I have lots of experience with cold weather running of different distances, but at the end of a run I always get to get into a nice warm house, or at least a car with a hot waiting beverage. Planning for a cold overnight hike was a different story. After a short out and back overnight trip, I’m not sure that I can quite make a decision about my comfort level with cold weather backpacking.
I started on a cool Saturday morning at Lake Lenape, NJ with a temperature in the 40s. As I climbed southward up and onto the ridge in Delaware Water Gap the wind picked up, the temperature dropped a few degrees, but the sun was shining and it was a desolate beauty of denuded trees. Hiking at the tail end of fall the green tunnel of the AT no longer exists. It’s an endless view of trunks and branches interwoven, showing us the interconnectedness of the forest with sunbeams piercing through. I did miss my green tunnel at times, though the stark beauty was something else to admire. And, when I missed the green tunnel I still found myself presented with thickets of green, wilted rhododendrons.
It was fascinating to come to the overlooks and see treetops with the occasional evergreen. In its sparseness is a different kind of beauty; you can see what was, and imagine what will be. The enjoyable part of hiking in the cooler temperatures is the fewer number of people. There were a handful of day hikers and less than a dozen backpackers returning to their cars as I headed southbound. I was the only one heading out on a trail that can be heavily trafficked. I thoroughly enjoyed the peace and simplicity of being alone on the trail.
Setting out, I wasn’t worried about daytime hiking temperatures, I had multiple layers on, as well as more in my pack. As I had been dressing I reminded myself that it would be similar to a long run, plus I would have the insulating weight of my pack. I was most worried about the nighttime temperatures and stopping. Sunset was around 4:30pm so I knew I needed to be set up before then. I certainly don’t mind eating in the dark, but I did not want to be setting up my tent in the dark and cold. I hiked out about 10 miles, turned around and started my way back, enjoying a series of rock scrambles and happy to find a stream to fill my water after finding an actively smoking, unattended fire ring.
I returned to an overlook where I knew I would be greeted with a beautiful sunrise, and the opportunity to make a fire if I so chose. As I made camp I started to add on more layers. Off came my windbreaker and on went my fleece lined coat with the windbreaker over it; on went the hat, with the fleece hood and windbreaker hood over it. With the tent set up I opted to make dinner, knowing I would be in the tent a long time and interior set-up could wait. I wanted to maximize my remaining daylight and cook dinner. The water seemed to take forever to heat, and my dinner felt like it took twice as long to cook than usual, but it warmed me from the inside out. As I sat there I pulled out my homemade double-lined fleece wrap skirt and suddenly I was significantly warmer.
Finally, it was time to enter the tent. I sat on my pad, huddled in my layers creating my cozy atmosphere. My sleeping gear included a Nemo tensor pad, 20 degree down sleeping bag, a Sea to Summit bag liner, merino wool base layers and fleece socks. I used all of this, plus added in the fleece skirt, and a hat. I was content in my tent, reading through a little book I had packed by the light of my headlamp. In addition to worrying about keeping myself warm, I was worried about my water filter, so it was in a bag in my sleeping bag, as well as my battery backup and clothes I would wear the next day. In hindsight I should have tossed my water bottles into the footbox of my bag as well. When I awoke they were full of ice crystals. My sleeping bag is certainly not sized for me, but a 6’ male, so it does take some time to come to temperature. The night was long, as in I woke up at 2am thinking it was time to get up and get moving, instead I grabbed my coat, shoes and dashed out to pee in the woods away from my tent.
At 6am my alarm went off and I had to crawl out of my cozy hole and break down. It was a sad, cold affair, but the moment I unzipped my tent I was greeted with an amazing sunrise. Breaking down in the cold took longer as I fumbled with cold fingers and gloves. I did have to hurry a bit as winter weather was set to come into the area in a few hours and I had 6 miles to get back to my car. In an effort to get moving I skipped a hot breakfast, shoving a protein bar in my pocket to thaw it out and headed out.
The walk back to my car was crisp and cool with an outside temperature of 22 degrees, and a real-feel of 17. There was frost and chilled hands, shoved into gloves nestled into mittens. My phone and water filter were in my hip pouches to keep them warm. My favorite part of the return was discovering frost flowers waiting for me along the trail. Forty-five minutes from my car the precipitation started and I knew I needed to start moving faster to avoid the incoming storm. As I hiked onward I had snow flurries, minor bits of hail and a very light rain. All was well until I had to cross the stream and my foot slipped, a mile from my car and a cold wet foot. I have never been more thankful for trail runners and a wool sock, as by the time I was at my car my foot and shoe were completely dry. It was in taking off my pack that I heard a funny noise and discovered my pack encrusted in ice. Apparently that rain and the cold were enough to layer me in ice, which I didn’t notice since I was warm in my layers.
I was certainly happy to crawl into my waiting car, clean dry clothes and fuzzy boots. All I wanted was a hot, caffeinated beverage and a large stack of pancakes. It had been 25 hours since I left my car and I had covered 19 miles in weather averaging around 22 degrees. Another adventure under these hip pouches and here I am contemplating another cold overnight trek from the coziness of my home.