Thursday, January 15, 2009

Winter Camping

January/February issue, 2009

Cold Weather Cool

Some whys and hows for winter camping in Harriman State Park

By Paul Clark

Without a doubt, some of the coolest, closest and most encompassing outdoor gems of the Lower Hudson Valley are the sights, trails, and everything else in Harriman State Park. I’m a big, forever fan of Harriman. And for good reason.

Because where I grew up in the endless geographic evenness of Illinois, it took a drive well into Wisconsin or Michigan to find enough varied terrain to make hiking and camping more exciting. But even after years of hiking and backpacking amongst the ageless, glacially engraved formations of Harriman’s rock, forest and scenery, I’m still endlessly enthralled and grateful that all this geologic goodness is within a few miles’ drive from home.

Compared with the kind of backcountry trekking you might see depicted in high-adventure magazines, Harriman is not the Rockies. Or anything near requiring oxygen bottles and Sherpas. But with over 46,000 acres in Rockland and Orange counties, it’s the second largest in the New York State parks system.

There are more than 200 miles of diverse, well-marked trails, including stretches of the Long Path and Appalachian Trail. Add in several well-placed shelters and campsites, and more than enough conquerable altitude and adventure and you have everything you need for exceptionally good dayhiking, overnight camping or backpacking for two, three or more days at a stretch.

Not surprisingly, most people prefer Harriman during the warmer, lusher, longer days of spring, summer and early fall. And I’m not averse to that kind of Harriman time either. But on some of those nice long days and three-day weekends, it can feel like each and every one of those folks is right there with you. But I’ve also found that in the colder, starker, far-less-peopled months of winter, Harriman is an entirely different world. Which makes it the perfect season — and reason — to take on a quality of camping you can’t experience any other time of year.

Cold-weather camping in a tent or shelter — even if for just one night — takes a bit more resolve than camping in July. It also requires careful planning and preparation. But it does have its upsides. Hiking in the cold is far more exhilarating than hiking in the heat. There are no mosquitoes or other bugs crawling and flying around your face and food. The absence of leaves on trees puts more sunlight on trails to reveal added dimension and sharper detail in everything you see.

After sunset, that same lack of leaves opens the nighttime sky to expose more stars and constellations, and brighter floods of moonlight. A campfire never felt more warm or welcome. And with a few inches of snow on the ground, the entire environment seems sealed in a kind of calm and quiet you don’t get a chance to listen to very often. But one of the biggest advantages is this: with all that tranquility going on around you, you can also enjoy a better night’s sleep than you’ve probably had in a while.

Upsides aside, however, cold can be cold. And if you’re not properly prepared for, or predisposed to it, hiking on harder, frozen or icy trails can be more challenging, and a night spent outdoors can be less than comfortable. But if you’ve hiked and camped in Harriman during the warmer months and thought about extending your ventures into the colder ones, the best way to make for maximum fun is to plan well, and keep it simple. Here’s a few suggestions:

Know where you’re going and don’t go it alone. Always camp with one or more other people. Be mindful. Many of Harriman’s trails aren’t as safely accessible in winter. Plan on camping within a reasonable hiking distance — 90 minutes or less — from where you park your car. Stay in, or pitch your tent near, a shelter. (A shelter is a good “Plan B” in case tenting doesn’t work out.) If a shelter is “Plan A,” some of them have fireplaces built into them. Those that don’t have an established fire ring nearby. Bring a lightweight tarp along to cover the open front of the shelter to block the wind and retain heat.

Keep an eye on the forecast to avoid surprises, pack the right clothing (nothing made of cotton) and wear it in layers. Equally important, be sure to have a sleeping bag far warmer than the kind you took to summer camp. Come 3 a m, a nice and warm zero-degree or colder-rated bag is worth twice your total body weight in gold.

To a lot of people, though, spending a night or two out in the winter cold is something only Huskies and crazy people do. For me, winter camping is one of the best experiences you can have, and being called crazy for enjoying it makes it feel even better. But like all the other great things you can do in Harriman, it will always instill a greater respect for nature than you ever had before. And a much deeper appreciation for having an incredible place like Harriman so close by.

For more information about Harriman State Park and the New York State park system, visit For more on winter camping, visit

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