Winter Camping in Crested Butte
By Bart Beeson
Eric Larsen is a man on a mission. The highly accomplished polar explorer and mountaineer is committed to showing people how to enjoy cold weather activities. “My goal is to get people to get out and enjoy recreating in a season that’s often intimidating,” he says. So on a recent trip to Crested Butte, Colorado, Larsen—a part-time resident of the mountain ski town—led a group of us for what was essentially an overnight winter camping trip, but was also a crash course on winter camping techniques.
On a bluebird late November day, we made the short drive from town up into the mountains, gaining over a thousand feet in elevation, towards a staging area where we would prepare for the night. We were provided with ordinary plastic sleds for carrying our gear, snowshoes, and simple chest harnesses for pulling the sleds, and set off two-by-two up the mountain road to our destination: Lake Irwin. Despite the amount of gear I was towing, I found pulling the sled surprisingly easy over the snow-packed road.
We made it to the campsite by late afternoon and proceeded to set up our tents on an overlook with spectacular views of the Rockies. Throughout the trip, Larsen regaled us with anecdotes of his various expeditions to the North Pole and South Poles, while providing tips and techniques to make winter activities not just tolerable, but enjoyable.
Obviously, a huge part of a successful winter outing involves having the right clothes and equipment. “Gear is in integral part to being able to enjoy really incredible places,” says Larsen, who can quite literally talk for hours about the importance of layering and the joy of putting on a new pair of socks. What might seem counter intuitive, Larsen stressed that the key to winter activities is not to avoid getting too cold, but rather to take off layers as your body warms up from activity – what he calls his ‘polar strip tease.’ This is to avoid sweating, which will quickly cool you down as soon as you stop moving. He also provided tips such as how to anchor a tent in windy conditions; how to tie knots that are easy to undo with thick gloves on; the importance of a well-organized pack so that you’re not wasting precious time in the cold looking for something; and how to ventilate your tent to minimize moisture building up during the night.
As the temperature dropped to single digits, we piled on our layers and took turns melting snow over camp stoves to have water for the morning, and to enjoy the warmth of a hot water bottle placed at the bottom of our sleeping bags. With a nearly full moon reflecting off the snow, it felt more like early dawn than late at night, making it easy to navigate the campsite even without a headlamp. In the morning, we reluctantly extricated ourselves from our warm sleeping bags, packed up our sleds, and made the easy hike out.
Fat Biking Crested Butte
With a successful winter camping expedition and a wealth of new knowledge under my belt, I wanted to see what else Crested Butte had to offer. Known as one of the birthplaces of modern day mountain biking, today the town is one of the premier mountain biking destinations in the U.S., boasting over 750 miles of trails. And Crested Butte has fully embraced the rapid growth of fat biking in the last few years, hosting the Fat Bike World Championships, and working with the U.S. Forest Service to approve a plan for groomed winter fat bike trails.
While there wasn’t enough snow on the ground for groomed trails in late November, a closed off mountain road made for great, if somewhat icy, biking. So a group of us set off on a small fleet of Otso Voytek Trail fat bikes, which are specifically designed to handle more like traditional mountain bikes. We rode for roughly 8-miles, starting from the Crested Butte Mountain Resort and continuing on Gothic Road, passing the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory field station on the way. While the bikes look much burlier than most mountain bikes, I was surprised by how light and maneuverable they were. A pair of oversized mittens, or “pogies,” fitted to the handlebars, made by Otso’s sister company Wolf Tooth Components, kept my hands protected from the wind while allowing easy access to brakes and shifters. It was just enough of a taste of fat-biking to want to try some of the single track trails once the conditions were right.
I came away from the weekend ready to fully embrace winter outdoor activities, a strong desire to return to Crested Butte for more camping and biking, and perhaps most importantly, a newfound appreciation for a hot water bottle stuffed in the base of a fluffy sleeping bag.
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Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not travelling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.