Many hikers tend to run from the woods as soon as the first snow flakes begin to fall. However, winter is great time to hit the trail. Not only are the crowds gone, but many parks show off their true beauty after a fresh snowfall. With just a little more attention to detail beforehand, anyone can have a safe and enjoyable hike during the winter.
Although it might feel quite frigid at the trailhead, your body will begin generating plenty of heat after just 10 or 15 minutes of walking. The best thing you can do to keep the cold out is to dress in layers: a base layer that wicks moisture off your body, a fleece jacket for insulating warmth, and a shell to keep you dry and to keep the wind from penetrating your core. Most importantly, dressing in layers allows you to adjust your attire as you heat-up or cool-off. When dressing for a winter hike, always remember the adage: cotton kills! Never wear anything made of cotton while hiking in the backcountry. Once wet, cotton no longer insulates you from the cold. Moreover, it wicks heat away from your body and puts you at risk of becoming hypothermic.
Some people are prone to cold feet in the winter. One of the keys to keeping your feet warm is to make sure they stay dry. Wear a good pair of hiking socks, made of wool blends or synthetic fabrics, that wick moisture away from your skin, retain heat when wet, and dry faster if they become wet. I always keep an extra pair in my pack in case the ones I’m wearing do get wet. (Expert Advice: How to Choose Socks) You should also wear above-the-ankle hiking boots which help to keep snow away from your feet. You may want to consider wearing gaiters, especially if there are several inches of snow on the ground.
To round-out your winter apparel, don’t forget about a good pair of gloves, a ski cap and maybe even a balaclava.
If the snow is too deep in the mountains, consider hiking at lower elevations, or even wearing snowshoes. If you expect a lot of ice, especially in areas where there might be steep drop-offs, consider bringing crampons specifically made for hiking. These are sometimes referred to as traction devices, or in-step crampons, which you can either strap-on or slide onto your boots.
Trekking poles are another excellent choice for helping to maintain your balance on sections of trail with slick ice and snow.
After outfitting yourself with the proper winter gear, hikers will then need to focus on staying hydrated and properly fueled while out on the trail. Hiking in the cold, especially in snow, burns more calories. By some estimates, hikers can burn as much as 50% more calories when compared to similar distances and terrain in the summer. By not consuming enough calories while on the trail you become prone to getting cold faster. Make sure you bring plenty of high-energy snacks with you to munch on periodically throughout your hike. Watch out for foods that can freeze solid, such as some power bars. Or, instead of storing in your backpack, put some snacks inside your fleece jacket. Your body should generate enough heat to prevent them from freezing.
Although it may sound counter-intuitive, it can actually be easier to experience dehydration in the winter, versus hiking in the summer. Dehydration can occur faster in cold weather because the air is much drier. Moreover, dehydration can be dangerous because it can accelerate hypothermia and frostbite. Make sure you bring plenty of liquids with you, and drink often while on the trail.
If you’re storing water bottles in your backpack during a very cold day, you may need to insulate them to prevent them from freezing. An old wool sock will work in this case. Also, you may want to turn the bottle upside down to prevent the water from freezing at the neck. If you plan to be out for several hours, consider bringing a thermos containing a hot drink, or even soup.
Other winter hazards hikers need to be aware of include hiking in steep terrain that’s prone to avalanches, or a storm that covers the trail with fresh snow, thus making navigation difficult. You should always carry a topographical map and a compass with you in case you ever need help finding your way back to the trailhead if you were to become lost.
Other gear to bring with you includes a first aid kit, firestarter, waterproof matches, a pocket knife, an emergency blanket and maybe even a bivy sack.
Finally, let someone know where you’re going, when you’ll be back, and who to call if they don’t hear back from you at a specified time.
With a little care and preparation up front, anyone can discover the joys of winter hiking.
Hiking in the Smokies