Winter Hiking: How to Stay Warm

Happy New Year! People always seem to choose the beginning of the year as a time to commit themselves to be more active. Over the last few years I’ve really gotten to enjoy nature during the winter months, specifically winter hiking. If you live in an area that gets snow, hiking in the winter can make your favorite trail seem like a brand new adventure. Hiking in the snow and cold also burns more calories than hiking in temperate weather so it can help you keep off those holiday pounds that tend to creep up on us.

One of the big reasons that people tend to take a hiatus from hiking during the winter months is that they don’t want to be cold, cold is uncomfortable, who wants to be cold? But what people fail to understand is that with just a little knowledge and planning, you can beat the cold and have great day hikes, or even overnight trips. So here are a few tips on how to stay warm that I learned during my years in Alaska and during winter hikes in the Midwest.

 

  1. Stay Hydrated: When you’re dehydrated your body doesn’t work as efficiently. In a cold environment this leads to headaches and cold extremities. Just because its cold doesn’t mean you’re not losing water. In fact, because the air is less humid during the winter you’re actually losing a little bit more water through respiration and evaporation. Take enough water to get through your trip or be familiar with fast running water sources along the route that will not freeze all the way through. DO NOT attempt to eat snow if you run out of water. This will lower your body temperature and does not provide you with enough water to benefit you. In a pinch you can fill a bottle full of snow and place it in an interior pocket of your jacket until it melts. When this happens, repeat the process until your bottle is full of water.
  2. Layer your clothing: One of the biggest mistakes people make in this specific area is attempting to put on every layer of clothing that they have. But over layering actually makes you feel colder. The air between the layers of clothing is what keeps you feeling warm, so if you condense that air pocket by adding too many layers of clothing you will actually be colder. Than if you had layered correctly. In most cases a poly blend base layer (long tops and bottoms) with hiking pants, a long sleeve midweight top layer and a microdown jacket will be more than enough to keep you warm in all but the northernmost states.
  3. Layer on, Layer off: Only use what you really need in that moment. If you start to sweat while hiking, take off your hat, gloves and outer (or middle) top layer. The big tip here is to avoid excess sweating. Wearing too much and sweating through your clothing will destroy the insulating properties. So when you stop to take a break you will get cold. Instead of doing this, take off the excess layers and put them in the top of your bag before you start sweating. Then put them on when you stop. Your body heat will be retained by the dry layers and you’ll stay toasty warm even when you stop. Improper layering and use is the biggest reason that people have unpleasant winter hiking trips.
  4. Know your feet: Cold feet tend to be a pretty consistent problem in cold weather hiking. But there are a few tricks of the trade that you can use to beat this nuisance. 1. Bring extra socks on long trips. Dirty clothing loses its insulating properties. Bringing a change of socks for each day of trail time, plus a spare, is always a good idea. Loosen your laces. We’re back to the insulating layer of warm air again. When your shoes are tied too tight it hurts you in two ways. The first is that it compromises blood flow to the area, making your feel work less efficiently and allowing them to get cold quicker. The second is that it compresses the fabric in your shoes. When you compress the fabric too much there is now room for the air warmed by your feet to get caught in the fabric of the shoe. It’s the same reason your butt gets cold when you sit in the snow, the compressed fabric doesn’t trap heat as well as it would if it were not compressed.
  5. Clear snow from sleeping areas and bring a sleeping pad: You can sleep comfortably in the snow if you remember to clear away the snow under your sleeping area. Additionally, you’ll want to use a sleeping pad since the sleeping bag that is compressed under your body weight will not insulate you as efficiently. When you go to bed, strip down to your base layer. This will be cold at first, but when you wear too much clothing to bed it doesn’t allow your body heat to reach the sleeping bag and insulate you the way it was designed to. You will always sleep warmer in fewer clothes. To avoid that morning shiver when you get up, pull your clothes into your sleeping bag with you in the morning and allow them to warm up passively before you get dressed. If you plan on warming your tent with a fire source, always remember to open one side of the tent for ventilation. Once the tent is warm, removed the fire source before sealing the tent. If you hammock camp, a sleeping pad, sleeping bag and an underquilt will get you through even the coldest nights in relative comfort.
  6. Always bring tools for a fire: Know the area that you will be hiking in and what you will need to make a fire. In the event of an emergency this is an absolute must. I recommend taking waterproof matches or a ferro fire starter, some quick tinder like dryer lint or dry moss and a tea light candle. Before you attempt to start a fire scavenge for your firewood and arrange it next to you from smallest to largest. The biggest being about the circumference of your wrist. Build a teepee with your smallest twigs and keep finger size twigs nearby to add once it’s going. Light your tinder in the open air. Fire needs a lot of oxygen to burn and placing the tinder in the teepee cuts off precious oxygen that the fire needs to start. Once you have an adequate flame place the tinder under the teepee. Slowly add twigs of increasing size until your fire is established. *If you are attempting to start a fire in the snow, you MUST dig down until you are on soil before attempting to start a fire. Placing a fire on top of the snow will put your fire out when the snow melts from the heat.* **In areas that receive a lot of precipitation it will be easier to scavenge firewood and tinder from standing deadwood in the area. Firewood on the ground will likely be wet and will be difficult to light. In a pinch you can use a knife to cut away the outer layers of wet wood in order to get a fire started. But always look for standing dead wood first.**

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It only takes a little bit of knowledge and preparation to keep you warm and happy in nature, even in the cold.  I hope these tips help you get out and stay warm on your own winter adventure.

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Happy Trails,

Aaron

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2 thoughts on “Winter Hiking: How to Stay Warm

  1. I carry a few pieces of small, dry wood from home (lots on hand, we heat with wood) for an emergency fire start. Others recommend a cotton ball or two covered in petroleum jelly as a starter. Also, hand sanitizer is very flammable, in a pinch.

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