North Carolina Trip - my cold weather gear got put to the test!

There were some seriously cold conditions this last week on the North Carolina - Tennessee border. 

45-50 mile per hour gusts, temperatures in the low 20's, and snowfall made for a fun trip that didn't go exactly as planned. Check out the gear I brought with me to make sure my time spent in the woods was enjoyable and safe.

 My trail buddy and I decided to take a spontaneous trip to Hot Springs, NC to hike 20 miles out to Max Patch and back. Max patch is one of my favorite places on the entire AT, and I was excited about getting a chance to see it in the snow. 

When I hiked over Max Patch in June 2016 there were some rain storms, but the weather cleared up enough to provide dramatic views of the surrounding mountains.

We lucked out with a pretty clear view on this trip, but the winds were very strong at the summit of Max Patch, which limited the amount of time that we were willing to spend up there.

Look at that happy pup!

My friend's dog, a large yellow lab came with on her first backpacking trip. She was overflowing with energy the entire time, and never wanted to stop playing fetch. She handled the cold very well, except for where she didn't move around much at night. She wasn't very good at snuggling up in a sleeping bag, so we got a little worried about her.


The hike in was great, and there were only a few pockets of unmelted snow from the night before. Though we got into Hot Springs late in the day, we made good time to our first campsite. 

I hiked in my synthetic hiking pants and a merino wool base-layer top to keep myself warm without overheating while on the move. I sweat a little on the uphills, but my base-layer dried quickly with my body heat and I was very comfortable.

I crashed in the shelter, just throwing down my inflatable sleeping pad and mummy bag, since I'm typically very lazy about setting up camp where there is any chance of precipitation. My buddy and his dog bedded down in their 1 person tent. A big dinner of pepperoni, tuna salad, and tortillas with a couple of handfuls of chocolate chips plenty of food energy to stay warm in our sleeping bags all night.

The next morning we awoke to a decent layer of snow. Camp looked awesome all covered in white, and I munched a half of a bag of granola cereal while I waited for my buddy to crawl out of his tent. 

He and the pup had a terrible night's sleep. Strong winds had brought down dead tree limbs around camp, keeping him up with worry. One particularly loud crack woke me up at around 3:00 AM, resulting in a very chilly early-morning tinkle that had me chattering my teeth as I jumped back into the lofty confines of my zero degree sleeping bag. 

It warmed up a little, the wind died down some, and we all decided to take a nap in the shelter to make up for some sub-par sleep due to the blustery conditions of the night before.

After waking up and eating lunch, which mostly consisted of Nutella and pepperoni slices, my buddy started to express concern for his dog's safety going into the next two days of snowy weather. At altitude it would be much colder and there would be more snow on the ground. She was holding up well, but when inactive his dog was getting cold and we were worried about her paws.

We decided to bail on the rest of the out-and-back hike, returning to town to grab my car and find our way to the parking lot near Max Patch's summit in the dark that night. We were perfectly comfortable when moving, but honestly both my buddy and his dog seemed pretty cold when not underway. 

One aspect of my buddy's equipment was severely lacking, and that was the worn insulation for his legs. Long johns (base-layer) and hiking pants just weren't cutting it. I know I was very glad for my zip-up puffy pants. With such strong winds and low temperatures, I really benefitted from the puffy pant's ability to block the wind and retain more of my body heat. 

We crunched our way into the Max Patch parking lot at around 10:00 PM, the tires of my all wheel drive car skittering over patches of ice and gravel. I backed the car into a corner of the trailhead parking lot at an angle and laid down the back seats to give us a nice, flat platform to sleep on. My inflatable sleeping pad made the back of the car quite comfortable, and the body heat the three of us created warmed up the inside very noticeably.

The best thing about sleeping in the back of my car was that it completely blocked the wind. The car rocked periodically as gusts of wind tore across the high, exposed parking lot. The condensation from our breathing froze on inside of the car's windows, and I was quite glad to be so well sheltered for the night, despite my having brought a significant amount of heavy-duty winter equipment.

In the morning we found a muddy and busy parking lot before we made our ascent of Max Patch among a horde of unexpected tourists. Families in muck-boots and blue jeans waded up the soggy grass slopes of the mountain, only to come straight back down from the summit once the wind and cold bit into them through their clothes. 

I had a great time watching people stream up and down the mountain from my perch on the hood of my car until we were ready to walk up ourselves. 

The grassy bald was very barren-looking compared to the thick grassy meadows I waded through in the summer of 2016, but the snow-speckled mountains made the view very special.

Max Patch gives an awesome 360 degree view. The Great Smoky Mountains have been visible for me on both occasions, noticeably more imposing than the surrounding peaks. 

This is just a single snapshot from the summit. This view really does repeat itself in a complete circle around you when you stand at the top. If you haven't seen Max Patch yet I highly recommend making a trip out of it sometime. 

Next time being more prepared to meet any canine companion's needs and ensuring that everyone is better dressed for downtime in cold campsites will probably result in a more successful backpacking trip. That's not to say that the trip wasn't a heck of a lot of fun though.

I think our willingness to roll with the punches means that my buddy and I will more often than not enjoy any time we get to spend out on trail.

One thing I did like about this trip was that we were very aware of the potential weather conditions. Checking my NOAA weather radio and talking to people in town before we left the trail head gave us a very good idea about what to expect.

I think we built a lot of safety into our little trip; carrying a GPS beacon, telling the hostel owner at the trail head what our plans were, checking the weather forecast both in advance and on the day of our departure, and having a plan for what we would do when things went wrong were all things that we did well.


Thanks for reading!

My "severe cold weather kit" isn't as well tuned as my shoulder season kits usually are when I hit the trail early (or late) in the main hiking season, and I'm not particularly proud of it. It works though, and I'm very glad that I am fortunate enough to have the equipment and the time to get out and do some colder camping this season.

If you haven't checked out the summer hiking kit that I plan on finishing the final 500 miles of my AT hike with, give it a look :)

I wrote up a post about some of the recent equipment changes I've made to my summer kit. If you are interested into what goes into selecting equipment for a trip you may like the read.

Have a good day!