The weather report suggested temperatures in the upper 20s with mild winds and clear skies. I headed out for what seemed to be a perfect day for a nice, easy 10-mile winter hike. Well, temps were near 10 degrees; the winds were gusting at 20 mph (wind chill of -9); and scattered cirrostratus clouds dulled what warmth the sun could have provided that day. The good thing is that I was prepared and still enjoyed the day. But for those less prepared to be in these conditions, it could have turned out to be less enjoyable and even dangerous.
Winter hiking is special in a lot of ways. There are far fewer people on the trail; we appreciate the higher caloric burn rate; we get to enjoy winter wonderland scenery; the snow provides lower joint impact; and it’s a great way to combat the winter blues.
But winter hiking also presents some challenges. There are greater risks due to the colder temperatures and icy trails or deep snow present hazards we don’t have in warmer seasons.
There is much to know about winter hiking. In this article I’ll broadly cover just three things all winter hikers should know. The assumption here is that the hike is in a place likely to have snow or freezing temperatures.
1. Traction and Snowshoes. No matter the footwear, hiking on snow usually means a day with a much higher chance of slipping and possibly injury.
For anything less than six inches of powder, traction devices are typically all that is needed to stay vertical. I’m a big fan of Kahtoola Microspikes, but there are other brands and several different size cleats for various conditions. The larger the cleat the more gripping power. There are also brands like YakTrax that have steel coils for less demanding surfaces. When in doubt, choose the larger cleats.
For deeper snow conditions, snowshoes will provide a way for you to “float” on top of the snow. There are many different types of snowshoes, all designed for different conditions. Longer snowshoes are for deeper snow or heavier people. Snowshoes have weight recommendations, so look for this in the technical specifications. Snowshoes can also have deep-cutting crampons (spikes on the toe end of the binder and possibly along the side rails) or less “grippy” options. If the snow will be icy or you will be on steeper terrain, choose from among the more aggressive traction options. There are also options for heel raisers. Raisers help reduce calf fatigue on steep climbs, keeping the hiker more level during a climb. Traditional snowshoes are made of wood and rawhide. I grew up using these kinds. They are not the best option for mountainous terrain. More modern snowshoes are made of aluminum frames and composite netting materials. They also offer varying grips, raisers, and better engineered binders that traditional snowshoes do not.
Because I’m usually in the Colorado Mountains with a good chance of deeper snow, icy surfaces, and steep terrain, I use a longer snowshoe with some aggressive grips and heel raisers. Tubbs Flex Alp is what I use most often. Another popular choice for the same conditions is the MSR Lightning Ascent. There are many other brands such as MSR, Atlas Montane, Louis Garneau, Alps, Yukon Charlies, Chinook, Flashtek, etc. If you can try before you buy (renting) you will have a better idea about performance of the snowshoes in local conditions. Experienced local retailers can also provide great advice.
2. Footwear and Clothing. The most immediately obvious thing to consider during winter hiking is how we keep our selves from freezing. Let’s review footwear and clothing.
Hiking footwear in the summer is predominately trail runners or some other lighter weight option with breathable materials. In the winter, however, the footwear of choice shifts to more weather sealed options, and possibly insulated. I don’t typically recommend footwear, except to advise that a person should try them on to make sure they fit comfortably. One thing I’ve learned through the years is that there is no perfect shoe for everyone. Use the one that fits best and is built for the expected conditions. If you need a place to start, check out the Oboz waterproof boot. And for socks, use wool – winter or summer. Wool is great for wicking moisture and providing warmth.
Clothing is simple: layers. On the core of the body, the base layer should be a moisture wicking material to keep your skin dry. Wet skin will translate to higher risks of hypothermia. The second layer should be an insulation layer; fleece or wool is a good choice. The third layer should be an outer shell; something to keep the wind from removing the heat away from the insulation layer. In more extreme conditions, you may have more than one insulation layer – an insulated jacket to go over the outer shell, for instance.
The legs typically need less layers. On most trips I will have a lighter base layer (long underwear) and nylon pants. The nylon helps keep the warmth in and blocks the effects of the wind. In extreme conditions I may have a heavier-weight base layer and I may add a sturdier outer shell pant over my nylon pants.
Hats and hooded fleece or outer shells are good options for keeping the head warm. In more extreme conditions a balaclava to cover the face from dangerous cold and wind. This I would wear under my hat or hood.
Keeping the hands warm is critical. Fingers and toes are most susceptible to frost bite. Don’t go cheap on protecting these. Mittens are the best bet for keeping fingers warm because the space in a mitten provides better insulation. There are also great glove options for less extreme conditions. Liners are a good choice for absorbing sweat from your hands to help keep the inside of the glove or mitten dry and more effective. Another option is a hybrid of the two, fingerless pull over gloves. These are fingerless gloves with a mitten that can be pulled over your fingers.
3. Emergency Avoidance and Planning. Should a person become lost or stranded during a hike, summertime night temperatures are easier to survive than winter temps. The precautions a person would take in the summer (leaving an itinerary with a family member or friend, having an emergency device, carrying the 10 essentials, establishing a turn-around time, etc.) are even more important in the winter months.
I had planned a winter hike to a popular summertime alpine lake. The snow was much deeper than expected; I was also breaking trail. When I reached my turn-around time I had not yet made it to the lake. Although I may have been able to push myself a little further and possibly made it to the lake, the wind was increasing, and the temperatures were dropping. Because I was breaking trail on snowshoes, I was also sweaty. After stopping for a short rest, I was getting cold quickly. I was also by myself. The best thing to do was to turn around. That’s what I did.
The situation here was that I avoided a potential emergency. There is no shame in being too safe in the winter months. I had my emergency device with me, but these devices should not be a reason to take unnecessary risks.
So, there you have it: three things every hiker should know and appreciate about winter hiking. Hiking isn’t just a summer activity. It can be enjoyed year-around with the appropriate preparation and decision making.
Hike on, friends!