A Simple Guide to Winter Hiking
What You Need to Know About Hiking in the Cold
Winter days are short and cold, but hitting the hiking trail despite these conditions has many rewards. Trails are quiet and snow cover makes for easy animal tracking. Winter hiking can be both challenging and meditative. And, when you bring some sleds and the right crew, it’s a lot of fun as well. This guide is for anyone who wants to learn more about how to prepare for, enjoy, and recover from a successful winter hike.
As with every activity this winter, make sure you’re adhering to local guidelines to recreate responsibly.
Planning and prepping for your hike takes more energy in the winter but it’s an essential step and one with a lot at stake. The potential dangers of hiking in the cold, wind, and a range of precipitation means that good preparation is extra important.
To get started, you should think about how far you hike in the snowless seasons. How far do you feel comfortable hiking under those conditions? Reduce that number by a few miles, especially if it’s your first time out because the winter conditions will typically decrease your pace.
Once you have mileage in mind, you can research some trails. The more popular ones will probably have snow more packed down. Opt for one of those if you’d rather not break trail. Breaking trail can be tiring, so if you go with that option, it’s a good idea to bring along a friend or two so you can take turns. Additionally, consider hiking trails with some elevation gain. Climbing uphill will be more challenging but it will also keep you warm.
Once you have your trail in mind, it’s time to get packing. Since the cold wears batteries down quickly, it’s helpful to have extra charging units, a GPS, and a map. You’ll also need a headlamp, sunscreen (probably just enough for your cheeks and nose), a first aid kit, knife, lighter, clothing, food and water. These are all things you’d need on any hike.
There are three major differences in packing for winter hiking: first, the amount of food you pack, second, the way you carry your water, and third, the traction you’ll need for your boots. Since your body is working hard to stay warm, you will burn a ton more calories than you would hiking in more temperate weather. Be sure to pack accordingly and pack food that you can eat on the move. Those dense granola bars are key! In order to make sure your water doesn’t freeze, you can boil it before you go and carry it close to your body in your pack. If it’s especially cold, you can wrap your water bottles in your extra clothes or purchase special insulation for your camelback. In terms of traction, there are three options: microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons. Microspikes are most useful on packed snow and ice, snowshoes for fresh fluffy snow, and crampons for steep ice climbs. Choose your traction accordingly (Sites with trail reports are helpful) and there’s no harm in bringing all three options to the trailhead. You can always decide what you need when you get there and leave the rest behind.
Pro preparation tip: the morning of your hike, heat up rice in socks in the microwave and put the socks in your boots on your drive to the trailhead. Then you can start your hike with toasty toes!
It’s time to get moving. Ideally, you’ll start hiking early in the day to give yourself plenty of time before the sun sets. Since the days are shorter, set a turn around time for yourself or your group. The most important part of the hike isn’t reaching the summit, it’s being outside and having fun, so you don’t want to jeopardize your safety in pursuit of the summit if that means hiking in the dark when you’re not expecting it.
For clothing, you should wear three layers: a base layer, a mid layer and an outer shell. On bottom, you can probably get by with fewer layers although it depends on your body. Fleece pants are great when it’s dry and not too windy. If it’s windy, snowing, sleeting, or some variation of the three, it’s better to wear a base layer and a waterproof/windproof layer over that.
The hiker motto “Be bold, start cold” rings true for winter hiking. Start with layers that would work if you were relaxing in temperatures twenty degrees above the current conditions. That adjustment will account for the amount that your body will heat up while hiking.
As you hike, you can take off or add layers as needed. It’s essential that you take off layers when you warm up because you don’t want to end up too sweaty. The extra moisture will make it difficult for your body to retain heat and stay warm. So pay attention and keep adding or removing items as needed to maintain a constant body temperature.
You’ll also need to pay attention to any parts of your body that are getting cold. For instance, if you stop for a break, your core could be warm but your toes could be cold. In this case, you’d want to stop and put on toe warmers. Temperature regulation is essential to your success as a hiker and even if you’re worried about holding up the group, it’s better to address any issues sooner rather than later.
It can be hard to remember to stay hydrated while hiking in the winter. However, even if you don’t feel thirsty, your body needs the same amount of water as it would on a summer day. Take regular water breaks and aim to drink about half a liter of water per hour.
You’ll need to eat consistently to keep your energy up. By consuming calories, you’re literally adding energy to your system, energy that you need to move and stay warm. Near constant snacking is a good thing and fats are your friend because they take longer to digest!
In terms of navigation, know that not all tracks follow the correct trail. Winter hiking can get really confusing when you think you’re following the right trail but you are actually going down a pee path, over to a scenic outlook, or nowhere in particular. If the snowfall is heavy that year, blazes could be really low on the trees so be vigilant about your direction. Typically, as long as you have your map, your GPS, or your phone plus charger and you use them, you will be able to navigate those snowy slopes with ease!
Your cheeks are red. Your toes thaw on the car ride home, as you recount stories of the day over the phone to dear friends. When you arrive home and get out of a warm shower, rub Tiger Balm on your sore muscles. After a day of winter hiking, you’re likely tired in a good way. It’s the type of tired where you know you made good use of being alive. Where do you want to go next?
Bethany Clarke was raised on cold toes tempered by doses of hot chocolate. She is a hiker, writer, and teacher living in Portland, Maine, spending her weekends exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. She has her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire and is working on a memoir.