Winter Hiking: A Beginners Guide
Do you love to hike but live somewhere that gets cold and snowy in the winter months? Don’t let cold weather dull your shine, get outside! There is so much beauty to be found in winter hiking as long as you’re prepared for the temperatures and the terrain. In this post, I’ll share 10 tips that will help get you out on the trail tomorrow. I will also share how I pack my pack and what I’m wearing to stay warm, dry, and comfortable while winter hiking.
What are the Benefits to Hiking in the Winter?
- Trails are often desolate; few people want to brave the cold temperatures or own the proper gear to do so so you’ll often have a normally busy trail to yourself.
- Snow and freezing temperatures vastly change your favorite trails making them seem almost brand new. Your senses are surprised by new smells and sights on the same ‘old’ trails you’re used to! But be warned, the trail might not be as easy to follow so be sure to brush up on your navigation skills.
- In the winter months, your phobia of bugs and/or fear of animals on the trail is pretty much diminished! Enjoy the lack of bug spray, bear spray, and bug bites at the end of your hike.
Top Tips for Winter Hiking:
1. Layering is Key when Winter Hiking.
Layer your clothing; you want to be warm without sweating too profusely. Once your clothing is wet its ability to retain heat becomes impaired.
How Do You Layer For a Winter Hike?
Layer 1: Thin, sweat wicking synthetic fabric on top and bottom
Layer 2: Merino Wool or Polyester Material
Layer 3: Puffy Zippered Vest (this is generally what I wind up hiking in)
Layer 4: Puffy Jacket with hood (worn or packed to start your hike!)
Layer 5: Hard Shell, waterproof Pants and Jacket
Layer 6: Accessories (Necessities)! Fleece Hat, Waterproof Gloves, Wool Socks/Battery-powered Heated Socks, & Gaiters
Footwear: Insulated Winter Hiking Boot
**Always pack an extra pair of each accessory!**
2. Allow Yourself Appropriate Time Frames
Hiking and Snowshoeing require similar effort (unless you’re breaking trail that is!), however, snowshoeing will take you longer. Please allow yourself more time to hike a trail in the snowy, winter months! Plan small for your first couple of winter adventures to see what speed you generally move at; it’s only up from here!
3. Plan Ahead and Prepare
There’s always so much to plan for! First and foremost, make sure you have a good understanding of what your hike will entail and what kind of gear you might need. Depending on what type of terrain you’re tackling you’ll need some combination of the following: Snowshoes, micro spikes, crampons, and an ice axe.
Additionally, be sure to know where your trailhead is. If you’re hiking a trail that begins on a season road, you might have a tough time driving to the trailhead! You’ll have to hike the distance between the main road and the trailhead; cross country skiing that distance is another really great option as well.
Some other things to keep in mind include:
Planning to be at your highest point at the warmest and/or clearest point in the day depending on your priorities! Taking into account all land forms; bodies of water can be tough if they’re not fully frozen. And, being prepared for the sun to set earlier in winter months as well.
4. Appropriate Equipment is Vital
As always, with any kind of wilderness adventure, please make sure you are appropriately equipped in both gear and knowledge! You can usually find training and pertinent information through local organizations; if not, look on-line! You’re bound to find a course that can better prepare you for winter conditions if you know where to look. Personally, for any outdoor enthusiast, I would suggest looking into a wilderness first aid course as well (or at a minimum read up on proper winter first aid needs.)
In the winter, having the proper gear is a true necessity. You can’t show up to a snowy trailhead expecting to hike a mountain with nothing but hiking boots; you’re going to need additional gear for safety and success. What you need depends on where you’re hiking!
Loose, Fresh Snow: Snowshoes or Cross Country Skis
Icy Flat Terrain or Low Angle Slopes: Microspikes
Steep and Icy Terrain: Crampons & Ice Axe
What do I Need To Pack For Winter Hiking?
- Backpack: Gregory Zulu
- First Aid Kit
- Hand Warmers/ Foot Warmers
- Water (64oz.)
- Extra Hat
- Extra Gloves
- Spare Socks
- Packable Down Coat
- Essentials (Fire Starter, Navigation, Headlamp, Knife, etc.)
- Micro spikes
- Duct Tape
- Camp Blanket/Bivy/Sleeping Bag
- Personal Location Beacon ($$$, but could save your life!)
5. Follow All Leave No Trace Principles
Although some of these have already been covered, one in particular sticks out to me in winter over others. Basically, don’y destroy the trail. Follow Fall appropriate LNT principles and be sure to utilize snowshoes or cross country skis where appropriate to refrain from post-holing and making the trail dangerous for other hikers (and especially cross country skiers)!
6. Snack Storage is Important
Store snacks close to your core to prevent them from freezing and to ensure you are able to consume them when you’re in need of energy. You may not feel hungry, but cold temperatures and breaking trail through the snow requires a lot of energy; make sure you are appropriately equipped with enough snacks!
7. Water Freezes
Store your waterbottles lid-side-down in your pack. This will just change ‘the top’ which is likely to freeze first. Having a wide mouth opening and filling your water bottle with warm water before departure also help prevent water from freezing.
8. The Cold is Draining
The cold causes batteries to die faster. Keep this in mind if you plan on using your phone, a headlamp, or a camera; hand and body warmers are great ways to keep these items warm while you’re hiking. Make sure you bring extra batteries for your headlamp. Carrying these items close to your body is helpful as well!
Please, for the love of all things holy, utilizing a paper map and never relying on your cellphone out there, no matter the temperature. Reference your phone if it makes you happy, but please carry additional navigation and know how to use it.
9. Warm Drinks Bring Life!
Pack a thermos full of hot cocoa, coffee, or tea! A great insulated bottle should keep this warm for a few hours. Warm yourself up from the inside out with a simple sip.
10. Make a Plan and Share It
Write out a very specific plan and share it with someone you trust. This plan should include what trailhead you’ll be starting from, any spur trails you plan on taking, and what time you plan on starting your hike. Once you share this information with a loved one, give them a time you will reach them by on the day of your hike.
It’s important that you take into consideration that you might have to leave the trailhead and drive for a bit until you have cell phone service when calculating a time. If you do not reach out to this individual by the scheduled time, it’s their responsibility to first, call you and then second, call the DEC and/or State Police. Make sure your plan is detailed enough that you can easily be found if you need help!
Enjoy Winter Outside
We Love to get outside during the winter months! Although winter hiking does require more planning, additional gear, and extra safety precautions, it’s a fairly accessible winter recreation activity. Unlike skiing or snowboarding which requires expensive gear, lift tickets, and a certain level of skill, anyone can start winter hiking as long as they’re properly prepared! I hope this helps you to make it outside this winter.
Check out these awesome Adirondack Hikes, perfect for a winter adventure.
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