The Art of Winter Hiking

The winter months, after the holidays once the trees have come down the turkey has been consumed and the extended family has been tolerated to your near breaking point. It’s at this point that we find ourselves struggling to stay active or even motivated to go outside and do anything. Maybe it’s the shorter daylight hours, maybe it’s the cold, and maybe seeing family was so utterly exhausting that you need to go into a mini hibernation. Whatever the case is, it usually isn’t until late March or early April that we realize we’re a little heavier than we were before the snow started falling and maybe those stairs are getting us a little more winded than we’d like to admit.
This year we’ve found a way around all of this in the form of winter hiking. While most people might think this is crazy, as long as you’re dressed appropriately and have a little bit of technical knowledge there is really not much difference than any other time of the year. With the exception being that you now have the opportunity to see some truly breathtaking scenery and snap some cool (not cold) pictures. It all comes down to planning and gear. Dressing appropriately is 70% of the battle and probably closer to 90% when you factor in sweat management. But we’ll talk more about that a little later.
If you find yourself wanting to get out and enjoy the outdoors, but are put off by the colder temperatures. A short list of cold weather gear will give you all you need to be successfully active in the cold.

I recommend the following gear / clothing:

Balaclava
Lightweight thermal layer
Waffle (mid-weight) thermal layer
Water resistant jacket or coat
Trekking poles
Flashlight or headlamp
2 pairs of gloves
2 pairs of socks
Yak tracks or ice cleats
Waterproof hiking shoes / boots
Fire starters (lighter/matches + petroleum soaked cotton balls)
Sleeping bag rated to the coldest temp it will get
Single person tent or something improvise a shelter
And a folding or fixed blade knife

You can find a full list of recommended winter camping gear at http://www.outdoors.org/publications/outdoors/2002/2002-winter-gear.cfm

If you have these things, water and food for the trip, you have everything you need to comfortably hike and even stay overnight in on the trail in cold weather. You’ll want to remember though, that you dehydrate quickly in the cold and that your body burns extra calories keeping itself warm. So it’s always a good idea to have a Lifestraw or water purification tablets and extra food for a cold weather hike.

Once you’ve accumulated or pulled out of storage everything from the list above and found a suitable daypack to stuff it all into, you’re ready to hit the trail. One of the most important things to remember during cold weather activity is sweat management. Especially when you’re hiking some distance on a trail. You usually dress to be warm when you’re not doing much outside. But when you’re on the trail that amount of insulation will probably get you sweating pretty quickly and that isn’t good in the cold. Remember that cold temps are uncomfortable and wet clothing is uncomfortable but cold temps and wet clothing is deadly. With that in mind you’ll probably quickly find that even in temps in the mid to low teens, all you really need when you’re moving will probably be the lightweight thermals. But keep the mid-weights close at hand for when you stop, as you will cool off very quickly. You’ll also want to bring an extra hat or remove the one you’re wearing if you find yourself sweating too much. Sweating through your hat will completely destroy its insulating power until it’s dried again.

A lot of trails will be slick and treacherous during the snowy months if you live in a place that gets a substantial amount of snowfall. In these cases pulling out the trekking poles, that I recommend year round, and the shoe spikes will give you that extra traction that you need to get through the more difficult portions of the hike, if you’re on a moderate or rugged trail.

Keeping these things in mind and packing appropriately for YOU will always be the key to a happy hike. But getting out there and actually doing it is half the battle and you’ll likely pick up this information and a lot more as you put foot to trail.

Happy hiking!

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