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From the December 2010 Conservationist

Ten campers pose infront of an Adrindack lean-to in the winter.

Give Me Shelter

Winter Camping in Adirondack Lean-Tos

By Jim Muller

It was our biggest group ever-ten winter campers! We had chosen Puffer Pond, near Indian Lake, for our overnight destination. It was an easy two-mile snowshoe that terminated at two closely positioned lean-tos which could easily accommodate our group.

As we got closer to Puffer Pond, the younger campers raced ahead to secure the "perfect" lean-to for themselves. But their land-grab backfired as the wind kicked up during the evening and blew snow off the frozen pond and into their exposed shelter. Those of us in the lean-to back from the water's edge were somewhat shielded by trees and doubly protected by the tarp we hung across the open side of the structure.

Despite the land-grab, harmony reigned as the group shared a single fire after dinner. Under a full-moon night sky, we continued the time-honored tradition of reading the lean-to registration book; a must for lean-to users as described in No Place I'd Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-to Journals by Stuart Mesinger. Most entries either complained about the bad weather, bothersome bugs and poor fishing, or conversely heralded the great weather, abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery. Not surprisingly, there were very few entries from the winter months.

A campsite with a picnic table and lean-to in the Adirondacks

While spending a cold winter night camping in the woods may not be many people's idea of fun, for us it's incredibly exhilarating. And using a lean-to makes it even more enjoyable. For one thing, you don't have to carry your shelter with you. Also, most lean-tos are spacious, typically having enough room for five campers. In addition, a lean-to provides a level, dry platform for changing clothes, setting up a stove, mixing food, or just plain sitting.

Two campers relaxing inside a lean-to
Though it may not have all the comforts
of home, a lean-to provies a welcome
shelter to sleep, change clothes and
prepare food.

But lean-tos also have their "challenges." For instance, lean-tos aren't particularly warm in cold weather-even if you close off the open side with a tarp as we did. (Of course, what unheated structure wouldn't be cold in the winter?) Also, lean-tos can house rodents, which can make for an interesting night.

If you do plan on camping at lean-tos, keep in mind that these structures are usually situated in high-use areas, and availability is on a first-come, first-served basis. That means you could hike in only to find the lean-to already occupied. Of course, this is truer of the other three seasons, as winter campers are fewer in number. In fact, in the 14 years I've been winter camping, I've only once encountered a lean-to in use by other campers. It was on one of my very first winter camping trips-an intrepid Boy Scout troop preceded us into the popular John Pond lean-to in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area. So, rather than try to share the lean-to with the whole troop, we retrieved a tent from our vehicle and camped on the other side of the pond.

Fortunately for us, on this trip to Puffer Pond the lean-tos were unoccupied-by both humans and rodents-and they kept us warm enough during our stay. Everyone enjoyed the extra room the lean-tos provided, as well as being able to sleep off the frozen ground.

Anyone who has ever spent time hiking in the North Country knows that a lean-to provides a comforting sight at the end of a long expedition. A lean-to can be a refuge, a retreat, a shelter, a lunch spot, an inspiration point, and a temporary home-away-from-home. New York State maintains a number of lean-tos throughout backcountry areas of the Adirondack Park. These shelters are open to any and all campers, up to the marked capacity of the shelter. However, if you plan on staying for more than three consecutive nights, you must first obtain a free DEC permit.

Log lean-tos have long been a part of the Adirondack back-country camping experience. These open-faced shelters are built mostly by hand using chainsaws and chisels. Whole logs are assembled into the generally twelve- by eight-foot structures using a scribe notching technique that results in a tight fit to protect occupants from the elements. DEC first published the basic plans for building a lean-to in March 1957. Today, these same plans provide the basis for most lean-to construction in the state.

A person in a wheelchair coming down a ramp froma lean-to
Lean-tos at JohnDillon Park are wheel-
chair accessible and equipped with ramps
and fold-down wooden sleeping
platforms.

Not all lean-tos occur in the backcountry. John Dillon Park is a wilderness facility comprised of a number of wheelchair-accessible lean-tos equipped with ramps and fold-down wooden sleeping platforms. The park was created through a partnership among International Paper, Paul Smith's College and the State of New York, and is specifically aimed at making the natural landscape of the Adirondacks available to everyone, including people with disabilities. The park is not open during the winter months, but interested individuals can check out the John Dillon Park website to learn more, and to see about availability.

For us, the lean-tos at Puffer Pond added a nice dimension to our trip, providing much needed shelter from a cold winter's night. And in the morning, we enjoyed the protection afforded us, leisurely cooking a hearty breakfast over a small fire. The meal tasted delicious, enhanced no doubt by the beautiful, frosty, blue-sky winter morning. Using the spacious lean-tos to repack our gear for the hike out, we all agreed that this trip was well worth the effort.

Before departing, we made our own entry into the log book-keeping the tradition going by recording the weather conditions and the origins of our group. We wondered who would be the next visitors; other winter campers like ourselves? Or would the lean-tos remain empty until spring?


Jim Muller is a Leave No Trace master educator. He enjoys canoeing during warm months and camping in the winter. Check out WinterCampers.com to view pictures from his winter adventures.

Photo: Jim Muller