OK, I had one overnight backpacking trip under my belt to Bearwaller Gap where it rained the second day while the temerature was in the low 30’s. I needed something more difficult if I were to top that trip! Why not accept the invitation to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in February?
Plan was to leave on Friday night, stay in Cades Cove Campground. Leave Saturday for Russell Field shelter on the Appalachian Trail, head to primitive campsite #9 for Sunday night, and hike out on Monday. Our plans definitely changed.
I learned a lot about COLD weather camping. Read more to find out about what will be one of the most memorable outdoor experiences I may ever have.
Friday at work, Donna called me on my cellphone in a panic! "Do you know it’s supposed to snow and be freezing cold? Someone told me that, and said you’re crazy!" Of course my Florida native reply was "Of course I know that. I’m with experienced backpackers, I have plenty of winter gear, and we can just hike out if things get bad." Well, that was about half true.
With a total of at least six people invited and considering, those that actually went (Rob, Meg and Jean) are experienced backpackers. But, they had never spent the night in conditions like we experienced! Personally, I have some pretty good gear, but I had never spent the night in temperatures below about 28 or in a winter snow storm in the mountains.
Forecast Cades Cove for Saturday was lows in the mid 20’s, forecast for Sunday was lows in the teens. Winter storm advisories for the mountainous regions of East Tennessee with snowfall estimates from 2 – 5 inches. Of course, the higher altitudes are on average 9 degrees colder, and normally get deeper snow. That means forecast for the teens and single digits. Let’s go backpacking!
Plan was to drive to camp at Cades Cove on Saturday night for car camping. On Saturday, head up the Anthony Creek Trail, catch Russell Field Trail, spend the night at the Russell Field shelter. Sunday, cross on the AT to Bote Mountain Trail, to Anthony Creek Trail, spend the night at campsite #9. MAP HERE
I’ll skip the boring Friday night camping. It got cold, but generally uneventful. The heated bathrooms at Cades Cove were wonderful. If you ever camp at Cades Cove, bring a load of firewood. No wood is to be found for a mile, except twigs.
Saturday Feb 17: Hike In – old growth forest, log bridges, slippery creek crossing, winter wonderland.
Starting at Cades Cove picnic area, we bumped into a group of boy scouts heading for Spence Field. I never could figure out how many nights they were staying, but man do I admire those little guys for spending the night out there (and they weren’t back when we returned.) We began our uphill climb up Anthony Creek trail. The trail crosses Anthony Creek several times via log bridges with a very nice handrail. After turning onto Russell Field Trail, we entered some pretty rugged terrain, with small sections of old growth forest. As this was my first visit to old growth forest, the main observation was how tall and straight the trees are. They were pretty big diameter, but I figured they would be bigger.
The trail continues along for another mile or so, and the snow on the ground got a little deeper, maybe an inch. Approaching campsite #10 is a pretty wide stream, depth unknown. It was covered in a sheet of ice, and the exposed rocks were also ice covered. This made for a treacherous crossing. Campsite #9 was an open flat area in the gulch, with bear bag wire and a fire pit.
As we ascended higher into the mountains, the trail got steeper, snowier and slicker. Control your heat by shedding layers during uphill sections. Sweat makes you wet and cold when you stop. Stay a little cold. Several areas were in the wind, while other areas were completely still, allowing for the last night’s snow to stick nicely to all the twigs. Here are some pictures. We also passed by an open field on top of the mountain, (we think is part of Russell Field) and through several rhododendron forests. The open fields make you realize how people scraped a living out of this country 100 years ago. It must have been tough.
Hike in was a total uphill trek of almost 6 miles to Russell Field shelter.
Saturday at camp – camp chores, getting water, shelter living, mice, wood saw, potty break
We finally arrived about 2PM at Russell Field Shelter in about 2 inches of snow. This shelter (on the Appalachian Trail) is basically three stone walls, one side open (fence on this one), a roof, a small fireplace, fire pit and bear bag cables. One side has two 6-foot deep shelves for sleeping. The Rangers had placed thin plastic over the fence side, and had left a sawblade with long screws in each end for a handle, thank goodness.
Several comments about a shelter: this is not luxury living. The fireplace only heats up if the wind isn’t blowing, or if you’re standing 3 feet from it. But, it makes getting a fire started easier. Down side is firewood must be short enough to fit in it. A good saw is mandatory in cold weather. You have to have big wood to burn for any length of time. And, you need LOTS of firewood. We had at least 3 mice scrounging in our packs, constantly circling around the edges. If you absolutely can’t stand mice, don’t stay in a shelter.
Russell Field Shelter has a water source downhill back on the trail. It was great fun filtering water, while keeping the hoses and filter from freezing, with snow up around your ankles! In the cold, make sure you pump the filter completely dry.
Cooking was fun. Propane stove fuel doesn’t vaporize well when very cold. So, before I could use my MSR Pocket Rocket, the canister had to stay in my jacket with my water bottle to warm up. Eventually, we kept the fuel on the edge of the fireplace. I know, this is dangerous, and you have to be careful. Jean’s beer can alcohol stove worked pretty well, except it didn’t to well boiling a big pot of water. Meg finally broke out her "mega stove". It was some kind of pump-up multifuel thing for cooking. It ran VERY hot, but she couldn’t turn it down. Cleaning the pots in the snow and cold was a major pain in the butt.
Bathroom break – well nature finally called. I usually can wait until I get back, but Meg’s cooking set me off. It was after dark, and down the hill I went to the "privy area". The snow was really coming down. I found my spot, scraped off the snow, and low and behold the ground was frozen solid. OK, no hole tonight. Come to find out, your headlamp pretty much blinds you in the snow. I had to follow my footprints back to the shelter – pretty scary in hostile conditions. I could finally see the glow of the fire in the shelter. What a relief.
SLEEPING – 20 degree bag, Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor, wearing all my clothing, cold right before sunrise, eating in your sleeping bag
Finally, it was time to hit the sack. I had my Mountain Hardwear 20 degree down bag, plus a Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor liner. Add my wool long underwear top and bottom, plus a wool sweater, I thought I would be warm. We had some debate whether it was better to sleep closer to the fire, or more against the upwind wall. We ended up closer to the fire. We also had some discussion about the mice, but that’s another story. My feet were cold in Cades Cove, so I planned on my thickest socks and a jacket in the foot of my bag. I also packed a Clif bar in my pocket, so I could refuel if I got cold. Add my water bottle to my bag so it wouldn’t freeze, and there wasn’t much room left, that’s for sure!
Some time during the night, my feet got cold, and I started getting shivers down my spine. On went the Patagonia Micropuff. That quickly warmed my upper half, but my feet never got warm. You can’t practically get lower temperatures out of a sleeping bag. If it’s gonna be single digits, bring a zero degree bag. Everyone else was toasty warm. Aaargh.
Sunday morning – waking up in the cold, where’s the log, let’s get the hell out of here!
When everyone started to wake up, Rob was first out. He got up and got a fire started. Turns out the temperature was in single digits, and probably 8 inches of snow on the ground. It was unbelievable! Rob had to go get his bear bag. I didn’t screw with mine!
We all finally popped up, boiled water, began eating ravenously (BTW I really like Mountain House Granola and Blueberries – yum!), and began packing up for the day’s hike out.
Sunday night was planned for a primitive campground – not a shelter. We figured we wouldn’t have a saw for firewood, we wouldn’t have a shelter, we couldn’t get stakes in the frozen ground for a tent, and we’d have to scrape snow with a stick to pitch our tents. Forget that! Next time, freestanding tent, folding saw, and nothing will stop us!
Sunday hike out – walking in the snow, gaiters, slippery trail, creek crossing again, REI Goretex pants rule!
So, off we went. Meg fortunately overplanned and had gaiters to wear over her boots. She could walk through the calf-deep snow and knock it down a little. Tim’s Goretex pants he loaned me really did the trick – kept me warm, dry and snow out of my boots. Also turns out, thick snow makes the rocks and roots impossible to see. The tread in your boots gets packed with snow, and downhill sections get very slippery. Everyone fell at least once, except Rob. I fell three times. Not bad for a Florida boy.
The hike was unbelievable. We were of course the first down the trail. Everything was thick covered with snow. You really have to see the pictures, but they don’t really do it justice. Everything gets so quiet, the mountains are so remote, it brings a feeling of peace similar to sailing on a pretty day in a steady breeze, "afterglow", or maybe a good massage (I’ve never actually had a professional massage!)
The treacherous creek crossing wasn’t so treacherous. It had frozen over thicker, and the snow made the ice less slippery. We simply walked across it this time!
In Summary – you may have to suffer through some discomfort to learn lessons, and experience beauty very few will ever see. And, sometimes you have to ‘bleed just to know you’re alive’!
One of my favorite quotes: So what if I fell off a cliff or got eaten by a bear. I’d gone out living and enjoying life, not being in constant worry every day about possessions, politicians, other nee’r-do-wells, nor all the bad news on CNN. Being prepared, good friends/companionship, living simply and enjoying the moment. All this made life good and brought happiness.
Gear that worked –
|Patagonia MicroPuff sweater.||New item for this trip. Insulates with Polarguard Delta insulation, similar to what you find in synthetic sleeping bags. Good for layering, dries very fast, and wears well in the sleeping bag for extra warmth. It doesn’t have a full length zipper, and it needs pit zips for venting. It’s still a winner.||
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|Bacardi 151||Good in Apple Cider, great fire starter. Works as alcohol stove fuel in a pinch. Not much demand for it in very frigid temperatures. May also work in Kool Aid on summertime hikes. High alcohol proof to weight ratio.||
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|Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor||I’m not sure I can actually rate this piece of gear properly. I used it for one night, and I was cold. I think if you have a 40 degree bag, you might get 10 degrees out of it. If you have a 50 degree bag, you might get 15 degrees out of it. A 20 degree bag, I think 10 degrees is optimistic. It’s well made, and does keep your sleeping bag clean. It might be a little short for a 6-foot man like me. No magic bullet here.||
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|Birthday Candles||Hold two together to make a nice flame for lighting damp kindling. Don’t leave home without a pack. Good cheap lightweight accessory. Combine with your 151 in a pinch!||
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|Balcava||One lightweight for trekking in the frigid cold, and one heavyweight for sitting around camp. Pull them down around your neck for a scarf, pull them up for a hat. Very versatile and lightweight. I recommend Louis Garneau for lightweight, that feels like thin sock material.||
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|Marmot Precip Rain Jacket||Great for windbreak. Hood really keeps the rain from running down your neck. Hood has a functioning visor, and pullstrings are in just the right places. Has pit zips for venting. Yes it’s breathable, but will get very wet from sweat if not layered properly. It’s lightweight and compresses well. Don’t leave into the wild without it – a winner!||
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|Cotton Bandana||Bring one. Tie it near your neck while trekking. They’re great for wiping a cold-air runny nose – a practical alternative to your glove, and easier on your skin.||
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|Dermatone||Sunblock that comes in a little metal can. Apparently skiers use it to keep from getting cold wind burned. I’m not sure whether I didn’t use it enough on this trip, or whether it just didn’t work. I’ll keep trying it though! Someone said to smear your face with Chamois Butter. Worth a try I guess.||
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|Wide Brimmed Rain Hat||I didn’t have one, but it would have been good to have it, plus my 180 earmuffs. When snow gets on your head, your body heat will melt it. A raincoat hood works, but gets pretty hot. I’ll bring one next time.||
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|Fleece Sweatpants||Ask Rob about how wonderful his fleece sweatpants are at night. I won’t say anything else. Five stars just on Rob’s testimony.||
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|REI Goretex Pants||Tim G loaned me a pair, and they saved my butt. My legs stayed dry while trekking, and they came down over my boot tops and kept the snow out. Extremely breathable. I’d probably add a drawcord around the bottoms. Full length zipper would be cool, but would compromise waterproof-ness. Essential piece of gear in the cold wet snow. Leave them home in warmer weather.||
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|Hiking Poles||I’m becoming more of a believer – stabilization in rough terrain, creek crossings. Hardcore Meg even borrowed mine to get across the treacherous creek on Russell Field Trail on Day One. They didn’t however keep me from falling three times on Sunday! Ultralight hikers also use them as tent poles.||
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|Foldable Saw||Winter hiking, you’d better bring one. Or, plan to get in your very warm sleeping bag right away. If the rangers (I assume) hadn’t left one in the shelter, we would have been in trouble. You really need a good fire to warm yourself, and dry your wet clothes, and that means some bigger logs. Sawvivor is a pretty good one.||
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|Full length Thermarest||For winter camping, the weight saved using a 3/4 is not worth it. I carried my 3/4 and a foam pad. Where my feet touched the foam pad just sucked the heat out. Carry a full length self-inflating in the winter and be done with it. Trust me.||
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|Neoprene/fleece face mask (cycling)||Don’t waste your time, space or weight. Bring a fleece scarf instead, or balkavas.||
Good cold-weather technique – sweating, freezing, vapor, fires, runny nose
- If you’ve done any research at all, don’t wear anything cotton in the cold, or you’ll regret it! It’s amazing the number of construction workers wearing cotton on the jobsite in the cold. Some worksites require cotton, as it’s fire resistant. Welding sparks can set synthetics on fire. (Think about this when around the fire in camp, OK?)
- Always run on the cool side when layering to minimize sweating. Change to dry clothes when you get to camp. Don’t make me repeat myself. This is the most important tip, second only to the cotton tip.
- Plenty of stove fuel, and lots of instant hot beverages like hot chocolate and apple cider.
- Keep eating all day. Your body needs fuel to keep hiking, and to heat itself. You’ll burn more total calories hiking in the winter. Forget your diet in harsh conditions. Don’t be stupid.
- Keep water bottles inside your jacket and sleeping bag, eat a lot of calories even while sleeping. I left a Clif Mojo in my pocket when I went to sleep, and ate a few bites in the middle of the night. Keeping warm burns lots of calories.
- Gather LOTS of wood including some big stuff. Firewood may not appear wet, but may be wet-frozen wood has to thaw to burn. Screw kindling and dry sticks. Everything we picked up was wet frozen around camp and had to be thawed before it would burn. Use fire starters, lighters, birthday candles and Bacardi 151 if necessary. Get a fire lit quickly. In an emergency situation, make a deliberate effort to pick up dry kindling, and keep it dry as you hike.
- Different warmth/thickness socks – thin for moving, thick for sitting around at camp (ALWAYS keep your feet dry.)
- Always pump your filter dry or it will freeze. If it freezes, you’ll have to thaw it out either inside your jacket, or near the fire. It’s a big hassle. Pump it dry – trust me. I used a Hiker Pro and it worked very well.
- Everything damp or wet will freeze, including steam vapor your body gives off. But, if something is wet and you don’t have a fire to dry, or you’re moving, put it inside your jacket. Your body warmth will dry it if you’re layered and vented properly.
- Pit zips – add extra-long cord to the zipper pulls for gloves. Tie water bottles to the cord and drop them through the pit zip holes. I learned that trick after returning from a trip of continuous screwing around with trying to keep a water bottle inside my jacket.
- Warm your propane fuel canisters inside your jacket before using, particularly if the temperature is mid-twenties or below. If not, your stove will likely just sputter.