Preparing for your first winter Adirondacks trip

Every winter, DC UL does a few trips to the Adirondacks.  These trips are a great adventure, but require more preparations to do safely. This article will cover what you should know to prepare for one of those trips.

Typical Trip Overview

The winter trips to the Adirondacks, (ADK), tend to be snowshoeing. We usually attempt climb some of the four thousand foot peaks, as the alpine zone near the summits is spectacular.

Most of these trips are four days long.  The first and last days are consumed by the roughly eight hour drive to the ADK from the DC area. The remaining two days are spent hiking.

It’s typical to hike in and setup a base camp on the first evening of the trip.  We’ll usually hike out after spending two days hiking, grab dinner then stay at a hotel before driving back to DC in the morning.

Budget between $250 and $300 for the trip between driver reimbursement, toll roads, a shared hotel room and meals.

The weather in the Adirondacks is quite variable, thus the actual conditions on the ground will vary by trip.  The current convention is to reschedule the trip if the overnight low will be less than -10F. Folks have done trips at lower temperatures, but it becomes more survival than thriving at those temperatures.

While it is typical to have a substantial base of snow to hike on, we have also have had trips with only a minor amount of snow.  In addition to cold weather, we sometimes see substantial rain or snow melt. High winds are typical for the Alpine zone above the tree line. It’s typical for the wind chill above the tree line to be below 0F.

In three seasons in the Mid-Atlantic, the VMO outings tend toward long solo hiking with minimal gear.  In the case of the Adirondacks, we have a larger margin of safety by both packing significantly more layers, hiking in small groups and regrouping frequently.

Personal gear – traction

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation requires snowshoes in the Adirondacks when there is more than eight inches of snow on the group.  Since the snow is deeper at higher elevations, snowshoes are required on these trips. We’ve had trips where we wore snowshoes the entire trip. And we’ve had trips where we carried the snowshoes at all of the lower elevations.

If you don’t own snowshoes already, the MSR ascent series are my preferred model.  The rubberized straps are a simple and robust attachment mechanism. I own Revo Ascent’s, while others use the Lightning Ascent and the Evo Ascent.  Lighter snowshoes exist which are designed for flatter terrain. Hiking poles with snow baskets are typically used with snowshoes.

While Microspikes are useful in the Mid-Atlantic on packed winter trails, I personally prefer crampons for the Adorandacks.  Some in the group like Hillsound trail crampons. I find the Hillsounds to be flaky and have traction similar to Microspikes.

Crampons are sold with different attachment mechanisms.  It is important to get crampons appropriate for the boots you will be wearing.

Semi-automatic crampons are designed for mountaineering boots.  They have levers in the rear and a basket in the front. They work great on mountaineering boots, but will not work with flexible footwear.  I have the Black Diamond Sabertooth with the semi-automatic attachment for my mountaineering boots.

If you have flexible winter footwear, then the strap on attachment is desired for your crampons.  CAMP stalkers and Black Diamond contact strap-on crampons are common models of this.

Horizontal front points are preferred for general snow use.  Crampons with vertical front points are designed for climbing waterfall ice.

Please fit your crampons to your boots ahead of the trip.  YouTube videos should demonstrate this process.

For safe transport, the crampons, ice ax and other sharp items will be separated out in the car.  The concern isn’t damage to the ax as much as it is the ax damaging other items in the car. A pick and adze protector is helpful for ice axes.  Depending on the type of spike on your ice ax, a spike protector might be prudent too. Some people like sturdy nylon bags for storing crampons. The holes or mesh on these crampon bags are designed for drying crampons.

Since DC UL is a backpacking club instead of a mountaineering club, we are inconsistent in whether or not to recommend ice axes.  If you already know how to self arrest, then please pack an ice ax. If you don’t, then it’s a sharp tool that provides another way to injure you. Overall, we attempt to limit exposure to sustained steep terrain that would require ice ax use for safe travel.  None-the-less, self arrest is a good skill to know.

If you haven’t bought an ice ax yet, then the preferred models for skilled use in steep terrain are shorter lightweight axes like this Petzl ride.  None-the-less, if you already own an axe, then that’s what you’ll take.

To carry an ice ax safely on a pack with classic ice ax loops, slide it down with the pick pointed to the inside of the pack, then rotate it up and secure the shaft.  See youtube for demonstrations. It may be necessary to add a cord lock on a small loop of elastic cord to secure the handle. Please check this attachment at home before the trip.

Personal footwear

For these temperatures, the typical footwear are insulated winter boots or mountaineering boots.  Insulated winter boots are the lighter and warmer choice.

Mountaineering boots are appropriate if you plan to later do mountain climbing.  They are designed with a stiff sole so as to be comfortable when climbing on the front points.  In our case, we avoid terrain that requires extensive climbing on the front points. The stiffener in the sole adds to the weight of the boot.  Usually, single wall insulated mountaineering boots will suffice. Mountaineering boots tend to be more expensive than insulated winter boots though.

The discontinued Solomon Toundra have been popular for an insulated winter boot.

It is important that you size your boots for the socks that you will be wearing.  Cutting off your circulation to your toes by wearing socks that are too thick will be counterproductive.  How well the boot fits your feet is important, like it is in all hiking.

In colder conditions, I typically utilize oven bags as a vapor barrier.  Specifically, I wear them between my liner socks and insulating socks. This prevents me from sweating out my insulating socks, but must be removed at night so that my feet can dry out.

Gaiters are useful for creating a seal between your boots and pants. This reduces the intrusion of snow into the boots.  Some winter boots or pants will have integrated gaiters.

Bring insulated booties for standing around camp.

Layers

Since we’ve been talking about feet, let’s talk about pants.

I switch to long johns in camp or when hiking at below 20 F.  Some people run warmer or colder than I do and can adjust their layers appropriately.  Since I’m tall and thin, I tend to run on the cold side.

Softshell pants are useful for balancing moisture management with wind resistance in cold weather.

Full zip Goretex bottoms can be added or removed without stripping off your snowshoes, gaiters and boots.

Upper body layers:

When going up hill in moderate conditions, I might strip all of the way to my base layer to minimize sweating.  The principal of avoiding sweating is similar to winter hiking in the Mid-Atlantic. At 0F, the cold will seep in much faster than at 20F.

Please avoid using down for layers to move in due to moisture.  I typically pack the layers that I would have in the Mid-Atlantic, plus two additional layers to deal with colder temperatures and give me a larger margin of safety.

A hardshell is useful.  In addition to a possibility of rain and snow melting off of trees, it’s common to have to push through snow on trees.

You should have a large puffy down coat to throw over all of your moving layers.  You’ll wear it in camp or if you stop for a break. I have the Feathered Friends icefall coat which has twelve ounces of down in it.  It also has a longer cut which contributes to its warmth. The Mountain Hardware sub-zero coat is also popular when bought off of Ebay and is even warmer.

Coats with six ounces of down can be used if more layers are packed. Ultralight down layers are only useful as supplemental layers under a large coat.

Gloves and mittens:

Similar to other layering, we use layering for our gloves.  These are base layer gloves that are a lightweight fleece. In cold conditions, I will put these on at the start of the trip and most likely not remove them.  I have two or three sets in case I wet out a pair.

The next layer is a pair of waterproof gloves that fit over the base layer gloves.  I use the Outdoor Research Arete gloves since they fit my hands.

Finally, I pack a pair of heavyweight mittens that fit over my base gloves.  I use the OR Alti mittens for these, which are designed for Alaska. In temperatures < 10F, it is easy to get your hands painfully cold even if you have good circulation.

It is important to remember to wear gloves when handling any metal in temperatures substantially below freezing as skin can quickly freeze onto the metal.

Furthermore, the amount of time between feeling the fingers go cold and the fingers becoming painfully cold is fairly small at temperatures below 0F, so it’s prudent to keep the outer gloves / mittens on hand and change fairly quickly.  I use a carabiner and attach my outer gloves to the front of my pack when they aren’t on my hands. Others will just use the idiot cord to hold them onto their wrists.

Layers for the head:

A hat or balaclava is your base layer on your head.

Since windchills near the summits can be under -30F, a face mask or balaclava will be needed.

Ski goggles are useful if you are very careful about avoiding getting them fogged up.  See advice elsewhere on the internet for the relevant precautions and tactics.

Camping gear

Since we camp below the tree line, your normal three season shelter will work in the ADK in winter.  However, expect to camp on snow.

To anchor a tent into the snow, snow stakes are typically used. Alternatively, dead man anchors can be built.  In either case, it is convenient to have extra guy line to secure the tent.

If we wind up camping low early in the season, it may be possible to reach the ground.  Expect the top layer to be frozen. While triangle stakes like MSR groundhogs work great in soft soil, they will freeze into the ground and are discouraged.  Instead, titanium nail pegs would be the best with shepherds hooks being more likely to be owned. FWIW, I’ve either stayed in shelters or pitched onto snow for the last 6+ winter ADK trips I’ve been on.

Bringing an extra foam insulating pad to put under your normal inflatable pad is recommended, although some folks who run really warm may be able to get away with just a high insulation pad like the Thermorest NeoAir XTherm.

A sleeping bag rated for 0F or colder is recommended.  Between adding a sleeping bag liner and wearing some layers to bed, one can push this to slightly colder temperatures.  On trips where it might get below -10F, some folks will double up with a 20F bag inside a 0F bag, but currently we try to avoid sleeping out in those temperatures altogether.  Others have done a quilt on top of a second bag. Personally, I sleep cold and own a 0F Feathered Friends bag which has sufficient at -6F by wearing a big parka and all of my clothes.

Unless we’re camped by a privy, it’s prudent to bring WAG bags to poop in.  The regulations allow for digging cat holes, but it will vary by the amount of snow cover for how realistic that is.  If it’s sufficiently shallow snow cover, then obviously it’s preferable to dig vs carry it out, but be prepared to carry it out if need be.

The preferred map is published by adk.org and shows the herd paths to all of the 46ers.  The National Geographic Trails Illustrated map is also OK. Often the trip lead will supply a GPS track which it’s prudent to load ahead of time onto the GPS application on your cell phone, since we sometimes end up breaking trail.

Group gear

We have some shared gear for camping and safety for these outings. The trip leader will coordinate who brings what for these.

The temperatures in the ADK are too cold for using any type of water filter.  While chemicals will work for water that is flowing, the sit time will be increased.  Usually, we’ll boil water at camp for the evening and in the morning.

We’ll typically pack in one white gas stove for every 2-3 people on the trip.  We’ll use a 2 or 4 L pot with the stove in case we have to melt snow. For calculating the fuel needed, we typically estimate 8 oz/(per person * per day).  Based on needing this much fuel, the larger MSR fuel bottles are preferred over smaller ones. Since white gas stoves can be temperamental, please try your stove before the trip if you’re bringing it.  Also, avoid cranking down too hard on the fuel bottle caps for the child proof storage cap, since we had one recently that we couldn’t get back open.

We’ll typically pack in one inverted canister stove too.  We’ve observed them to function at 0F with the right fuel canister and are substantially less hassle than the white gas stove.  However, we don’t end up packing in as great a quantity of fuel for them.

We’ll pack in one snow shovel for every 2-3 people.  This helps set up camp quickly for camping in the snow.

For heading up the mountain, we’ll try to have one set of gear to deal with the contingency of someone getting hurt and immobile.

Physical fitness

We usually post these trips as VMO so that folks meet the minimum standard of being able to do a 20mi day in Mid-Atlantic conditions with three season gear. This is the working base for the trip.

If you want to train for the specifics that are different up there, the following are relevant exercises:

First, for the hike into and out of camp, expect to be packing a heavy pack. Usually mine weighs in the upper 40 lbs plus or minus a few lbs. Since I’m not normally used to this amount of weight, I sometimes load up my pack to this heavy and walk around the neighborhood. I’ve done this training more for mountaineering than for the ADK’s since there is often an even longer approach with an even heavier pack when mountaineering.

Similarly, walking around with ankle weights helps simulate the weight of the boots and crampons / snowshoes. I find that the weight difference between trail runners and my mountaineering boots is almost 1.5 lbs per boot. Crampons add another 1 lbs per boot while snowshoes would add 2 lbs per boot. If you haven’t been doing strength training, you’ll feel adding 3.5 lbs per foot when taking an hour long walk in your muscles.

Otherwise, the remainder of physical fitness is just the normal physical fitness training that most DC UL veteran members do if they want to continue doing aggressive trips. Usually it’s running, but others stay in shape with cycling or swimming. In any case, what matters for cardiovascular fitness is finding something that you like sufficiently that you’ll do it on a consistent basis.

Conclusion

A lot of gear is needed to do the winter trips to the ADK safely.  You may be able to borrow some of it from other club members who aren’t going on that outing.  If you have further questions about how to prepare, talk with other club members who have been up there in winter.

While it’s a pain to pack up this much gear, the trips to the ADK in winter have been great adventures.

-Andrew L. (Camel)

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