First Person:
Jeff Rand

Cold Weather Research Project

This experience comes from Jeff Rand and describes a winter camping trip he took in February of 2003

February 15, 2:00 PM (-3 degrees Fahrenheit)
Recently the weather station at Saranac Lake, New York has been in the news as recording the lowest daily temperature in the United States. With lows being predicted at less than -30 for this long weekend, I knew that I had to journey north to this region. I began the backpacking trip from the Adirondack Loj, just South of Lake Placid in the High Peaks Wilderness. I left the parking area with more than 50 lbs. of gear for a two-day hike.
I hiked about 5 miles, during which I took off my hat and glove to cool down. The National Weather Service reported a high of -1 at some point in the afternoon. The day was perfectly clear, with absolutely no wind.

3:30 PM (-2 degrees)
I reached Marcy Dam, which is a very popular place for cross country skiers and backpackers. I observed three other groups camping in the lean-tos. Most others were just out for the day.
I continued my hike towards Avalanche Lake and eventually went beyond the last vestiges of humanity by 2 miles.

5:00 PM (-4 degrees)
I built a campsite in the brush (at least 150 feet from the trail) as the sun dipped behind Mount Coldren. In the summer this would have been a wretched area to camp for sure, but with 5 feet of snow on the ground one does not need a very level area.
I cut a nice platform with the snow shovel that I carried for this purpose. Then I used my snowshoes to seal the surface. I was quite pleased with my four-season Eureka tent. To hold it down I used long sticks rather than the 6-inch stakes that came with it. I would guess that I was at least three feet above the ground on a snow platform.

6:00 PM (-8 degrees)
Temperatures declining rapidly, I began the ordeal of trying to light my stove. Unfortunately I had to take it apart twice with my ungloved hand and try to grab the tiny parts. Numb fingers made the job extremely difficult. At that point the prospect for success was not at all guaranteed.
"How important is a stove?" I thought. One could just build a fire. Right. Try building a fire in five feet of snow. It would take all night to cook a meal. The truth was that I did not need the stove to keep warm or cook food. I had proper clothing and shelter that would keep me warm. As for food, I brought sufficient cold food to survive; hot food was just a luxury. The main reason for the stove was to melt snow for water. Though I guess one could eat snow, it is not a recommended survival practice. Without fire the best alternative is to fill a water bottle with snow and put in your sleeping bag or under your coat and use body heat to melt it.
Finally I got my stove to pressurize the gas by using toilet paper as a wick in liquid gasoline poured on top of it. After thirty-minutes of sputtering flame, I had hot water for supper and drinking water.

7:30 PM (-18 degrees)
The skies are absolutely clear, with not a lick of wind. It is utterly silent outside. The bottom should fall out of the thermometer. I'm ready for my 12-hour nap. I'm certainly not going to sit around watching it get colder and I can't venture far from my tent without snowshoes.
I have two pads under my sleeping bag, a Thermarest and one of thin Ensolite foam. The sleeping bag itself is rated -30. I use my down parka as a head covering. I decide to wear my pile pants and jacket to bed, just in case it gets below -30.

February 16, 1:00 AM (-33 degrees, a new personal record)
I remain remarkably warm in my sleeping bag, but I can't say it is the most comfortable experience. Inside the bag, I am keeping a water bottle from freezing, as well as drying moisture from my socks and pile pants. Though my head is warm, if not hot, the condensation around it is extreme. Since I used my parka as a breathing tunnel, my sleeping bag is not particularly damp, but the air around my head is still quite stale.
When I remove my head covering, I realize I am now in a crystal palace. The minus thirty degree air outside holds virtually no moisture causing my moist exhalations to form intricate ice crystals on the tent fabric. The zipper pulls have grown by half an inch.
Since my pee bottle had been damaged at Winter Camp two months earlier, I must venture outside to express my bladder. In addition, I am actually motivated to experience the cold. Thankfully, I am already dressed and need only put on my booties. I suppose that there is a temperature scale related to how far urine falls before it freezes. I know my deposit only made it to the superficial snow layer.

February 16, 7:30 AM (-22 degrees)
I survived the night. Unfortunately a heat wave passed through the area (light cloud cover arrived) and caused the temperatures to stop falling. The weather service reported a low of -35, just 2 degrees shy of the record for the station, which incidentally was tied just one day earlier. If the temperatures had continued falling, I think it would have fallen below -40 by dawn.
Breakfast is another struggle with the stove.

February 16, 9:00 AM (-15 degrees)
I prepare my pack for a summit attempt of Mount Coldren. Though the summit is only about three miles from my camp, it will be a tough hike.

February 16, 12:00 Noon (-5 degrees)
I reach the summit of Mt. Coldren, with stunning views of the area. During the last part of the climb, I broke through the snow next to a hidden spruce tree. I was buried in snow to my neck. It is a winter paradise.
Looking east from Coldren, I see the summit of Mt. Marcy, New York's highest. To the west is Algonquin Peak, which is the state's second highest. The northern scene affords a view of Lake Placid and one can see the vestige of humanity in the Olympic Ski Jump.

February 16, 5:00 PM (-1 degree)
I am back at Adirondack Loj, having gone through the chore of breaking camp and hiking out. At some point in the afternoon the temperature actually climbed above zero. I leave the Loj for dinner in Lake Placid at one of the nation's few remaining Howard Johnsons. Now that I am in the car, I'm actually cold.


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