Taking on the Calendar Year Triple Crown means covering mileage in less than ideal conditions. Normal thru-hiking season on the Appalachian Trail lasts from roughly late March to October. I, on the other hand, decided to take on the iconic trail starting early February with a late April completion date. This decision meant I would be hiking in the snow, alone.
The learning curve was short and steep. Here’s an overview of the essential tips, tricks and strategies I quickly figured out — ones that ultimately helped me tick off not only the AT, but also the CDT and PCT in 2016!
Snow Becomes Water
This is a simple lesson from high school chemistry, but its significance can’t be understated when on a winter thru-hike. Most nights the temperature dropped below freezing. Then during the day, when the temperature warmed up, any snow and ice clinging to the tent would melt, soon making my shelter wet. Starting off with a simple tarp, this quickly proved to be an issue and I soon switched to a double-wall shelter.
Double-Wall Tents are Your Friend
My plan was to use a simple tarp in the corner of shelters to create my own small pocket of warmth in the three-sided structures. While this technique worked well on the nights when I camped at shelters, given my ambitious schedule, I wasn’t always able to end the day at them.
With the trouble created by snow and freezing rain when dispersed camping, I decided the best option was to switch to a single-person, double-wall tent. The single-person tent made the bubble of warm air around me much more comfortable quicker than a larger tent. The rain fly that attached to the top of the tent allowed me to separate the icy part from the dry part, and maintain some level of comfort for days on end, as opposed to my shelter becoming wet after only one inclement night.
Microspikes and Trekking Poles Dull in Ice
I stretched most of my gear to its limits. Microspikes on the Appalachian Trail in the winter proved to be no exception. Especially as I got up toward Maine during the height of ice season in the northeast, I noticed the points had grown noticeably dull. The ice was so hard that I had to sometimes stomp my foot down into it to gain any traction at all from the spikes. The same situation played out with my trekking poles as well, and on the Appalachian Trail section of the Calendar Year Triple Crown I had to sharpen the points twice.
Pack Extra Socks
One night in the Smokys, before I went to sleep, I hung my wet socks on the ladder rack of a bunk in a shelter. In the morning they were frozen solid. The socks were unusable. There was no way I could have put them on even if I had tried. Luckily, I usually carry two pairs of socks and rotate them. But, in Maine the weather rarely got above freezing and I often had two pairs of socks tucked between my layers at any given time trying to soften them to a usable state. I added a third pair of socks in the coldest sections, meaning at least three days of comfort and dry socks to put on in the morning.
Electronics Drain Quickly
Within a week I realized it was going to be different hiking in early February. Everything was harder, electronics chief among them. When my battery pack, headlamp or phone were on the outside of my pack and exposed directly to the cold, their functionality paled in comparison to their performance in decent weather. I had to sleep with my electronics in my sleeping bag and bring extra batteries for my headlamp. Now, I’ve combined the battery weight with an external charger, and carry a rechargeable headlamp in cold weather.
Put Your Feet in an Empty Backpack at Night
I struggled in the northeast. It was April but I underestimated how cold the weather was going to be. I reassessed and picked up more clothing at each resupply point, but in between it was a struggle to stay warm. I am a warm sleeper, but even so, if I am too cold, I can’t sleep. On one night where I couldn’t get warm enough to sleep I discovered a trick. I emptied out my backpack and slid the toebox of my sleeping bag into my empty backpack. My toes warmed up quickly with the added layer of warmth and I quickly fell asleep. I continued the technique for the rest of the Appalachian Trail and still employ it in cold weather to this day.
Plastic Bags Keep Hands and Feet Warmer
A simple trick I learned on one of the colder weeks was that plastic bags can be great insulators and warmers in a pinch. My gloves were not warm enough to maintain my finger dexterity, so I searched my backpack for what could aid in their warmth. What I settled on were empty plastic bags that I had used to pre-package my homemade dehydrated meals. I grabbed two bags out of my pack and stuck my glove-clad hands inside them. Warmth slowly returned and eventually my hands were sweating. In the past, I have also used this technique on my feet, putting a plastic bag between my sock and shoe, with similar results.