Winter Backpacking in Vermont: the Bourn Pond-Stratton Pond Loop, Green Mountain National Forest

Breaking trail in the Green Mountain National Forest.
The transition from one year to another is typically a time to reflect, to decide if we need to make changes for the future, and to consider taking on new challenges. I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the last few days of 2014 than on a new trail with a group of friends. Our destination? The Bourn Pond - Stratton Pond Loop in Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest.

The Plan. In total, the lollipop-shaped loop covers 16.5 miles, gains 1,165 vertical feet, and hosts two shelters as well as three established tent sites.

We chose this loop for a number of reasons. It's close to Stratton Mountain Resort - our skiing destination for the post-backpacking portion of the week. The loop also afforded us the option of devising a plan and then modifying that plan in at least four different ways depending on trail conditions. The terrain looked to be challenging enough, but we'd be able to enjoy ourselves without dealing with thousands of feet of elevation change. Finally, and most importantly, according to Backpacker, a weekend on the loop is the "Best Damn Weekend Ever."

The Night Before. After meeting in the morning to do a gear check, we made the five hour pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the Four Winds Country Motel in Manchester, Vermont. It was a perfect staging area, and after dropping our gear, we headed to Eastern Mountain Sports to pick up last minute supplies. The original plan called for snowshoes, but after a week's worth of unseasonably warm weather, it turned out we didn't need them.

Heading up Old Rootville Road navigating around ice patches.
Calls to the Green Mountain National Forest ranger station and discussions with the EMS staff yielded a wealth of information about trail conditions. With fluffy, powdery snow, snowshoes would allow us to easily move along the trail. But after recent rainfall followed by freezing conditions, we were facing trails blanketed in compacted snow covered in a crust of ice, even solid ice along parts of the trail. The EMS staff advised us to consider MICROspikes, YakTrax, or crampons for safety. After hiking in the Adirondacks in similar conditions, I found myself less concerned with traction and more concerned with how often we'd punch through the crust of ice while we walked. I already had a feeling we'd need to modify our original plan, but I still couldn't wait to get out on the trail.

The Trip, Day One. After an underwhelming dinner at Mulligan's and a solid night's sleep, we woke, split up group gear, packed, and stuffed ourselves at Bob's Diner (highly recommended) before making our way to the trailhead. We'd checked it out the night before and found the perfect parking spot partway up Old Rootville Road. The road, also known as the Prospect Rock Trail, takes hikers up 1,000' in under two miles, quite a start to any backpacking trip.

An hour and 15 minutes into our journey, we stopped at Prospect Rock for stunning views of Mount Equinox and Otter Creek Valley, then continued on up Old Rootville Road. The road had been plowed, but the weather changes left giant patches of solid ice we had to carefully pick our way through during the ascent. After walking around a gate and passing an overgrown trail on our left two miles into the hike, we came to the junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Long Trail (LT). Though Hiking the Green Mountains, our bible for the excursion, illustrates the loop going counterclockwise, we opted to go clockwise in an effort to summit Stratton Mountain if conditions allowed. (Spoiler alert: they didn't.)

One of the many creek crossings. So beautiful and treacherous! (L. Bender)
The wide road with patches of ice was easily navigable compared to what we faced for the remainder of the trip. With temperatures hovering in the mid to high 20's, the previously mentioned ice crust over the snow was brittle. I punched through the crust every few steps, sometimes into knee deep snow, as did the majority of our group. Going was predictably slow and an error in navigation cost us even more time.

Shortly after reaching the AT/LT, at one point, we lost sight of the AT's white blazes and found ourselves off course. The trail hadn't been broken and wasn't obvious enough to follow without keeping our eyes closely peeled for the blazes. We retraced our steps, and after we spotted the blazes, I vowed to hug every single white blazed tree for the rest of the trip. (I hugged three.) Between the conditions, our detour, and a handful of icy stream crossings, by 2:00pm, we'd only covered six miles.

With two and a half hours of daylight left, we knew making it another two and a half miles to the Stratton Pond Shelter was do-able, but we'd be setting up camp in the dark. And the closer we got to sunset, the colder it was going to get. The temperature that day ranged from 12-30°F, and the expected low temperature we'd be contending with that night was 3°F. As a group, we decided to stop hiking, look for a spot to set up camp nearby and hike out the next morning. We pitched our tents, I started boiling water for dinners, one member of the group went to pump water, and the other three got a fire going, which was impressive given none of us had built a fire on snow before. We were in our sleeping bags by 5pm.

Four of the five of us hugging one of the white blazed trees.
Some of the most hardcore girls I know!
The Trip, Day Two. Though I'd expected it to be tougher to spend 14 hours in a tent, we all had great conversation to pass the time and got some decent sleep. I was up and out of the tent twice during the night, and both times, the incredibly cold winter sky was absolutely breathtaking. I couldn't begin to count the number of stars, and save the sound of the Winhall River running over and around rocks, it was beautifully quiet. I found myself thinking, "man, how lucky am I?"

We knew the morning would be the toughest part; crawling out of my 0°F bag to put on cold boots and pack up wasn't nearly as appealing as spending the entire day snuggled up in the tent. Everyone voted to skip breakfast and get moving; temperatures dropped close to 0°F that night and we were all just plain cold. The six mile hike back to the cars, retracing our steps, took us four hours. Though the cold night made for a tough wake-up call, it also meant the crust on top of the ice stayed frozen and made the going much easier than the day before. We were back at the cars by noon and at Raven's Den Steakhouse chowing down by 1:00pm.

Lessons Learned. The first lesson? Plan every detail and prepare as best you can. In the weeks before the trip, we did research, we called local authorities to inquire about conditions, I sent out a gear list and set of tips, which I'll share on in another post, we talked about what to expect, and we made sure we were all on the same page. The more you plan, the more likely you are to have a successful, fun, and safe outing.

Aside from the cold, the weather was absolutely perfect.
The second lesson? Be flexible with your plan, and be prepared to adjust. I wouldn't change a thing about the gear I took, but that's only one small piece of the puzzle. Being willing and able to change the itinerary was essential. We could've continued after reaching the Winhall River at 2pm, but we didn't know if we'd make it to the Stratton Pond Shelter, or if we'd be able to find a campsite along the way. We changed our plan, and it paid off.

The last and most important lesson? Attitude is everything. Winter backpacking is uncomfortable; you're hiking in the cold, you're sitting around camp in the cold, and you're sleeping in the cold. You likely put cold boots on in the morning. You might even find yourself breaking trail through icy, crusty, thigh-deep patches of snow all day. None of us had ever slept outside in temperatures hovering around 0°F, and most of us were still experimenting with layering systems, food, and sleeping bags. I was so impressed with how the entire group handled all of the adversity that comes with the conditions we faced, and the fact that we didn't complete the loop. We kept ourselves busy with chores in camp, we told stories along the trail, we laughed, we got to know each other a bit better, and I had an absolute blast.

Have you ever been winter camping? What's the coldest weather you've slept in? Have you ever had to significantly change a trip itinerary due to conditions? I'd love to hear from you!


edupraz said…
Sounds like a fun trip! I hiked that section of the AT/LT this summer. I camped near Stratton Pond with a slew of other AT/LT thru-hikers, and we enjoyed hearing the loons calling at night. Definitely a magical place.
Katie L said…
Awesome! I'd love to go back in the summer when we can move faster than 1mph :) It looked like such a stunning place! I've seen photos of the pond in the summer too, so pretty!
Carolyn Anita said…
Great post! You captured all of the details perfectly! So glad I could share this experience with such an awesome crew.
Ann said…
beautiful description of your winter camp out and the challenges of the 24 hour trip . . . good job!!!
MistyBottles said…
Congratulation for your trip. It takes guts to go camping in the cold like you did.
Katie L said…
...or we're all completely nuts :) Thank you!
MistyBottles said…
Life is good.
Katie L said…