For 21 years, I have led an overnight backpacking excursion to a different wild spot in Pennsylvania on a cold, preferably snowy, winter weekend.
We don’t do it to prove our mettle but to immerse ourselves in a landscape of sights, sounds and light experienced no other time of year. It’s also an antidote to seasonal affective disorder.
Nearly each year, several people among us are experiencing winter hiking and camping for the first time. Sometimes overcoming a lifetime of trepidation, they are thrilled to learn that being outdoors when it’s freezing can be quite comfortable as long as they are wearing appropriate layers of clothing and bring the right gear.
We also make a robust nightly fire a linchpin of our experience. Warming up by a crackling fire on a crisp winter night with stars twinkling through the bare branches is one of life’s great experiences.
What’s so special about being outdoors in winter? Let’s count the ways.
Gone are the mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy, sunburn and other nuisances of hiking and camping in warm weather. Also gone are most homo sapiens — a species given to quasi-hibernation in the winter.
With foliage gone, the landscape opens up. A forest shows itself in stark silhouettes, a matrix of limb patterns that creak and moan in the wind. Vistas expand and, with lower humidity, the views are crisper and reach farther. Stargazing is never better than on a crystal-clear winter night.
Wildlife is easier to see and sometimes track in the snow. We once deciphered the wanderings of a coyote that eventually leaped into the air and pounced on a vole in the snow. We marveled at a porcupine surprised while munching on catkins in a beech tree, and we were startled by a ruffed grouse exploding out of a snow drift. Migratory birds you won’t see in other seasons are around, too.
“There is this crispness of the air you don’t get the rest of the year,” said Kenny Fletcher, a Richmond resident who has been hiking and camping in the winter since he was a boy, sleeping with buddies in a backyard.
“You hear this silence you don’t get the rest of the year, too.”
Unique to winter are sights and sounds: hoarfrost sparkling on plants, bobbing icicles in a stream, frozen waterfalls, the muffled crunch of boots on snow, and small avalanches of wispy snow that dust your neck when your pack brushes an overhead limb.
Make sure the places you camp allow open fires. National forests do, and so do many state forests.
To be sure, being outdoors in winter demands preparation and caution. Storms and drops in temperature happen quickly.
I once backpacked with a friend to a trail shelter in a Pennsylvania state forest. We were staying in a shelter, so we didn’t bother taking a tent. The next day, a supposedly marked trail was nowhere to be found. As we bushwhacked up the mountain, ultimately lost, freezing rain started. It was getting dark, and we contemplated the real possibility of having to spend the night without shelter. Fortunately, we crossed a road and got our bearings, but the episode demonstrated how quickly things can change drastically.
And if there’s one mantra of those who spend a lot of time outside in the cold, besides “cotton kills,” dress in layers — and not just for warmth, but also for fine tuning. If you’re wearing layers, you can shed garments as the day warms, or as you warm up from walking, and then put them back on when the chill returns. It’s a simple concept too often ignored.
Against the skin, it’s important to have a layer of synthetic material to wick away sweat and dry out quickly so you don’t chill when you stop moving. Both a long-sleeved top and long underwear make up this base layer. They are often made of synthetic material such as nylon, rayon, spandex or polypropylene, silk or Merino wool and come in different weights suitable for various conditions. Do not use cotton because it loses its insulating ability when wet.
Next comes an insulating layer to retain body heat. It may be fleece, wool, down or a synthetic material. In addition to covering the upper body, some people wear this layer over their long underwear as well.
• SKY MEADOWS STATE PARK, DELAPLANE: Approximately 24 miles of trails on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/sky-meadows)
• BACK BAY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, VIRGINIA BEACH: Approximately 8 miles of trails from which you can see peak winter populations of tundra swans, other migrating waterfowl. (fws.gov/refuge/back_bay)
• BIG SCHLOSS ROCK OUTCROPPING, STRASBURG: A 4.2-mile up-and-back trail in George Washington National Forest leads to a rock outcropping with 270-degree views of Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Massanutten mountains. Camping, fires permitted. (hikingproject.com/trail/7030231/big-schloss-from-wolf-gap)
• SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK: Splendid winter hiking, camping. Note: Sections of Skyline Drive are often closed. Check the website. (nps.gov/shen/index.htm)
• WORLD’S END STATE PARK, FORKSVILLE: Twenty miles of trails through mountains, frozen waterfalls along Loyalsock Creek. The 59-mile Loyalsock Trail passes through it. Surrounded by Loyalsock State Forest; camping, fires permitted. (dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark)
• ST. ANTHONY’S WILDERNESS (AKA STONY VALLEY), HARRISBURG: The state’s largest roadless area. A 21-mile isolated rail trail between two mountains. The Appalachian Trail crosses the trail with a shelter at Rausch Gap. Camping, fires permitted. (stonyvalley.com)
• PINE CREEK GORGE & GRAND CANYON OF PENNSYLVANIA, WILLIAMSPORT: Surrounded by mountainous state forests on both sides; hundreds of miles of trails in state forests, parks to choose from, including the 62-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail. (pacanyon.com).
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