essential for regulating body temperature, and it all starts with the next-to-skin base layer. Choosing a base layer material that’s wicking and quick-drying is key, and the old adage “cotton kills” comes to mind here. Unlike cotton, which takes a long time to dry once it’s wet and will sap your body of heat, it’s best to utilize synthetic materials or merino wool when choosing a base layer. The EMS Lightweight Synthetic Base Layer tights and crewneck long sleeve, for example, are made of moisture-wicking and quick-drying 100% polyester, which will pull perspiration away from the body to better regulate body temperature and prevent a bone-chilling cold to set in, especially while stopping for a break.

More: How to Dress While Snowshoeing

Credit: Joey Priola

Outdoor Research Skyward II Pants and Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket

Being at the highest elevation in the state comes with some of the harshest weather in the Northeast. For protection against wind, precipitation, and trudging through deep snow, a breathable outer layer that’s wind and water-proof is key. Pants such as the Skyward II, and a jacket such as the Interstellar (both from Outdoor Research) help form a protective barrier between you and the harsh winter elements, especially when in the exposed alpine zone.

Gaiters: Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters

Wet, cold feet are likely the most common complaint among people new to winter hiking. In addition to hiking in sturdy and waterproof boots, gaiters are the best accessory to ensure that feet stay dry and toasty, and are worth their weight in gold on hikes through deep snow. Gaiters effectively cover boot tops and prevent snow from getting in, even when hiking through waist-deep snow. The Outdoor Research Crocodile gaiters are the classic, gold-standard gaiter for winter hiking, and come with a Gore-Tex membrane to ensure that the gaiters don’t wet-out even in slushy conditions.

Credit: Joey Priola

Socks: EMS X-Static Sock Liners and Smartwool Women’s PhD Pro Medium Crew Socks

Continuing with the keeping feet warm and dry theme, choosing the right socks can be the difference between a safe and comfortable hike and a painful and dangerous slog. Just as the aforementioned base layers for your upper and lower body help manage sweat and regulate body temperature, use a thin pair of synthetic liner socks like the EMS X-Static Sock Liners help to pull perspiration away from the foot to prevent cold and clammy feet. Following up the liner sock with a mid-weight sock such as the Smartwool PhD Pro adds extra insulation without overheating.

Down Jacket: EMS Men’s Feather Pack Hooded Jacket

As previously mentioned, layering clothing is critical in winter. A warm yet lightweight insulated jacket should always be in your pack in winter, and will come in handy while stopping to take a snack break and for braving the exposed alpine zone on the final approach to Marcy’s summit. Down offers an optimal warmth-to-weight ratio, and modern down jackets such as the EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket now offer water-repellent down which retains its insulation value even in wet conditions.

More: How to Choose the Right Jacket for Winter Adventures

Credit: Joey Priola

Headlamp: Petzl Tikka

Short winter days coupled with a nearly 15 mile round-trip hike means that part of your hike will likely be spent in the dark. Packing a headlamp (and spare batteries) such as the Petzl Tikka will help keep the trail illuminated and you safe when it’s dark out.

Insulated Water Bottle: Camelbak Carry Cap 32 oz Insulated Stainless Steel Bottle

Staying properly hydrated is always important while hiking, but no matter how much water you carry, it won’t do you any good if it’s frozen. Boiling water before the hike and keeping water bottles inside your backpack is typically good enough to keep water from freezing on a day hike, but an insulated water bottle or thermos such as the Camelbak Carry Cap 32 oz Insulated Stainless Steel Bottle will eliminate any doubt that your beverage of choice will be in a liquid state when you need it.


Dawn Patrol: Why You Should Be Ice Climbing Before Work

It’s a little before 10:00 pm and I’m in the parking lot of my regular climbing gym, tucking away my rock shoes and racking screws, slings, and cordalettes onto my harness. I’ve just wrapped up a late evening session and, in about eight hours, will be doing some early-bird laps at a nearby ice climbing area. All before work begins at 9:00 am.

If this sounds obsessive, that’s because it probably is. See, it’s finally winter in Connecticut and the local ice is finally in a climbable way—after a January full of obscenely early mornings and ridiculously long drives north, the idea of climbing nearby is all too alluring to pass up. That, and the acknowledgement that Southern New England’s winters are a lot shorter than they used to be, means it’s time to strike while the iron’s hot. Tomorrow, that means getting up early and getting after it before clocking in.

To surfers and skiers, this ritual is a familiar one known as the “dawn patrol.” And the first thing to accept about the dawn patrol is that there won’t be a ton of daylight to work with—the winter sun is a late riser and the workday starts when it always does. Making the most out of pre-work laps means packing efficiently, picking the right spot, and being comfortable alone in the dark.

Leaving the harness, helmet, and crampons out of the pack will make for a quicker transition out of the lot. | Credit: John Lepak

And that’s exactly what I’m doing in a parking lot outside a closed climbing gym: packing efficiently. I’m working with the space in the recently-emptied trunk of my Subaru instead of the inside of my pack.

In the middle, my harness is racked and double-checked to make sure everything I need is on there. To the left, my crampons are laid out ready to go. Above, my helmet, with a headlamp already in place. To the right, my pack: tools fixed to the outside, rope coiled within, stacked atop the remaining essentials. The ride in the morning is going to be short, so I’ll throw the boots and the gaiters on before hitting the road and my hat and gloves are in the passenger seat, alongside a breakfast of a banana and a granola bar.

Everything is in its right place and this is going to make things fly come morning. The harness, helmet, and pack go right on in the lot—the crampons as soon as I cross the street and get onto the snow-packed trail. By the time I reach the ice, I’m already ready to go.

A familiar spot with easy top-out access and a concentration of routes can give you efficiency and variety in your pre-work laps. | Credit: John Lepak

It’s worth noting that dawn patrol ice climbing isn’t going to work just anywhere—selecting the right place is just as critical as preparing the gear ahead of time. I’ve picked my spot carefully: I scouted the ice the previous week and I know, without any certainty, that it’s going to be good to go. I’m also familiar with it, so there won’t be any guess work finding the climbers’ path or accessing the top of the routes in the dark. I’ve got my anchor trees in mind, and I know exactly how I’m going to set up so I can get as many laps in on as many routes as time will allow.

Most importantly, both the drive and the approach are short. Long drives and big hikes are for the weekends—I’ve done my due diligence to seek out areas that are neither far from home nor far from the road so I’m not spending all my time either behind the wheel or huffing my way up the trail.

Oftentimes the dawn patrol is a lonely—but rewarding—experience. | Credit: John Lepak

Partners are typically hard to come by on the dawn patrol—a lot of ice climbers are willing to get an early start for a full day of climbing but the numbers thin out when talking about an hour or two before heading into a full day of work. More often than not these missions are rope-solo missions.

Climbing alone is weird, but one with many worthy merits. Like hiking alone—a much more common experience—climbing by yourself comes with a very unique headspace. My safety is exclusively in my hands, and I know it: there’s no partner check, nor is there any belay save a self-belay—no one’s calling for rescue should something go wrong.  Every move I make needs to be cautious and deliberate. Though, with the silence of the forest, the brightening dawn, and the singular concentration required to move safely comes a meditative state—a centeredness all-to-uncommon for a weekday.


The Best Adirondack Peaks for a Winter Sunset

Encompassing six million acres and possessing a myriad of mountains ranging in size from mile-high Mount Marcy to short and wooded summits, the Adirondacks has a mountain for every schedule and ability. Few outdoor experiences are more memorable or enjoyable than watching the sunset in solitude from a mountain summit, and the experience is made even more memorable with the extra challenges and solitude present in the winter season. With that in mind, here is a collection of Adirondack peaks that are all excellent winter sunset destinations.

Credit: Joey Priola

Phelps Mountain

While not one of the tallest or the highest Adirondack High Peaks, Phelps Mountain is my personal favorite Adirondack peak for watching and photographing a winter sunset. Ringing in at a round-trip distance of 8.8 miles with almost 2,000 feet of elevation gain if departing from the Adirondack Loj (parking fee of $15/day, reduced to $7/day for Adirondack Mountain Club members), Phelps is in that sweet spot of providing enough of a challenge to make you feel like you’ve really accomplished something, while being short enough so that you won’t be hiking back in the dark for hours on end.

After a quick 2 mile jaunt to Marcy Dam and a little over a mile of gradual climbing along Phelps Brook, a classic steep and rugged Adirondack trail diverges from the Van Hoevenberg Trail to climb 1.2 miles to the summit of Phelps. Two characteristics of Phelps make this peak particularly amenable to winter sunsets. First, although the summit offers expansive views, it’s not completely exposed and hardy evergreens provide protection from the wind and make for interesting photo subjects when they’re caked with snow and ice. Second, Phelps offers wide-open views to the west, meaning that you’ll have a clear vantage point of the sun setting over the lofty summits of Mount Colden and Algonquin Peak, with Mount Marcy catching beautiful sidelight. While views from the summit proper are exceptional, ledges a couple hundred yards shy of the summit might provide an even better vantage point to watch the setting sun cast a warm glow on the snowy landscape.

Cascade Mountain

As one of the shortest and easiest of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks to climb, Cascade Mountain is a justly popular peak. While winter crowds are typically less than those found in summer and fall, the small parking lots on Rt. 73 can easily get overwhelmed on weekends. The late start that you’ll get to time it right to catch sunset from the summit typically makes this a moot point, but aim to do this one on a weekday if possible, just in case.

The vast majority of this hike is spent sheltered in the woods, and while the grade never gets too obnoxious, the climbing begins right from the parking lot and doesn’t let up much for the duration of the hike. A junction with the trail to Porter Mountain (another High Peak that’s often combined with a trek up Cascade) is reached at 2.1 miles, and then the final push to the exposed summit begins. Shortly after the trail junction is a good time to bundle up, as the wind is often much stronger on the exposed summit than the sheltered approach trail. Even though it only comes in as the 36th tallest peak in the High Peaks Region, Cascade offers a panoramic view that is likely a top 10 summit view in the Adirondacks.

Credit: Joey Priola

Coney Mountain

With a round-trip distance of only 2.2 miles and an elevation gain of about 550 feet, Coney Mountain is one of the best bang-for-your-buck mountains in all of New York. Located off of Route 30 between Long Lake and Tupper Lake, Coney is a great destination to enjoy your first mountaintop winter sunset. A sheltered trail climbs gradually from the small parking lot through a beautiful forest before reaching the mostly open summit. Part of Tupper Lake can be seen in the distance and nearby Goodman Mountain (which itself is another good sunset hike) adds visual interest to the view. If the sky is clear and weather calm, hanging around after sunset to watch the stars is an incredibly rewarding experience, and the short distance back to the trailhead makes the return hike in the dark a breeze.

Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Marcy

Standing as the highest mountain in New York at an elevation of 5,344 feet, Mount Marcy draws hikers from near and far. There’s just something about being at the highest point in a state that’s alluring, and from the icy winter summit of Marcy, all of the Adirondacks spreads out below your lofty perch. With a round-trip distance of nearly 15 miles coupled with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain, climbing Marcy makes for a long day, and catching the sunset from the summit means that you’ll have several hours of hiking in the dark back to the trailhead to look forward to. For those that have the requisite experience, fitness, and gear, though, it doesn’t get any better than this. After gradually ascending to treeline, the final half-mile push to the summit is on the wide-open and rocky summit block, with no protection from the elements. Once on the summit, a panoramic view of mountains and lakes spreads as far as the eye can see. As the sun sets over the distant horizon, take pride in the fact that no one in the state is higher than you, physically and maybe emotionally too, before readying for the long and dark sojourn home.

Credit: Joey Priola

Algonquin and Wright Peaks

Two of the more popular High Peaks to climb, Algonquin and Wright are neighbors that share the same route for the first 3.4 miles from the Adirondack Loj and are thus often climbed in tandem. Coming in at round-trip distances of 7.6 (with 2,400 feet of elevation gain) and 8.6 (with 2900 feet of elevation gain) miles respectively, Wright and Algonquin are both classic Adirondack climbs that make for excellent sunset destinations. Both of these summits are quite exposed, though, which means expansive views but also little to no protection from the elements. It’s thus best to get some safer sunset summits under your belt before aiming for Wright or Algonquin.

From the Wright-Algonquin trail junction reached 3.4 miles from the Adirondack Loj parking lot, a left turns leads 0.4 miles to the summit of Wright. Views abound in all directions, with Whiteface and the ski jumps of Lake Placid in the distance to the north. The best part of Wright’s vantage point, though, is its proximity to the summit block of Algonquin, which towers above you and the seemingly endless procession of snow-covered evergreens that fill the divide between Wright and Algonquin. If the wind is howling, descending a bit from the summit to treeline provides a more sheltered, and possibly more interesting vantage point from which to watch the sunset over the shoulder of Algonquin and light up the flanks of Wright in brilliantly glowing sunset hues.

If at the aforementioned trail junction you’re feeling up for some added distance and elevation, rather than taking the side trail up to Wright continue on 0.9 miles to the exposed alpine summit of Algonquin. Views from the rocky tundra are unfettered and include Colden with its many slides and Trap Dike. Due to its entirely exposed nature, Algonquin is a peak best saved for a calm day. Spend some time exploring the summit before sunset (while being careful not to trample the rare and delicate alpine plants that make the summit home) and marvel at how the raking winds have sculpted the snow into fanciful shapes. As the second highest peak in the Adirondacks, Algonquin has a “top of the world” feel to it, and lingering on the summit and watching the sunset sky transition from orange to magenta to the deepest blue-black imaginable is an experience that could never be forgotten.

Credit: Joey Priola

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). 

Why You Should Always Pack a Car Kit

Everyone loves to talk about gear—we can fill a long ski tour simply discussing what the right ski width for an East Coast ski is or preaching the benefits of wearing bright clothing. Over the years, however, the gear that has proven the most valuable has also been the least flashy: our “car kit.”

Credit: Doug Martland

What is a Car Kit?

“Car kit” is the name we’ve given to a handful of essential gear that we keep in our cars when traveling to the mountains. Our car kit includes a variety of items ranging from backup gear to first-aid equipment to rescue kits and have proven to help save everything from days to lives in the mountains and roads. Much like backcountry ski packs and climbing racks, the car kit has evolved over time, with items added and subtracted as experience and knowledge are gained.

Originally, our car kits were self-contained in a few small plastic containers, but they have spread through our vehicles over time. For example, the spare headlamp and sunglasses that are key components of the car kit have proven better-suited to living in the glove compartment.

Credit: Doug Martland

So, what’s inside?

The foundation of any quality car kit is built on having backups to essential gear, just in case that absent-minded person in your party shows up without it. A key to the car kit is that it’s all spare gear you’re not dependent on, that way it’s there when you need it. A few items that form the foundation of our car kit are:

  • Headlamp
  • Sunglasses
  • Socks
  • Mittens
  • Winter hat
  • Multiclava
  • Puffy (An old one kept compressed doesn’t take up much space. Yes, keeping a puffy compressed is bad for it, but we’re sure the person who forgot theirs won’t complain.)
  • Multitool (Preferably one with pliers.)
  • Hex wrench
  • Food (A few energy bars and a couple of gels are great for spring, summer, and fall. For winter, add something less likely to freeze, like trail mix.)

It’s also not a bad idea to adjust your car kit seasonally or add a couple of sport-specific items. For example, carrying a backup set of MICROspikes if you’re a winter hiker, an extra set of goggles if you’re a skier, or a helmet if you’re a biker. Also, add items like hand warmers in the colder months and sunscreen in the summer.

Supplemental First-Aid Kit

Not everybody carries a large, comprehensive first-aid kit into the woods and the car is the perfect place to stash everything you need to complement the contents of the kit in your pack. A car kit is especially useful when recreating close to your car (think sport climbing on the Parking Lot Wall at Rumney or running laps in some Granite Backcountry Alliance glades), and when you’re deeper in the backcountry—where it can take a search and rescue group significantly longer than you think to organize and arrive at a scene of an accident or medical emergency—the car kit may prove a vital supplement. If manpower allows, someone can run back to the car and retrieve the kit to further the process of self-rescue.

Having a supplemental first aid kit in the car is also great for situations where your primary kit accidentally gets left at home or you don’t have your primary kit with you—think witnessing a car accident while commuting to work.

Some key items for the supplemental first-aid kit include:

  • Bleeding control (A tourniquet, pressure bandages, gauze pads, roller gauze, tape, extra medical gloves, and a boo-boo kit.)
  • Airway management (A light CPR mask and, if you have the training and knowledge, oral and nasal airways.)
  • Exposure management (An extra puffy, a sleeping bag, and/or a chemical warming blanket like a Ready Heat II—think a blanket made of chemical hand warmers—are great ways to supplement your efforts to keep an injured party warm.)
  • Some basic medications like Advil and antihistamines
  • A battery pack for your phone (Getting a call out from the backcountry can be taxing on your phone’s battery, but a portable battery like this one from Goal Zero can help ensure you don’t run out of juice.)

Also keep in mind that you might be evacuating the injured party, especially if help is many hours away. If you’re not already carrying a ski sled (winter), guide tarp, or foldable rescue litter as part of your primary kit, stash one in the car.

Credit: Doug Martland

Car Gear

Because the trailheads and parking lots we frequent are anywhere from an hour to a few hours from our homes, a tow truck, or cell service, the last bit of our car kit is directly related to our cars. A fair amount of this kit is winter-specific, as the odds of getting stuck or having a car not start are higher at this time of year. Our car gear includes:

  • Jumper cables to greatly increase the odds of getting a jumpstart
  • Kitty litter or a bag of sand (Vital for gaining traction in icy parking lots)
  • Compact shovel (An old avy shovel is ideal for digging a car out of a snowbank or after a storm)
  • Candle lantern (This can help save the batteries of your headlamp if you need to overnight in your car.)
  • Sleeping bag (That sleeping bag mentioned above serves double duty here, but hopefully you’ll never have to spend a night in your car)

Final Thought

Keep in mind that your car kit should evolve. History has a way of repeating itself, so take the lessons learned on those bad and disappointing days and prepare for them in the future.


The Gear You Need to Ice Climb at Hillyer Ravine

The deep, dark recesses of Kaaterskill Clove, in the eastern Catskills, are home to some of the area’s best ice climbing. Noteworthy areas include the popular roadside destination of Moore’s Bridge, the looming pillars of Kaaterskill Falls and the long, tiered waterfalls known collectively as The Ravines. The Ravines—including Hillyer, Viola, Wildcat, and Buttermilk—offer some of the Cats’ best long, moderate routes: All weigh in at between four and six pitches in length with a difficulty in the WI3 to WI4 range. The relatively long, strenuous approaches make for a full day affair and lend a remote, backcountry vibe to each. Moreover, their northerly aspect makes for reliable ice throughout the season.

The most accessible of the bunch is Hillyer. Hillyer Ravine climbs about 200 feet in four moderate pitches with each going at around WI3. Substantial ledges separate one pitch from the next and, though you won’t likely see the same number of people here as you would elsewhere in the Cats—the rigor of the approach and the dearth of parking thin the crowds out a bit—there is plenty of room for multiple parties to set up shop. The wide second and third pitches in particular offer a ton of climbable ice and an entire day could easily be spent doing laps on these two pitches alone.

All in all, a day in Hillyer Ravine is a day well spent. And, like any day out, proper preparation and equipment is key—here’s what you need to bring to climb Hillyer.

Credit: John Lepak

Beal Booster 9.7mm Dry Rope

No single tier of Hillyer Ravine stretches higher than 50 feet so a single 60 meter rope will be more than enough—but be sure it’s a dry one. Dry-treated ropes have a coating that prevents water absorption which, on ice, is critical. A frozen climbing rope can ruin your day real quick. The Beal Booster 9.7 mm Dry Rope is a good bet to keep things running smoothly and safely.

Black Diamond Momentum Harness

Whether you’re climbing ice, rock, or indoors, a harness is compulsory. For ice, get one with adjustable leg loops—to account for thick winter layers like the Black Diamond Momentum (men’s/women’s). A couple of Petzl Caritool Evo Holders are a good add for racking screws on the way up and tools on the way down.

Petzl Nomic Ice Tools

There are many types of ice axes, each with their own specific utility. For vertical ice like what you’ll find on Hillyer, a pair of technical ice tools—so defined by their bent shaft, curved pick, and offset grip—are the way to go. The Petzl Nomic is a balanced, workhorse of a tool that’s great for the variety of terrain you’ll find in the Ravines.

Black Diamond Cyborg Pro

Like ice axes, crampons also come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific function. Crampons with vertical front points like the Black Diamond Cyborg Pro, clipped into a pair of stiff-soled mountaineering boots like the La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX will get you up Hillyer—and most other routes in the Cats, for that matter—no problem.

Ice Rack

The overwhelming majority of routes in the Catskills are doable with a fistful of ice screws. A couple of Petzl Laserspeed Ice Screws in the 13 to 17cm range will have you covered in Hillyer Ravine. A good bit of cord is definitely handy for building belays between pitches too—20 feet of Sterling 7mm Accessory Cord, two Petzl Attaché Locking Carabiners, and a sturdy tree will make you a nice monopoint anchor.

Tip: The guidebook, An Ice Climber’s Guide to the Catskill Mountains, provides greater detail on what constitutes a typical Catskills ice rack—as well as everything else you need to know about the area.

Outdoor Research Vigor Midweight Sensor Gloves

Keeping your hands warm and dry is a constant challenge on any winter outing and this rings especially true for ice climbing when your arms are elevated and circulation is limited. A pair of gloves that split the difference between warmth and dexterity—like the Outdoor Research Vigor Midweight Sensor Gloves (men’s/women’s)—will help ward off the dreaded screaming barfies while allowing you to still place screws and clip ropes effectively. Bring two pairs so you can easily replace one if they get soaked.

EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket

Staying warm and dry is incredibly important in any winter activity, and layering properly is the best way to do it. The layers you’re going to want to use will largely depend on the conditions but, on a backcountry climb like Hillyer Ravine, it’s important to be prepared for everything with lightweight, packable options. In warmer weather, when things get wet, a light hardshell, like the Marmot Precip Eco Jacket (men’s/women’s) makes things a lot more comfortable. In colder weather, an insulated jacket like the EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket (men’s/women’s) keeps the heat in while gearing up, belaying, or having lunch.

Trail Spikes

Clocking in at one mile with 1000 feet of elevation gain from the parking area to the base of the climb, Hillyer Ravine’s approach is a stiff one. Conditions on the well-worn climbers’ trail vary but you can bet on the need for traction. Toss a pair of the new EMS Ice Talons in your pack and you’ll be ready for whatever.

Tip: Hillyer Ravine shares most of its approach with neighboring Viola Ravine and it’s not uncommon to tick both in the same trip by climbing one, rappelling the second, then reversing the order.