Why The Hell Would Anyone Go Camping When It’s Zero Degrees

Misery loves company!

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The day Jimmy and I plan something in advance will be a cold day in hell. We packed for a 1,500 mile bike tour the night we left. Jimmy didn’t even have bike bags until I decided not to use mine and go minimalist instead. This weekend, we stayed true to tradition and decided to camp Greylock last-minute. I grabbed a pack and threw everything in except snow pants (for a snow trip? How quaint.) Jimmy didn’t even change his outfit.

Our destination was an old, silent friend; Mt. Greylock. This time, however, we were exploring from the Williamstown side on The Hopper, a fantastic trail that we had maybe, maybe climbed a couple of times in the summer. This was uncharted territory for us, and we reveled in it. The trail was steep and icy in some sections, but much more pleasant than we had anticipated. I was glad to have crampons, but I could have easily done without my snowshoes. Jim didn’t wear his snowshoes until the last mile of the hike.

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For those lucky enough to be outside the polar vortex currently gripping the Northeastern United States, the weather this week has been interesting. There was a windchill warning during the middle of last week that warned of windchill-induced temperatures down to -35ºF for the region. My buddy Ryan and I slept out Thursday in his backyard, braving the worst of the wind and testing the limits of our sleeping bags. For the weekend, Jim and I expected near-zero temperatures with minor wind, and that’s pretty much exactly what we got.

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Dressing for deep-winter activity is a bit like dressing for a complicated, post-modern theater production, where you’re playing multiple characters and the whole thing comes off as a tragic comedy. Lightning-fast costume changes are de rigueur for backcountry folk. I used windshirts, baselayers, fleece, down, synthetic, and wool to achieve something that can, at best, be called tolerable comfort, and at worst resembled frostnip. With concerns for permanent nerve damage in my fingertips, I obsessed over layering technique and planned my clothing swaps hours in advance.

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Jimmy’s doing jimmy. I lamented his clothing choices more than he did.

“How can I write an advisory post on winter camping while you’re wearing Levi’s?” -Me

Lucky for Jim, he knows well enough how his body performs under pressure, under almost every condition imaginable. Jim kept his pace slow and steady to prevent perspiration, and kept his core warm to prevent cold legs and feet. I don’t, under any circumstances, recommend winter camping in jeans, but if you know your body well enough and you adjust to winter conditions throughout the season, you can manage your temperature pretty well through activity rather than through how many paychecks you sink into equipment.

I wore a wool baselayer (like I do for 5 months out of the year) and some Prana Zion pants (like I do for 11 months out of the year). My boots were actually colder than Jim’s sneakers, lacking a gore-tex layer, but thick socks and plenty of room to wiggle your toes is most of the battle.

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We left late and hiked until after dark. We made camp somewhere near the Sperry Road campground, did a brief but fruitful search for firewood, and set to cooking. Jimmy made rice and beans with rehydrated vegetables. I made udon miso soup. We both had some incredible portobello mushrooms, left to marinate in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, basil, salt, and pepper for about ten hours.

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The fire was finicky, but thanks to a long-dead and bone-dry full-sized Canadian Hemlock, we eventually got it large enough to keep the cold at bay.

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“Max, remember when I said my feet have never been cold in these shoes? That statement is now false.” -Jimmy

We headed to bed early, around 9:30, just to get into our sleeping bags to warm up as the temperature began to plummit. 6ºF, 4ºF, 2ºF; we watched the weather report get grimmer on our phones, and talked about love and the meaning of life and what our odds were of surviving a moose encounter for an hour or so before drifting off into sporadic, shivering slumber. Jim had two sleeping bags and I had my winter bag and a half-bag. At one point during the night, we pressed our backs together for warmth. True bromance. Jim’s tent probably improved our warmth considerably, but the night was bitterly cold. I swear I felt colder than Thursday’s conditions with my bivy bag, despite a big temperature difference between the two.

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And yet, in spite of some pessimistic predictions from both Jim and I, we felt refreshed in the morning, warm enough to break camp in good spirits. We slid down the mountain over snow-covered streambeds and made our traditional pilgrimage to The Daily Grind in Adams for some hot coffee, pancakes, and bacon to bring our core temperatures back up to a balmy 98º.

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There are a lot of great resources on winter camping tips. I’ll compile a few of my own:

  • Stay dry. Bring multiples of anything that might get wet.
  • Start your hike cold, and take off layers as soon as you warm up.
  • Think of the heat in your fingers as an expendable resource; take off gloves for short periods at a time.
  • Eat something warm as soon as you get to camp.
  • Eat before going to bed to keep your furnace burning.
  • Keep water and electronics on your body to prevent freezing.
  • Bring multiple pairs of gloves (I use two pairs of gloves, fleece mitts, and puffy mitts).
  • Leave earlier than usual to avoid hiking during an early nightfall.

And above all, get out there! There’s four seasons, not three!

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Why The Hell Would Anyone Go Camping When It’s Zero Degrees

  1. Went went winter camping myself a couple weeks ago and made the mistake of putting on my dry socks and then my wet boots, which only resulted in *two* pair of wet socks. It was snowing the whole time and we couldn’t keep anything dry, but made it through the night and had a good time.

  2. Here’s my favorite winter camping trip. An hour so before bed fill up a liter nalgene with water, one for each camper. Then warm them by the fire. Keep an eye on them but if you keep the lid unsealed you get get them really warm. Take that in your sleeping bag and not only does it help keep you warm but you then have nice warm water to drink in the morning.

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