One crazy winter day, my wife and I decided that we wanted to experiment with cold weather camping. It was January, we had cabin fever, and the sun had been out briefly, so we thought we would go. We packed all of our gear, put our two dogs in the SUV, and drove an hour to Shenandoah National Park. On the way, however, the skies filled with clouds and a slight rain started to fall. The temperature was right at 32 and we started to worry about our adventure. When we got to the gates of the park, the ranger informed us that the road was only open for about a half mile because as the elevation increased, the temperature dropped. This meant that the rain on the road had turned to ice. He showed us one trail that we could still access from the part of the road that was open and said there was parking. But he also looked at us a little funny and said “you know that it’s January and raining, right? You aren’t going to freeze on me up there are you?” We assured him that we had four season camping gear and that we would be fine. We also had two large dogs. Off we went.
The first part of the hike was simply amazing. Sure enough, about 100 years up the trail and the rain had turned to big snow flakes. It was quiet and beautiful. We walked and enjoyed the surroundings. The dogs played in the forest, which was all ours of course. Nobody else was crazy enough to be on the mountain in these conditions. When we approached the first suitable camping site, I suggested we take it. We unpacked and started the familiar rituals for setting up our camp. However, there was one notable difference, it was starting to get dark already! It was merely 4:30 and the light was starting to change. This we had not counted on. We hurried our activities and by the time we sat down with our camp stove for dinner, it was really dark. Worse than that, it was also getting colder quickly.
This is the real lesson about winter camping. You tend to forget that the light is on a completely different schedule. By about 7:30pm, we were cold and ready to be in our tent. But we weren’t tired. We talked for a while in the darkness and eventually went to sleep. We got a ton of sleep that night, but not good sleep. Our four-season gear did not prove to be as strong as advertised. The cold seemed to leak into my sleeping bag from every tiny seam. My suggestion for those who are seeking the winter camping adventure is DO IT. However, bring three of just about everything. If it’s your first time, perhaps consider car camping so that you don’t have to agonize about the weight of all the extra stuff. It was truly an exhilaration to wake and find an igloo of ice on the tent fly. That first cup of coffee was perhaps the best tasting morning drink of my life. As the morning sun started to melt the ice on the trees, it made for a surreal winter scene that I will not soon forget. However, be smart and bring tons of gear. Start small and make sure you don’t get into real trouble by stretching your camping equipment farther than it can really go.