Sub-zero hero: Venture into New York's freezing wilderness to sample a night in the snow

It was the perfect place to set up a tent. Flat, sheltered, great view of the mountains. Nobody around. And shin deep in snow. I'd been harbouring romantic notions of winter camping for years. But not shacking down in a muddy field in damp, driving rain; no, I was after snow, and wilderness, and high peaks. Scotland would be fine, if I could time it right and cajole someone into coming along with me. But a trip to New York came by first. I had some free days, it was snowing upstate in the Adirondacks and an American friend was both willing and had a tent: the mission was finally on.

It was only on the plane, city clothes in one bag, camping gear in the other, that I began to have doubts. It would be cold. There would be no sitting languidly around, relaxing. The weather could be brutal. My sleeping bag was only rated at -10C. And then there was the small matter of the bear canister.

"We can put this away for the season when you guys get back," said the guy in the Lake Placid outdoors store cheerfully, as he handed over a plastic barrel. Bear canisters are designed to prevent bears getting at campers' food, thereby decreasing the likelihood of bear and human interaction. The Adirondack Forest Preserve has a significant black bear population, so canister use is required by all overnight visitors. One benefit of winter camping is that it coincides with hibernation; unfortunately, at the tail end of November, we were on the cusp of the regulation, so the canister was coming with us.

Constitutionally protected since 1894, the Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area of land in the contiguous United States, an area greater than Yellowstone, the Everglades and the Grand Canyon combined. Almost half is the Forest Preserve, a designated wilderness; the rest is a carefully managed combination of private farms, timber reserves and settlements, of which Lake Placid is most popular.

Immortalised in countless poems, novels and films, this is a region steeped in romantic notions of the wilderness, of summer camps and canoeing trips, fishing and climbing, of spiritual renewal and environmental stewardship. Yet its popularity means that it can be tough to find solitude. The park is only four hours drive north of New York City, and consequently receives up to 10 million visitors a year. In the winter, we were hoping not just to avoid bears, but people.

There were two others in the parking lot, day hikers who quickly disappeared while we trudged under the weight of our packs. It seemed like a lot to carry for a single night. Tent, sleeping bag, camping mat. Plenty of fuel for the stove, and more food, I thought, than we needed. Spare dry clothes, just in case. First aid kit. Map. The bear canister, of course. And the snowshoes and crampons advised for winter travel in the mountains. Except that we didn't have the latter, because we'd forgotten them.

It didn't matter at first. The sun was out, the snow was fresh and the flattish path through the trees had been packed down by other hikers. The woods were ours, and they were glorious. Why had I never got round to this before? A late start and early sundown meant that we'd set ourselves an easy target as a potential camping spot, which was reached sooner than expected. Warm from walking, we sat down to eat a sandwich. Ten minutes later, we were freezing. Clearly, it was time to move on. We chose another spot a lean-to a little way up Wolf Jaw mountain, one of the 46 peaks over 4,000ft in the park. The sun was still out, the woods still magical – but this time the trail wasn't broken and the snow at the higher elevation was deeper. While not strictly necessary, snowshoes would have helped. Instead, progress was slow. And when we arrived at the lean-to only to find it already occupied, there was little light in the day left to make a decision.

Solitude won out. It was almost dark by the time we set up at the perfect campsite, with a (rapidly fading) view of the mountains. And with the darkness came the cold.

It was freezing before; now it was well below that. We abandoned a plan to stroll to the river in favour of eating as quickly as possible and making hot drinks. The clear night sky was wonderful, but it was far too cold to stay outside. Wearing all but our outer layers, we retreated to our sleeping bags by 7pm and remained there until sun-up.

The night was unpleasant. My sleeping bag was not suited to the conditions; it was -8C in Lake Placid that morning, and far colder in the hills. Our breath froze on the canvas. Only little charcoal hand and feet warmers stood between us and frostbite, and we had to share because we hadn't brought enough.

But the day dawned beautifully. We climbed Big Slide (1,292m) and gazed out – quickly, because it was starting to snow – across the Great Range. We forded frozen streams, walked along ridgelines through whispering pines and slid down patches of ice where crampons would have been handy. We made it back to civilisation by dusk, to the best beer and nachos in history. And, most importantly, we learned what to bring next time. Anyone up for the Highlands?

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The Adirondacks are accessible from New York City by Adirondack Trailways bus (trailwaysny.com) and Amtrak train (amtrak.com), but a rental car offers much greater freedom within the area, as local transport is patchy at best.

Camping there

There is no entrance fee to the park or preserve, though some parking lots charge a daily fee. Detailed trail maps are available at the Visitor Interpretive Centers of the Adirondack Park Agency (001 518 327 3000; adkvic.org), from the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council (00 1 518 846 8016; visitadirondacks.com).

Bear canisters must be used from 1 April-30 November; canisters can be rented from outdoor sports stores.

Further information

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