Winter Camping in Adirondack Lean-Tos

The following is an unabridged version of Give Me Shelter: Winter Camping in Adirondack Lean-Tos which appears in the NYS Conservationist Magazine.

Give Me Shelter: Winter Camping in Adirondack Lean-Tos

It was our biggest group ever – ten winter campers! We had chosen Puffer Pond, near Indian Lake, as our overnight destination as it was an easy 2 mile snowshoe hike terminating at two closely positioned lean-tos to accommodate the group. As we got closer to Puffer Pond the younger campers raced ahead to secure the “perfect” lean-to for themselves.  Their land grab backfired as wind kicked up during the evening and blew snow off the frozen pond surface into their exposed lean-to.  Those positioned in the lean-to back from the water’s edge were slightly shielded by trees and doubly protected by the tarp hung across the open side of the lean-to.  Harmony was achieved when the group on ‘snob knob’ invited everyone to share a single fire after dinner under a full moon night sky.  The night’s entertainment included reading the lean-to registration book; a time honored entertainment as captured in No Place I’d Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-tos by Stuart Mesinger.  Most entries either complained about the weather, bugs or poor fishing or regaled about the weather, wildlife or scenery.

Ian, Mark and Matt listen as Dan dispenses pearls from the logbook

There are benefits to winter camping in a lean-to.  Foremost, is that you don’t have to carry your shelter with you.  Lean-tos are spacious; although each lean-to can be different typically there is adequate room for 5 campers.  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 in cold weather – even if you close off the open side with a tarp as we did. They are usually situated in high-use areas. They can house rodents and the sleeping arrangements can leave you lying wide awake between two prodigious snorers.

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

Lean-to Distribution

The lean-to is an open faced camping shelter found throughout the Catskill and Adirondack back-country areas.  However, not all lean-tos are restricted to backcountry access. Last fall, I hiked into John Dillon Park, an handicap accessible wilderness facility created through a partnership among International Paper, Paul Smith’s College and the State of New York.  The park was closed for use, but I was interested in viewing their handicap accessible lean-tos equipped with ramps and fold-down wooden sleeping platforms. Lean-tos are also located along the Appalachian Trail. WhiteBlaze, an internet resource dedicated to the Appalachian Trail, has a forum devoted to Shelters & Lean-tos where users share their shelter experiences and discuss issues related to shelters of lean-tos from Georgia to Maine.  Lean-tos are also found in Finland, where they are called “laavus”. They are especially common in the Pukala National Forest of Finland.

How Many Lean-tos Are There?

The current, best guess is that there are 295 public lean-tos. An online blogger, DSettahr at Adirondack Forums, stated it was his “(long term) hiking goal… to spend a night in every single lean-to in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.” To that end he began an inventory and posted a spreadsheet of all 295 lean-tos in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains.  Over time, with the contribution of many hikers, he ended up with a spreadsheet of 295 lean-tos.  You can read the whole discussion at

Lean-to Construction

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 are shown as Figure 1. There are also thriving companies, such as Adirondack Lean-to Company or Adirondac No-K Lean-Tos, that will build an Adirondack lean-to on your property.

Figure 1 Adirondack Lean-to Plans

Lean-to Usage

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!

Mark, Matthew and Sparky prepare for an evening fire in front of the Cascade Pond lean-to

Lean-tos are commonly available in the winter.  In 14 years of winter camping only once have I encountered a lean-to in use by other campers.  On one of my very 1st winter camping trips during a Martin Luther King weekend an intrepid Boy Scout troop preceded us into the popular John Pond lean-to in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area.  We read their intentions at the trailhead register so we retrieved a tent from our vehicle and tented on the other side of the pond rather than try to share the lean-to with the troop.

Giving Back to Lean-tos

If you have used a lean-to and enjoyed the experience you can give back by volunteering through two worthy organizations; Adopt a Lean-to or Lean-to Rescue efforts.

Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adopt a Lean-to program began in 1985 with the approval of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Typically Adopters make multiple visits to ‘their’ lean-to to keep it cleaned up and maintained.  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.

Lean2Rescue is a group who have restored, rehabilitated and rescued more than 30 lean-tos 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. Most impressive of all, Lean2Rescue operates year-round, including through Adirondack winters.


We concluded our winter camping trip at the Puffer Pond lean-tos by making our own entry into the log book recording the weather conditions and the origins of our group.  In the morning we shared a hearty breakfast cooked over a small fire and used the spacious lean-to to re-pack our gear for the hike out.   Our overnight stay in the Puffer Pond lean-tos left us tired but happy.  While we enjoyed a beautiful wilderness weekend in NY’s great outdoors, we were happy to be looking forward to the additional comforts provided by home. A night of sleep in the wilderness, sheltered from the elements in a log lean-to, is part of an Adirondack tradition dating back to simpler times. Though lean-tos have been around for hundreds of years, they have not outlived their usefulness. If you have ever spent time hiking in the North Country you know a lean-to provides a comforting sight as a refuge, a retreat, a shelter, a lunch spot, an inspiration point, and a temporary home away from home.  We left our lean-to and wondered who would be the next visitors; other winter campers like ourselves? Or would the lean-tos remain empty until spring?

Winter Campers at Puffer Pond Lean-to

References Cited

No Place I’d Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-tos:
John Dillon Park
Adirondack Forum:
Adirondack Forum lean-to inventory discussion:
Adirondack lean-to spreadsheet:
Lean-to Building Plans:
Adirondack Lean-to Company
Adirondac No-K Lean-Tos
DEC regulations regarding lean-tos: Appalachian Trail Lean-to Forum:
Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adopt a Lean-to Program:

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Survival Kit

I have a survival kit that I take on canoe trips and some adventures.  On our latest winter camping venture we got talking about doing a ‘survival overnight’.  The idea would be to camp out overnight with minimal gear.  How minimal was the topic of most of the discussion.  Doing the trip somewhere safe where someone could bail out if necessary was another discussion.

A starting point for an overnight survival kit would probably include most of these items.

A water tight plastic Ovaltine bottle to store 16 items.

  • Four fire starters: box matches, a Bic lighter, Fire Steel fire starter and matches with an emery board in a pill prescription bottle.
  • Two fire tinder sources: cotton balls swabbed with Vaseline and WetFire tablets.
  • Alcohol hand cleaner (can also serve as fire starter)
  • Iodine water treatment tablets
  • Micro cordage
  • A Leatherman Squirt multi-tool
  • A whistle
  • Compass
  • Toilet paper
  • Aluminum foil
  • Emergency poncho
  • Emergency space blanket

Everything fits inside the bottle and stays dry.

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Mount Blue

It was cold, about 19 degrees, as four of us-Jim Muller, Mark Hay, Jay Katonica and Scott Handy set out on a slippery, snow-covered bushwhack up Warren County’s Mount Blue.  Our canine escort, Maddux, a German shepherd/husky cross, bounded ahead with enviable ease as the rest of us struggled on the slick footing.

The plan was to drop our packs along the trail to Lizard pond, bushwhack up Mount Blue, then return to our packs and hike along the shore of the Lizard pond to the lean-to sited on the western shore of the pond. The mile-long trail to Lizard pond begins on the southwest shore of Garnet Lake, where there is a campsite and a trail sign at the foot of the valley between Mount Blue and Gillingham Knoll.

Donning snowshoes it was easy and straight forward crossing over Garnett Lake.  then we followed the mile-long trail leading to Lizard Pond on the southwest shore.

According to Bill Ingersoll “long ago, some unknown surveyor recorded the name of this small pond as “Lixard Pond,” probably in error. This simple misspelling shaped the topographic maps of the next century, for the name “Lixard” appeared on the U.S. Geological Society maps for decades to come. The metric USGS maps currently available label it as Lizard Pond, but this restoration of proper spelling has gone largely unnoticed. People still refer to it as Lixard Pond as though it is the actual name – or else they just haven’t updated their maps”.

But as soon as we hit the shore line Mark pulled out the trail guide. Now I am all in favor of excessive planning but it is with some trepidation that we watched Mark consult the trail guide. Although Mark had been on many winter camping trips he was not known for organizing and planning any trips. His previous attempt at organizing resulted in the “The Much Anticipated Never Accomplished Rainbow Falls Trip“.

OK, at least Mark is sure where we came from…  While Mark shed his Beyond Fleece Steel Windshirt and consulted the trail guide Scott hydrated and kept an eye on Maddux. Jay decided to surreptitiously check his GPS Unit. Not that Jay would betray a trust in Mark, but hey it never hurts to measure twice.

We left the Lizard Pond trail where the swamps in the pond’s valley first become visible, and headed up the mountain.
Mount Blue, which rises from a solid ledge deep in Garnet Lake to a height of 2,940 feet with an elevation gain of ~1500′ from the lake.  Mount Blue is part of the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, a popular winter recreation area in the southeastern corner of the Adirondack Park.

Although Mark, who had planned the trip, touted the hike as “relatively easy,” we found out later that DEC’s Wilcox Lake Wild Forest Draft Unit Management Plan characterizes it as offering “moderately difficult bushwhacking opportunities to adventuresome hikers and snowshoers.” This proved an apt description. Fortunately, Jay had packed trekking poles, which he graciously loaned Jim for the bush whack up and down Mount Blue. Needless to say, they were a great advantage and a set of trekking poles where purchased after the trip.

Treeless patches on the southeastern side of the mountain-the result of a 1908 fire-affording us splendid vistas. Taking advantage of these open areas, ledges and false summits, one can enjoy 270 degree perspectives of Crane Mountain, Lizard Pond, Bearpen Peak, Baldhead Mountain and Moose Mountain. To the west are Georgia Mountain, Harrington Mountain, New Lake Mountain and Wilcox Mountain. With these glimpses of the impressive panorama providing inspiration, we scrambled onward and upward.

As we climbed up Mount Blue there were several ledges and false summits offering views of Garnet Lake and Lizard Pond.

At the peak, we posed for the requisite group photograph and enjoyed a quick snack while the wind blew in increasingly dark cloud cover.


It was steep and slippery climbing up, but nothing like the journey downslope when each of us experienced a ‘Jay-nami’.
Then it was time to head back down Mount Blue. If the way up was steep and slippery, the way down was steeper and slipperier.

Fortunately, no one got hurt as we tumbled and slid our way down the mountain and soon we re-joined our backpacks and made our way to the lean-to along Lizard Pond. We hiked the remainder of the trail along Lizard Pond to spend the night at the lean-to on the western shore.

Once we settled in at the lean-to, we boiled water for hot drinks and wolfed down reconstituted freeze-dried meals. In other situations, what passes for food in these highly processed packages would be turned back to the kitchen. However, the salty, hot food tasted great to four tired, wet and cold winter campers.

but for Maddux was dried dog food.

Afterward we sat around a fire and talked until bedtime as flurries floated down. This is one of the best parts of winter camping. Since it is dark early, there is lots of time to chat, laugh and discuss future trips. Not only does a campfire help pass the time during the long nights, but the sense of camaraderie is enhanced as the night deepens around a campfire circle. As our fire dwindled, we settled into warm sleeping bags and took advantage of the extra darkness to log a solid night’s sleep.

We settled into warm sleeping bags. This was possibly the maiden voyage for my Western Mountaineering winter sleeping bag – an extra long, over stuffed, over engineered Puma.

In the morning, we awoke to the sun illuminating the back side of Mount Blue across Lizard Pond. Mark was the first to arise while the rest of us lingered in our warm sleeping bags and offered breakfast ideas. Despite our imaginative suggestions, Mark gave us hot water, which we used to make a simple breakfast of hot oatmeal washed down by coffee and hot chocolate.

Following this quick breakfast, we snowshoed out the Lizard Pond trail to our cars and searched for a convenient diner for a well-earned second breakfast.



Vacuum Bottles for Overnight

KTHERMONE-001We have experimented with thermos/vacuum bottles.  Not testing various brands – we have no special insights there – but on their use for winter camping.

If possible pre-heat the thermos with some boiling water (fill, let stand for ~5min and refill with boiling water), this makes quite a difference. With pre-heating and some protection a Thermos (brand) bottle holds the content HOT for about 12 hours (of course depending on conditions) and warm enough to be nice to drink some 18 hours. Also the bigger the better (volume / surface area) so buy a one liter model.

For overnights in winter I’ve had good luck with insulating the thermos and keeping it inside a pack to keep the wind off. You won’t burn your tongue in the morning, but it is still warm enough to satisfy.

Filled with hot water the night prior and given some protection (e.g. in a tent or, better yet, within your sleeping bag) they will render nearly hot coffee the next morning.  That plus a granola bar or two is usually enough to get moving in the morning.  Your body can only absorb about 400 calories of food an hour,  so it really doesn’t matter how much food you consume for breakfast once your have consumed an initial meal.

Depending on the type of winter camping trip you are taking it may not be desirable to hang around in the morning and cook breakfast.  A vacuum bottle of coffee and a quick bite enables one to pack up and move out.

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Before you pitch your tarp or tent for the night or before you build your quinzee, you want to let the snow firm up or sinter.  Sintering of snow is when snow crystals lose their points due to molecular motion, wind, and direct pressure.

Initially, snow falls as individual flakes or snow crystals, but pointy crystals and sharp angles are not as thermodynamically stable as more rounded crystals.

In nature, crystals lose their points due to molecular motion, wind, and direct pressure. Physically breaking the snow crystals, for instance stomping on them or disturbing them with a shovel, will produce the same effect. The crystal arms are broken and then rounded grains fuse by freezing into larger crystals in a process called sintering. Snow crystals resulting from destructive metamorphism compact easily and can become very hard and dense.
Rounding and sintering stabilize the new snow and, along with gravity, cause it to settle. Thus, there is a net loss of height- which causes settlement.

Snow Sintering








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Snowshoeing Gaiters

As an avid snowshoer I know how important gaiters are to keeping snow from slipping in-between your pants and the top of your boots. Snow gaiters can keep both your pants and feet dry when you snowshoe in the deep stuff.

Gaiters for snowshoeing are usually longer than hiking gaiters and typically extend up near the knees. They are made of thicker material and are highly water repellent.  Because the user will want to make adjustments while wearing gloves or mittens they usually have easily manipulated snaps and/or Velcro to secure them on top of your leg and boots.

Gaiter shopping tips:

  • Make sure your snow gaiters have a means of securing them at the top so that  you can keep the gaiters cinched around your leg. The last thing you want is your gaiters sliding down your calves!
  • Look for gaiters with cords or straps that are replaceable. You want your gear to be useful for many years. If there is a strap or cord that runs below your boot it will eventually wear out. Look for gaiters where you can easily replace those straps or cords.

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