You might enjoy getting cozy with a cup of hot cocoa when the cold season begins, but if you’re like many passionate hikers, this is the perfect time to go outside and take in amazing landscapes covered in snow. Bear in mind that hiking in the cold season does come with its dangers and challenges, but you can tackle them successfully with preparation and by having the right gear and tools with you.
Here are some tips for a safe and enjoyable winter hike:
1. Check the weather and trail conditions
When planning on hiking in the winter, it is essential to get a complete picture of the upcoming weather conditions for your trip, besides the temperature, as the weather at the base of the mountain and halfway up a mountain can vary significantly. Having information on wind speed, precipitation and potential winter storms is just as essential. You’d want to avoid hiking in foggy conditions.
Besides, hiking in the winter means you also need to check how thick the snow is and if you need to watch out for avalanches — check for updates on avalanche.org . As winter days tend to be shorter, make sure to check the time of the sunrise and sunset for the day you plan to hike. Plan your day so you can avoid hiking in the dark.
Also, check online hiking forums for the area to get updates on trail conditions. If you’re new at hiking, try to stick to familiar areas or go with an experienced hiker that is familiar with the local trails and conditions.
2. Map out your route and time your hike
Before starting your hike, you should study the maps to have a clear idea which trails you will be hiking. It’s good to keep in mind where the campsites, exit points and water stops are, as well. Watch out for deep snow, which can easily conceal trail markers. Make sure to have a map and a compass with you to find your way, as GPS shouldn’t be relied on.
You should also make a time control plan to help you determine where you will be on your hike at any given time. As a general rule, walking speed is determined by how many people are on the hike and the elevation. For every additional 1,000 feet, you may need an additional hour of hiking time. This is especially important to keep in mind when hiking in a group. Start early, as daylight hours are short in the winter. “Shorter days mean shorter hikes. And a headlamp with fresh batteries is mandatory, even on short hikes. Lithium batteries hold charge better in cold than alkaline,” says David DiCerbo, founder of Destination Backcountry Adventures.
3. Leave a hiking itinerary with a friend
Before you set out on a wintery adventure, you should “leave your itinerary with a friend or family member and check in with them when the hike is finished,” says Jennifer Phar Davis, a speaker and author with the Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Whether you’re going on a multi-day hike or exploring the sights for one day, it’s crucial that you do so. This way, you have a friend who can call for help in case you’re not returning on time.
4. Layer up to keep warm and dry
With low winter temperatures, it’s important for you to keep yourself warm on your hike. The first step you want to take to that end is to “dress in layers that can easily be taken off or put back on to help comfortably regulate your body temperature,” according to Davis. This way, you will be able to stay warm and comfortable on your hike, while avoiding overheating and sweating. As it turns out, you should try “not to sweat, if possible, since it can lead to feeling chilled or cold,” according to Davis.
Here’s how to dress in layers:
- Base layer
Go for a close-fitting type of clothes next to your skin to wick away any perspiration and keep you dry. Synthetic materials and merino wool tend to help sweat easily evaporate instead of keeping the moisture on your skin, making you feel cold. Avoid cotton altogether, as it takes a long time to dry.
- Mid layer
This layer is meant to provide additional insulation from the cold and acts as a shell layer that keeps outside wind and moisture away from you. Pick fleece and other lightweight sweaters and jackets for this layer.
- Outer layer
You should wear an insulated jacket that can protect you against the cold, wind and any kind of precipitation. Apart from repelling water, your jacket should also work hard to trap your body heat. Additionally, your outer layer should also feature a material designed to breathe and allow internal moisture to find its way away from your skin.
The point of layering is to keep your body temperature steady, as “you don’t want to get too chilled or too warm at any point. It takes a lot of additional energy for your body’s thermal regulation system to deal with wild swings. Which can sneak up on you,” according to DiCerbo.
Take advantage of any rest stops to change your layers. “For example, if you plan to stop for more than a few minutes (lunch, summit, etc.) slow your pace and layer up 5–10 minutes before stopping, trapping your heat from movement for the thermal challenge of stopping for an extended period. Alternately, if you know you’ve got a steep section ahead, don’t be afraid to layer down and hike cold for a few minutes until the additional exertion warms you”, according to DiCerbo.
5. Protect your skin properly
Freezing temperatures and cold wind can expose your skin to frostbite. Your outer extremities also require special treatment. Your hands can benefit from two layers of gloves: wear lightweight fleece gloves and waterproof shell ones on top. Make sure to pack a spare pair of fleece gloves in case the ones you’re wearing get wet. If you’re prone to cold fingers and toes, add some heat by using hand and toe warmer packets.
A neck gaiter will provide the required protection for your nose and your cheeks. A headband or a winter hat can keep your ears warm and dry, as you tend to lose body heat through the top of your head. Wearing a face mask can also further protect your ears.
Wear wool or synthetic socks with a snug fit. Warmer socks are best for insulation, but they also tend to be thicker. You want to make sure your boots don’t fit too tight to avoid any circulation issues, which can lead to frostbite. “If conditions call for snowshoes (usually snow deeper than 6-9 inches), it is incredibly difficult and unsafe to hike without them. This is also known as ‘post-holing’. You greatly increase your own . . . risk of injury from falling or exhaustion while post-holing,” says David DiCerbo.
He also added that “you’ll leave behind holes that are likely to freeze solid and then be hidden by a few inches of snow, waiting to catch the edge of someone’s snowshoe, leading to falls. These types of falls almost always lead to torque injuries and as a result, it is considered incredibly bad form to post-hole on a snowshoe track.”
Besides, wearing snowshoes is not always an option depending on where you’re hiking. According to DiCerbo, “snowshoes are required by law in many places after 9 inches of snow. Even in those areas where it is not legally required, expect peer-pressure from other hikers if you attempt to post-hole a snowshoe trail.”
Carry an extra pair of socks so you can easily change if your feet get wet. If you’re hiking through snow, make sure to wear waterproof boots that also keep the cold away.
6. Get a roomy backpack
Prepare for a successful hike with a large backpack, as you’ll be carrying spare clothes, food and water. Make sure the backpack of your choice has plenty of external attachment points and compression straps so you can attach various items to it, including water bottles, snacks, snowshoes and crampons. A top lid on a winter backpack also comes in handy, as you can easily store other gear like a headlamp, gloves and snacks.
7. Have hiking essentials on you
Carrying essential hiking items proves to be even more important in the winter — you need to be self-sufficient during your hike. Here are the items you absolutely need to turn your hike into a successful one:
- Plastic whistle
- Personal first aid kit
- Fire-starting materials
- Headlamp with extra lithium batteries
- Small knife/multi-tool
- Gear repair supplies
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- High-energy snacks (trail mix, nuts, beef jerky, etc.)
- Toilet paper
While you might need to buy most of these items, some of them can also be made at home, like the first aid and fire-starting kits.
8. Carry survival gear too
Here are the survival gear items you absolutely need, especially if you need to set camp, or you’re stranded and need to keep warm while waiting for help:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Lightweight tent without tent poles
- White gas stove, fuel and cooking pot
You should also “pack an emergency blanket. . . and a lightweight shelter you need to hunker down on the trail,” Davis tells us.
If you’re hiking with a group, these items can be distributed among everyone coming along — otherwise, you need to make sure you get a backpack that can fit everything.
9. Hiking above the tree line: have the right gear on you
When you get above the tree line, conditions change — you need to make sure you’re protected against the wind and avoid sliding on ice and snow. Wear a facemask and ski goggles to shield your eyes from the sun’s glare and blowing snow.
Make sure you have solid crampons, to help you advance with good traction, and an ice ax. “You’ll likely need either traction (microspikes/crampons) or flotation (snowshoes) in the winter. Often both on the same hike, particularly if you’re going up a mountain” says David DiCerbo. He also adds that “microspikes are great to provide traction in icy areas. They go directly onto your boot. Yak trax and similar are best left home for shoveling the walk. For hiking, Kathoola and Hillsound are good choices.”
As this is an advanced stage of winter hiking, you are better off learning how to use these tools from a qualified instructor.
10. Remember to keep drinking water and to eat
Being out in the cold might lessen your thirst, but you need to make sure you’re properly hydrated because dehydration can quietly settle in during a winter hike. Therefore, it’s important to keep drinking, even if it seems more difficult in below-freezing weather. According to DiCerbo, you need to “drink more. . . It’s actually very easy to get dehydrated in the winter as the air has very little moisture, so you lose a bit of water on every exhale — those big clouds of breath steam add up!”
Fill up your water bottle with warm water before leaving and keep it inside your pack. You are probably better off with an insulated water bottle. Take sips of water often — this will also help to prevent the water from freezing. According to Davis, you should “make sure that your water bottle. . . is situated in a way that it will not freeze.” Turn your water bottle upside down in your pack to prevent the top from freezing shut, as this side tends to freeze first.
You also want to eat plenty because “you need additional calories to burn for thermal regulation, in addition to those you burn for kinetic movement (hiking, snowshoeing, etc.). So, your caloric intake in the winter should reflect this,” DiCerbo tells us. He also adds that “an average-sized (185lb) man can burn almost 1000 calories an hour snowshoeing vigorously.” That’s not surprising at all, given that hiking in snowy conditions can burn up to 4,000-5,000 calories a day . Besides your regular meals, “pack extra snacks for winter hiking,” says Davis. They could be anything protein-packed, from nuts to beef jerky.
11. Watch out for frostbite and hypothermia
Frostbite occurs most frequently on fingers, toes and ears. Your skin may feel cold and waxy, and you may feel some tingling or even pain if you experience frostbite. You can prevent it by dressing in layers and having dry spare clothes. DiCerbo warns us that “when temps are below freezing (typical in the winter) precipitation is not the issue, perspiration is. The biggest mistake first-time winter adventurers make is overdressing or failing to shed a layer when they start to warm while hiking.”
As it happens, “this leads to sweating, and while modern base layers are great at wicking moisture away from the body, they have a saturation point. Once you’re wet, you lose heat 25 times faster than when dry. Avoid becoming warm to the point where you’re sweating for an extended period of time,” says DiCerbo.
While you might be tempted to put on a lot of layers before you leave on your hike, it’s better if you keep an extra layer or two as spare clothing. “Don’t be afraid of starting your hike a bit cold and warming up. If you are warm before you start hiking, be prepared to shed a layer, lose a hat, etc. to allow heat to escape before you start to sweat profusely,” DiCerbo tells us. If you do sweat, make sure to change as soon as you get to stop to change, as continuing to hike in sweaty clothes is dangerous in cold weather.
If you do get frostbite or even hypothermia, the first thing you need is to get indoors as quickly as possible. If you’re far from shelter, the next best thing to do is to get out of the wind and snow. Change into dry clothes if you’ve been sweating and have plenty of water and food to help regulate your body temperature. Hikers with a moderate or severe case of hypothermia should be evacuated as soon as possible.
12. Keep your electronics warm
Keep your electronics warm so they can still work when you’re about to capture a breathtaking vista. Because the cold tends to kill batteries, you’ll want to be prepared for this type of situation. Lithium batteries fare better than alkaline. Stow your headlamp, cellphone and other electronics in a pocket that’s close to your body or in a jacket pocket that might keep the electronics warmer.
13. Keep hiking gear in self storage
Hiking might keep you busy if you are a regular, but if you take a break from your favorite activity, you can always turn to self storage self storage to keep your hiking gear until you need it again. Renting a 5×5 storage unit is sufficient to house your hiking items. Make sure to look for a facility that’s either in your neighborhood or on your regular commute. If you’re not sure how self storage works, you can find out more about it by looking at the most common questions and answers for self storage renters.
Now that you know how to tackle winter hiking, which trail do want to hit first? Let us know in the comments section below.