If you’re like me, hiking is a year round activity. I’m not a big winter person (sorry!) and I’m not into skiing so when winter rolls around, I just keep hiking. If there’s enough snow I’ll wear snowshoes, but really snowshoeing is mostly just hiking with weird things on your feet. Of course in the winter, it gets cold, it gets dark, and it gets slippery so there are more factors to consider before heading out on a hike. Here are my tips for hiking in the cold season to ensure your winter hike is just as fun as your summer adventures.
Know the Forecast and Trail Conditions
Before I leave, I pick a destination based on the weather forecast and conditions. Checking the weather is kind of a no-brainer and is something I do all year long, but in the winter I also try to get an idea of trail conditions since harsh winter weather can do a number on the trails. I want to know if there is ice, how much snow there is, and if there are any washouts or other issues with the trail.
For trail conditions I like to check a local online hiking forums for the area (such as clubtread.com) as well as the website of the park I plan to visit. For really up to date visual info, I’ll also try searching Instagram for hashtags of my destination. For snow conditions I use the closest ski resort forecast to my destination from snow-forecast.com since it will provide conditions and forecasts for various elevations. But watch out for artificially inflated snowfall numbers from man-made snow!
I always carry The Ten Essentials when hiking and it’s even more important to do so in the winter. I supplement my regular first aid kit and emergency supplies with some chemical hand warmers and a bright headlamp with fresh batteries (in addition to the small emergency light I always carry). I also add in sunscreen and lipbalm because the snow reflects light and no one likes sunburns and chapped lips.
Avalanches are no joke. Read avalanche warnings and information about the area where you will be hiking on avalanche.ca (Canada) or avalanche.org (America). If you plan to regularly travel on snow into avalanche terrain take an avalanche course and check out this great article on recognizing avalanche terrain from MSR’s blog, The Summit Register. I learned SO much when I took avalanche training and it changed the way I look at mountains.
Bring the Right Gear for the Conditions (And Know How to Use It)
If there is lots of deep snow I wear my snowshoes. But often there isn’t that much snow or it’s so packed down that snowshoes aren’t necessary. That’s why I always pack my lightweight Microspikes (mini-crampons), as they are great for packed snow, icy trails or steeper slopes. Most winter accidents involving hikers occur when someone slips and falls on a steep icy or snowy slope. Snowshoes are great for providing floatation in deep snow, but they aren’t great at gripping steep slopes. Read SAR professional Michael Coyle’s excellent blog posts “How to Kill Yourself Snowshoeing” for a great overview of situations where snowshoes are actually more dangerous than they are helpful and the companion article “How to NOT Kill Yourself Snowshoeing” for what to do when, as he says, “everything goes to shit”.
Layer Up, BUT “Be Bold, Start Cold”
Dressing for winter hiking means dressing in layers. The trick is to avoid sweating since once you stop you’ll be wet and cold. A few years ago my avalanche course instructor taught me her winter manta: “Be bold, start cold” and I’ve lived by it ever since. I wear as few layers as possible while hiking and save the warm layers for breaks.
The type of clothing I bring depends on the weather and how long I’m out for, but in general I consider the following items as must-haves in addition to regular three-season hiking clothing: long underwear, a puffy jacket that is compressible, two pairs of gloves (one warmer than the other), a toque, a buff or neck warmer, gaiters and warm socks. It’s also worth keeping in mind that if you take off any article of clothing that is wet from sweat, it will soon freeze and be virtually un-wearable so that’s why I always bring extra gloves and often bring extra hats and hiking shirts.
When its cold out I find that I just don’t feel as thirsty and tend to drink less water. The downside of this is that I’m often horribly dehydrated after winter hikes. It’s important to keep drinking, but in temperatures below freezing, it can be hard.
If the temperature is around freezing you can get away with using a hydration bladder. Fill it with warm water at home. Keep as much of the hose inside your pack as possible. Take small sips of water often to keep the hose and mouth piece from freezing and after you are done with each sip, blow air back into the hose to force the water back down into the reservoir. You can buy an insulated tube cover and put a chemical handwarmer pack next to your mouthpiece as well, but that strategy will only work for milder temperatures, not extreme cold.
For weather that is well below freezing you’ll need an insulated water bottle or a thermos. You can also buy an insulated water bottle cover. Fill your bottles at home with hot water, tea or hot chocolate. You can also turn your water bottle upside down in your pack to ensure that the top doesn’t get frozen shut as the side facing up will freeze first.
As well not being thirsty, I’m usually not that hungry when it’s really cold and sometimes it’s not that pleasant to stop for long breaks. I like to bring along high calorie snacks like gummy candies, energy chews nuts, jerky and chocolate that I can keep in my jacket pocket and eat as I hike. Traditional hiking food like sandwiches tends to freeze into solid lumps in the winter – not appetizing! Another great option is a thermos full of warm soup. If you have the time and can find a good place to stop out of the wind, bring along a backpacking stove and an easy to prepare warm meal (think just add boiling water).
Keep Your Electronics Warm
Cold weather kills batteries. There is nothing more frustrating than arriving at a beautiful viewpoint only to find that your camera is too cold to function. If you are using a GPS for navigation or are carrying a mobile phone that could be used to call for help in an emergency, you’ll want to keep them operational as well. Carry electronics in a jacket pocket to benefit from your body heat and bring spare batteries just in case.
Bring a Big Backpack
With all the extra stuff you’ll need to carry for winter hiking, you’ll need a bigger backpack. In the summer I typically carry a smaller 20L daypack, but for winter trips I upgrade to a bigger 30L pack. When considering a pack for winter hiking you’ll want one that has lash points or compression straps that allow you to carry your snowshoes and trekking poles in case you don’t need them. I also like packs that don’t have a lot of mesh pockets on the outside since these can collect snow.
Do you keep hiking even when the cold weather comes? What are your favourite winter hiking tips?
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