Winter Camping in Mountains Offers Solitude, Challenges

At 4,545 feet, nothing grows on the summit of West Virginia’s Black Mountain except for stubby chin-high pines that have entrenched their twisted roots into what would otherwise be a lunar landscape of loose, white rocks, the remnant of a mountain peak that was once among the highest in the world.

My reason for choosing the campsite were obvious: the view from our Black Mountain campsite was breathtaking. We could see the dim street lights of Marlington, the Pocahontas County seat, nestled in the Greenbrier Valley more than a thousand feet below us. Parkersburg and its halo of streetlights, parking lot lights and pollution seemed a million miles away.

It was a perfect place for a newlywed camping trip, but I could have picked a better time. Here, on top of the world in winter, the environment can be harsh, unforgiving. The bitterly cold wind gusted all around, bringing the wind chill temperature well below zero. Julie shivered as I set up camp.

To help her forget the cold, I asked her to glance skyward and was sure that she, a graduate of NASA’s Spacecamp and an armchair astronomer, could appreciate the cosmic show from the remote fringes of the Cranberry Wilderness. With no ambient light from streetlights, the Milky Way shone through the crisp, mountain air, revealing to us the true beauty of God’s greatest creation — the universe.

I’ve been atop some of Europe’s tallest peaks, somehow even higher than Black Mountain. But their alpine beauty doesn’t begin to stir the same feelings of peace and reverence and certainly not remembrance. After all, this is West Virginia. This is my home.

But it was hard for Julie to feel anything besides cold. The Appalachians in winter offer peace and solitude, a different world than one finds in summer months. National Forest areas once crowded with hikers have been reclaimed by nature.

Everyone but you has abandoned the limestone brook trout streams, the surface of which was hammered by fishermen’s flies last summer. A few species of birds, who don’t make the migration south, sing their songs for your ears only. Early winter rains have washed away all human footprints but yours. At least until spring, the forests belong to you.

However, these same mountains, which offer so much in winter, can hammer you with a blustery night of arctic weather. Even the extreme southern part of the Appalachian chain can see subzero weather. During a cold spell in 1985, Mountain Lake, Virginia saw the mercury plummet to -30 degrees; Caesar’s Head, in South Carolina, dropped to -19 degrees. Even the foothills in Alabama have seen temperatures colder than 20 degrees below zero.

During the 1984-1985 winter, North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell saw temperatures as low as -34 degrees. Couple that with a 30 mile per hour wind gust on the summit and it feels like nearly 100 degrees below zero and exposed areas can become frostbitten in just a couple of minutes.

Of course, it’s not always that cold in the mountains, but temperatures can drop quickly despite contrary long-range weather forecasts you saw before you left home. Weather in the mountains can change quickly and while your campsite might be pelted with a snowstorm, it might be raining at the gas station where you bought beef jerky the morning before at the foot of the mountain.

Special weather radios capable of receiving National Weather Service broadcasts can provide weather information on demand, though coverage can be spotty. During evening and night hours, especially on mountaintops, one can listen to AM stations hundreds of miles away. I’ve heard AM stations from Cuba as far north as Pennsylvania.

Much of staying warm is staying dry and clean. Bring along several extra pairs of clothing and change into new clothes before you go to bed, not when you wake up in the morning. Sleeping in damp, dirty clothes leads to a night of frigid torment and temperatures are coldest when you wake up early in the mornings — not a good time to expose yourself to the elements while changing clothing.

Eating high-fat foods to stoke the body’s furnace is more important for keeping warm than anything else, says Mark Bergstrom, winter coordinator for the Teton Valley Branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School in Idaho. He suggested winter campers eat plenty of meats or even just plain butter. Vegetarians should consume a lot of peanut butter or cheese, he said.

Bergstrom said he carries precooked meat during winter months in the mountains. “Low calorie foods just don’t cut it,” Bergstrom said. “If you don’t have plenty of energy, you’re out of luck. When winter camping it takes more energy to go to the bathroom, change layers (of clothing) and even to drink and eat.

“You lose calories quickly, even when you are sleeping,” he said. “If you don’t have plenty of energy, you’ll end up with people taking care of you instead of you taking care of others and assuming a leadership role.”

You can also make those morning wakeups a little warmer by placing your tent with a clear view of the southeast sky so the rising sun’s rays warm you early in the morning. Also, by eating a high-calorie snack before retiring, you can give your body furnace fuel to keep you warm in the morning.

While rarely can a three-man tent sleep three people, elbowroom is especially important for winter camping. Anyone sleeping against the wall of a tent will wake up soaked, as water vapor exhaled while sleeping is quick to collect on tent walls. Although tucking your head into your sleeping bag will cause a little condensation inside, Bergstrom says it’s important to keep your hood on.

Conduction of body heat is one of the primary reasons campers wake up feeling so cold. Sleeping on top of a sleeping pad or even a pile of leaves will help insulate your body from the cold ground. An aluminum campstool is also a welcome item in camp because no matter how long you sit on the cold ground, your buttocks will never be able to warm the earth.

“Keeping plenty of stuff between you and the snow when you’re sleeping is more important than even having a good sleeping bag,” Bergstrom said. “Keep a pad or two between you and the ground or even a parka and some windpants so you have more insulation between you and the snow.”

Wool is my favorite fabric to wear for camping as it still retains heat even when wet. However, so do lighter, modern fabrics like Polarfleece and Capilene, which have the added advantage of wicking sweat away from your body.

Sweating is a major concern during cold weather camping. Just a few minutes of exerting yourself can leave you with damp clothing, but there are some things you can do to regulate your own body temperature, like removing your hat before that steep climb (most body heat escapes through your head.)

Fire is always a useful tool around camp, but it is even more important for warmth and keeping spirits up when it is cold. But starting a fire can be difficult as dry tinder is often difficult to find on damp or snow-covered ground. Coat strike-anywhere matches with a coat of paraffin wax and bring a couple of cigarette lighters (leave box matches at home.)

For tinder, bring some fire starters with you. One inexpensive one that works well is rolled up newspaper soaked in paraffin wax. Simply roll up a newspaper page, cut it in pieces about three inches long, tie it together with a string, and soak them in melted paraffin wax.

As snow or fog can quickly limit visibility, it’s important to bring along a topographical map and a compass and know how to use them. Orienteering is more complicated than it might seem and it’s a good idea to get a little practice beforehand. Using a map and compass can be tricky, because topographical maps are oriented towards the North Pole, while compasses point to the magnetic north pole in Canada.

Compasses don’t point north? Nope. Depending on where you are in the Appalachians, a compass will read to varying degrees west of true north. At the point where Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee meet, a compass will read one degree west of north, but in West Virginia, a compass can be anywhere from six to 10 degrees west of north and in Pennsylvania, anywhere from 9 to 15 degrees West. The farther east or north one goes in the Appalachians, the farther off a compass reading will be.

To complicate matters further, the location of the magnetic north pole changes. Between 1775 and 1950, compass readings in Halifax changed more than 12 degrees. According to the Canadian Geological Survey website, the declination at my house in Vienna, WVa., has changed more than three degrees since I was born in 1975. You can check the declination at your location by visiting the Geological Survey’s website at

Always remember to let someone know where you will be going and when you will return and avoid solo trips. Having the woods to yourself in winter means you don’t have to share nature’s beauty with the masses, but you might want to bring a buddy along; if you fall and break a leg, it might be spring before someone passes by to help.


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