Notice: I've taken a part-time job, and it's definitely affecting my blogging time. I'll continue to add content here as often as possible. Pertinent guest posts are always welcome.


Monday, December 15, 2008

December Hiking on the SHT

Lake Superior from the SHT
Lake Superior from the SHT
photo by Kurt Papke
submitted by Kurt Papke, hiking Dec 8-10, 2008

The Trail
Hiked from Beaver Bay parking lot to Penn Cr campsite and back the next day to Beaver South campsite. Hadn't been on this section in some time and never camped there. The trail had 4-5" inches of fresh powder. No tracks in the snow but the deer and mine. Started out with snowshoes, but quickly strapped these to my pack as there wasn't that much snow and this trail section is pretty rocky.

This is a pretty section of trail. Lots of scenic views, and lots of pine trees in the "green tunnel" that were decorated for the season with fresh snow. It was prettier on Tuesday with the sun shining.

The trail is very quiet in the winter: no grouse drumming, no crickets or frogs at night, etc. Just the sound of buzzing ATV's...

This is not a great trail section for snowshoeing - too rocky and lots of steep stair sections. It was fun to clamber around in though, but I was really glad I had my trekking poles.

The Penn Creek campsite is ideal for winter camping, but I would think it would be really buggy in the summer. It is in a low area, making it very protected from wind. Very pretty.

The Beaver South campsite is great for hammocks! It is also pretty in the winter, and the pine trees keep it very sheltered. Nothing like the train blowing their whistle at 1AM... This campsite is right on the river, but it was impossible to fetch water as the open spots were all in the middle of the river and I didn't trust the ice. I stayed here on night #2 because the last weather forecast I heard before hitting the trail was for -10F that night, and I wanted to be close enough to my car to bail out in case of problems. These two campsites on the Beaver River are great for this - 15 minute walk from the parking lot, on the beautiful river and very pretty sites.
thermometer at zero
note the temperature
photo by Kurt Papke

The Weather
Started out at 15F at noon on Monday and went down from there... Fortunately, there was very little wind except Monday night, so the wind chill wasn't too bad. Monday night got down to zero, Tuesday night down to -2 or so. I was plenty warm while hiking, in fact my biggest challenge was overheating. I was plenty warm at night except for a brief period Wednesday at about 5:30AM when my back got a little chilled. I was worried about staying warm in camp, but I had plenty of warm clothes and fared pretty well.

The Gear
The hammock worked well - the hardest part was staking out the tarp with the frozen ground and not enough snow for a snow anchor, but fortunately both campsites had a log or two close by that I could drag over and tie up to. My hammock tarp has only two tie-outs, so pretty simple.

I hate white gas stoves. I bought an MSR Simmerlite on sale this Fall, and I'm still not good at priming/warming this thing up. I also found out that BIC lighters don't work at 0F, but my REI stormproof matches worked like a champ.

Keeping water from freezing at these temps is a challenge. The Platy Insulator I'm testing for BGT froze up in the first 2 hours. I love the Montbell Permafrost jacket I'm testing - kept me unbelievably warm in camp, and also used it for insulation under the hammock at night.

Wore my Raichle waterproof hiking boots during the day - worked just fine even though they're not insulated. Carried bulky Itasca camp boots for the evenings, which have removable Thinsulate liners that kept my toes toasty at night.

My new REI Zenith 0F sleeping bag performed well. It has synthetic insulation so it is bulky, but its really warm and kept its warmth despite getting a little damp/icy from condensed perspiration.

I was glad I had a big pack - I'm testing a 90L High Sierra. It was packed full and I had stuff strapped all over the back. It wasn't that heavy, just under 50 lbs with 3 days of food and 3L of water, but winter stuff is bulky.

The Food
Not much new here except I did try Pop-tarts for the first time for breakfast. My wife works for General Mills and got some free Fiber One Strawberry tarts. They are quick and easy in the morning, and interestingly do not freeze at any temperature (unlike my protein bars...)

Lessons Learned
Winter backpacking is very different from the other seasons. I find I have to cut my mileage in half: daylight hours are short, the going is slow and strenuous in the snow, and it took me forever to break camp in the morning with melting snow for water and everything. I was very tired after two days - maybe from my body having to generate so much heat.

My biggest concern before the trip was keeping warm. This was a complete non-issue. What I need to learn to do better is regulate my temperature while hiking, taking off and putting on layers more dynamically. This was particularly an issue on this trail section as there are a lot of ups and downs which caused me to break a sweat. When I got into camp on Monday night my hair was frozen solid ice...

All that said, I think Winter is my new favorite backpacking season on the SHT. No bugs, no other hikers vying for the good campsites, and the air is so clear when the sun is out.

Lemme know if anyone is interested on going along on a future trip. I plan to do at least 1/month all Winter, though not all on the SHT. I want to hit the Porkies, and also want to try some of the Driftless areas in SE Minnesota along the Mississippi.

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