Commentary: Winter Camping, An Unexpected Love

  • Students on an SCA winter camping trip warm up by the fire. Photo: Charlene Ward

January 9, 2015
Originally published March 1, 2013

Before I joined the Student Conservation Association(SCA), I hated winter and hated being wet from the snow.

When I found out that our Conservation Leadership Corps, a community division of the SCA, had its first trip in January 2011, I prepared for a long, painful experience. It was my first SCA trip ever, so I couldn’t refuse to go. Instead, I went to Kmart and bought the heaviest, most insulated boots I could. I packed a duffel bag full of clothes, just in case I got wet. And I was still petrified. Apparently this reaction is pretty common. On a more recent trip, student Wesley Smith said,"I keep hearing from people that it’s not as bad as people would think, but in my mind, I’m still telling myself it’s still a big thing."

At least seven inches of snow fell on our first winter retreat. Luckily, we were staying in a cabin that time. It was cozy and we could hear the wind whipping against a chime.

But since SCA is a conservation organization, we couldn’t stay inside. Our crew leaders dragged us outside almost the entire day. At first, I was miserable. Then, I just looked around. I never realized how amazing the woods looked when completely covered in snow, or how remarkably peaceful it was to just sit by a frozen lake. The beauty made being cold more bearable.

The crew spent much of the day hiking, snowball fighting, playing games, and setting up the campfire. I was having such a good time that I forgot how cold I was.

I have to say that the best part about that trip—and most of my winter trips—was the night hike. I recorded a group that went out in January. As the trudging through the snow began, what most people were thinking about was returning to camp.

The hike surprised me. I never thought I would find the dead silence of winter to be so relaxing. I felt alone with my thoughts. Another crew leader, Dan Malakof described it by saying, "What I really like about hiking in the winter is just the stillness of it. There’s nothing that moves, there’s hardly any animals, when the wind blows the leaves don’t move. After a while you really start to feel very still yourself."

In the past few years, I’ve been winter camping several times, mostly with the Student Conservation Association. I’ve slept on the cold ground many times, and I have worked cutting trees, building trails, and doing other conservation projects in the cold for hours. I loved every minute of it.

One of my favorite trips happened the same year I started. It was mid-March, though it felt more like January. The temperature remained around the teens all day, and the snow was eight inches deep. That night we crawled into Adirondack shelters—just imagine a small shack missing one of its walls. Ice and frozen mud surrounded the entrances. I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t freezing that night. My body was fairly warm, though my feet were completely numb. I didn’t get the best sleep, but I felt pretty hard-core. I accomplished something most urban kids never will.

Levon Ritter got a little silly when he explained the feeling: "Yo, rapping in the winter is hella tight, when it be all dark at night. It be cold, and it be creepy, but it’s still fun, like sleeping in a tepee. Word," he rapped.

What was most gratifying to me about winter camping was that I spent more than 24 hours outside in the deep cold. This is an experience that I can laugh about and share when I am older—heck, I’m even doing it now! I am thankful that I joined the Student Conservation Association every time I step outside on a cold and snowy winter day. And when I smell a fireplace or firepit in my urban neighborhood, it takes me back to the campfire.