Snow Camping 101
With a 4-day weekend coming up, Allen and I made plans to see just what camping in the snow was like – along with how the trails would feel underneath and what things might look like in a blanket of white. I haven’t yet spent enough time out there alone to be completely comfortable by myself, so when I know someone is coming along to meet me, I like to slip out a day early to keep grinding down the edge of whatever concerns me about being out there solo.
I had a couple things to take care of at work, so I had to go in that morning. Between work and last-minute packing, I finally hit the road about 1:30 pm. I was completely packed the night before, but that morning I needed something out of the rear tote I store tools and recovery gear in. Rather than carefully unload things, I just snatched the entire tarp full of firewood and gear out of the back to access the large tote underneath. This sort of thing is where a drawer system would really come in handy. Maybe a future mod…
I started seeing snow in the shady spots somewhere between Williamsburg and Richmond. 3 hours after leaving the house, I had pulled into a favorite fuel stop and topped off. I grabbed a couple extra bundles of firewood and called to let Shannon know I was about to leave cell coverage.
From there, I continued on to the campsite. The sun was setting, but I knew where I was going, I am very familiar with my setup, I carry a variety of lighting options, and the snow itself brightens things up to a comfortable level even with little light. The roads were completely clear right up to the END STATE MAINTENANCE sign. I grabbed 4 high and adjusted my speed for the conditions. Things were a little slick, but not unmanageable. Still, full attention had to be kept on the road as the limited traction left no room for error. I paused for frequent breaks in the upcoming days just because it was so difficult to stay so focused solely on the road when all the surroundings were so beautiful. Out there, everyone is used to this, but I’ve only seen snow like this maybe a dozen times in my life. It’s still pretty damn magical to me.
Despite the fading daylight, I took my time on the ride in, even stopping to visit one of the other camp sites we’ve frequently used. The water access is easier there, but the overwhelming amount of rain we got last year made it perpetually wet and now less desirable than some other sites. Still, that was where we stayed for each visit from 2015-2016, and on many visits since. It’s definitely a special spot that is full of memories and firsts, and driving in on this day was like seeing an old friend.
I easily located camp and somehow pulled in to a perfectly level spot with no obstructions to my setup. There were a couple rocks I had to stand on to enter and exit the vehicle, but they were of little consequence. The simplicity of not having to maneuver to an optimal location while stacking rocks greatly reduced setup time. The tent was open and ready for use in no time. I proceeded to hook up my lights, but that was a no go. I troubleshot things a bit and found broken wires in both my 12v extension cord and on the LED strip itself.
After a bit of fidgeting and twisting together tiny wires in the light of my headlamp, I decided to make a proper lighting repair on Thursday in the daylight. I went with a backup lighting source and adjusted my plans for the evening. Knowing I’d be heading into town the next day for lunch, I didn’t even bother to do my usual camp setup or build a fire. I walked around just a bit to inspect camp, see what the level of the river was like, and, to great surprise, find that previous visitors had left a substantial amount of firewood. After circling camp a few times like a dog getting ready to lay down, I settled into the tent with the heater and my Kindle. I read from Andrew St. Pierre White until my eyes were heavy. I shut off the heater and slept okay, if fitfully.
I slept until a little after sunrise. Given that the snow on my boots had never melted, even though they were kept inside the tent, I knew I’d be waking up to a cold morning. Once the sky was light, I cut on the heater and dozed for another hour or so before volunteering to brave the cold. Just about the time my bladder demanded I exit my warm cocoon, the 1 lb cylinder on the heater called it quits, so clearly the time had come. I pulled on my boots and climbed carefully down the icy ladder, surveying my surroundings in the overcast morning. I glanced at the digital thermometer, showing an overnight low of 22.1° and a current temperature of 22.3°. It was my coldest night so far, but I hadn’t been uncomfortable.
I started the FJ to let it warm up. Meanwhile, I watered the nearest tree and scouted the campsite for animal tracks in hopes that I might have had a curious visitor come through overnight. Coming up empty in both pursuits, I climbed into the driver seat and closed the door, enjoying the warming vehicle and the voice of another human on satellite radio. There I started a mental list of the day’s goals: get lunch, find a soldering iron, fix my lights, and setup proper camp to enjoy a fire with Allen when he showed up that evening.
I turned off the radio and mentally assessed my trepidation from the night before. Alone, all responsibility in camp is yours. In the snow, every step had to be carefully felt before being taken and, because of conditions, no matter what might happen, you were reliant on your clothes, sleeping bag, or vehicle to regulate your body temperature. Having a companion in camp provides substantial peace of mind. It’s extra ears, extra eyes, someone to go get help, or someone on your side in a confrontation with the unexpected. Despite having never had any serious injury or untoward interaction with anyone when out there, these are my concerns – though I admit they are not well-founded. As much as I enjoy my solitude, some experiences are safer had with others. Still, I plan to continue my solo days in the woods. The fact that it gives me pause also pushes me to pursue it simply to conquer the discomfort.
Well-warmed and tired of listening to my own thoughts, I shut off the engine and began packing up the tent. With it folded shut and the material tucked in, I began cinching things down when I had a strap break. Don’t mistake this for drama – it’s a mere inconvenience, not a show-stopper. I actually enjoyed the chance to think of a variety of field repairs to rectify this failure. The one I opted for this time was to trim a few inches of material from one of my red ratchet straps, then heat up a sharp instrument to melt through the fibers to cauterize and reinforce the screw holes.
With the repair completed and tools packed away, I decided to take a break and make some coffee. Yeah, the cover still wasn’t on the tent, but I had all day to accomplish my short list of chores. I was in no hurry. I was on vacation, after all!
I made 3 cups worth, enjoying the first at the rear of the FJ and dumping the other two into an insulated tumbler. Filling my cup again, I wandered down to the river, where I usually have my morning coffee when out there. Snow was on top of everything, ice collected on whatever was near the water line – things looked differently than I’d ever seen them. The magic of this trip was really starting to sink in.
I emptied my cup a second time and returned to the FJ to finish packing up. Heading toward lunch and my other goals, I stopped to look at a couple of the other camp sites in the area. The snow had tamped down much of the vegetation, removing most of the privacy from the other two sites. The site I had chosen was not only farther from the road than the others, the others didn’t have the 8 or so bundles of firewood already on site! Having affirmed my site selection, I headed for grub.
White’s Wayside is a little farm-to-table spot in the middle of nowhere. They make most of their own power with a large solar array and feature a menu heavily-populated with local products and ingredients. Also, they offer customers access to speedy wi-fi, which is a pleasant bonus in the middle of the woods.
While enjoying my lunch, I couldn’t help but listen to the couple of conversations going on around me. A couple of septuagenarian men talked about church, and having their first beers at this restaurant. Just after that, a table of elderly ladies was seated given the same routine I received. “The only thing that’s not ready yet is the chicken salad…” The women seemed convinced that the waitress was mistaken and asked her to check with the kitchen to see how long it would be until the chicken salad was available. The waitress returned shortly with good news. “The chicken salad will be ready in about 5 minutes! So are you ladies ready to order?” Then they all proceeded to order soup… As for me, this time I had a Whiteway burger with swiss and a fried egg, which was excellent. No surprise though, everything I’ve had there has been tasty.
Leaving White’s with a light heart, a full belly, and a homemade cinnamon roll to go, I headed to Fisher Auto Parts, hoping to support a local store with a few bucks. The 3 old guys standing around shooting the shit agreed that they had never seen a soldering iron in the store, but they all helped me look anyway. We found enough to solder plumbing, but nothing for fine electrical work. They said I might find one at Lone Fountain Hardware, but couldn’t say for sure.
I opted to roll on into the city, and went to Lowe’s in Staunton. From the main road, you wouldn’t expect it to be where it was. It seemed like the bank on the corner would be all there was on that site, but then the parking lot wrapped around and went up a grade, with Lowe’s perched on top of a large hill. A looming brick building with heavy steel shutters sat at the bottom of the hill. The lumber entrance was to the far left of this Lowe’s, and a length roadway guardrail terminated the drive-through at the edge of a steep drop off. From there was a clear view down to the creepy old structure below.
A quick Google search showed it to be DeJarnette Sanitarium. A little more reading proved that the off-putting vibe was accurate. The facility’s namesake, Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, forced sterilization on the “mentally unfit,” praised the Nazi’s eugenics work, and conducted other bizarre and inhumane experiments on his patients. Recent interest in the location has been to turn it into a museum, however no apparent progress has been made.
Once inside Lowe’s, I was in my element. I found what I needed quickly, and the new iron even came with a short length of solder, saving me a few bucks. Time to head back to the woods.
In town, the air was chilly and the sky overcast, but that was it. On the way back to camp, that all changed. Climbing about 1,000 feet in elevation, suddenly it was snowing like crazy! I setup the tent first, then deployed the rear awning to give my work area some shelter. The blowing snow mostly continued to find its way in, but it also gave me an opportunity to test the awning under a snow load.
The FJ has a built-in power inverter and a 110v receptacle at the back of the vehicle. It is recommended to run the engine while using the inverter, as not doing so can quickly deplete the battery’s charge. Unfortunately, the plug is placed directly over the exhaust pipe. While obnoxious to listen to, outdoors on a breezy day it poses no hazard. Still, a short extension cord may be added for such occasions. I grabbed my folding frying pan to use as a heat-tolerant surface and got to work. A little tinning and some careful soldering put everything back in good working order.
I added a blob of epoxy to my items, set the defrost as warm as it would go, and placed them on the dash to cure. It might have kicked off outdoors in the 20s, but the heat seemed like a good idea, especially since the epoxy was old and in questionable condition. After a few minutes, I reinstalled the LED strip and stretched out the 12v cord, admiring my handiwork and happy to have my usual setup for lighting and charging my devices overnight in the tent.
With all responsibilities met, I poured myself a shot, opened a Lost Coast Tangerine, and built up a good fire to dry out the free firewood.
As the night wore on and an update from Allen advised me of a much later arrival than I’d anticipated, I realized I’d started enjoying the evening too soon. Rather than blow through all the firewood and contents of my refrigerator, I set a reminder on my phone and climbed in the tent for a nap. I never heard the reminder, and didn’t wake up until I heard Allen pulling into camp. I was going to put a marker out for him and have a warm fire ready when he got there, but it was a little late for that once he was already parked. Sorry, bud!
Allen’s a good sport though, and my failure to deliver didn’t put a damper on things. We kicked the fire up and I did what I could to help him setup camp. We sat around the fire maybe an hour and a half before sleep called me back to bed.
Some snow continued softly through the night, but the next morning, we awoke to mostly clear skies.
I struggled for some time to free up a frozen zipper on the rear awning cover. I would work on it until a point of frustration, then goof off for a few minutes. Predictably, Allen was able to pack up very quickly.
Eventually succeeding in merely moving a zipper 4 feet, we finally headed out. There’s a picturesque place about 5 miles from camp that lets you look down into a large valley in West Virginia. This really showed what I’d experienced the day before: the lower-lying areas weren’t getting nearly the snow the higher elevations were.
This is also one of the nearest spots to get any semblance of cell service. We snapped a few more pictures, texted some loved ones, and turned around to get back to our intended route.
We backtracked about 3½ miles west before choosing a northbound trail to explore. It ran basically parallel to an area we’ve explored before, so the terrain was familiar, but this was a far more difficult route, consisting almost entirely of switchbacks.
It took a bit for me to establish the rhythm of making the turns without losing traction. Whether because of the weight of the FJ or the wear on my tires, Allen’s Xterra struggled far less.
Generally this trail was less interesting than our usual haunts, but we did find a couple nice sites – one I hope to visit again soon. It is right along a stream, rather than on the full river, but was located at the base of a large hill. If we’d had something to slide down the hill on, this site would have been an absolute blast! There was an abundance of firewood up on the hill, and quite a stock of split wood left from previous visitors. Had we stayed, we’d have been very happy here.
It was still early though, and we had another site in mind. We continued along the trail, exploring a few offshoots up to locked gates and stopping briefly to talk with a local farmer. We then hit the pavement and stopped into an unassuming-looking gas station. The building was larger than you’d expect to see for a place that only had 4 pumps, but you find weird things in the middle of nowhere. Turns out this place had a lot going on. It was a full general store, with everything from fancy scented candles to Grade 8 nuts and bolts. Check it out at https://www.brandywinegeneralstore.com
Also, I think it was here that Allen was unable to locate his wallet. I was rather concerned. We were a couple hundred miles from home, fuel was a concern, and anything could happen. He didn’t seem to care, which surprised and amused me, but that’s Allen! We rolled on for our intended camp, deciding we’d return to the previous night’s site in the morning to scout around for the unaccounted coin purse.
We pulled in and proceeded to setup camp in our very different ways. After getting the tent squared away, I started some water warming and popped out the shower tent. With a table nearby and some creativity, you can access your toiletries and clothes through the tent window while not mooning your friend. With the right equipment, taking an outdoor shower when it’s below freezing isn’t bad at all.
We built a fire and threw together a quick dinner. We had a great night here, although the smoked chased us around the fire pit the entire time. This site is right off a popular trail, but the only traffic we saw that night was a Subaru coming through to do some target shooting way back in the woods. Sadness and laughs were shared, drinks and company were enjoyed, and the night ended on a great note: moments after we’d each retired to our tents, I hear Allen shout, “HEY! My wallet was in the bottom of sleeping bag!”
We actually awoke to some sunshine the next morning. We had done most of our packing the night before, anticipating heading out early to search for the wallet, so breaking camp and getting ready to head home was effortless.
We stopped by a nearby lake to look around and snap a few photos, happy to be packed and ready to get on the road, as the weather we were leaving to avoid was clearly coming in.
On the way home, we stopped by a favorite restaurant to grab some lunch. From there, we hit the road with full bellies and soothed souls. The trip home was uneventful. Since then, we’ve been working on some mods and maintenance on our rigs while Neil is putting the finishing touches on a custom camper trailer. We’ll be back out again in early April!