I hate being cold; let there be no doubt about it. There are some times when I climb into bed, before the cotton sheets, layers of wool and fleece blankets and thick down comforter have had a chance to catch and retain my body heat, before it has turned into the soft cocoon of comfort that envelopes me and will make me struggle to leave it in the morning, that I wonder what the hell I am doing in such an inhospitable part of the country as the northeast at this time of the year.
When I was a boy, winter, and surviving the cold, seemed almost like a rite of passage I had to endure. Just the other day I was talking to someone about ski equipment we used when we were kids. Not only was all of it extremely painful to wear and use, but when one came in from the slopes at lunch time, one of the first things they had to do was to check their toes for the tell tale signs of frostbite. I have always extracted the very most I could get from a day of skiing and, to this day, it pains me to sit inside a lodge when I can be getting in another run or two, but I must confess that there were a few times in my youth when fear of losing a toe may have kept me inside just a little longer at lunch when I could have been skiing. It was such a predicament; lose a toe or lose a ski run. Today that seems like an obvious choice, but for a middle and then high school kid at the time, it filled me with anxiety and angst.
When I graduated from cub scouts to boy scouts, one of the determining decisions as to what troop I was going to join, was the amount of time they went hiking and camping during the year. I chose the boy scout troop that stated that they went out once a month for an overnight, regardless of the weather. During the warmer months, we would go to various state parks or forests, but in the winter we would go to a boy scout camp in northern New Jersey.
I have written here before about the climb up the “heart attack hill” to our troop’s cabin, but I have not written much about the camping we did atop. These were, without doubt, very formative trips and I cherish many of the experiences I had both in warm weather and cold. Once we got to the area where our cabin was, the scouts would spread out across the hilltop and set up their tents and campsites, the adults would go into the cabin and unpack – setting up on cots in an insulated cabin with two wood stoves- and the older boy leaders would go into a twelve by twelve shed named “the cook shack” which contained a half dozen tiered canvas cots and a large eight-burner wood stove.
On really cold nights, if kids got too cold, they would make their way to the cabin with the adults. To do such was to fail the test of fortitude and would subject the poor scout to such torment and ridicule that I fear it may have ruined the scouting experience for most of those that succumbed. So, in cheap Coleman flannel sleeping bags, (yea, I said flannel), we toughed it out no matter how cold it became at night. We would put on lots of clothing and shiver all night, but we would not give in to Old Man Winter.
As an older scout in the cook shack, winter was not much better. We would stoke that eight-burner with so much wood that the entire top of the stove would glow bright red in the dark. We would strip down to tee shirts and shorts and sweat in the blast furnace like interior of the cook shack. But then we would eventually fall asleep, and the stove would get cold, and the uninsulated corrugated steel walls of the cook shack would do nothing to fight back the cold northern New Jersey nights and at four in the morning, damp, cold and shivering, it again became a test of whether you were boy enough to make it through the freezing night.
I think you emerge from experiences like my winter scouting trips, and zero degree ski trips with thin plastic boots, either hating winter or loving it. As I wrote when I started this blog, I hate the cold, but I will confess openly and without hesitation, that there are few things I find more exhilarating than the woods in the winter. Too many people are afraid to hike in the snow and it is true that there are days when it is foolish to try to do such. Likewise, there are unbroken trails that, with deep snow, should not be attempted for great distances even on the finest of days. However, the vast majority of days, and the vast majority of trails, are perfect for winter hiking. All the rocks and roots and other obstacles are smoothed out in a blanket of packed down white powder and many trails can actually become easier to hike if one has the right equipment and attitude.
And, oh my, once you are out there, you will be amazed at the world that presents itself to you. Everything is draped in white and all the hard edges become soft and fluffy. Even on days with milk-bottle visibility, the adventure will astound you with the beauty that surrounds; there is no need for vistas where you can see for miles when you have immersed yourself in such a magical landscape.
It is fine to hate the cold, but don’t let that dislike for cold keep you indoors this winter. Learn how to hike in the snow. Take a course, go with a friend, hike with a guide (wink wink)… just get out and do it; you will not regret a single day you spend in a world where the snow is deeper than you are tall and snowshoes are your best friend.