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Winter Hiking – My Almost Favorite Time of Year to Get Out

February 05, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Winter Hiking – My Almost Favorite Time of Year to Get Out

I enjoy winter hiking maybe more than I do any other time of year, except in the fall. Yes, fall hiking is my favorite. But today I’ll muse about my second favorite time of the year to hike. Winter.

With respect to solitude on the trail, winter has the edge over any other time of year in the Rockies. If you’ve been reading these scribbles of mine, it will come as no surprise that I’m not a big fan of hiking in crowds. And this is one reason winter hiking ranks high for me. Winter definitely thins the conga lines on the most popular hiking routes. And not surprisingly this season offers even greater solitude on the lesser traveled routes – bonus! But, in the winter I am more apt to hike with at least one partner for safety reasons, but not usually a big crowd.

Fairer seasons have more tolerable weather. Most people will reason that between rain or snow, walking about in a blizzard is less attractive. I’m not one of those. Shocking, right? I do not subscribe to the idea that rain is more tolerable. In fact, I think snow is mostly enjoyable and even calming. This might be because I spent my childhood in a winter wonderland in Upper Michigan near the shores of Lake Superior. Think: lake effect snow… lots of it! And now that I live in a place that doesn’t get as much snowfall (except in the high country) I miss and appreciate it all that much more. Granted, if I still lived there and had to shovel snow every day for months each year, I may have a different perspective. As for living on the east slope of the Front Range in Colorado, my winter months are mild and I have the option of driving an hour or two to take in all the blissfulness of winter I can stand… and then head back down the hill to my normal mild winter life. It’s near perfection.

Winter hiking demands a different set of gear: snowshoes, ice axe, crampons, more layers, winter jackets and pants, warmer boots, mittens, goggles, face mask, beacon, shovel, etc. This can be a financial detractor. But it doesn’t have to be. Second-hand stores and used gear consignment shops are good places to look for gently used good quality gear that cost considerably less than retail. Watching for sales, of course, is highly recommended. A person could go online to buy used gear, but I personally find that to be a little risky with returns if the purchase is disappointing. And if you can’t or won’t afford all this gear, get whatever you can that will allow you to get out and take in the beauty. There are usually plenty of local and low risk places, maybe even in your neighborhood.

Winter also attracts the most dedicated to this activity. This is encouraging to me because I get to learn from some of the most experienced among us. The less dedicated find the hibernation hut more attractive. This is natural and comfortable for most people. But comfortable doesn’t always mean healthy or satisfying; it could actually mean the opposite. So, be good to yourself – get out.

Safety is always a worthy topic and especially so for winter backcountry trekking. The most obvious risks are the extreme cold and avalanche danger if the destination is the mountains.

With regard to the cold, hypothermia is the quiet killer. Hypothermia is essentially caused by being in an environment (weather or water) that is colder than the body to the degree that the body is unable to sustain normal temperatures. Enter: winter.

While out in the elements during winter we obviously need proper clothing, the kind that reduces radiated heat loss and the transference of heat away from the body.  Winter wind is the enemy, a heat sucker; it is a multiplier of ambient air temps. The National Weather Service has a nice wind chill calculator. For instance: 10 degrees F with a 10 mph wind is the same as 4 degrees below zero F.  An insulated wind and water proof shell over several moister absorbing layers will help combat the effect of the wind.  I could write several articles on winter clothing.  I’ll save that for another day. For now, I’ll suggest taking a little time to research; it’ll go a long way in being prepared.

Avalanche risk is another topic that deserves much more than I can write about in this article.  One of the best sources for understanding this risk is the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.  Because I am not a real big fan of surrendering my soul to an avalanche debris field I choose low risk areas for my winter hiking.  There are plenty of places even within high risk areas that are low risk for hiking.  At the very least, know what avalanche risk looks like and stay clear of any high angled slopes.

So, with all this risk, why venture out? The thing is, these risks are very easily mitigated and there is so much out there to enjoy. The scenery, beauty, fresh air, mental and physical health benefits, comradery, and the just plain goodness that comes with being in the great outdoors far outweighs any reason to stay indoors. I talk about all this in nearly every one of my articles. At the core, there is no real difference for me from season to season. Hiking is a rewarding pastime anytime, except in winter there is a white covering that makes it extra special. For me, it’s simple: winter hiking is part of the good stuff that makes living my life as good as it can be!

In the coming months I’ll be posting a few articles of my winter hiking experiences. I hope you enjoy these scribbles and that I can in some way encourage you to get out and enjoy this great time of year no matter where you are! (even if it’s not your most favorite time of year)


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