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Old 01-24-2011, 01:07 AM   #1
DSettahr's Avatar
Join Date: May 2007
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Some thoughts on hiking the NPT in the winter

So, with all of the winter hiking I've been getting done this season in between semesters, I've found myself thinking back upon my experiences on the Northville-Placid Trail and having completed the entire trail in the winter via a series of section hikes. Occasionally, I receive requests for information or ideas from people interested in attempting this themselves, and so I thought it might be beneficial to compile some of my thoughts about how we did it, and what I would do differently if I were to do it again.

This is not meant to be a "how to" of winter camping, but rather a "how to" of hiking the NPT in the winter for those who already have winter camping experience.

Our itinerary, and how it came about

We completed the trail over 4 separate trips over 2 consecutive winters, with a total of 22 days spent hiking, and 18 nights in the woods.

Here was the itinerary for our four trips:

Leg #1: Upper Benson to Piseco, January 2006

Day #1: Upper Benson to Silver Lake Lean-to

Day #2: Silver Lake Lean-to to Mud Lake Lean-to

Day #3: Mud Lake Lean-to to Hamilton Lake Stream Lean-to

Day #4: Hamilton Lake Stream Lean-to to Piseco

Leg #2: Lake Placid to Long Lake, January 2006

Day #1: Lake Placid to Wanika Falls

Day #2: Wanika Falls to Moose Pond Lean-to

Day #3: Moose Pond to Cold River Lean-tos 1 and 2

Day #4: Cold River Lean-tos 1 and 2 to the Seward Lean-to

Day #5: Seward Lean-to to Cold River Lean-tos 3 and 4

Day #6: Cold River Lean-tos 3 and 4 to Plumley's Landing Lean-tos

Day #7: Plumley's Landing Lean-tos to Long Lake

Leg #3: Piseco to Lake Durant, January 2007

Day #1: Piseco to Fall Stream

Day #2: Fall Stream to Spruce Lake Lean-to #1

Day #3: Spruce Lake Lean-to #1 to Spruce Lake Lean-to #3

Day #4: Spruce Lake Lean-to #3 to West Lake Lean-to #1

Day #5: Rest day at West Lake Lean-to #1

Day #6: West Lake Lean-to #1 to Cedar Lakes Lean-to #2

Day #7: Cedar Lakes Lean-to #2 to Carry Lean-to

Day #8: Carry Lean-to to Wakely Dam

Day #9: Wakely Dam to Stephen's Pond Lean-to

Day #10: Stephen's Pond Lean-to to Lake Durant

Leg #4: Long Lake to Lake Durant, February 2007

This was a day hike.

Our original itinerary was to do the entire trail in one go. We planned on averaging 10 miles per day, and taking 2 weeks to complete the trail. By day #3 of the first leg of the trip, however, it was pretty obvious that we were overly ambitious. With the weights we were carrying in food and winter gear, and the fact that the trail was not at all broken out once one traveled a few miles beyond the trailhead, we soon realized that we would not be able to stick to our itinerary.

The decision was made during that first leg to split the trail up into segments, since it was quite clear that it was going to take more than 2 weeks to complete and we didn't have that time to be able to do it in one go. We split the trail up into 4 sections to be completed individually: The Silver Lakes Wilderness, the West Canada Lakes and Blue Ridge Wildernesses, the Blue Mountain Wild Forest, and the High Peaks Wilderness. These areas were chosen because they are separated by the 3 major roads that the NPT crosses.

The NPT also crosses a minor road, the Cedar River Road, in between the West Canada Lakes and the Blue Ridge Wilderness Areas, and at the time, the trail followed this road for several miles. It would have been possible to split the trail into 5 sections if we had chosen to do so. Now, however, the trail has been re-routed off of Cedar River Road, and the portion where it crosses the road at Wakely Dam is not plowed in the winter, making a section hike that begins or ends here more difficult. Ultimately, we chose to lump the West Canada Lakes and the Blue Ridge areas together into one section because the part of the trail that traverses the Blue Ridge area was pretty short.

We originally had a pretty detailed plan that showed exactly where we were planning on spending each night, and had all of the mileage carefully laid out, but this became useless pretty quickly. It was obvious that with the constantly changing conditions that we encountered in the woods in the winter, we could in no way appropriately plan a trip that detailed in advance. After the first leg of the trip, we generated a rough plan for the following legs, but each day was more or less determined by how we felt and what obstacles we encountered along the way.

Difficulties we encountered along the way

The astute reader that examines our itinerary will notice that we had some very short days. Due to unforeseen circumstances, on some days, it took much longer than expected to travel even a distance as short as a few miles. I'll elaborate here on some of the obstacles we encountered.

The first day of Leg #1, from Upper Benson to Silver Lake, was one of the longer days we managed on the trail. I remember that we got a later start after driving up from Albany, and that this was quite simply a long day, and that it was dark before we made it to the lean-to.

The second day of Leg #2, from Wanika Falls to the Moose Pond Lean-to, also went pretty slowly. The trail between these two destinations at the time went through a fair amount of blowdown as well as some areas flooded by beavers, and we had both a difficult time negotiating the blowdown with our full packs, and just following the trail in general.

A pretty nasty storm hit the night of day 6 during the second leg, while we were camped at Plumley's Landing. We had gotten to the lean-to early in the afternoon, and by nightfall the storm was raging. The temperature had dropped to well below freezing, and the wind was coming right off the lake and into the lean-to. The next day was one of the few days that I have ever been able to get away with hiking with fleece pants on beneath my snowpants and feel comfortable.

During the second day of Leg #3, from Fall Stream to the First Spruce Lake Lean-to, all of the snow melted. As a result, the outlet of Balsam Lake was a raging torrent of impassable water. We were lucky enough to find a canoe that we were able to use to cross the outlet. I've been back there numerous times since, and have never seen the water as high as it was then. Is it took us the entire day to figure out how to get across the stream, we only made it to the Third Spruce Lake Lean-to that night.

On the morning of the fifth day of Leg #3, a storm hit with plenty of rain, and so we decided to take a zero day and remain at the lean-to to avoid becoming wet.

The entire last leg of the trip was completed as a 15 mile day hike between Long Lake and Lake Durant. While we were certainly aided in that we didn't have full packs on our backs, it was still a pretty hefty distance to traverse in one day on unbroken trails, and was an obstacle in it's own right.

Things we did that worked well

While some people joined us for parts of the trip, there were 4 of us who completed the entire trail. As such, we got into a routine- each person had assigned tasks at night and in the morning, involving the preparation of food, the collection of snow for drinking water, and the melting of snow for drinking water. Roles were rotated each day, and as there were three roles, each night, one of us got "off," free of any responsibilities. This system seemed to work out quite well, and ensured that everyone had to food to feed themselves with and water to stay hydrated.

Breakfast consisted of instant oatmeal, and was easy and quick to prepare, and as a hot meal provided warmth. Lunches were English muffins, cheese, and pepperoni. The cheese and pepperoni we carried in large 5 lb blocks and large sticks respectively, and having them in bulk made food management easier.

We also carried more food and supplies than we thought we needed. Partially this was done in case of emergency, and it enabled us to move more slowly when we did encounter obstacles, and to take one rest day, without having to worry about running out of supplies. Extra food of course, but also extra gear. For example, we carried a backup stove that we ended up needing during the first leg.

The rule we used for determining fuel to carry was 1.5 ounces of white gas per person per day for cooking breakfast and dinner, and 1.5 ounces of white gas per person per day for melting snow for drinking water. This worked out quite well for us.

For shelter when no lean-to was available, we carried several tarps on the 3rd leg of our trip. With a ridgeline, we were able to rig these tarps up into an A-frame shelter that all 4 of us were able to sleeping comfortably beneath. This system was much lighter and easier to carry than the tents we carried on the 2nd leg of the trip and used at Wanika Falls.

What I would do differently

I learned quite a lot about winter backpacking as a result of this trip, and have learned quite a bit more since. Hindsight being 20/20, there are quite a few things I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now.

First off, I would not plan an itinerary that averages more than about 5 miles a day. With all of the gear we were forced to carry, and food and supplies for 12 days at times, we found that this was about the most that we could reasonably expect to average in a day on the trail. All of the weight on our backs (my pack weighed 75 pounds prior to the start of one of the legs!) combined with the deep snow that had never been broken out since the first snowfall made for some very slow going at times. We did have some days that we were able to make it much further, but these came about through a combination of early starts, lighter weight on out backs (either because it was near the end of a leg, or the leg was a short one), and trails that were partially broken out.

I would not attempt this in Denali Evo Ascents. These snowshoes are great for climbing mountains, but poor for backcountry trail breaking in deep snow. I would find the biggest pair of snowshoes with the most surface area that I could comfortably wear, and encourage others embarking on this trip with me to do the same. I'd probably go for an older wooden style snowshoe with woven sinew. There are no steep inclines on the NPT, and therefor also no need for a snowshoe with any type of built in crampon.

I would also consider pulling a sled. Pulling a sled in winter is much preferable to carrying all of your weight on one's back, and probably would have made many of our days much easier. I only say consider, though, for one reason: The winter thaw we experienced at Spruce Lake. Within the span of 24 hours, all of the snow on the ground had melted completely, and had we been pulling sleds, we would have found ourselves dragging them across bare ground. At the very least, I would make sure that everything in the sled was in a pack that I could put on my back if I had to. 12 days in the woods is long enough that you can't be reasonably 100% sure that you won't encounter an unexpected thaw.

I would consider carrying a spot messenger or similar emergency beacon/device. We carried a satellite phone on some of the legs of our trip, which we used to check in with those in the outside world once a day. Reception for the phone was spotty at best, however, and on more than one occasion, I found myself forced to walk out onto the middle of a frozen pond or lake in order to be able to make the call. Smaller and easier to use devices such as the spot messenger weren't as widely or as cheaply available then, or else I'm sure we would have considering carrying one instead.

Additionally, after the first two legs of our trip in 2006, we came out of the woods to find friendly messages under the windshield wipers of our cars from the DEC, asking us to please let them know in advance the next time we undertook a trip of that scope during the winter. There primary concern was, of course, safety- it wasn't that they didn't want us taking a trip such as this, but they wanted to be sure that the cars we'd left in the parking areas along the NPT for our food drops didn't belong to someone who was lost or stranded in the woods. The next winter, we did contact the DEC in advance, but apparently the message wasn't delivered to the right people as we got the same notes again. I would definitely get in touch with the forest rangers whose patrol areas we were crossing through, and not consider the message delivered until I'd personally spoken with each one.

Some people have asked about skiing the trail. While certainly many sections of the trail are flat and would easily be skiable, I'm not sure if the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks. The trail wasn't designed as a ski trail, and there are numerous sections where skis would need to be removed. Additionally, since those traveling the trail in wither would almost assuredly be breaking trail through several feet of snow, I would question whether you could move any faster on skis.

I would also modify our menus for dinner. Our dinners consisted of little more than spaghetti and cheese, and in retrospect, this was definitely not the kind of meal we needed to be eating at night before going to bed on this kind of trip. I would make dinner meals more well rounded, still incorporating pasta for some meals but also with veggies, sauces, and butter, and with a variety of meals to change things up each night (rice and beans comes to mind).

Another thing I would do is thoroughly test out all of our equipment in advance. We had some borrowed gear, and in particular a borrowed stove exploded on us during our very first night of the first leg. Fortunately, we'd had the foresight to carry three stoves when we only needed two.


Hopefully, some people will find this beneficial if they ever think about planning a trip like this for themselves. Of course, I would caution that this isn't an undertaking to take lightly- we put a lot of thought, planning, and preparation into our trip, and while some of it ended up being for naught, we certainly would never have been successful without it. This is not a trip for those who are beginners in winter backpacking.
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Old 01-24-2011, 12:23 PM   #2
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Fantastic post.
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Old 01-24-2011, 12:57 PM   #3
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Your knowledge, experience and your willingness to share it is priceless. You are quite the resource. Glad we've got you
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Old 01-24-2011, 01:36 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by bethfit View Post
Your knowledge, experience and your willingness to share it is priceless. You are quite the resource. Glad we've got you
I agree, this was awesome! I like the hints about the mechanics of doing the trail, very insightful.
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(Polish phrase said after every hike meaning "nice driveway" regarding the path just taken)
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Old 01-24-2011, 01:57 PM   #5
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I like the sled idea. In case of a thaw maybe the sled could be rigged to be carried like a stretcher.
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Old 01-25-2011, 06:29 PM   #6
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How did you get the canoe back to the other side?
High peaks: Summer: 46/46 (1st iteration); 29/46 (2nd); 11/46 (3rd); 7/46 (4th) Winter: 7/46 (1st); 1/46 (2nd)

The other 56: Summer: 55/56 (1st); 12/56 (2nd); 4/56 (3rd); 3/56 (4th) Winter: 13/56 (1st); 3/56 (2nd); 1/56 (3rd); 4th (0/56)
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Old 01-25-2011, 07:27 PM   #7
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It's like having a hiking encyclopedia! Thanks D!
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Old 01-26-2011, 12:53 PM   #8
ALGonquin Bob
Lake Lila - Low's Lake carry
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Great info, thanks. There is now a dedicated website for the NPT, with the opportunity to post info like yours for the benefit off all hikers who are planning a trip there.
"Like" my FB page and visit my map ALGonquin Bob's "BUFFALO PADDLES" Paddle Guide

Check out my "Mountain Blog"

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Old 01-27-2011, 10:08 PM   #9
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Great info.... Thanks!!!
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Old 02-02-2011, 08:31 PM   #10
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Check out for Winter Hiking Info

Check out for additional NPT Winter Hiking Info and trip reports.

Originally Posted by ALGonquin Bob View Post
Great info, thanks. There is now a dedicated website for the NPT, with the opportunity to post info like yours for the benefit off all hikers who are planning a trip there.
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Old 02-02-2011, 08:45 PM   #11
ALGonquin Bob
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Thanks, Tom. Yours is the site I intended to link to, but the other came up first in the search. Yours is definitely better!
"Like" my FB page and visit my map ALGonquin Bob's "BUFFALO PADDLES" Paddle Guide

Check out my "Mountain Blog"

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