More Hard Learned Backpacking Lessons

That’s me just after being dropped off at the trail head. The snow had melted by our next day backpacking.

Backpacking in the Snow

A year after the hard learned backpacking lessons of my  first winter backpacking trip, I again headed out in winter. My second winter backpacking trip was to West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness just a year or two after it was designated a Wilderness. While farther south than Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail and the Laurel Ridge which it follows, where I had backpacked the previous winter, Dolly Sods is 1,500 to 2,000 feet higher and more exposed.  It is also more rugged and remote.

I had been to Dolly Sods a few months earlier in the previous early fall. Dave, my best friend and hiking buddy who had been one of the other two on the Laurel Highlands Trail trip, had not been there before but was up to the challenge.

Our ride dropped us off at a snow covered trail head. Other than the inch or two or snow on the ground, the weather conditions reminded me of the first day of our previous year’s trip. The sky was blue. The sun was shining. The air was crisp. Most importantly, the three to five day forecast for nearby Elkins, WV promised above normal temperatures and no precipitation.

Both Dave and I were more experienced and better outfitted than we were the year before. If we had any cotton with us it was probably only bandannas and maybe t-shirts. We both wore or carried wool, nylon shells, and down parkas. Since no trail shelters were available, we carried a four season REI Crestline Expedition A-frame mountaineering tent. Our only questionable gear choice was relying on a chemical heat tab stove for boiling water to rehydrate freeze dried meals as I had yet to invest in a liquid fuel, white gas stove.

The three to five day forecast generally held true. By our second day of backpacking around the Sods, all evidence of the previous snow had melted. On the third or fourth day we were hiking, the temperature must have been in the low to mid-sixties, and we were wearing short sleeved shirts. We perhaps would have worn shorts if we had them. We were certainly enjoying one of the best backpacking trips we had ever experienced, discovering plenty of water, finding excellent campsites, and enjoying beautiful views–until our fourth or fifth day, that is.

Here Comes the Cold, Sleet, Snow, and Wind

Dave taking a break from backpacking to enjoy some morning sun at Lion’s Head before the cold front and winter weather moved in.

As we were heading toward our end of day destination, the Red Creek Campground, the only developed camping area anywhere near the Sods, the weather started deteriorating. Clouds moved in blocking the warming sunlight we had experienced the previous few days. The mid to low-sixties of the previous day had dropped into the mid to low-forties. A fine mist started falling, a fine mist that eventually changed over to sleet as the temperature continued to drop into the thirties. By the time we made it to the Red Creek Campground and pitched our tent in a flat grassy spot, the windblown sleet that was now falling at an angle had already accumulated into a thin layer of granular ice covering grass and rock alike.

In our tent and down bags, we were out of the elements and as snug as bugs in a rug. Using the small heat tab stove outside the tent but under the vestibule of the fly, we prepared a dinner of a Mountain House entree and Mountain House vegetables. Finishing up by the light of a candle lantern and our headlights, we turned in for the night, expecting to continue backpacking the following morning.

The wind picked up as we slept and started roaring only as it can on the Sods, unimpeded by tress or ridges. The sleet turned to snow but did not accumulate at any alarming rate. The temperature continued to drop, probably into the twenties or teens. What alerted us to the continuing deteriorating conditions was when a few steel skewer stakes were pulled from the soft, damp, unfrozen earth by the increasing force of the wind.

We donned our down parkas and headlights and stepped out into the bitter cold and fierce wind of the night to reinsert the stakes only to have then again pulled out with the next heavy gust of wind. Keeping the tent taunt and up seemed like a constant struggle.

Hunkering Down

The snow stopped falling by morning, and we found only an inch or two upon a thin layer of frozen sleet. The wind, however, had not died down. The moist earth had at least partially frozen so the steel skewer tent stakes were now holding, despite the wind.

Because of the wind and extremely cold temperature, we decided to hunker down for the day rather than risk frostbite or even hypothermia by backpacking in such conditions. Eventually, the three person tent, even though its stakes were holding, began to feel cramped with us and all our gear in it and we longed to stand up. We put put on our wool and down and walked to one of the two out houses in the campground where we could at least stand up. We soon learned, however, that staying in the tent in our sleeping bags was warmer than standing around in the outhouse, so we eventually moved back and forth until nightfall. As time wore on we started to think that if the weather did not improve, or if we did not manage to get down off the Sods and out of the weather, that we might not survive our second winter backpacking trip.

Bugging Out

By our second morning in Red Creek Campground the wind had died down, the sun was again shining, but the temperature was still bitter cold. We decided our best course of action was to call it a trip, break and pack up our camp, and backpack down and out of the Sods via the Forest Service road rather than following a trail. When we went to put on our boots, however, we discovered they were rock hard frozen, even the laces. I would later learn to put my boots inside a stuff sack and sleep with them inside my bag at night during cold weather to keep them freezing, but that lesson had not yet been learned.

As soon as we put on our boots, even though we were wearing liner and wool socks, both of us were feeling the cold. Our feet, especially our toes, were cold. After we started hiking we knew we would survive when we started worrying about frost bitten toes rather than surviving.

We had not been hiking along the snow covered road more than a few minutes when we saw a pickup truck driving away from us ahead of us. Dave a whistle he had hanging from a lanyard as loud as he could and we started waving our arms. We managed to flag down the driver, who turned around and came back toward us. We explained our predicament and he invited us into the back of the truck. We climbed in with our packs and snuggled up against the back of the cab to guard against the wind as he drove off the Sods and down to the warmer and dryer valley below.

When he dropped us off down in the valley at an establishment with a pay phone, I called our ride to come and pick us up. While there had been little snow in the valley to the east of Dolly Sods, there were several inches of the white stuff on the ground when we arrived in Elkins, to the west of Dolly Sods.

Looking back, I wish we had been carrying a white gas stove with a windscreen rather than the chemical heat tab stove. I would soon invest in an Optimus 8-R that would serve me for years and trips to come. I also wish we had even a few longer, plastic snow stakes that would have held well in the moist, soft ground rather than pulling out when the wind started howling. I would soon invest is some and successfully use them while winter camping the following winter in the White Mountains. I also wish I had had Super Gaiters to help keep my feet warm, another eventual purchase that served me well in the Whites. Otherwise, all my gear performed well.

I have enjoyed several winter backpacking trips and even a two week winter base camp experience since, but none nearly as harrowing or uncomfortable as my first two winter backpacking experiences. Apparently I learned enough from those first winter backpacking trips to make me safer and more comfortable in spite of adversities such as rain, snow, sleet, hail, wind, and below freezing temperatures.

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Comments 2

  • Anon : Jan 9th

    I had a similar expirience in the sods only a weak ago, got caught in a blizard, 17F 8″ of snow, and I developed hypothermia, my core temp was down to 88F later mesured in thre ambulance at 90F quite scary


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