Compelling Reasons To Go Winter Camping

As a supplement to our “You Might Be a Winter Camper If….” and Top 10 Reasons to Go Winter Camping series we have adapted  the New Nomads  list of 101 truly compelling reasons to do a long distance hike to fit the winter camping theme.  Here are more compelling reasons to go winter camping.

  1.  Create more empathy with the homeless
  2. Learn to accept help from others
  3. Learn how to balance a pack on skis/snowshoes while performing an icy water crossing
  4. Develop an admirable tolerance for cold toes
  5. Make yourself qualified to write a book / blog
  6. Join interesting group of people who are just as antisocial as you are
  7. It will make for an interesting blog topic
  8. Find yourself; find God; or find cool things left behind by those summer camping wimps
  9. Make peace with the voices in your head
  10. Learn how to protect your bag of trail mix or learn to share
  11. Be judged not by the amount of money you make, but by the warmth of your toes
  12. People just have to take your word for it when you tell them how much fun you had
  13. Become obsessed by idle thoughts of hot chocolate
  14. No reason \ nothing better to do
  15. Break your addiction to Facebook
  16. Release yourself from the claws of culture
  17. Ample meditation time during the 12 hours of darkness
  18. It provides an excuse to wear a red union suit with a back panel
  19. Breathe clean air
  20. Hot salty soup never tasted so good
  21. Become more in tune with a natural existence
  22. Restore your feeling of love for life
  23. Great opportunity to practice otherwise useless skills learned at scout camp
  24. No chance of drunk texting anyone
  25. Confront and overcome fears of the dark, animals, death, storms, and loneliness
  26. Fun
  27. Acquire an unflattering nickname based on a stranger’s perception of your primary qualities
  28. Develop strong leg muscles from snowshoeing
  29. Get that “look” in your eyes
  30. Give your mother a real reason to worry about you
  31. You can completely change your personality and blame it on “What happened out there.”
  32. Learn to appreciate the distinctions among brands of instant oatmeal
  33. Eat absolutely whatever you want with no ill effect
  34. Acquire winter camping stories
  35. Justify purchase of expensive winter clothing
  36. Take your mind off anything unpleasant going on in your life
  37. Learn perseverance
  38. Learn to read the night sky
  39. Gain survival confidence
  40. Redefine your standards for cleanliness, hunger, and entertainment

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Snow Caves And Other Shelters

This is an article by Ernest Wilkinson from the Mother Earth News Issue # 078 – November/December 1982. Touted as “Learn how to build safe, snug snow caves and other havens in winter wilderness, plus helpful information on winter camping. “ From

During the winter in the northern Rockies, one can sometimes see a ptarmigan making its home for the night: In full flight, the plump white bird will suddenly dive into a soft drift, hunker down in the resulting depression, and let blowing flakes settle on its feathers to form a protective blanket.

Snow, you see, is one of nature’s most practical insulators. The falling flakes, each of which may contain more than a thousand loosely clustered ice crystals, can pile up into a fluffy mass (composed of as much as 90% air) that is virtually—in form and effect—the frozen equivalent of goose down.

Many of nature’s creatures, in fact, use the heat-retaining qualities of snow for protection from winter’s cold. But we humans, in all of our “wisdom”, generally cling to our dependence upon technology . . . even in situations such as winter mountaineering trips, where—for shelter—we most likely sit huddled within the frigid confines of thin ripstop nylon walls. Worse yet, some individuals have actually perished needlessly from “exposure” to snow and cold, when a little knowledge of the resources at hand—and an ability to use those materials—could have saved their lives.

That’s why, after many years of laboring as a trapper and guide—and after doing considerable search and rescue work here in the mountains of Colorado—I made a special effort to work out effective methods for building snow shelters. It’s also why, when I now lead a group on a winter survival cross-country tour, I don’t allow my students to bring tents. Instead, I teach them to use their wits, and the crunchy substance beneath their feet, to make overnight homes.


An ideal spot for a snow cave would be a firm bank or drift that’s six feet or more deep. But not everyone who needs winter shelter, of course, will find a place where the precipitation is that substantial . . . and even those who do will sometimes discover—early in the season, especially—that the piled crystals are too loose and powdery to make good caving material.

Fortunately, one of the characteristics of snow is that it tends to compact itself (and harden) once it’s been disturbed. So when the cover is too shallow to accommodate a cave, you can build yourself an “artificial” drift in which to burrow: Find a hill that’s 10 to 20 feet high and covered with 24 inches or more of snow, and then—with a shovel, your feet, or whatever—push the white matter down the incline to form a large pile at the bottom. With that done, wait 10 to 20 minutes to let the material “set”, and then proceed to dig your cave.

Likewise, if you find a site where a drift is sufficiently deep but not firm, you can tromp around the area and poke the powder repeatedly with a stick or your ski poles perhaps also mounding more snow on top and stirring that up a bit—to encourage the mass to harden.

In any case, it’s important to remember that if you’re in an avalanche-prone area, you need to be very careful about choosing a site. Always check with rangers for snow condition reports before venturing into the wilds . . . and be aware that the lee—windless—sides of mountains are particularly dangerous, and that new snow on the ground increases the danger of a slide.


Virtually every book I’ve read on the subject of snow caving recommends carving a narrow tunnel into a drift or bank, and then hollowing out a larger living area—at the interior end of the shaft—by scooping out the material and transporting it through the burrow to the outside. I’ve found, however, that the method is very time-consuming . . . and that a digger is likely to get a kink in the back—and snow down the neck—in the process.

Therefore, I’ve come up with what I believe is a much better technique: First, open a large vertical hole (about four feet on a side, working from “ground” level up) directly into a drift or pile of snow. You can use a lightweight folding shovel—a tool that I think all winter back-country enthusiasts should carry—or, in a pinch, some kind of make-do implement . . . such as a snowshoe, ski, or flat stick.

When the “doorway” is done, go on to excavate your living quarters by digging out a rounded, dome-shaped area (a flat roof will sag and collapse) that’s somewhat wider and higher than the entrance itself. The exact dimensions of your abode will, of course, be up to you . . . and will depend upon the number of people you intend to house. Given the right snow conditions, you can construct caves large enough for six or more individuals . . . but a smaller shelter—such as the two—person model shown in Figs. 1 and 2—takes less time to build, tends to be more stable, and is a more appropriate project for beginners.

Once you’ve hollowed out the cubicle, take some of the loosened snow and pack it up to form a sleeping bench (or two or three) that’s 20 inches or more high, a bit wider than a sleeping bag, and as long as its occupant-to-be is tall. If you’re building a one-person shelter, you can dig a fairly shallow chamber and position the single platform parallel to the opening. If you’re making a two-person grotto like the one in the accompanying illustrations, you’ll need to excavate a deeper cavity and place a bed on each side of the doorway.

After you’ve finished contouring each bench to your satisfaction, lay a thick “mattress” of insulating material-spruce or fir boughs, dry grass, or a backpacking padon top, and cover that with your sleeping bag. Be careful not to put any substantial weight on the bench just yet, however . . . you’ll need to give the snow a chance to settle before you take your first nap.

Since the next major step in the cave construction is to block up the original 4′ X 4′ entry hole, it’s a good idea to move the rest of your gear inside first. (This is another advantage of my snow-caving technique . . . you don’t have to push, pull, and squeeze your equipment through a tiny, confining burrow to get it under shelter.) You may also want to carve a shelf or two in the cavern’s interior surface, to hold a candle and other small items . . . and thrust a short stick partway into the wall to make a handy clothes hook.

Now—using your shovel, a snow saw, or just your hands—fashion “bricks” from the material that you scooped out of the cavity. For starters, try to make a number of cakes that are the approximate size (precision isn’t required here) of a standard 8″ X 8″ X 16″ cinder block, and then—as you build the wall—custom-tailor whatever others you need to fit specific spaces.

To fill the opening, lay the bricks in courses just as a mason might. Start with a horizontal foundation of end-to-end bricks across the entrance, and then position each block in the succeeding rows so that—whenever possible—it straddles the juncture of the two cakes below it. Remember, too, to spread a handful or so of snow “mortar” between the chunks as you work. The final product will be a sturdy wall that completely closes off the cavity, bottom to top.

At this point, take a break (gather firewood, get some camp chores done, go on a hike, whatever) and allow the wall a chance to firm up. After 20 minutes or so, you and your domicile will be ready for the last few construction steps.

Using a shovel or flat stick, cut a small entrance hole (this one should be just big enough to crawl through) in the bottom center of the snow-brick wall. Ideally, the highest part of the opening should be lower than the top surface of the sleeping benches (rising body heat will then be contained inside the cave), so dig down as close to “floor” level as you can when you cut this cavity.


Just about here in their instructions, many survival and winter camping manuals will tell you to crawl into the cave and—with a stick or ski pole—poke a couple of small holes through the roof for ventilation. I don’t follow this practice myself, however, for two reasons:

  1. Snow is relatively porous and—in my experience—usually allows plenty of breathable oxygen to pass through the walls and into the cave from outside.
  2. Vent holes let rising warmth escape and draw cold air in through the entrance . . . thus defeating the purpose of the shelter.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Though many snow-cavers agree with Mr. Wilkinson’s theories concerning vent holes, some do not. One possible compromise would be to thrust a couple of long sticks through the roof but leave the shafts in place, so that they can be pulled out for immediate ventilation if occupants begin to feel the symptoms—which include dizziness and difficult breathing—of oxygen deprivation.)

Interestingly enough, the same people who recommend roof vents will often also instruct you to build a small fire in your cave for warmth, and/or to use a cooking stove in the chamber for preparing meals . . . but these procedures also tend to get in the way of the intended function of your den. Combustion consumes oxygen, of course, and—in addition—the extra heat it produces will tend to increase the interior’s humidity . . . which in turn will make you feel colder, and cause a crust of ice to form on the cave wall that effectively seals off the passage of air from outside. If you don’t use a fire, the inside surface will remain dry, and any snow that gets on your clothes will brush off. But if you do use one—even a small backpacking stove—you’ll get wet virtually every time you come in contact with the walls.

A much better idea, I think, is to reserve the cave strictly for sleeping and resting, and to do your cooking outdoors. If there’s a strong wind, you could build a semicircular breakwall of snow blocks near your abode, and light a fire within its borders.


Although a cave is certainly one of the most effective shelters you can make from snow, it is by no means the only kind. In fact, there are a number of ways you can use snow to obtain protection from the elements.

If there’s deep cover, for example, you can build a home simply by digging a 3- or 4-footwide trench to a depth of 4 (or more) feet. Then put skis, snowshoes, or tree boughs across the opening . . . place brush (or a sheet of plastic) over that . . . and pile an insulating layer of snow on top. Some folks also cut blocks and stack them around the trough (to make raised walls) before installing the roof, and others actually carve additional underground chambers—for storing gear and such—into the sides of the trench.

In forested areas you’ll often find a funnel-shaped “bowl” in the snow on the windward side of a tree . . . and this can be fashioned into a snug home by lining the floor of the depression with boughs and covering the cavity with a roof made from layers of whatever materials are available, finished off with a thick coating of snow.

Of course, there’s also the igloo . . . the classic Eskimo shelter, which—unless you’ve had considerable practice—can be pretty difficult to build. Here again, however, I’ve developed techniques that, I believe, make the task easier.

The traditional method involves cutting blocks and placing them end to end, on their narrow edges, in a circle that gradually spirals upward, round and round, one layer over another. In order to accomplish this, however—and to achieve a dome shape rather than just a vertical wall—each block must be carefully trimmed and positioned so that it both slopes in the ascending direction of the spiral and leans inward slightly.

To simplify the process, I place the rectangular blocks flat on their broad sides . . . make one circle of bricks . . . and then—on successive go-rounds—merely move each layer of blocks inward a couple of inches, so that the desired cupola shape is gradually formed. I use snow “mortar”, too . . . both as I work and to fill any cracks and holes in the final product. Then, about half an hour or so after closing in the igloo, when the structure has hardened, I carve out a small entrance door.


Experience, they say, is the best teacher of all . . . and that’s certainly the case when it comes to developing a proficiency at building (and camping in) snow shelters.

After a few winter back-country outings, for example, you’ll acquire a sensitivity to the different kinds of snow—in terms of texture, moisture content, and “packability”—and to the degree to which varying conditions will affect the type of shelter you should (and/or can) build. New precipitation, for instance, is often too fluffy to make good material for a large cave . . . but might be just fine for a one-person chamber.

You’ll also learn, rather quickly, that it’s important to pace yourself as you work . . . making sure that you don’t perspire excessively and—as a result—become overly (and perhaps dangerously) chilled. Always dress in layers, too, so that you can adjust the amount of clothing you’re wearing to suit the weather and the activity at hand. And remember: To stay dry is to stay warm.

In addition, you may find that it takes some time to accustom yourself—both physically and psychologically—to life in a snow cave. You can’t expect such a shelter to be the Waldorf-Astoria, but the grotto’s temperature will hold at a range of 30° to 38°F (once you’ve been inside for a while), and neither you nor such items as jugs of water will freeze . . . even if the mercury outdoors dips to 30 below. Should you be caught in an emergency situation without a sleeping bag, then, a snow cave will still keep you relatively warm. If necessary, you can use a few isometric exercises (tense the muscles in your legs, hands, and feet for several seconds, then let them relax, to stimulate blood flow) off and on through the night to avoid frostbite.

Some folks find that the darkness and silence inside a snow cave can be disturbing . . . so be prepared, when you blow out your candle that first night in your shelter (and do be sure to extinguish the flame, so that it doesn’t consume oxygen while you’re sleeping), to cope with an instant attack of claustrophobia. Most people get used to the quiet and close quarters in a very short time, however.

During the day, if you leave the cave—to go for a hike or gather firewood or whatever—be sure to mark the entrance conspicuously so that you’ll be able to find your home when you return. Remember, too, that snow has a way of “swallowing” camp litter . . . trash that, come spring, will show its ugly face all too plainly. Be sure to keep all refuse and waste in one place, and to pack it out with you when you leave.

And finally, I strongly recommend that you practice building snow shelters before placing yourself in a situation where you might need such a structure. A wilderness emergency—such as getting caught in a sudden blizzard—is not the ideal time to try to construct your first snow cave. And reading the information in this article and in other books is not, by itself, sufficient preparation for—say—going on an overnight cross-country tour without a tent. I always show my students a detailed narrated instructional slide program prior to an outing . . . but even then the participants generally take three or four hours to build their initial cave or igloo.

After you’ve had some experience, however, you should be able to carve out a shelter in an hour or less . . . so take some time this winter to teach yourself the art of snow caving. Find an appropriate site close to home, and spend an enjoyable afternoon or two practicing construction techniques. Once you’ve polished your skills, you’ll be able to explore the wonders of winter’s wilderness with confidence . . . knowing full well that a warm, comfortable home is never more than a few feet—of snow—away.

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Snow Shelter Comparisons

The Ontario Preppers Network believes that the ability to use snow effectively for shelter in the winter is the single most important skill anyone who spends time outdoors can posses.  Their post compares the three main shelter designs that work well in winter and all require the use of snow.

Snow is a very good insulator that keeps heat in and the cold out. Snow also is a very effective windbreak – if your shelter is constructed so that the snow you use doesn’t blow away in the wind.

Quinzee: Fairly quick to build but does require a fair amount of energy to construct. Build an A-frame shelter out of sticks and bows, cover with a good 3 feet of snow, build a door to plug the open end and you are good to go. No sticks or branches available, build a big pile of snow, allow the snow to settle and compress and then hollow out the pile to create a cavity that is uniform and at least 12 inches thick all around and voila a quinzee shelter. The actual techniques to build this type of shelter can be found elsewhere with the use of a search engine so I wont detail them here.

Snow cave: Find a suitable location, usually on the leeward side of a small hill or natural rise in the landscape where snow drifts tend to form. Dig into the drift creating a hollow and you have a snow cave. Remember digging into the snow drifts created by the plows at the end of the driveway as a kid? Same idea here. Digging caves requires a lot of energy and usually results in a lot of sweating – not good in cold weather. Having several people on hand to take turns digging and wiping snow off of clothing is usually a good idea when considering to build a snow cave. If you take your time though and take lots of breaks to prevent over heating, a snow cave can be an effective shelter option for a single person. Finding a suitable location however, is often a hit or miss proposition. Snow caves in areas where the snow is not really deep enough will limit their insulating properties and result in you being colder than you would prefer.

Igloo: By far the best option for all around protection from the elements.  It is possible to build snow blocks from just about any type of snow that is available. Using a mould to pack the snow into the right size and shape makes building a top quality igloo anywhere just what a survivalist (or your kids in the back yard) needs. Using a snow mold allows even a novice winter architect to construct an adequate shelter in as little as four hours. An igloo is a very sturdy shelter that can last for months and gets better with every snowfall. People who have built a few igloos can accomplish the task in 2 to 3 hours. A uniform shape maximizes stability and insulation and wind stopping power. Temperatures inside an igloo often hover in the 3C to 5C degree range with the addition of body heat and a small candle/flame.

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P-38 Can Opener

The P-38 can opener is pocket-sized (approximately 1.5 inches, 38mm, in length) and consists of a short metal blade that serves as a handle (which doubles as a flat-blade screwdriver), with a small, hinged metal tooth that folds out to pierce the can lid. A notch just under the hinge point keeps the opener hooked around the rim of the can as the device is “walked” around to cut the lid out.

The P-38 is easily used. First the cutting point is pivoted to its 95-degree position from its stowed, folded position. Then, for a right-handed user, the P-38 is held in the right hand by the flat long section, with the cutting point pointing downward and away from the user, while also hooking the edge of the can through the circular notch located on the flat long section next to the cutting edge. The can is held in the left hand, and the right hand is rotated slightly clockwise, causing the can lid to be punctured. The can is then rotated counter clockwise in the left hand, while the right hand rotates alternatively slightly counterclockwise and slightly clockwise, until the can has been rotated nearly 360 degrees and the lid is nearly free.

The lid of the now opened can is lifted, most often with the P-38 cutting edge, and the P-38 is wiped clean, and the cutting point is rotated back to its stowed, folded position. Left-handed users simply hold the P-38 in their left hand, with the cutting point aimed towards themselves, while holding the can to be opened in their right hand, while also reversing the sense of the cutting hand movements just described.

One rumored explanation for the origin of the name is that the P-38 is approximately 38 mm (1.5 in) long. U.S. Army sources, however, indicate that the origin of the name is rooted in the 38 punctures around the circumference of a C-ration can required for opening.


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Adirondack Lean-tos

The Lean-to is an open faced camping shelter found throughout the Adirondack Park back-country areas and along the Appalachian Trail. They are also found in the Nordic European nation of Finland, although in Finland they are called “laavus” instead. These Finnish lean-tos serve as temporary housing for people on hiking, camping or fishing expeditions out in the wilderness. They are especially common in the Pukala national forest of Finland.

Lean-tos are built mostly by hand with chainsaws and chisels and the logs are assembled using a scribe notching technique that results in a very tight fit of joints and allows the use of the entire length of logs. The floor space usually measures 12′ x 8′ in size.

The original plans for building a lean-to were published by the New York Conservation Department – Bureau of Camps and Trails in March 1957 entitled as Plan # 184.  The original plans can still be found here.

Lean-To Plan

New York State maintained lean-tos are open to any and all comers up to the marked capacity of the shelter. As is the case at other campsites, you may not stay at a lean-to for more than three consecutive nights without a free DEC permit. When using a lean-to, don’t hammer nails into the logs or make other “improvements.” It’s even illegal to set up a tent inside a lean-to!

There are benefits to winter camping in an  Lean-to.  Foremost, is that you don’t have to carry your shelter with you.  They are spacious; although each lean-to can be different typically there is adequate room for 5.   The lean-to provides a level, dry platform for changing clothes, setting up a stove, mixing food, or just plain sitting.

On the other hand, lean-to’s aren’t particularly warm – even if you close off the open side with a tarp. They are usually situated in high-use areas. And the sleeping arrangements can leave you laying wide awake between two prodigious snorers.

In the past 12 years of winter camping only once have we encountered a lean-to in use by others.  On Martin Luther King weekend in 1997 at the popular John Pond lean-to in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area  a boy scout troop had hiked in before us and were staying at the lean-to, so we tented.

Appalachian Trail Lean-tos

WhiteBlaze, a forum dedicated to the Appalachian Trail, has aforum devoted to Shelters & Lean-tos where users share their shelter experiences and discuss issues related to shelters of lean-tos from Georgia to Maine.

NYS Lean-tos

DSettahr over at Adirondack Forums posted a spreadsheet of all the lean-tos in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains.  He stated it was his “(long term) hiking goal… to spend a night in every single lean-to in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.”

The spreadsheet has two pages: one that has all the lean-tos listed in alphabetical order and one that lists them by the management unit in which they reside. Currently, there are 295 lean-tos on the list.  Subsuquent posters noted corrections where lean-tos no longer existed.  You can download the file from here or here.  You can read the whole discussion here.

Sharing Lean-tos

I culled through a long discussion at on the guidelines and rules for sharing lean-tos.  Basically there are guidelines stating that it is nice to share lean-tos, however, there are no regulations requiring they be shared.

WildRiver stated “There is no regulation compelling lean-to users to share the shelters with latecomers. Latecomers have no regulatory right to move into lean-tos that are currently being occupied, even if there is room.  On the other hand:  No one can claim exclusive occupancy of any portion of state land, whether it be a lean-to or an off-trail campsite in the middle of nowhere.  Basically, the state’s land use regulations are completely mum on the topic of sharing campsites. No matter where you go in the Forest Preserve, you have no guaranteed “right” to solitude, nor do you have the “right” to intrude on someone else’s.

However, there is by all means a valid expectation for solitude. The word is an integral part of the legal definition of “Wilderness Area,” meaning that solitude is a feature the state is officially trying to promote and perpetuate. In fact, the Five Ponds Wilderness UMP specifically addresses people “who go into the wilderness primarily as a social excursion seeking the company of others and facilities where they might congregate” by stating: “Users” in [this] category are not really seeking a wilderness or the experience of it. Therefore, the accommodation of user group 5 is not a goal in the management of this unit.

So there is an official obligation to provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” and in fact this is a key part of the wilderness experience. Most people that you meet in the back country are in search of privacy to one degree or another, and it is to everyone’s mutual benefit to give each other space when choosing a campsite.”

The formal DEC regulations can be read here.

Lean-to Registers

Decided to sleep in lean-to, floor like C-ment. To those who come behind us, bring a mattress. – Griffin Rapids.

Finally, there is always the added benefit of reading the lean-to register for entertainment as captured in No Place I’d Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-tos by Stuart Mesinger.   Stuart took several years and read hundreds of registers to compile his book. Stuart received permission (and sponsorship) from the ADK to go through the register archives. Stuart flagged the interesting entries, had a High School student type them up and then organized the book into themes: love stories, tall tales, partying, complainers, weather, critters, bugs, food, the privy, the campfire, the long walk, adventures, culture clashes, hunting and fishing, companions, religion and solitude.

There are over 200 lean-tos in the Adirondacks and we have all read the lean-to registers. Stuart took several years and read hundreds of registers to compile his book. Stuart received permission (and sponsorship) from the ADK to go through the register archives. Stuart flagged the interesting entries, had a High School student type them up and then organized the book into themes: love stories, tall tales, partying, complainers, weather, critters, bugs, food, the privy, the campfire, the long walk, adventures, culture clashes, hunting and fishing, companions, religion and solitude.

Adopt a Lean-to

Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adopt a Lean-to program began in 1985 with the approval of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Adopting a lean-to does not entail major reconstruction work, and adopters do not need to be ADK members. The adopters hailed from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Canada. Although adopters drop out of the program each year, it’s remarkable how many don’t: seventy-three individuals and groups have adopted lean-tos for at least five years; 44 for at least ten years; 20 for at least fifteen years; and 4 for at least twenty years.

Lean-To Rescue Efforts

Lean2Rescue – a group of hard-working hikers, climbers, hunters, skiers, paddlers, and all-around good people – have restored, rehabilitated and rescued more than 30 of these Adirondack icons since 2004. Started by Paul DeLucia of Baldwinsville, NY, the all volunteer group works closely with the DEC to identify and complete suitable projects – from roof repairs to entirely new structures. Most of the work is carried out using non-motorized tools and vehicles, and the bulk of the building material is carried into the woods via canoe, portage carts, and human pack mules. And perhaps most impressive of all, Lean2Rescue operates year-round, not even breaking for the harsh Adirondack winters.


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