There is a certain magic to hearing the absolute stillness of a snowy forest, seeing the snow-draped boughs of the evergreen trees, and finding tracks from deer, bobcat, bear, turkeys, and other creatures in the snowy path. Lying in my hammock at night, listening to the hoot of owls, yips of coyotes, and gentle falling of snowflakes, while nestled into layers of down, is sublime.
The first cold-weather trip that I went on a few years ago was designed with safety and comfort in mind. We met Friday night at the Twinwood Lake SFCG near Newaygo and car camped. I was using my new Dream Hammock for the first time, and had a 5-degree sleeping bag and Thermarest insulated pad to keep me warm, in addition to the Eno tarp that kept the wind and snow off of me. I slept warm and well.
The next morning, we staged cars in such a way that we could slack pack from the NCT trailhead to the Twinwood Lake campground, using it as our base camp. We packed up our gear so that there was no danger of theft, and left it in one vehicle that remained at the campground.
After completing our hike and ending up back at the campground, we set up camp again, had a fire, and enjoyed the rest of the evening. The following day, we did much the same thing, packing up camp, leaving gear in a car, and then slack packing to the far point at which we had staged cars. In doing so, we were able to hike about 20 miles of NCT without hiking the same area twice, had a vehicle at our campsite in case anything went wrong overnight, and did not have to schlep heavy winter gear in our backpacks, but rather just what we needed for the day. As a newer backpacker who had budget (read: heavy) gear, being able to carry a day pack made this a much more enjoyable hike.
One of the big challenges of winter camping is that it gets dark so early that it leaves you with a lot of down time before bedtime, and even when you’re sitting around a fire, it can be hard to stay warm. Getting into your sleeping bag solves this, but it can leave you isolated in your tent or hammock for a long stretch of time. Taking a family-sized tent and sharing it could solve this problem, if you’re comfortable enough with your group to do so. If you have a tent that’s big enough for a few people, you could plan for an evening of cards around a light, instead of hovering over a campfire. Rustic cabins and yurts that you can rent at the state parks can also make for a good base camp.
As the days begin to get longer in February and March, it is always tempting to me to go out backpacking. I have learned that flexibility is key. Planning a trip, only to have an ice storm forecast for that weekend, can be a real bummer. I feel like a huge weather nerd, given the number of forecasting apps I use, but it’s good to have accurate information to decide whether to go, or whether to stay home.
While snow reports may indicate that there isn’t much, you may end up post-holing. Mileage targets may have to be adjusted. The distance you can comfortably hike on a nice fall day is different from a trail covered in ice or shin-deep snow.
Staying warm once you stop to camp is the big challenge. Having dry clothing to change into after a day of slogging through the snow is vital if you’re going to stay warm overnight. (And while stripping down from sweaty hiking gear while standing on my sit pad so that I’m not directly on the snow to change into my dry clothing is not the most fun experience on a wintry day, it is absolutely essential to avoid getting chilled. Definitely one of the down sides of hammock camping is that you don’t have the privacy of a tent, although the tarp does provide a fair amount of cover.) While I never wear them while hiking, snow pants are nice for sitting around camp, and reflectix inserts that you can put in your hiking boots help keep the cold from seeping up into your feet.
Dialing in gear so that your pack is as light as possible while still providing the safety that is necessary requires practice. Gear testing in the backyard or local park, whether it’s an overnight or just a nap for a few hours, often reveals the weaknesses in your setup while you can still do something about it.
Traveling to the locations you plan to hike also gets tricky in the winter. My phone navigation has a tendency to choose the shortest route, even if it involves seasonal roads that become snowmobile trails in the winter. Carrying a Michigan road atlas has saved me many times because it provides much more detailed information about what kind of roads to expect, and I use it in advance to check against the route my phone suggests. A call to the local rangers’ station is also a good idea. Every early spring, I hear stories of people getting stuck on the access roads to the Manistee National Forest. There have been times where I’ve just asked the rangers for a recommendation about what was accessible, and planned my trip around that.
Winter camping can be amazing, but it also requires extra planning, extra caution, and leaves much less room for error. Creating safety nets and bailout options can help keep you safe.