In February 2021, I lead a small group up into the Catskill’s Blackhead Range. The purpose of our trip was to test some winter backpacking skills and equipment and to bag a few peaks. The first day, we hiked up to Lockwood Gap and set up camp before ascending Blackhead Mountain. The next morning hiked Blackdome and Thomas Cole mountains before returning to camp, packing up, and walking out to the car. It was a successful trip and we learned a lot.
The purpose of this trip was to continue developing winter backpacking skills and test out some equipment. I tend to take a step-by-step approach to skills development. Over the last few years I have been leading increasingly aggressive winter backpacking trips. Each time, I add one or two new known challenges, but never more than that.
My first phase of winter backpacking trips were along the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania and New York. We typically had to deal with cold weather and a few inches of slushy snow. We always had access to a lean-to shelter, privy, firewood, and reliable flowing water source. These trips were cold, but essentially no different from regular 3 season trips in complexity.
The next phase moved up to Massachusetts and Vermont. These trips added significantly more snow and elevation gain. The snow was frequently enough to necessitate snow shoes. While we always had a leanto and privy available to us, resources like firewood and water were less easy to come by. Because these were still single-night trips, we could spend the next day hiking in our sleep clothes while packing out our damp clothes from the first day.
Phase 3 winter backpacking trips will add deep snow that make access to firewood and ground water impossible. Drinking water will be carried in or melted from snow and our only source of heat will be backpacking stoves. These trips will also be extended over multiple nights, which greatly increases the need to manage moisture. Finally, phase 3 trips will introduce base camping rather than traverse backpacking. You’ll see soon why that makes things a little harder.
Trip Plan: The Blackhead Range
The Blackheads are a spur range protruding west off the main Escarpment Range. They include three 3500 foot peaks: Blackhead, Black Dome, and Thomas Cole. The peaks are typically accessed from the parking lot at the end of Big Hollow Road. The moderately graded Black Dome Range trail leads from the parking to Lockwood Gap between Blackhead to the east and Black Dome and Thomas Cole to the west. The Batavia Kill trail leads to the Escarptment Trail, which climbs Blackheads more challenging “north face.”
There are two designated campsites in the Blackhead Range. The Batavia Kill Lean-to is located near the junction with the Escarpment Trail and has a privy and shelter. There is also a primitive site at Lockwood Gap between Blackhead and Black Dome.
On Day 1, we hiked in 2 miles and climbed 1500 feet to the Lockwood Gap Campsite and set up camp. When we were done, we climbed an additional .6 miles and 500 feet up Blackhead Mountain and came back down. We had originally planned to go on to Arizona Mountain, but ran out of time. On Day 2, we hiked up Black Dome and on to Thomas Cole and then came back the same way. That out-and-back totaled another 2.8 miles and about 1000 feet of gain. We then packed up camp and headed back to the cars.
Getting to Camp
We met at the end of Big Hollow Road shortly after 9AM, but after gearing up and walking unplowed section of road, we didn’t sign in at the trail register until about 10AM. A large group of hikers had gone ahead of us in snow shoes, so the trail was well broken in.
For the first 0.6 miles after the register, the Black Dome Range trail climbs very gradually as it follows Batavia Kill. Kill is the Dutch word for river or brook. This is a very pretty hike with a mix of hard woods and hemlock along the river. At 0.6 miles there is a junction for the Batavia Kill Trail, which heads up past the lean-to by the same name to join the Escarpment Trail on the North Side of Blackhead Mountain.
The trail for the next 1.4 miles after the junction becomes increasingly steep. At first it follows an unnamed creek, but then departs to head directly up the bowl between Blackhead and Black Dome. Shortly after passing a marked spring, the trail makes a series of switch backs going up the headwall of the bowl.
The last switchback ends at the junction with the Blackhead Mountain Trail in the col between the two mountains. From here, the Range trail heads west up Black Dome, The campsites are in the northeast corner formed by this junction, but they are not clearly marked from the trail and there is no established herd path that I could detect. You may spot a few yellow discs a couple hundred feet in the woods, but you might not.
Setting up Camp and Lunch
The Lockwood Gap campsite is very primitive, with only a few small clearings for tents. It is also difficult to find a great spot for a hammock as many of the trees are stunted and broken and all look dead in the winter.
Setting up camp proved to be a challenge in the deep snow and gusty wind. I started by packing down a pad for my tent by walking in a grid pattern with my snow shoes. Usually I would wait some time for the pad to harden, but I was in a hurry and put my tent up right away. Stakes were useless in the light and fluffy snow, so I temporarily held my tent in place with my disassembled trekking poles. After the tent was pitched and I had settled on the right spot, I tied it off to trees with guyline.
My next step was to dig a pit for cooking and eating. The snow was about 2.5 feet deep and very soft, making it impossible to sit use stoves at the surface. The pit also gave us a place to hide from the wind. I started by digging out a triangle under my tent vestibule, and then excavated a large square pit connected to that triangle. I was really surprised how deep I had to dig before getting to ground we could sit on.
With the pit dug, I set up my stove to melt snow for drinking water. When Porcupine and Unusual had finished setting up their shelters, they joined me in the pit and we all had some hot drinks and lunch. All told, it took about three hours to set up camp and have lunch. That was a lot longer than I was expecting and an important lesson for the future.
Blackhead Mountain in the Evening
We finished up lunch a little after 3:00PM and headed up Blackhead Mountain to our East. The trail up Blackhead can sometimes be icy, but all the fresh snow made this 500 foot climb pretty easy today. We took our time and snapped a lot of photos on the way up. It was really beautiful walking through the snow covered balsam trees in the golden light of the late afternoon sun.
On the way back down, we ran into two guys who were postholing (no snow shoes) up the mountain. I started to talk to them about it, but they already knew they had made a bad decision. I asked if they had headlamps. One guy had a flashlight and the other had nothing. At least one of them was wearing soaked cotton sweatpants. I told them to come look for us in camp if they got in trouble and wished them good luck.
Night at Camp
We returned to camp with just enough daylight left to change into dry clothes. For me, that meant a fresh wool base layer, dry socks, midweight hooded fleece, apex puffy pants, down puffy jacket, and down expedition weight booties. I wear my booties over my removable boot liners so that the liners don’t freeze over night.
Having changed, we settled into our pit and started melting snow and cooking dinner. Everything in winter takes longer, and this process was another 2 hours of sitting around. We each melted enough snow to cook our dinners and fill our bottles for the next day.
After dinner, we all went straight to bed. For me, that meant crawling into my tent, removing my outer booties, and tucking myself into my quilt. I sleep in just a quilt all year long. A quilt is like a sleeping bag with a sewn footbox, open bottom, and no hood. The footbox is enough to keep my feet warm and store my clothes and water for the next day. My torso gets most of its insulation from my heavy puffy jacket. The low temperature on this trip was about 15 degrees.
Breakfast + Blackdome
I woke up in the morning at 6:30, slipped my booties back on, and slid down into the pit to start boiling water and melting snow. Once I had a full liter boiling, I whistled to wake up Porcupine and Unusual who came over to join me. Breakfast was slow, taking us about two hours.
When we were done eating, we changed back into hiking clothes and left camp to hike up Black Dome and Thomas Cole. The hike up Black Dome from the col is about .6 miles and 500 feet. There are a series of fun ledges that need to be scrambled up, but the snow makes climbing very easy – with the right footwear.
Just after arriving at the top we met two friends who had started hiking early in the morning to do the three peaks of the Blackhead Range as a day hike. We let them break the trial over to Thomas Cole, where we arrived around 11:30. We had a snack, turned around, and walked the opposite direction back to camp.
Packing up and Going Home
After descending the fun series of chutes from Black Dome, we arrived at camp just after 1:00PM. We had lunch and packed up. Packing took us about 2 hours! As Large Pizza says, “the cold conspires to make you feel stupid.” Its true. Everything is a little harder and slower in the cold.
Once we were packed, we started the 2 mile hike back down the parking area. Unusual had packed some gear up in a sled, which we were worried would be a challenge to negotiate down the mountain. To make life easier, she tied a line to each end of the sled. I guided the sled down the hill and around turns from the front while she acted as “breaks” from the rear. This worked out really well. The walk out took a little more than an hour.
Lessons Learned for Winter Backpacking
I learned several lessons on this trip:
- Everything takes longer than planned when winter backpacking. Usually, I can set up or break down camp in less than 20 minutes total. On this trip, each of these tasks took 2 hours. Filling water bottles usually just takes a few minutes. On this trip we spent hours melting snow.
- A shovel isn’t just helpful, its necessary. I almost didn’t carry my shovel on this trip. That would have been a big mistake. Without the shovel, I never could have dug our dining pit. Porcopine couldn’t have buried her anchors. Unusual couldn’t have built her wall.
- Bring lots of gloves winter backpacking. I was constantly wetting out and changing gloves on this trip, but I had enough pairs to get me through. Without a fire, the only way to dry clothing is to keep it in your sleeping bag with you; but that results in a damp sleeping bag. I tested out a pair of leather palm work gloves on this trip which proved really helpful for going up and down scrambles and working in camp.
- Bring lots of foam padding. I brought a six panel section of closed cell foam padding from Therm-a-rest. These foam pads make great seats and supplement the insulation of inflatable sleeping pads. Unlike inflatable pads, hey have the benefit of being virtually indestructible. I just wish I had brought a longer section so I could lounge out more in the pit.
For a list of some of the gear I used on this trip, check out my Winter Backpacking Gear List.