All of the holiday decorations are down and put away in a box by now, and many of us are working hard to keep up with our New Year’s resolutions. February should be the time of year when the snow is flying, and the biggest decision of the day may be whether to go skiing or sledding. One thing that those of us who have lived in this area a long time know is that winter in Appalachia can be tricky. One day it is cool, wet, rainy, or even snowy; and the next it is sunny and 60 degrees! I know some people love these fickle weather patterns, but this year it is seriously messing with one of my New Year’s resolutions: to get out and camp this winter!
I had the pleasure to go out West last month and camp in some of the nation’s most fabulous National Parks. The weather there was very cold, but also predictably stable. During that time, bundled up in my warm sleeping bag, I thought back upon some of my most memorable winter camping experiences I have had. Despite having many of those adventures all around the country, some of my favorite spots were right here in the good ‘ol Southern Appalachian mountains.
Camping in a tent on the cold ground during the wintertime is one of my favorite things to do. There are far fewer people out in the woods during these months, and I find the challenge of managing all of the clothing and sleeping systems in order to maintain a cozy warm existence simply exhilarating! Despite what one may think, there is a whole lot more to surviving a cold winter night camping than just sleeping systems and clothing. Nutritious food, the right liquids, and map reading skills are paramount to a successful winter trip. Proper stove and extra fuel considerations, how one is going to get and treat water, and how to navigate over snowy terrain (where trails are not as obvious), are all big concerns when planning a winter outing. Yes, it is true that a little more planning, preparations, and considerations go into winter camping than a summer trip, but that shouldn’t keep you from going out there.
Being that the weather around these parts can be quite fickle, one should make trip preparation and proper planning a top priority when considering a journey into the wilds. Planning a route that is accessible in the winter and one that can be easily completed in the allotted amount of time, even if the weather turns bad, is an important consideration. Hiking “big mile days” may not be possible with the shorter daylight on snow-covered and icy trails, which can change a 3 mile-per-hour pace into just barely 1 mile-per-hour. Planning continues into clothing systems. Even if there is no rain or snow in the forecast, hiking with a heavy backpack can result in sweaty, wet clothes, which are basically enemy number one when the outside temperatures drop fast.
I have a few places that are really special to me when the snow is flying and the temperature drops low. I like to backpack up to the Sam Knob area from Highway 215. This unique bald mountain stands just short of 6000 feet elevation and is flanked with open fields that can gather a lot of snow. One can hike in on the Flat Laurel Creek trail for just under two miles and find plenty of camping sites near the creek. Beware, however, these trails can be covered with ice slowing the pace to just a crawl. From here it is possible to continue a small loop to Little Sam Knob and then to the Mountain to Sea Trail back to Hwy 215 and then a short road walk back to the car. This is a great short loop with good views and lots of snow and ice.
If “high and windy” seems a little too extreme, then a great short hike with easy access is the Cat Gap Trail to the Pickelheimer’s Field area. This hike has a much lower elevation than Sam Knob and is very easy access off of Highway 276 in the Pisgah Forest. Don’t let the lower elevations fool you though, it is not uncommon for the valley areas around here to have colder temperatures than that of the higher mountain tops. A less than 2 mile or so hike from the Fish Hatchery and Wilderness Education Center parking area will bring you to a big open field with plenty of camping options and a good water source nearby. From here there are a few loop hikes that one can do, or simply pack it up and head back the same way to the warm car.
Regardless of high or low, the key word to a successful winter camping trip is “plan” and “prepare.”
Okay, I know that is two words, but they stand together to help make the difference between a cold and miserable trip, and one that generates great memories. So pack up the warm sleeping bag and waterproof boots, and pick a spot for a good adventure. If the weather is cooperating, one will fall asleep to a crisp, star-filled sky and wake to a snow-covered tent.