Staked in the Snow

Staked in the Snow: WNC’s guide to camping out during nature’s starkest season
Share this

I’ll never forget my first winter camping trip. Not for the cold, but for the embarrassment.

My dad dropped me and a high school friend at the Old Rag trailhead in Shenandoah National Park. As we stood there in 20 inches of snow and watched the taillights disappear, my buddy said, “I left my coat in the trunk.” Dumb mistake number one. We were long on hair and short on experience.

With no cross country skis or snowshoes, the hike was an agonizing, post-holing plod. We both had leg cramps by the time we got to Old Rag Shelter, which luckily was open for camping back then (it no longer is). We finally started a fire and wolfed down barely-warm food.

Then we heard people approaching. A group of full-blown Washington, DC yuppies skied up—no doubt diplomats, doctors, lawyers—with every down-stuffed garment and big-bucks gizmo you could imagine. They enjoyed wine and gourmet food while we stood out in front of the shelter in the dark choking on wood smoke.

Then I remember smelling something funny. Before what was happening sunk into my hypothermic haze, someone in the shelter told my friend, “Hey, man, tell your buddy his foot’s on fire.” Yep, there it was, a blue flame flickering on my feeble boot. I stumbled farther into the snowscape to, well…put out my foot.

Hey, I survived. Down gear and gas stoves suddenly topped my wish list. I became a serious winter hiker and Nordic skier, and the search for snow in the South brought me my first Subaru. Decades later, my list of snow-seeking Subes has hit double digits.

The learning curve continued on trips out of the region. One Christmas, heading to a trailhead on Mount Washington, New Hampshire, I passed a bank with a -40°F temp on its sign! That should've been a motel night, but I knew I had the right gear.

That’s when I learned that all gas stoves are not created equal. Ours used propane, which liquefies and won’t burn in frigid cold. Later, pump-pressurized stoves would solve that problem, but we survived, barely, with energy-rich frozen snacks and bonafide -40°F down sleeping bags.

Despite the memorable hurdles, what really sunk in after years of winter treks was the unmatched grandeur of being outdoors in nature’s starkest, least forgiving season. Even if you’re new to adventuring the cold this year, don’t worry. With the right gear and insider tips, you’ll be besting nature in no time.

Get the Right Stuff

Obviously, having the right gear (or, at least some of the right gear) is essential if you’re tempted to explore the snowy Southern Appalachians.

Bomber tents that stand up to snow and storms, and bags that keep you warm when it’s 30 degrees colder than the low range of a “three-season” bag, are indispensable and both impose the biggest price “hikes,” so to speak. Neither come cheap.

Both cost more due to complex design, lighter, stronger, and more resilient construction. But it’s higher-tech materials that really separate today’s cutting edge tents and sleeping bags (and their cost) from options in years past.

Suitable bags can feature less expensive synthetic insulation (that stays warm even when wet) but many people still choose down for its superior performance and lightness, and because shell material is now much more waterproof than it used to be. The colder the temps, the more down you’ll need in your bag. I personally wouldn’t tackle the highest WNC peaks in deep winter without a 0°F or -5°F bag.

The best bag can fail if it’s not insulated from the ground, so winter quality sleeping pads that shut out the frigid influence of the ground or snow are essential.

Tents are critical too. Winter candidates feature ample tie-outs to defy and shed high winds, and construction that isolates the interior space for maximum warmth.

In all three of the above product categories, if you’re facing bona fide winter conditions, summer gear simply won’t do.

Luckily, Western North Carolina consignment shops are an excellent bet for price savings. These are places where our local outdoor culture often yields lightly-used winter gear at a great price. Some outdoor shops and university outdoor programs may even rent winter-ready gear or guide trips (some of the latter, out of region).

Weather resistant clothes are another must have, but here it’s possible to layer in otherwise three-season items among your truly top-notch winter kit. For instance, a lot of people already have great rain gear. A full rain suit becomes the perfect outer shell when worn over pile pants and pullovers and a down parka. Almost any outdoorsy person also has a moisture-wicking base layer for winter use.

Buy the best hats and gloves you can afford—and be sure they work for you (as in, cinch around your head and face in the wind, and keep those fingers warm).

Among all the other gear choices, some items stand out for their importance. Gas stoves should be …what? Yes, pump-pressurized, and use white gas stove fuel, unless you own a Mountain Safety Research (MSR) multi-fuel stove that’ll burn perfume if need be.

Trekking poles are a great aid in winter, especially if you’re snowshoeing or Nordic skiing—which hopefully you are if there’s sufficient snow on the ground. If you’re post-holing like the clueless high-schooler I used to be—at least don’t ruin the skiing by walking in the ski tracks.

Anyone bound for the rugged, mountaineering end of the spectrum should also have modern traction devices. Not necessarily crampons, but rugged slip-on ice grips like Kahtoola MICROspikes or YakTrax can save you grief from a fall on icy trails, or even grief from a ranger! Grandfather Mountain State Park requires the cleats in winter conditions. Best of all, poles are a great summer hiking aid too, and traction devices also ensure safety in winter when shoveling snow or heading to the basement.

GRAB THIS GEAR AND GO - Having the right gear deflects a lot of the discomfort and even potential danger of camping in extreme conditions. >>CHECK OUT SOME OF THE BEST GEAR HERE

Have Your Act Together

Backpacking wouldn’t be so popular among equipment fetishists if outdoor gear wasn’t both essential and fascinating. That said, coping successfully with the cold, windy, snowy extremes of winter camping—while avoiding hypothermia and frostbite, the two biggest dangers that lurk in the winter woods—often depends less on what kind of hat you’re wearing, and more on the amount of knowledge and experience in the head under it.

Thus the best advice for a would-be winter camper is to become an experienced summer backpacker. Winter camping requires knowing what to do, and then promptly doing it, before your body gets too tired, hungry, or cold. Knowing the routines of three season backpacking is the best bridge to season number four, especially way up on our loftiest peaks, where winter camping merges with mountaineering. There's a reason they call it “high adventure!”

To meet the challenge, there are all kinds of winter tips out there, such as taking off unnecessary clothing while winter hiking. It’s critical to avoid perspiration-soaked clothing in the cold. That means take off your hat first, and after you’ve stripped down further, put your hat back on first when you start getting cold. Stay hydrated too, and well-fueled, or the minute you stop exercising you can be shivering—the first stage of hypothermia—in no time. So can an inexperienced or poorly-equipped member of your party.

It’s a balancing act out there. It takes experience and skill to efficiently find a site and set up a secure camp, promptly transition from activity to well-clothed and sheltered warmth, and then move on to warm fluids and food. Tasty dehydrated meals make that easier, so does having a nearby water source (and a filter device).

Start Slow

If you’re heading to North Carolina’s highest summits with real winter weather on the way—be ready. But remember, far below the highest peaks, lower elevations yield lower adventure—no offense intended. Even down low, the adventure is still higher than summer camping, which means getting acclimated to the fourth season is not too difficult a Rubicon to cross.

There aren’t many but some developed car campgrounds are available, such as Grandfather Campground south of Boone, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Smokemont Campground near Cherokee. Stone Mountain State Park’s campground and backcountry campsites are open year round.

There are other ways to ease into winter. Aim for a destination with a trail shelter, such as Thomas Knob on Mount Rogers, Virginia, Hi-Balsam Shelter atop Grandfather Mountain, Roan High Knob on Roan Mountain (an actual enclosed cabin), or in the Great Smokies, there are a number of shelters along the Appalachian Trail (AT) on the park’s snow-pounded crest. There’s also Mount LeConte Shelter, and LeConte Lodge is close by, but closed. Trail shelters let you ditch the tent, but many winter hikers are not above erecting a freestanding tent inside a shelter for added comfort.

Choosing a destination that’s pretty close to where you park your car means less arduous access and a sense of security if you bail.

On the Roan Highlands, the alpine appearing meadows of Yellow Mountain Gap are a short, moderate ski or hike to a spring at the former site of the Overmountain trail shelter. The Stan Murray Shelter isn’t too far south from there on the AT, and the alpine adventure of Little Hump and Hump mountains entices to the north. Ski or snowshoe up the gated Roan Mountain road and tempting Canadian Zone camp sites are everywhere.

Relatively gradual routes lead to Grandfather Mountain’s lowest elevation campsites on the Nuwati and Daniel Boone Scout Trails, some with tent platforms for added ease and insulation, and water nearby. Elk Knob State Park—which proudly proclaims a focus on winter recreation—features dedicated backcountry campsites, a few cross country ski trails, and a snowy hike on the Summit Trail to great views that include Mount Rogers, Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain and nearby ski areas.

At the right time, there are mountains, campsites and shelters galore all over Western North Carolina that boast truly challenging climbs to plentiful cold and snow. That includes national forest sites like Mount Mitchell and Shining Rock Wilderness.

Aim for Adventure

There’s nothing more awesome than camping in the snowy cold, in part because that blue guy, Old Man Winter, gets surly if you take him too lightly. (Santa Claus, he ain’t).

But the reward for getting out there in nature’s most inspiring, and yes, most intimidating season, is more than the lack of bugs and crowds, or some kind of macho challenge.

We’re talking about the magic of winter—and the magical times afforded to the people who revel in it. For many, the time set aside for winter adventure weaves a memorable thread through their lives. It’s hard to forget a wind-whipped summit, with stinging crystal snow refreshing the faces of friends eyeing inspiring vistas. Those kinds of experiences are worth the price of admission—even if it means setting your foot on fire. 

GET OUT! - Finding the right camping spot this winter >>CHECK OUT CAMPING LOCATIONS IN WNC


WATCH: Grand Father Mountain Winter Hike 2018


WATCH: Winter On Mount Mitchell: Cross country skiing NC