Sleeping outside, in the winter? If that sounds crazy to you, keep reading, because if you are prepared and know what you're doing – camping in the winter is addictive for those who value beautiful landscapes, once-in-a-lifetime sunrises, and solitude in nature.
The first thing to know is that camping in winter in the Adirondacks demands real skill and mountain savvy just to remain comfortable. It also requires planning and the right gear. So why do people go camping in the winter? Because the experience, the snow-covered views glittering under a rising sun, the snowshoeing and campfire-cooked meals, is unlike any other experience you'll have in your one adventurous life.
What to Know Before Going Winter Camping in the Adirondacks
Winter temperatures dip low
Temperatures in the winter month dip very low – like negative 30 in some places in the Adirondacks. While we do not recommend going winter camping in negative temps, or even temps below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, this does help freeze lakes and ponds, making remote areas easier to access. How do you know if the body of water is frozen enough? Experts recommend staying off any ice where there's flowing water underneath – so no go for rivers and streams – and that ice should be four or more inches thick to truly support your weight, and the weight of all the snow laying over its surface. Bring an ice auger if you can to check as you go because ice is rarely uniformly thick. And remember: not all ice freezes equally. Clear ice is stronger than bubbly ice.
Don't go winter camping alone
Aside from the benefits of traveling with a buddy, you'll have someone to share the experience with, and someone who can keep an extra eye on conditions and your personal well-being. Use the buddy system when you go winter camping in the Adirondacks.
Ease into winter camping
Mother Nature is not someone to mess with. Test your limits first with a day trip so you can better understand your gear, how you layer and dress for the weather, how to stay warm, and conditions to look for and those to avoid. Plan to cook a meal outside so you have practice building a fire and feeding yourself. Doing this a couple of times will help you anticipate the unanticipated – the break-throughs on partially frozen streams, the wet boots, the sweaty base layers – and change your approach accordingly.
Clothing tip: No cotton! Wool and wool blends are best for base layers. Waterproof winter boots with removable inserts are essential.
Be aware of the risk of avalanches
Avalanches are real, and knowing the basics of avalanche safety is a necessary precaution. Rather than outline the different types of avalanches, we're going to let Princeton University do the honors. Find out all you ever wanted to know about avalanches.
Bring enough to eat and drink
A higher calorie intake is essential for keeping your body functioning and maintaining a proper body temperature. DO NOT EAT SNOW! It takes a lot of energy for your body to melt snow and you're burning enough calories staying warm. If you run out of water, melt snow or ice over your heat source. Purify it before drinking or cooking with it.
Use a sleeping bag designed for winter camping
Speaking of body temperature – your sleeping bag needs to be rated to at least 20 degrees below zero.
Ensure you're in good shape
You need to be in good physical shape. Sounds silly, but it's a good reminder that you need to be able to navigate terrain for a few miles, set up camp, and get yourself back out. According to the ADK Winter Mountaineering School handbook, you should be able to run 5 miles or hike 10 miles over hilly terrain and feel good the next day. Not the case? Time to whip yourself into shape! Why not get out and enjoy some winter hiking in the Adirondacks before committing to a full camping experience?
Pro tip: Check out the ADK Winter Mountaineering School Handbook for essential tips to keep you safe, healthy and happy on your winter camping adventures.
Planning for Winter Camping
If you're a newbie, and chances are you are, then expert instruction is what you need. Each January, the Adirondack Mountain Club hosts the ADK Winterfest at Heart Lake, with ski clinics and outdoor skills workshops at the Adirondack Loj outside Lake Placid. Can't make it? The club's Winter Mountaineering School – mentioned earlier – also pairs students with local guides on a winter day hike, weekend overnight, and a week-long trip that includes an ascent of a 4,000-footer.
Or visit Keene Valley in January, when the Mountaineer gear shop hosts Mountainfest. Get tips from guides and hear stories from pro athletes. Then practice what you learned with day trips from a reliable winter basecamp like Camp Peggy O'Brien or Grace Camp, cabins for rent near Johns Brook Lodge. After day trips in bitter, winter cold, return to propane heat, a soft bunk, and make hot meals from the camp kitchen. Ease into it. If you don't want to take full responsibility for your winter camping excursion in the Adirondacks, consider bunking it.
Where to Go: Winter Campsites in the Adirondacks
These sturdy shelters are found across the Adirondacks, and make for an ideal basecamp year-round. Find Lean-Tos at Marcy Dam/Avalanche Pass, Cranberry Lake, and Long Lake. For beginners, the lean-to at Copperas Pond in Wilmington is easy to access from Route 86. Lean-tos are also available at the Adirondack Loj Wilderness Campground, located near Heart Lake, as well as Johns Brook in Keene Valley.
Backcountry & State Lands
At six million acres, the Adirondacks have plenty of uninhabited backcountry. Siamese Ponds Wilderness offers loads of primitive campsites, as well as two lean-tos on Puffer Pond, one on Hour Pond and one on John Pond. Review your backcountry camping rules and guidelines before going.
It is illegal to camp above 4,000 feet in the Adirondacks unless it's an emergency, or within 150 of any road, trail, spring, stream, pond or other body of water except at designated "camp here" sites, which are delineated with a disk nail to a nearby tree.
At Johns Brook Camps, the Adirondack Mountain Club maintains backcountry cabins year-round. Located in the High Peaks Wilderness, they are ideal for winter adventurers who want to explore the wilderness, but return to a home-cooked meal and the comfort of a camp bed. There isn't running water – but the cabins are heated in the winter. The Mountain Club's Heart Lake lodge location offers bunk rooms, a co-ed sleeping loft, and private rooms.
Final TIP: Hire a Guide!
The Adirondack Mountains are a place of incredible scenic beauty and year-round outdoor recreation. Because of this, you can find a guide service to ensure you have fun, stay safe, and experience winter camping in the Adirondacks at its best.
Guide services are located throughout the region. Find an Adirondack guide and get planning!