Winter backpacking

From the winter 2020 edition of Balance magazine

Personal renewal comes in many forms. For me, it’s backpacking into the winter woods for two days each year to a different wild spot in Pennsylvania.

For the last 20 years, the number of those accompanying me on these seasonal treks into frosty bare forests has ranged from one to 18. Some go almost every year. But nearly every time there are others who, with some unease, are testing their comfort level in search of a new experience.

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Each, I dare say, returns to the warmth of their homes feeling good about themselves and awed by what they have seen.

What they see is a natural world in a vastly different light, one to be savored, not feared. Though there are no green leaves, lacy ferns or chattering insects that so define warm-weather woods, nature is never bleak, and winter can unfold sublime sights and sounds for those who button up and venture into it.

Beauty is revealed in frozen waterfalls, dripping icicles, creaking and moaning trees, the whispers of wind in hemlock boughs, snowflakes settling on tent flaps, moonlit shadows, the hiss of a campfire, the lulling music of a rocky stream shimmering in the light, the crunch of boots in snow, breaths of crisp air and the stillness of a winter woods.

We try to plan our forays to places where snow has fallen or will fall on us during our visit. We usually succeed. And we want it cold— certainly below freezing. We have unfurled our tents in a soft cushion of more than a foot of snow and slept — perhaps fitfully — in a wind storm with wind chills of 31 below zero. It’s been so cold that I’ve had skin stick to bare metal and beards braided by ice.

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We have been to a glacial lake reached only by foot, hiked abandoned railroad beds, bushwhacked up or down mountains and found the most remote spot in Pennsylvania — 2.7 miles from the nearest road. Almost always, a vista over rolling mountain peaks and valleys is sought. We like to camp exposed to panoramas or along streams with their comforting natural white noise.  

The key to enjoying winter woods is fairly simple: come prepared. That is, dress in layers of clothing that can be added to or unpeeled as needed. You need a wicking layer against the skin to absorb sweat before it chills, then fleece or wool and an outer layer that is breathable yet keeps out wind and rain. Also gloves, hat, warm socks, good boots, a tent and warm sleeping bag. And matches. Since you’re only staying overnight, you can be generous with the food you bring.

That’s it. Armed with those basics, anyone can enjoy a couple of days immersed in winter woods. That being said, all our trips are anchored by a night spent bellying up to a roaring fire. Often, the moon, blazing down through bare limbs, is our sun. It is here, with stars shimmering overhead and flames licking toward them, that the most wonderful conversations unfold.

Staring hypnotically at the fire and red embers for hours, soothed by our shared experience, banter wanders everywhere, from crazy survival stories to favorite recipes to parallel universes and our purpose on earth. Alone together about as far from civilization as you can get in the state tends to make us contemplative and open.

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The spirited and thought-provoking conversation happens every time and I have come to savor these nighttime musings in the cold. I always feel more connected to my fellow human beings and hopeful about humanity. As one fellow backpacker mused one night, “Perhaps winter camping simply gathers wonderful people.”

Some say these trips with everything needed to survive a harsh environment on your back make them feel more primeval, if only for a day or so. Some relish being cut off from the outside world and smartphones and alone with one’s senses.

In his book, “On Trails: An Exploration,” Robert Moor suggests one appeal of hiking is that it frees us momentarily from the stressful array of choices we must make every day. On the trail, the choices are reduced to walking and when to quit walking.

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Our group certainly pays attention along the way. With snow on the ground, woods in winter have stories of life and death to tell. We try to decipher the comings and goings of tracks and scat from coyotes, bobcats, bears, deer and assorted rodents emerging from snow tunnels.

Once, in the Stony Creek Wilderness just north of Harrisburg, we followed the fresh tracks of a coyote until confronted by blood in the snow. Whatever the coyote caught, it ate everything except for a tiny, perfectly intact kidney. Another time, in a wild area in the Poconos, a pack of coyotes, likely chasing a frantic deer, nearly ran through our campsite, to the wide-eyed startlement of my hiking buddy.

Once, in Loyalsock State Forest, we came upon an explosion of feathers on the trail, the remains of a woodpecker likely blindsided and devoured on the spot by a hawk or owl. Once we were startled by a ruffed grouse launching from its snow cave. Another time, we followed the tracks of a bear into its rocky lair. We didn’t camp there that night.

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Outside of staring into the maw of the Grand Canyon, I have never heard such stillness as a winter night.

Winter backpacking is a unique personal and collective journey into a harsh landscape few of us dare to enter. When you are hugging a fire to keep the cold at your back at bay, there’s a touch of atavism. At that moment — the down and fleece we are wearing notwithstanding — are we really that far removed from the cave man?

A winter journey is also about discovering beauty in another world.

When I return home and am swallowed again into routine, I am recharged, reassured. The stiff muscles are hard-earned and satisfying. When colleagues ask why I would willingly put myself through such discomfort, I can only smile at their lack of understanding.

And, oh, a hot shower and mattress never feel so good.

Watch for the spring issue of Balance on March 19.