Hardiest hikers, campers don’t come in from the cold

Beverly’s Justin Walsh prepares to light his stove after setting up camp atop Owl’s Head Mountain in the White Mountains in 2013.
Beverly’s Justin Walsh prepares to light his stove after setting up camp atop Owl’s Head Mountain in the White Mountains in 2013.Leeanne Nagle

Winter camping isn’t for everyone. And it’s certainly not for the error prone. Self-sufficiency and thoroughness are hallmarks of the veteran winter camper. But for those who are properly prepared, winter camping is a true delight.

“Camping in the winter season affords a level of solitude in the New England mountains unmatched in any other season,” said Justin Walsh, a 40-year-old Beverly resident.

“You’re able to feel immersed in the wilderness, surrounded by snow-filled trees that deliver a peaceful quiet. Experiencing areas and taking in views in conditions that few others rarely see is very rewarding,” he said.

Winter camping is also a great example of addition by subtraction, since practitioners don’t need to worry about bugs or bears or many other warm-weather critters, said Elijah Carver Brown, 36, a camping instructor with REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) in Hingham.


“The past few years have been really bad for ticks, and it’s nice to know that they are not crawling up your leg,” said Brown. “It’s also nice to know that because of the snow and temperatures you are less likely to create a forest fire.”

Topsfield’s Che Elwell has been winter hiking most of his 49 years, and winter camping for the past two decades. He shares the same sense of wonder that the cruel season offers.

“Some of my best nights of sleep have been winter camping,” said Elwell. “The clean crisp air is calming, the sky is more vibrant from the moon and stars at night, and the peace and quiet is amazing. The connection to nature around you, the experience of being away from everyone else, and experiencing something unique all combine to make it a life reset.”

That reset, however, comes with the responsibility of being fully prepared for the vagaries of Old Man Winter, whether you’re camping at a local state park or in New Hampshire’s spectacular White Mountains.


According to Elwell, the added weight of a winter camping bag, tent, sleeping bag, fuel, cooking gear, extra socks and under-layers, plus camp over-layers, can tip the scales of your backpack between 50 and 80 pounds.

Walsh said “must-have gear” includes clothing and a sleeping bag with sufficient insulation, a rugged tent that can withstand high winds, and equipment to make food and water.

“A proper stove and cook pot is critical for melting snow for water, and for cooking food,” said Walsh. “Liquid fuel stoves are a must for tent camping. And down booties — don’t forget the booties.”

Regarding clothing, Ronald Carson of Attleboro said that wool “is my best friend. It’s breathable, durable, fire retardant, overall a wonderful material.”

“I prefer leather gloves, or wool gloves with a leather palm,” said the 47-year-old service manager for Union Cycle. “They breathe well, and are durable enough to process wood for a fire, and grab a cook pot from the fire with.”

“The most important item, in my opinion, are your boots,” said REI’s Brown. “Your feet are your mode of transportation, and should be taken care of at all cost. Wet feet are not happy feet and can lead to many issues.”

Another consideration is the method you plan to use to get to your destination, including Nordic skis or backcountry skis.

“I like to get to a campsite with either snowshoes or my Surly Pugsley, a fat-tire bicycle developed in Minnesota for snow events similar to dogsled racing,” said Carson. “Some people use a tent for shelter, but I’ve moved over to backpacking hammocks. With a tarp overhead, an underquilt, and a wool blanket on top, it’s the best nights sleep I can have in the woods.”


Winter campers also must be aware that changing weather can result in changing temperatures, which adds the challenge of making adjustments to stay warm.

“Cold winter camping turns your outing into an adventure, one of survival,” said Brown. “Being able to confront and be prepared for the elements is part of the lure.

“Know how to start a fire,” he said. “I have always tried to have three methods available to me. Lighter, matches, and a flint or some type of fire starter. This could mean the difference between freezing and having a really good time.”

Plus, the days are considerably shorter, so proper “clock management” becomes essential.

“It gets dark early, so you need to make sure you leave time to set up camp,” said Elwell. “You need to pack down a tent site, which is easier if it is slightly elevated and has some time for the snow to set up.

“We always make a kitchen. Cooking is a lot easier if you aren’t trying to cook at ground level, so pile snow up and make a table,” he said. “A lot of time is spent cooking, since you first have to make water, and then cook. It’s important to have really having high-quality gear, always focusing on staying dry and eating lots of food.”


Like Brown, Elwell emphasizes the need to keep hydrated, and well fueled. He estimated he burns more than 6,000 calories a day during a winter camping trip.

“You have to force yourself to keep eating so you can get in the calories you need,” said Elwell. “Nuts, M&Ms, granola, cheese, and butter. I put butter on everything just for the calories. Have you ever had hot chocolate with a pat of butter? It can be awesome.”

Finally, Brown suggest that campers should have a contingency plan that includes informing others of your route and timeline.

“Share your plans with friends and family, when you are leaving, where you are going, and when you are coming back,” he said.

For a list of state properties that allow winter camping, check out visit-massachusetts.com/state/campgrounds/. Globe correspondent Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.