Winter night hiking on the Appalachian Trail
Sometimes trying to make 18 miles before a snowstorm means you have to hike at night.
We stop for a water break under a leafless white oak. Up the ridge, Blue Mountain juts through the darkening sky. Somewhere up there is Darlington Shelter, our home for tonight.
“What do you think bro?” I ask.
“How far is it, like 18 to Boiling Springs?”
“Something like that.”
“You think we’re gonna get hit?” Corey screws the lid back onto his water bottle.
I look up at the roiling gray clouds. “You really gonna ask that?”
Two friends are planning to meet us tomorrow in Boiling Springs, a full-day’s walk away, and we’re faced with a winter storm warning beginning at midnight. A month ago I wouldn’t have worried about the weather, but since entering Pennsylvania we keep getting hit by storms. If we get dumped on it could make an epic day out of those 18 miles.
I put my Nalgene back onto my hip belt. My hands are stinging in the cold. “Why don’t we just wake up at midnight, check the weather?” I say. “If it’s snowing we can just start night-hiking.”
The trail ratchets up Blue Mountain in steep switchbacks. As we climb, I can feel the sweat on my back, under my cap. Out here you’re always either too hot or too cold. I pull off my cap.
Darlington shelter is like a chicken house, 8 X 12 ft, with patches of plywood covering where porcupines have chewed up the sweat-soaked floor. We eat our current favorite dinner–chicken broth with dehydrated vegetables and egg noodles–a meal that doesn’t require any pot scrubbing.
Afterwards we begin the nightly preparations: filling the pots with water, leaving the boots with the tongues stretched out. We sleep maybe four hours when snow sifts into the shelter.
“Should we tarp it off?” Corey’s voice seems to come from underwater. There’s a sloughing sound on the roof, and I wonder how much snow is accumulating. I do a quick mental calculation: the amount of snow drifting into the shelter vs. the effort of getting out of my warm bag and stringing up a tarp.
“I don’t know bro,” I say. I light up my watch. Only a couple hours until we’d planned to hike. “It’s not too bad now.”
Corey shines his headlamp into the night. A gentle yet steady stream of snow falls through the beam. “Ok,” he says. We both slide our Therm-A-Rests to the back of the shelter, then burrow deeper into our bags.
Winter on the trail has this way of reducing life into three options. You’re either working, (i.e. hiking or gathering firewood), sitting by a fire, or in your bag. Anything else and you start freezing.
Since the daylight hours are short, you end up spending a lot of bag-time, which gives way to strange thoughts and images. You imagine all the other living things hidden away where you can’t see them: mayfly larvae under frozen rocks. Black bears denned up in the crags.
I wake to the beeping alarm. Right away I see the snow has stopped. Dark clouds race past the moon, but strangely, the air at ground level is calm. Each time another cloud passes, moonlight flashes through the woods.
“Should we just go for it anyway?” Corey says.
“Hell, why not? I’m super-awake now.”
We light our stoves and pull down the food-bags.
“You get hit?” I ask. (This is our standard good-morning greeting, referring to the state of our food bags. The mice are fearless along the A.T.)
“No, looking good. You?”
“Good to go.”
We each dump several packets of oatmeal into the hissing pots. Then we dress and eat breakfast while still in our sleeping bags. This is our daily ritual, getting ready for the cold rush of packing, then throwing on the frozen boots.
We creep 50 yards through the snow with our headlamps on, then switch them off. The moonlit snow makes for super good visibility. We hike for the next several hours in total silence.
The night air becomes darker and denser as we drop into the Cumberland Valley. All of it blends into the same damp color, as if we’re walking into a cloud. Across the fields are a few farmhouses and barns with streetlamps glowing above various tractors and farm machinery.
It feels like dawn is almost upon us, the sun somewhere just below the horizon. I ask Corey, “What color would you say the sky was?”—the first words in several hours, or days, it seems.
Our words seem to break something, and then we’re back into silence again.
Two hundred yards across the field is a dark stand of timber. It’s blurry, but we both see a form, almost a shadow. We stop instantly, but it’s not fast enough: the form freezes with its head cocked towards us.
Its color and size are hard to distinguish, but the way it had moved is unmistakably feline, and for some reason, female. Some kind of unspoken communication passes between Corey and I, and we slide off our packs, then begin stalking towards her. She watches us take three slow steps before vanishing into the trees.
For the next half an hour we track her prints through the snow. From the shape of the tracks–the four smooth toes and the fat heel pad–we decide she’s a bobcat. Grinning to each other, we follow her path over logs, around patches of dogbane, then stop at a final launching pad where she had crouched, then jumped over a barbed-wire fence and disappeared.
“She’s up in some tree watching us,” Corey says.
I stare at the forest on the other side of the fence and into the fields beyond.
“Yeah,” I say. “You can feel it.”
We stand there for another minute or two, not saying anything. A light snow begins to fall. Then we go back for the packs.
For those interested in learning more about the Appalachian Trail, please check out this article on the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Have you had any good night hikes? Share it with us in the comments below.