As the weather cools and snow starts to fly, you’ll see that most people hang up their hiking boots for the year. Don’t let winter stop you from getting out and enjoying nature. In this article we’ll cover what you need to know to stay comfortable in wintry conditions and answer some of your frequently asked questions.
So, is it safe to hike in the winter? Hiking in the winter can be a very enjoyable and safe activity. Make sure to bring the 10 essentials of hiking plus additional items depending on the weather forecast like extra clothing for extreme cold, traction devices for your feet and items for avalanche rescue if the terrain requires it.
You should always prepare thoroughly before a hike, but it’s especially critical in colder seasons. However, while preparations are important, they’re easy to accomplish whether you’re an experienced hiker or a novice. Read on for tips on how to stay safe and warm on winter hikes.
How To Prepare for Winter Hiking
Before you hit the trail, you need to do some research on the weather and environment. You should pick a suitable trail for the least experienced member of your group and look up the weather predictions and avalanche risks for the area.
If no one in your hiking group has taken an avalanche training course, you should enroll in one. Any trail with significant snowfall could pose an avalanche risk. This is especially true of trails with a steep incline or slope.
Once you know when and where you’re hiking, you should tell your plans to someone who isn’t going on the trip with you. That way, if something happens, there’s someone who can alert emergency services and tell them where you are. It’s better to be over-prepared than under.
You also want to gather all of your gear (more on that later!) and check to make sure it’s all in good working order. The right time to find out your GPS isn’t working is before you head out, not once you’re already lost.
Winter Hiking Dangers and How To Avoid Them
Winter hiking poses three primary dangers: avalanches, hypothermia, and getting lost. These are all especially likely in areas with heavy snowfall. Snow can cover trail markers and obscure the path, so you should make sure you have an alternate way to plot your route, like a map and compass or GPS.
Avalanche danger is incredibly serious. Avoid steep trails with heavy snowfall, especially if the weather has recently turned warmer or if there have been recent avalanches in the area. Spotting avalanches in advance can be difficult, which is why it’s essential to do an avalanche safety training course before you go.
Hypothermia is a risk whether there’s heavy snowfall or not. Cold temperatures are all it takes. The best ways to avoid it are by staying hydrated, wearing layers, and staying dry. You want to keep warm but avoid sweating if possible. Once your clothing gets wet, you’re more susceptible to hypothermia.
Layers will help you adjust to the temperature as you go so that you can stay dry. Dehydration will also speed up the effects of hypothermia, so while you work to keep water off your body, you should make sure you’re getting enough water into your body too.
Winter Hiking Tips To Help You Stay Warm
Staying warm is the best way to stay safe on a winter hike. Start early so you can finish before sunset. You usually want to avoid peak sunlight hours in summer, but the opposite is true in the winter. Daylight is shorter, and temperatures will drop faster after sunset, so you should make sure you can complete your entire hike during sunlight hours.
You should also bring hot drinks and high-energy snacks. A thermos full of tea or hot cocoa can help keep you warm as you go. However, you should never replace your water with another beverage. You’ll also burn more calories than usual as your body will be working hard to keep your body temperature up.
High-energy snacks (like a hardy trail-mix recipe)you can eat without stopping are the best choice. Stopping on the trail to have a snack puts you at risk as your muscles might get too cold and stiff for you to finish the hike. You want to be able to maintain a steady pace throughout the trail to avoid this.
Winter Hiking Clothes
The most important gear for a winter hike is your clothing. For men and women, you should look for layers made of moisture-wicking fabric. Avoid natural fabrics like cotton, as they tend to absorb sweat rather than repelling it, which means those items of clothing will freeze faster than something artificial.
On top, you need three layers: a base layer, an insulating layer, and a waterproof shell. For your bottom layer, you should have at least two, a base layer and a warmer layer. If you’re trekking through deep snow, you should add a waterproof layer. However, if you aren’t in an area with snow, this isn’t necessary.
For women, the Thermajane Compression Baselayer Top makes a good base layer. For men, the Duofold Wicking Crew Neck Top is a good base layer. From there, you can add a fleece or thermal layer and then your waterproof coat.
Sturdy boots are also important. You need thick soles with good traction so you won’t slip on ice. Keeping your feet dry is also crucial for avoiding frostbite, so your boots need to be waterproof. It’s a good idea to pack an extra pair of socks in case you do get your feet wet somehow.
As for accessories, you should have thick socks, gloves, and a hat at a minimum. Remember, you can always take off a layer you don’t need, but you can’t add one if you don’t have it with you.
Winter Hiking Essentials List
For a successful winter hike, you need the following items to ensure a safe and pleasant hike:
- Map – Even if you’re taking an electronic guidance device like a GPS, you should pack a map and a compass. Many electronics don’t work well in low temperatures, and if a battery dies or there’s a malfunction, a physical map will be your only way finding technology.
- Insulated water bottle or hydration pack – Pack more water than you think you’ll need, but make sure you insulate your bottle or hydration pack so the water doesn’t freeze. You don’t have to go high-tech, either. Putting your bottle in a spare hat or pair of socks should keep the water liquid.
- Sturdy hiking boots – Closed-toe, waterproof boots are a must!
- Layers – You can always throw an extra layer in your pack if you start sweating, so bring at least three.
- Snacks – Even if you’re going on a relatively short hike, winter hiking takes more energy and effort, so you’ll burn more calories and need more fuel to keep warm. Double your normal snack amount if possible.
Winter Hiking Tips for Beginners
If you’re new to winter hiking, Here are a few ways to make it safer for yourself as you learn this new skill:
- Avoid steep trails with heavy snow because they are a higher avalanche risk.
- You should also start with a shorter trail you know you can finish in daylight; hiking in winter takes longer and is more dangerous than in summer, so your pace might be significantly different.
- Always tell someone who isn’t on the trail what your plans are.
- Pack more food and water than you think you’ll need.
- If you’re nervous, you can bring a two-way radio so you can easily communicate even if your cell phone stops working.
Recommended Winter Hiking Trails
There are good winter hiking trails all across the United States. They aren’t busy in the winter months and offer spectacular views at every hiking level. These are:
- Watchman Trail – Located in Zion National Park, this hiking trail is 3 mi (4.83 km) long and is a low-risk for avalanches. The red rocks are beautiful in any weather, snow included.
- Eben Ice Caves – Located in Michigan, this hiking trail is a perfect winter destination because the ice is part of the experience. It’s a 2-mi (3.22-km) trek, but there will definitely be snow, so be prepared for a slow pace.
- Cascade Mountain Adirondacks – If you’re an experienced winter hiker, this hiking tail located in the Adirondacks is almost 5 mi (8.05 km) of gorgeous mountain views. However, it’s a longer and steeper trail, so avoid this route if you aren’t used to winter hiking.
Taking a trek outside doesn’t have to be reserved for the summer. Hiking is fun and safe in any season, as long as you’re prepared. See you on the trails!
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Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.