In late January 2020, I lead a group of six Argonauts from Hudson Valley Hikers to tackle the Vermont Winter for a weekend of backpacking. We traversed Kilington Mountain Southbound along the Appalachian Trail, and then descended into the wilderness lying to the south, finishing at VT Rt 103. Temperatures were consistently about 30 degrees F with some strong winds Saturday and occasionally snow flurries during the day and moderate freezing rain over night.
Over the last few years we had been tackling increasingly difficult winter backpacking trips. We started off in Pennsylvania in 2017. In 2018 we moved on to New York. By 2019 we were trudging through the snow covered Berkshires in Massachusetts. We had all be slowly building up the skills and equipment necessary to spend a full-on wintery weekend in the mountains. For 2020, we decided to hit Vermont with its 4000 foot peaks and remote campsites.
We planned to cover a modest 18 miles in two days. Many would consider doing this trip in a single day. I consider spending a prolonged period outdoors in the winter conditions to be part of the fun and challenge. On day one we would climb up and over Killington, one of Vermont’s 4000 foot peeks. From the summit, we would descend into the backcountry wilderness and camp at Governor Clement Shelter. On our second day we would hike out to VT 103.
The logistics for this trip got a big wonky because we neglected to book a room for ourselves far in enough in advance for the night before our hike. By the time we thought about it, we ended up with a cabin about an hour away from the starting point. That meant we had an hour to drive before even meeting up Saturday morning. It was a very short night sleep.
Winter poses a lot of challenges. In addition to being cold and snowy, the days are also very short. I like to plan my days so that we have enough time in camp before sundown to set up tents, gather firewood. and melt water if needed. To ensure we would have this time, I started us hiking at 7:00AM, almost exactly sunrise.
Day 1: US 4 to Governor Clement Shelter
After picking up breakfast and arriving at the trailhead, we started hiking towards the Killington Summit. This 4000 foot peak gets a lot of hiker traffic, but most of it goes up a shorter trail: not the AT. We were delighted to find the first few miles of our hike broken in.
Our first and only view on this hike came almost 4 miles in as we approached the Jungle Junction toward Pico Mountain. The first two miles of hiking were pretty level, but the next two ascended Pico’s steep west slope. After climbing almost 2000 feet, we arrived at Jungle Junction.
We took a short break at the junction so that our whole group could get back together. It was a cold and windy day and it hurt to stop moving for any length of time. Its nice to have a thick down puffy to throw on in these cases. Some people rely on constant motion to keep warm, but that isn’t a responsible strategy.
The next 2.5 miles followed the ridge trail between Pico and Killington. This stretch was level, well maintained, and well broken in. Despite being an easy walk, we were exposed to heavy winds nearly the entire time.
Cooper Lodge at Killington
We arrived at Cooper Lodge near the summit of Killington around noon. We waited inside for our group to catch up. Despite being ahead of schedule, we decided not to climb the extra few hundred feet to the true Summit of Killington. We had full cell service at the lodge and could see possible rain later in the afternoon. We wanted to keep moving and not risk arriving in camp after the rain started.
A quick note on Cooper Lodge: don’t plan to stay in this shelter. Its filthy. Skiers and Snowboarders drink and smoke in there all winter and leave their trash on the floor.
We had reached our highest point and it was all day hill from there, but the next 4 miles proved to be the hardest of our hike. This section doesn’t see much (if any) traffic in the winter. Route finding was a constant challenge in this winter wonderland where everything was the same color. White blazes simply blended in with the environment. There were also a few sections of difficult side hilling.
Camp at Governor Clement Shelter
Rules for Winter Camp
We arrived at camp around 3:00 PM with plenty of time to do our chores. I’ve had close calls with hikers getting hypothermia, so I always insist on a few basic rules on arriving to camp. These rules should always be followed in order! Think of your survival priorities: “You can survive for three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.”
- Change out of your wet clothes no matter what.
- Set up your shelter in case you need it.
- Help collect firewood and start a fire.
- Help collect drinking water for the entire group.
- Cook and heat a hot meal with hot beverages.
The only time I allow anyone to vary from these rules is if they’re already showing signs of hypothermia. If that’s the case, that person can skip steps 3 and 4.
Our water source was a mostly frozen stream near the shelter. We had an ice axe in case the stream was too frozen over to access. I made sure we collected water in pairs in case the ice broken and someone fell in the water.
Governor Clement Shelter had a nice fireplace set into a “middle room” where we could all gather and cook our dinners. There was a recessed “back room” with a sleeping platform and a “porch” in the front.
The night was warm and wet with a mix of rain and sleet. The morning was bright and sunny. We enjoyed a lingering breakfast at the shelter before heading out.
Day 2: Governer Clement to VT 103
Our second day of hiking was supposed to be short and easy: only 7 miles and 1000 feet of climbing. What the day lacked in numbers, it made up for in river crossings. Winter river crossings can be treacherous and deadly! Snow shoes helped distribute our weight on the frozen ice while we were careful to have only one hiker cross at a time. Always unbuckle your backpack when crossing water! Think out your plan for rescues before you start crossing.
Despite the cold river crossings, it wasn’t that bad a day. Much of the path followed woods roads and well established trails, and the weather was very mild.
HMG Porter Packs
Several of us switched this year to the HMG Porter 4400 or 5400 backpack. these huge packs swallow gear and have ample external attachment points for winter tools. The only down side is there is no external storage for small items like hats, gloves, and snacks. Plan to have some kind of fanny pack if you use the porter!
In addition to water crossings, we also had a few roads to cross. It was somewhat comforting to know that we weren’t that far into the wilderness. Still, I dream of a real winter expedition out west or up in Alaska.
Later in the day, the weather got warm and the snow got wet. Walking with snow shoes through slush is difficult because they keep picking up big cakes of slush and mud. We took them off and switched to our trail crampons for the last few miles.
This was an extremely enjoyable trip with just the right amount of challenge. I would certainly not recommend this trip to beginner backpackers or hikers! If you have been collecting gear and experience for a few seasons and want to challenge yourself, go for it!