When the weather turns cold, winter hiking is a great way to keep you from turning into a couch potato. Make a New Year resolution to keep on hiking through the cold months.Then follow through. Do the extra preparation needed to keep safe. Choose a good destination. Get your gear together and hit the trail.
Winter hiking means different things in different areas. In a subtropical climate, it means you don’t get as hot when hiking. In areas with no snow, hiking in the winter is often muddier. However, be aware, if temperatures are less than 50F (10C), the possibility of hypothermia exists. No matter where you’re located, good planning for your winter outing is important. Your life may depend on it if something unexpected happens.
If you’ve never hiked in the winter, how do you get started? First, you need to realize that your equipment needs are a little different, and in ways, more significant. If you’re going to be trudging through snow in sub-freezing temperatures, you need to keep warm and dry from head to toe. But be prepared, the cost for winter hiking gear can get quite high, depending on what you select.
For a first winter hike, try a day hike of several hours. How did it go? Any problems with freezing water or food? Did you keep warm? Often you’re sweating while hiking, then quickly cool off when you take a break. Did your boots and socks work out alright? Go with someone that’s experienced in winter hiking. They’ll help you in preparation and on the actual hike.
Winter Hiking Boots and Footwear
If you’re hiking in temperatures above 0F (-20C), you can most likely get started with the mid-weight boots you use during other seasons. However, you’ll need to pay close attention to your socks. Come to think of it, you need to pay close attention to your socks even if you do buy winter boots.
It’s best to wear a special liner sock that acts as a vapor barrier to keep your feet dry from sweat. Over the liner sock, you’ll need one or two pairs of heavy wool socks, depending on how heavy your boots are and how cold it is. Of course, any boot you currently own or plan on buying must have enough room to fit your multi-socked foot.
When buying winter hiking boots there are a number of options. Most popular is a heavy leather insulated hiking boot. Leather boots are comfortable and usually accept crampons if you’re hiking in icy or slippery conditions.
Another option is a pac boot. A pac boot is more flexible, better insulated, and tends to be more waterproof. Due to it’s flexibility, most hikers won’t be able to hike as long and far. Mosts pacs don’t easily accept crampons.
The high end winter hiking boot is a double plastic boot. They’re waterproof and quite warm. They’re a ridged plastic that accepts crampons. They usually have a removable liner that can be used as overnight footwear, allowing it to dry out. If you choose this option, don’t get the mountaineering plastic boot.
The final piece of footwear to consider is gaiters. If you’re hiking through snow that’s higher than your boot top, gaiters can keep the snow out of your boots and keep the bottom of your pants dry.
The real secret to winter hiking clothing is to dress in layers. You’ll sweat while hiking, so moisture wicking long underwear is a good undergarment to start with. Over that, several layers of fleece or wool clothing will keep you warm, and perform well when wet. Add a top layer to break the wind, perhaps raingear to protect against snow or rain. As you hike, layers can be removed. When you take a break, put layers back on so you don’t cool down too quickly.
Keeping your hands warm is important. Mittens are warmer than gloves but lack dexterity. Start with glove liners. Put mittens over the glove liners. A pair of overmitts will keep the hands dry.
Finally, there’s the head. A headband may do the trick in warmer weather. However, plan on a heavy hat that covers your ears. Again, wool or fleece works well. If it’s really cold, you can’t have any exposed flesh, so pack a facemask.
Hiking Food and Water
Realize that you need more food in cold weather for the body to stay warm. Eat frequently.This helps prevent hypothermia. Since food can freeze, pack simple foods such as nuts, raisins, and trail mix that can be consumed while on the trail. If you plan on winter hiking, it’s a good idea to understand hiking nutrition so you fuel your body with the right foods.
Water can be a bit of a challenge in the winter. Surprising as it may sound, you’ll need a lot of water. You will sweat a lot, even though it’s cold. But remember, if the temperatures are subfreezing, your water can freeze, so get a wide-mouth water bottle and put it in a water bottle parka, which will insulate it from the cold.
Obtaining and purifying water on the trail can be problematic. Potential water sources can ice over. When you do find water, you can’t filter it. Water filters freeze up in the winter. The best plan is to carry in all of your water. If that’s not possible, plan on using purification tablets to purify your water, remembering that it takes longer for them to be effective in cold temperatures.
Hypothermia is the number one risk to winter hikers. This is basically a drop in the core temperature of the body, which if ignored can lead to fatality. I’ve covered the two most important aspects in combating hypothermia: what you wear and what you consume.Drink plenty of water. Eat plenty of food. Wear the temperature appropriate clothing to prevent exposure.
If you plan on staying out overnight, you may want to obtain a winter sleeping bag and a winter tent, depending on the expected temperatures. Even if you’re not staying overnight, it’s a good idea to have a sleeping bag or bivy sack, or maybe a tent for emergency shelter. Also, remember that your flashlight or headlamp batteries won’t perform well in the cold.
Hiking in the winter can be slow going in snow, especially if it’s deep. It can slow you down to just several miles per day. Those can be grueling miles. Even if you opt to bring snowshoes, it’s still tough going, especially if it’s icy. Don’t plan on the same mileage you hike in the summer.
Winter hiking is fun. It’s so quiet. There’s nothing more peaceful than a walk through the woods over freshly fallen snow. You simply need to do some extra planning and perhaps buy or rent some extra gear. Make sure you know the weather forecast for your destination. The colder the weather, the more you need to bring to insure you have safe journey.