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

nylovesu.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)