Don’t let dropping temperatures and falling snow stop you from going out and enjoying a day of hiking. In fact, many seasoned hikers look forward to hiking in late autumn and winter simply because the changing colors of foliage and the wintry landscape provides a picturesque scene far different from that of spring and summer. Cold weather hiking will indeed need more preparation and caution, but there is just as much fun and adventure to be had as it is with hiking during the other seasons of the year. If you’re planning to go on a hike this winter, here are some tips and advice to keep you warm and happy as you trod along the cold and snow-covered trails.
Wear the Right Clothes
Wearing the right clothes is essential to a successful hiking adventure no matter what time of the year, but it becomes even more crucial if you decide to go during winter. A key aspect of an enjoyable cold-weather hike is being able to stay warm and dry throughout your trip, and dressing in layers certainly helps. Fortunately, you don’t need expedition-grade hiking clothes to enjoy a winter hike and keep yourself safe from hypothermia or frostbite. You simply need to follow a three-layer strategy which consists of a base layer, a middle layer, and an outer layer.
- Baselayer. This layer will sit closest to your skin and will manage moisture and heat. In general, you can do it with long underwear for your base layer bottom and a long sleeve for your base layer top. You’ll want them to be made from polyester and merino wool since these fabrics are great at retaining heat. They’re also breathable and have moisture-wicking abilities which can help dissipate sweat. This is an important consideration because you don’t want wet fabric sitting next to your skin while hiking in the cold. If it’s really cold outside you can double up with your base layers by combining a lightweight and heavyweight layer.
- Middle layer. After your base layer, the next thing you put on would be the middle layer. This is the layer that keeps you warm and insulated while hiking in the cold outdoors. For a top, you can wear a lightweight jacket with synthetic insulation. Some hikers prefer down insulation because it is warmer, but it is rather ineffective when it becomes wet from moisture or light rains. Synthetic insulation on the other hand will dry faster and does a good job of keeping you warm even when it gets slightly wet. For bottoms, lightweight fleece pants should be sufficient to keep your lower extremities warm.
- Outer layer. Your outer layer is what protects you against the wind and rain. As such, you’ll want to look for jackets and pants that are waterproof yet breathable. Look for products with durable water repellency (DWR) finish. Such a finish makes the fabric wind resistant and will shed light on precipitation. One important thing to remember is that your outer layer should fit over your middle layer comfortably. If it’s too tight or too loose, you will have trouble moving around and it will leave lots of open spaces (in the neck and cuffs) where cold air can enter.
Aside from your layering outfit, you will also need the following:
- Hiking Boots. Trails are generally wet and slippery in winter, and so you’ll need boots that are waterproof (to keep your feet warm and dry) and have slip-resistant soles (to prevent slipping). Most of the time, your ordinary hiking boots will do, but there are boots designed specifically for winter hiking if you’re interested. These have high collars to keep snow and mud out and a specific tread design that gives them a strong multi-directional grip on slippery surfaces. Most of them also have liners which provide more insulation.
- Choose gloves that are not only warm but waterproof as well. Consider bringing a second pair as well just in case the first one becomes wet (which can happen when you hold wet surfaces or suddenly slip and find your hands buried deep in the snow or mud).
- Experts recommend that you avoid wearing cotton socks and wear synthetic or wool socks instead. If you can find ones with moisture-wicking abilities and anti-bacterial properties, that would be better. Just make sure that they’re not too tight since this can cut off blood circulation to your feet.
- Neck Gaiter. Neck gaiters help to keep cold winds from entering through the collar of your jacket and can also be used to protect the lower half of your face from biting winds.
- Winter Hat. Wearing a winter hat helps to prevent heat from escaping through the top of your head. You should also consider choosing a hat with ear flaps to keep your ears warm.
- Goggles or Sunglasses. Even though summer’s over, you still need to wear goggles or glasses to protect your eyes from the glare and wind.
More often than not, these should be enough to ensure that you stay warm and dry during your hike. However, you still need to assess your situation and adjust accordingly. For instance, if after looking at the weather and trail conditions you decide that you need additional layers, then do so. Just make sure that you don’t wear too many layers that you end up hot and sweaty.
Winter Hiking Gear
Many of the items you carry when hiking during the warmer months of the year will be carried over to your winter hiking gear checklist, with the addition of some items which are necessary so you can adapt to the wet and cold environment.
- For winter adventures, you’ll want a lightweight and waterproof backpack. It should have no mesh pockets (these can collect snow) and have lash points and compression straps.
- First Aid Kit. You should never go on a hiking trip without a hiking first aid kit, especially during winter when trails are slippery and wet. Aside from the usual contents (e.g. bandages, gauze, rubbing alcohol, etc.), you’ll need to add some hand and toe warmer packets to warm up your hands and toes.
- Map and Compass or GPS Device. Most trails (especially the ones that are most frequented by hikers) are well-marked and have signs to point you in the right direction. However, some trails don’t have such markers, and the accumulating snow and sleet can be quite disorienting especially for new hikers. That said, always bring with you a map and a compass or a handheld GPS device to help you get back on track.
- If you don’t have a GPS device, you can download a similar app on your phone. Just make sure that you have connectivity while on the trail and keep your phone in a pocket close to your body. This will help keep your phone warm and make the battery last longer (most batteries discharge faster in cold environments). Also, you can use your phone to take those panoramic shots that you come across so you don’t have to bring a camera.
- Headlamp, Flashlight, and Extra Batteries. The sun usually sets earlier during the colder months of the year, and if you haven’t planned your trip well-enough you may find yourself still on the trail when darkness starts creeping in.
- Winter Trekking Poles. You may have never found any use for trekking poles when you were hiking during the summer on hard ground, but since you’re walking over snow, you may want to consider bringing some winter trekking poles. These are different from ordinary trekking poles since they have ‘baskets’ (a wide circular plastic section near the tips) which keep the poles from driving too deep into the snow.
- Emergency Whistle. Strap an emergency whistle to the shoulder strap of your backpack to make it easier to reach.
Cold weather hiking usually means bringing a few more items than you’re used to, so plan and make sure that all your winter hiking gear and equipment will fit inside your backpack (knowing how to pack a backpack properly can help).
We mentioned earlier that you should avoid wearing too many layers since doing so will make you hot and sweaty. Sweat is still moisture, and wet clothes can result in a lowering of body temperature. That said, aside from avoiding wearing too many layers, you’ll want to keep a steady pace and avoid over-exerting yourself. Also, regularly check yourself and remove or add layers accordingly.
Bring Nutritious and Easy to Eat Snacks
Many hikers don’t usually feel too hungry when hiking during winter, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t need to bring any food. When choosing which foods to bring, opt for nutritious and calorie-dense foods to fuel your body for a challenging trek ahead. Also, choose foods that are easy to open and eat so you can munch on them while walking. Besides, it is not recommended that you take a long lunch (and breaks) while hiking in cold weather. You’ll want to keep your breaks as short as possible (even when you’re enjoying a view) and always be moving to keep your blood circulation flowing.
Bring Warm Drinks
Not many people are inclined to drink water on a cold day, even tired hikers on the trail. However, this is a big mistake as this can lead to dehydration, which then puts you at more risk of hypothermia. So do bring lots of water during your trip, preferably warm drinks.
Really now, who doesn’t love hot chocolates or soups in winter? This is why you should consider investing in a high quality insulated drinking bottle. The really good ones can hold a decent amount of liquid and can keep them warm for up to eight hours or more. Aside from keeping you warm and hydrated, hot drinks can also help to boost your morale and encourage you to go on despite the cold weather.
Check the Weather Forecast
Before you head out to the trail, be sure to check the weather forecast first. In fact, you should always check the weather forecast regardless of what time of the year you’re hiking. When you know what to expect you will be more prepared and ready to adapt when the situation calls for it.
And when you’re out there, be sure to keep an eye out on the weather as well. Remember, weather forecasting is not always an exact science, and weather can quickly turn especially during the colder months of the year and in high elevations. If you see the weather deteriorating, don’t tough it out. Don’t hesitate to turn back towards your car or the nearest outpost and call it a day. You seriously wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle of the trail during a bad snowstorm.
Check the Trail Conditions
Actually, checking the weather forecast before heading out to the trail is a no-brainer and something that has become second nature to many seasoned hikers. However, checking the trail conditions, this one is something that many people often miss.
Many hiking trails are often closed during the winter months because of poor weather conditions. So to save yourself from a frustrating drive to the trail only to be sent back home by the park manager or authorities, check the trail conditions first. See how much snow or ice there is or if there are any washouts or other issues with the trail. Check especially for avalanche warnings. You can do this by visiting the park’s website or contacting the authorities concerned.
Let Somebody Know Where You’re Going
Hiking during winter has its own safety hazards, so always be sure to let someone know where you’re going. This can be as simple as leaving a note on the fridge door or sending a text message to your family and friends. Tell them which trail you’ll be hiking and what time they can expect you to be back. Aside from lessening their worries, this information will be of considerable help when they send the authorities to look for you when you fail to return at the designated time.
Globo Surf Overview
If you’re a fair-weather-only hiker, maybe it’s time you consider going out during the colder months of the year. There’s something magical about the brisk air and frosty surroundings, and it can open your eyes to wonderful sceneries that you may have never expected. Of course, there are several things that you should be concerned about when it comes to cold weather hiking (e.g. avalanche, hypothermia, frostbite, etc.) but with preparation, the right winter hiking gear, and by following safe winter hiking practices, you may be surprised to find out that hiking in winter is much easier and enjoyable than you think.
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