The Best Guide to Winter Hiking
The colder months of the year and hiking don’t always seem to go hand in hand. It’s true that winter hiking can be more challenging, but it can also be more rewarding. It is, after all, an excellent way to stay in shape all year.
And hey! It’s also the perfect antidote to cabin fever. Winter hiking burns more calories than its summertime equivalent due to the body needing to warm up faster, and it can even boost your immune system.
So, let’s first get into the reasons why you will come to love winter hiking. And then we’ll cover the things to keep in mind as you prepare to hit the trail.
Fewer People Means More Trail for You
Warmer months equal heavy trail traffic, unless you are an early riser and revel in morning hiking. We’re talking before 9 or 10 am. After that, the popular routes can get pretty congested. Not so during colder weather. You are far more likely to enjoy a private hiking experience in the winter.
Amazing Photo Ops
Wintertime is a photographer’s dream. It may be the sun reflecting off ice crystals, or the natural glow of snow. Or the sun peaking out from behind a mountaintop. Even if your intention is to simply take a few pictures with your phone to post on social media, winter hiking presents many opportunities for memorable, no filter shots.
Epic Wildlife Viewing
The chance to see deer, moose, elk, and similar wildlife in their natural habitat is one of the best parts of cold weather hiking. During summer, it can be tough to be in the right place at the right time, as the animals tend to be much more active very early in the morning, or right around dusk. The cooler months typically bring wildlife out throughout the day, and there are fewer hikers around to spook them before you’ve had a chance to spot them.
Quiet, Serene, Peaceful
Imagine walking down a wintry trail. The leaves are gone and the branches are weighed down by snow or ice. It gets very quiet in these conditions, and that brings with it a profound serenity where you truly feel you’re at one with nature. Winter hiking is a sure way for enjoying quiet time to think and reflect.
Your Furry Friend Will Love It
Dogs love the snow (well, most of them!) Colder weather also keeps dogs from overheating, and fallen leaves in various states of decay give lots of interesting sniffing opportunities and stuff to chase around. Just remember to cover their paws if you plan to be out for any length of time in below-freezing temperatures. Especially if the ground is snowy or wet.
No Bugs to Contend With
Winter hikers rarely, if ever, need to contend with pesky bugs that bite or hover around their heads. Need we say more?
A Different Perspective
Hiking a familiar trail or route in a different season can renew your love of hiking. Trails that lead to waterfalls can offer a new way to appreciate the beauty when it’s below freezing, as many feature dramatic seasonal ice sculptures.
And now on to the preparation for all of this fantastic winter hiking!
The Key Rules for Winter Hiking
With proper preparation, winter hiking can be made that much more enjoyable. For example, trails covered in snow look much different than they do without. Safety is 90% prevention, and with a little bit of planning, you can avoid such hazards as:
- Changing weather
- Getting lost
- Getting trapped in an avalanche
Dress in Layers, Always
Temperatures in winter change quickly, so dress in multiple layers so that you can add or remove clothing easily as needed to stay warm and dry. In addition to waterproof hiking boots wear:
- Heavyweight socks
- Fleece or Merino wool inner layers
- Winter cap and jacket with hood
- Waterproof outer layers
Always Bring a Buddy (or three)
While hiking with a friend or loved one is always a good idea any time of year, this is especially true for winter hikes. Having an extra set of eyes can help you avoid missing a sign marker or getting caught in dwindling daylight – and in the case of injury or illness, one can go for help.
Also, let friends or family know where you are hiking, when you plan to return, and who to contact if you aren’t home by a specific time.
Invest in Good Gear
Experienced hikers will tell you to buy the best quality you can afford. If you are serious about hiking in cold weather, fabrics such as Merino wool and down are a worthwhile investment. Why? Because they regulate your body temperature much better than lesser-quality materials and last longer, to boot.
A good jacket, waterproof hiking boots, and a lightweight but high-quality hiking backpack are also essentials. If planning to hike in the snow, consider investing in snowshoes and hiking poles, as well.
Prepare for the Unexpected
Even if you’re familiar with the trail, don’t take your hiking excursion for granted. Always carry a printed trail map and basic survival gear such as a GPS tracking device or satellite messenger, cell phone, first aid kit, knife, and compass.
Think about what else you might need to take on longer hikes in the event you are forced to spend the night outdoors – a headlamp or flashlight, travel snow shovel, lightweight sleeping bag, and waterproof matches, for starters.
Check the Weather
Weather conditions on a trail can change in the proverbial blink of an eye and challenge you with plummeting temperatures, limited visibility, and snowstorms. Check the latest weather forecasts the day before your hike, again on the morning of your hike, and again just before you set out.
Stay Fueled and Hydrated
Just because the sun isn’t warming your bones doesn’t mean you won’t easily get dehydrated. Hypothermia is more easily achieved when you’re dehydrated. Although temperatures are low, the air is dry and your body will work hard to maintain core temperature. So be prepared to frequently eat and drink while on the trail.
Know When to Call it a Day
Since the winter days are shorter and darkness sets in quickly, get an early start and don’t be afraid to turn around earlier than planned to ensure you get back before nightfall. Do not jeopardize yourself by pushing to reach a particular summit or checkpoint despite the conditions. The risk is just not worth it.