Tips for Fun Winter Hiking

December 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Hiking

Hiking in AlaskaEven with the unseasonably warm temperatures in many of our favorite hiking destination, we know that eventually it gets cold, and many people lock themselves away on their treadmills and stationary bikes to await the return of the warmer weather and more outdoor activities. But with the weather acting as irrational as my college sweetheart, it reminds us that we must be prepared for a variety of weather when hiking local trails or the backcountry in winter. This October I was hiking in Wyoming on a ridiculously warm 82-degree sunshiny day and pelted by snow and sleet the following morning. Preparation can turn a disaster into a fun outing no matter what the conditions. OK, 28 degrees and driving sleet is not going to be fun under most conditions but if you are already out there, you still need to give yourself the best chance of making it back safe and sound. Day trip or overnighter.

Some of my favorite hikes have been the morning after a light snow and the Trees and hills are covered with a thin blanket of white, and there is that remarkable fresh smell to the air. Winter Hiking is so much fun and you will find that some of your favorite spots are not only less crowed but can take on a different look entirely from the spring and summer. Winter Hiking brings with it a need for different equipment and depending upon the length of the hike it could be merely a matter of clothing, or the need for specialized shelter and food preparation equipment. With all the weather sites on the Internet and the availability of real-time weather apps for most smart phones those who hike in the winter can do so more safely and enjoyably than ever before.

Cyndi Cruz at Hatcher Pass

Cyndi Cruz is an accomplished cold weather Hiker shown here at Hatcher Pass Alaska

Clothing is the most important thing to understand when winter hiking, that is of course after proper safety precautions such as weather checks and giving someone you trust a hiking plan and route. My Wyoming trips saw several major changes in the temperature and winds during the day, and although this type of fluctuation is not all that common, you still need to be prepared for weather conditions to change quickly. You may begin the day at a higher elevation or start by hiking along a river, understanding how to dress is the key to comfort and safety. One morning I was hiking in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state and our cabin was near the summit of a decent sized mountain, I started out the day with a Mountain Hardwear Gore-Tex, my favorite fleece jacket and the usual essentials, fast wicking long undies and the usual hat and glove combination. It was blowing a bit at the higher elevations and the wind chill was fierce, but after the sun came up a bit higher and I got a bit further down the trail towards the river the Gore-Tex was gone along with the hat and gloves. I also traded in the long underwear for some technical climbing boxers with fantastic wicking ability.

This is a good time to talk about the wicking properties of your clothing. I found this out the hard way along with my friend and renowned climber Alan Burgess in the Himalayas about 12 years ago. DO NOT WEAR COTTON! You will sweat and when you do you want to be wearing a material that can wick moisture away from your skin and dry quickly. To put it mildly, cotton isn’t it! In cold temperatures you want to be as dry as possible and synthetic fibers is the way to go. I wore cotton for a day on my way from Lukla airport which is the usual starting point for treks to Everest Base Camp and other peaks along the way and I can tell you that no matter how cold the temperature may drop, you are exerting yourself and will sweat. Combine that damp icky feeling with a strong wind as you climb to higher elevations and you will not only feel like a piece of meat in a freezer, you have the possibility of hypothermia.

Noah Hochman at Hatcher Pass Alaska for a Winter Hike

Noah Hochman at Hatcher Pass Alaska for a Winter Hike..”Any day above ground is a great day!”

Basically, layering is the way to go weather you are hiking, hunting or even running trails near your home in the wintertime, but there are other precautions that need to be addressed as well. It’s the winter and you must pay attention to potentially icy conditions. If you are like me, I can take a good spill just walking on the sidewalk if I’m not paying attention. Running trails in the winter or hiking on narrow trails near cliffs can make this disastrous. Consider using some type of snow or ice traction equipment such as crampons or studded trail shoes if the conditions warrant it. You may also consider various types of snow traction devices such as those that can simply be attached over whatever type of shoe you are wearing. Walking sticks and hiking poles are also very good tools to have whether you are out for a day hike or deep in the snow of the backcountry in winter.

As a native Floridian, I have to pay particular attention to the weather and trail conditions in winter as I will almost assuredly come across conditions that I am not familiar with and must proceed with caution. For this reason I make certain that whoever I am on winter hiking with is not only adept at colder weather hiking but is a good mentor as well. Winter or cold weather hiking is not for everyone, but you can beat the spring and fall crowds and still have a great day in the great outdoors as even in the dead of winter there are some days that are just spectacular.

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