There is nothing quite like going for a long hike during the winter. The trails are usually empty, bringing a sense of solitude that simply can’t be replicated in any other season, and a fresh blanket of snow can redefine the beauty of any wilderness setting. But winter also brings some new challenges for the outdoor enthusiast, not the least of which is staying warm and safe while out on the trail. If you’re planning some backcountry escapes this winter, here are some ways to hike smarter and safer.
Watch the Weather
Keeping a close eye on the weather before and during a hike is a good idea at any time of the year, but it is especially important in the winter. Check the forecast before you head out so you know what to expect, and keep an eye on the sky while you’re on the trail to avoid any sudden changes in weather. Winter storms can sometimes develop very quickly, and cold temperatures paired with heavy snow can be a dangerous combination. If you have cell service, use your smartphone to watch for weather alerts, and be sure that you’re back at the trailhead before nightfall, when temperatures will begin to drop sharply.
When setting out on a winter hike the clothes you wear will have a major impact on just how comfortable you are out on the trail. Dress in layers to give yourself more flexibility as temperatures start to fluctuate. If you start to feel too warm, shed a layer to help prevent overheating. When the mercury begins to fall, add another layer to avoid getting too cold. No matter what the conditions are outside when you start the hike, always carry an extra layer or two in your backpack just in case. If the weather takes a sudden shift for the worse, you’ll be prepared to handle the situation.
Additionally, there is an old adage amongst outdoor enthusiasts that says “cotton kills.” Avoid wearing cotton clothing at all costs, because they can get wet easily and won’t dry fast enough. Wet cotton clothes stick to your body, which can lead to a dangerous situation in the winter, often resulting in hypothermia. Invest in good technical base layers made from wool, and you’ll be much safer and happier.
Warm Feet are Happy Feet
More than any other time of the year, proper footwear is essential on a winter hike. If your feet get cold, you’ll only end up being miserable, so invest in a good pair of boots designed specifically for the season. You’ll want shoes that are both waterproof and insulated so that your feet will stay warm and dry the entire time you’re in the backcountry. Add in a thick pair of wool socks, and your toes should remain cozy for hours on end.
Depending on where you’ll be hiking, and the conditions that you’ll encounter there, you may need to carry some extra gear with you in the backcountry. For instance, snowshoes make hiking in deep snow much easier, while crampons provide stability on ice and rock when climbing in the mountains. An avalanche beacon may be useful if you’ll be traveling in areas that are prone to snow slides and a shovel, headlamp, and hand warmers may come in handy too. The point is, even if your pack gets a bit heavier, it is better to have the extra gear and not need it than to wish you had brought it if an emergency arises.
Have Plenty to Eat and Drink
You’ll burn plenty of calories while on a winter hike, so make sure you have a good meal before you head out, and carry lots of snacks with you when you go. Food will provide the fuel that will help you to stay warm in the cold weather, so don’t be afraid to eat regularly. Be sure to drink plenty of water too, as staying hydrated will allow you to avoid hypothermia and keep you moving efficiently on the trail. The colder temperatures might lead you to believe otherwise, but It is just as important to carry water with you on a winter hike as it is in the summer.
Don’t Go It Alone
If you’re going on a winter hike in the backcountry, don’t go it alone. With the added challenges and dangers that come along with the season, it is good to travel in pairs to help keep each other safe. Should an emergency situation arise, you’ll be able to assist one another, or in dire situations someone can go for help. Chances are, everything will go exactly as expected, in which case its always more fun to have some company on the trail to share in the adventure.
Share Your Plans
Before you set out from home, be sure that you’ve shared your plans with a friend or family member. Let them know exactly where you’re going, how long you intend to be gone, and when you expect to be back. That way, if something should happen they’ll know when you are overdue and where to start searching for you. And when you’ve finished your hike, don’t forget to let them know that you arrived home safely. They’ll appreciate knowing all went well.
If you love the outdoors, don’t let winter lock you inside for weeks on end. Instead, embrace the season and enjoy it to the fullest. With a little forethought, preparation, and experience, you’ll find it is just as rewarding hiking during that season as it is any of the others.