We never meant to go winter camping. I had joined a gaggle of gals intent on starting our own underground sorority at Middlebury College, and we figured an October hike up to Skyline Lodge in the Bread Loaf Wilderness would serve as a wholesome act of bonding. With no upperclassmen to bully us toward initiation, we had opted to intimidate each other with such harmless acts as baking cookies and taking walks in the woods. Little did we know that our hike would turn out to be as stupid and humiliating as real hazing.
It was a cool fall day, and the sun was giving way to gray clouds when we gathered in a dormitory parking lot to plan our mission. Actually, it was more like a giant slumber party: Somebody had read about the lodge and thought it would be a fun place to spend the night. Most of us had sleeping bags. Some of us had flashlights and a few granola bars; there might have even been a bottle of Mad Dog or two. Although Middlebury's downtown Alpine Shop -- then called the Ski Haus -- was well stocked with fancy outdoor gear, we drove right by it en route to the trailhead.
The trouble began almost immediately when our group somehow split in two. Making our way up the mountain, we began calling for each other, like kids playing Marco Polo. Somebody grew too tired to hold her pack, so I shouldered it for her, wistfully envisioning my warm dorm room as the woods became increasingly dark and we became increasingly lost. And then it began to snow. Wispy flakes clumped on our jackets and on the trail beneath our feet.
When we finally bumped into the other half of our group, everyone had given up hope of finding the lodge. Defeated, we trudged back down through the snow and spent the night along the side of Route 125, frozen to the bone in our summer-weight sleeping bags. Too cold to catch any Zs, but not wanting to wake another camper, each of us pretended to sleep as cars whizzed by. We stayed that way until dawn, when we came back down the gap. We swallowed our pride -- and breakfast -- in the greasy warmth of Steve's Park Diner. It opens at 6 a.m.
We might have avoided our misery if we had heeded the basic rules of winter camping: Bring a map, snowshoes or skis and a shovel. Also warm gear, plus plenty of food and water. The do-or-die fundamentals of winter camping are just that.
"If it's 20 below, it's about trying to stay alive; you can die from this experience," says Chris Power of Burlington's Outdoor Gear Exchange. "You definitely don't want to do that."
Camping on days that range between 25 to 32 degrees, on the other hand, can be really fun. Pack a shovel, and plan to ski or snowshoe to your destination. Hiking in regular boots will only cause you to sink through the surface, and cause annoying post-holes for other winter explorers. At the end of the day -- well, more like late afternoon -- you build your campsite out of the snow.
This is what blows the socks off summer camping. You can craft a kitchen area with a table and benches, even bookshelves to store your reading material -- check out Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book, The Catamount Trail Guidebook and The Long Trail Guide. Most days -- and Power advises spending your first time winter camping near your car, just in case something goes wrong -- you'll be OK in a tent. Just dig the snow out from under it, or the snow will melt where you lay, leaving you wet and cold. An extra sleeping pad provides a protective barrier.
Or you can build an igloo, the granddaddy of snow construction, which requires cutting tools and a bit of artistry. If your only experience with an igloo is pulling a Coke from a cooler, consider a snow cave, a snow pit or a snow-mound shelter, which is essentially a scooped-out pile of the white stuff. Someone in your party should know how to build at least one of these structures. They'll insulate to 32 degrees, which feels balmy when the wind begins to howl.
All this activity will help keep your body warm, supplemented by bundling up in plenty of layers like a kindergartner on a snow day. Wear cotton and you might as well be prancing around in a bikini; instead, choose synthetic and wool fabrics that wick moisture away from your body and dry quickly. Some Vermont days, of course, are wetter than a shower cap, which is why you should pack plenty of extra layers for your body and feet. If you start to sweat while tramping to camp, strip off a layer.
Matches should also be kept dry in a leak-proof container, but don't count on finding usable firewood in the often water-logged areas around you; bring your own or rely on a camping stove. Either way, you should know how to start a fire in case of emergency.
Hot food, no kidding, will also help keep you warm. Herein lies another fun part about winter camping: You not only get to shovel snow into a mini-fortress, you get to shovel down the big portions of beef stew or vegan chili without guilt. Winter backpacking burns 4500 to 5000 calories a day, versus the 2500 you might burn at the office, or 3500 while enjoying the outdoors in August. "A big thing with winter camping is not eating and drinking enough," Power warns. "If you go to bed without enough food and water in your system, you'll wake up freezing."
But don't eat snow -- yellow or any other color; your body wastes too much energy converting it from solid to liquid. Bring water, or melt snow on your stove.
When you do go to bed, stash water jugs and other liquids in the snow to protect them against freezing. Do some jumping jacks before turning in to raise your body temperature for a night in the sack -- which is, by the way, your most vital piece of winter camping equipment. Leave the rectangular Scooby-Doo sleeping bag at home; yours should look like a mummy, with a hood, and be rated for the appropriate temperature. Down sleeping bags, which are popular among some winter campers, can get damp in the Northeastern climate. Again, synthetic is probably the wiser choice. Wad your clothes for tomorrow at the bottom of your bag, and you'll wake up to a toasty outfit.
Early in the morning, you might hear a strange sound on the side of the tent, like an animal scratching. It's just the snow, sliding off the nylon after an overnight squall; on skis or snowshoes, you'll be gliding through the powder before anyone else.
"It's a really gear-intensive sport," says Power, who cold-camped 30 times last season, mostly to squeeze in early morning runs down the mountain before work. He celebrates the holidays under the stars with a group of friends. "But it's great to be outside in the winter, to leave the house and avoid going stir-crazy. What else are you going to do when it gets dark at four in the afternoon?"