Backcountry Campout in the Catskills — First Experience

Backcountry Campout in the Catskills — First Experience

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marmot brand tent in woods

Morning Camp

Having never camped out before, and certainly never in the backcountry, I researched for weeks, pulled the necessary kit together, and finally screwed up enough courage to solo camp overnight in the wilderness.

Echo Lake is a well-known and beloved spot since at least the 1800s, and probably from before, when it was known as Shues Lake. According to Michael Kudish, the short spur trail that leads down from the main trail is likely the original trail down to the lake.

I chose this location for my first backcountry campout mostly because it’s close to Kingston (where I live) and because I figured hiking down there on a Sunday night in September would more-or-less guarantee an open spot at one of the primitive camping sites. As it was, one other party was there when I arrived. But there are a lot of spots around the lake, so we were able to camp well away from each other. Perfect.

Cell Coverage

I hiked in from Platte Clove, a fun easy hike of about 4 miles over mostly level terrain — much of the trail follows an old carriage road. Cell coverage is spotty along this route but you will find places where you can get some texts out.

However, please note: the junction at the col between Plattekill and Overlook, just before you descend into the bowl, is the last place you’ll have cell service until you return to that junction. There’s zero signal down by the lake which is surrounded on three sides by ridges; the fact that you can see the radio tower on Overlook makes no difference.

Rattlesnakes

 Warning! In warmer months, this hike includes potential exposure to rattlesnakes.

echo lake
Echo Lake stillness

Echo Lake is beautiful and full of life: beavers, coyotes, amphibians, bears and snakes are all active in the area. The original lean-to here was built in 1965.

tree with beaver damage near base
Beaver work at Echo Lake

Noob Camp-Out

I chose a well-worn spot with a stone fire ring, set up my tent, and immediately starting fixing dinner.

marmot brand tent in woods
Evening camp

I haven’t set up a tent since the 1970’s when tents were still made of canvas and had poles inside. Whut!? Modern tents, in comparison, are wildly futuristic affairs: incredibly light, roomy, and easy to set up. I can’t tell you how exciting I found all of this. Every part of it was so much fun.

My research and planning had led me to buy a basic alcohol stove rather than a more modern butane stove. I set it up on a flagstone and boiled enough water for a noodle bowl and some hot chocolate.

The peepers were already noisy.

I ate dinner and cleaned up, making sure to leave no trace — then stared at the lake for a while.

I found a tree close to the lake to do do a PCT bear hang which only took 100 tries.

Finally, I brushed my teeth, got into my tent, and settled down for a long night of not being able to settle down.

Overnight Experience: The Woods Do Not Sleep

During the day, I’m used to the Catskills wilderness being pretty quiet. At night, especially in the early hours before dawn, it’s anything but.

It’s really something to listen to coyotes yipping and howling in the backcountry. When I lived on County Route 2, I used to hear them howl regularly, but that was from inside my home — where my dog would lie on the floor, very quiet, eyes wide open, listening to them very intently and anxiously. To hear primal howls shift from one ridge to another over the course of the night is both eerie and thrilling.

I’d brought a Kindle to pass the time but, realistically, there was no hope of my being able to concentrate.

I slept for short patches. A branch would fall, or a leaf would flutter, and I would jump in my sleeping bag.

Really, as a first-timer, it was going pretty great.

Morning

Especially right after dawn, I heard a lot of movement directly around the tent. I had my rain fly on, so I could only guess what was out there. A lot of shuffling and foraging. Something with hoofs walked past.

tent in woods, near small lake
Morning camp view

While my water boiled for breakfast, I took a short walk around the east and south side of the lake.

Lakeside woods at Echo Lake
Echo Lake
lake
Echo Lake
beaver lodge in lake
Echo Lake beaver lodge

Backcounty Breakfast

For breakfast, I whipped up an oatmeal concoction and brewed some fresh coffee. I don’t think I ever had such a fun cup of coffee. By this time, I was in a state of blissful flux, sliding between deep contentment and adrenalized excitement.

marmot brand tent in woods
Morning Camp

I packed up my tent and my mess and headed out, once again leaving no trace of my presence.

What I Learned From My First Campout

Overall, for a first-timer, I felt like I did pretty well. I stayed fed, dry and warm, didn’t freak out, and really had an amazing experience.

The first few times you do a new thing are always valuable learning experiences. After all the research, planning and prep, living life is the best teacher.

Here are six adjustments I decided to make for my next backcountry overnight:

  1. To conserve fuel, I should boil the correct amount of water — i.e. don’t boil too much, which takes longer and wastes fuel;
  2. Buy a wind guard for my stove;
  3. Don’t add protein powder to oatmeal — I thought I was being clever, but the powder spread everywhere;
  4. Sleep in my next day’s shirt so I don’t have to carry a separate top;
  5. Leave camp footwear behind — it might be nice after a really long hike but I’m not doing any long backpacking treks right now;
  6. For the next day, unless I’m returning to camp after a hike, don’t bushwhack through thick stands of mountain laurel with a full camp kit on my back.

This trip gave me the courage to camp away from popular spots. My next campout goal is to overnight somewhere much further away from civilization.

The Hike Out

After striking camp and cleaning up — again making sure to leave no trace — I bushwhacked up the southeastern ridge of Plattekill to this amazing lookout.

scenic view of Echo Lake
Echo Lake seen from Plattekill

From the top of a sheer cliff you can look directly across to Overlook Mountain (notice the radio mast and fire tower in the photo above) and right back down to Echo Lake. The bushwhack hike to Plattekill from Echo Lake was quite difficult, especially with a full camping kit on my back, but the view above was worth it.

Would You Camp in the Catskills Backcountry?

If you‘d like to try an overnight campout in the Catskills wilderness, this beginner’s backcountry camping guide will get you headed in the right direction in terms of gear, planning and safety.

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