How to enjoy camping in the cold

Winter campers and hikers enjoy winter scenery like in this view of Cadillac Mountain on the left and Dorr Mountain on the right in Acadia National Park taken last February. (Photo by Brad Viles)
Winter campers and hikers enjoy winter scenery like in this view of Cadillac Mountain on the left and Dorr Mountain on the right in Acadia National Park taken last February. (Photo by Brad Viles)
Posted Dec. 17, 2010, at 5:35 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.
To enjoy winter camping in these lean-tos in Baxter State Park, you will need a, permit, a reservation and pay a camping fee. Camping fees and winter regulations vary from destination to destination. Check with the appropriate areas before winter camping. (Photo by Brad Viles)
To enjoy winter camping in these lean-tos in Baxter State Park, you will need a, permit, a reservation and pay a camping fee. Camping fees and winter regulations vary from destination to destination. Check with the appropriate areas before winter camping. (Photo by Brad Viles)
Brad Viles gets into his tent last Saturday night in Blackwoods Campground in Acadia National Park. While winter camping takes a little more preparation than in summer, in many ways it's just as rewarding, says Viles. (Photo by Brad Viles)
Brad Viles gets into his tent last Saturday night in Blackwoods Campground in Acadia National Park. While winter camping takes a little more preparation than in summer, in many ways it's just as rewarding, says Viles. (Photo by Brad Viles)

When I pulled up to the gate at Blackwoods Campground in Acadia National Park last Saturday, I placed my permit for winter camping on the dash of the truck, hoisted my backpack and walked up the path to my campsite for the night. The trail was only a few hundred feet long, and I was running out of daylight.

I got to the site about 3:30 that afternoon and the sun had already dropped below the trees and South Ridge of Cadillac Mountain. The clouds that brought snow the previous week seemed to be heading east out over the Atlantic. The temperature read 30 degrees on the thermometer hanging from my pack.

The day’s last light was being drawn into darkness on the western horizon as I finished setting up my tent. I had just enough gray light to complete the setup, throw my sleeping pad and sleeping bag inside, and set out a small pad to sit on at the picnic table. The crescent moon soon rose from the east and stars twinkled brilliantly through the dark hemlock, fir and spruce forest canopy. This was going to be a good night for camping.

There were only a few inches of snow on the ground. I had stomped out a place for the tent when I set it up and now went looking for some downed trees to start a small stick fire in the fire ring. It was around 5 p.m. by then, and the fire provided enough light to get out the stove, cook pot and the wide-mouth water bottle full of my homemade chili.

An essential condiment that must be taken on any wintertime camping trip is pepper sauce. I never break that rule when spending an overnight in winter. It’s perfect for chili, and there’s an associated ritual that goes with the application of the sauce. It can’t be put in the food at home. It must be applied on-site — in high amounts, if the night is cold enough. So I added the Tabasco, ate the chili and watched the weak fire grow weaker. There was no one else in the campground, so the solitude was as real as the night.

Of course, solitude is relative, and there’s a community nearby, Otter Creek. Someone let a dog out and it barked for a while into the dark and then was let back in. Shortly after, coyotes yipped and whined off in the distance to the north of the barking dog. They traveled away, yelping, and eventually they stopped, too.

The chili warmed me up, and because I ate it from a tin cup, my hands warmed too. I cleaned the pot with snow, put it away in a Stuff Sack and hung it up on a food line. After supper, it was time for a short hike around the campground. I used the headlamp to walk out to the snow-covered road around the sites. Once on the road, I turned off the light. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was able to follow the road under the moonlight.

There’s no better name for Blackwoods. The forest is dark there even in daylight. At night it’s pitch-black. When I arrived back at the site I was warmed up from the hike. The fire, which was out before I left, was now just glowing embers. I sat at the picnic table and ate a few ginger snaps and pieces of dried apricot and pineapple, then crawled into the tent.

I tossed a few things, such as a water bottle filled with warm water, into the sleeping bag. I brought a book to read, “The Last Step,” by Rick Ridgeway, about the 1978 American ascent of K2, in the Himalayas. The book, as thrilling a mountaineering account as you’ll ever read, nonetheless inspired me to sleep. Soon, I was out. Sometime during the night, a deer approached my tent. When it got a whiff of me inside, it stomped off. At least that’s what I assumed happened when I heard the noise.

In the morning, I checked out the vicinity of the tent for animal tracks to see who visited during the long night. The closest tracks I could find were about 30 feet away. The deer sounded much closer. Packing up went quickly, even though cold nylon resists being stuffed into a backpack. It only got down to the teens during the night, so it wasn’t the coldest winter night I ever spent outdoors. That distinction belongs to a January night in 1994. It was 38 below zero that time in my tent.

Winter-weather camping isn’t for everyone. But with the right planning and by practicing a few skills, it can reward even the most ardent summer backpacker with an experience that is unlike any summer overnight. The stars seem brighter, and the forest quieter than in summer, and you’ll never need bug dope.

A few winter camping tips

Dress in layers. It’s the only way to adjust your core temperature and comfort. Keep trying combinations until you get one that works for you, because everyone tolerates cold differently.

Keep anything you don’t want to freeze in your sleeping bag, especially overnight. Cold quickly kills batteries for devices such as headlamps and cameras. Keep batteries in zip-lock bags and store them in your pockets. Expect to exchange cold ones from the device to the warm ones in your pockets often, depending on how cold it gets.

Throw a hot-water bottle into the sleeping bag with you before turning in. Eat something, too. Calories ingested stoke the fire. Make every effort to stay dry. Cold is one thing. Wet and cold is worse. Keep snow out of the tent, where it will melt.

Check winter regulations for your destination. Be prepared to walk, sometimes far, just to get to your winter site. Most summer-use areas are not maintained by plowing for winter use. It could add a substantial amount of time and mileage to your trip.

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