For many people, winter is a time to hang up the hiking boots and pack away outdoor gear in a sealed box right along with your desire to be anywhere near Mother Nature while she’s being such a frigid… lady. Perhaps turning up the thermostat and curling up in a state of hibernation sounds a bit more appealing. And there might be a few reasons to pack it in during winter, but for those of us yearning for some glistening cold-weather treks, I can’t think of a reason to let those trails go to waste. But before you charge the next snow-capped peak you see, here are a few helpful tips for winter hiking.
Be Like Shrek
I’m not saying you should transform into an ogre, find a pet donkey and chase a princess through fairyland. Layers, people, I’m talking about layers. Dress from head to toe like an onion. If it warms up, peel off excess layers. If it doesn’t you’ll be happy you walked out of your house looking like the abominable snowman. Sweat-wicking thermals make great base layers, followed by an insulated jacket and a waterproof shell. If you’ll be going through deeper snow, waterproof hiking pants or snow pants would also be a wise choice.
If you haven’t hiked in snow or extreme temperatures before, start small. Don’t pencil in K2 on your calendar just because you once walked home from work a snowstorm. Find some low-elevation, short-distance jaunts and start there. In the famous words of Yeezy: you need to crawl before you ball. Once you feel comfortable, move on to tougher treks during the winter–many adventure enthusiasts use winter as their time to tackle Colorado’s famed “14ers” (peaks above 14,000 feet) before the trails are flooded with crowds.
Bring the Gear
In case of an emergency, you should always have a trail map, first aid kit, compass, multi-tool, hand warmers, snacks, water, a hat, mittens, extra socks and a headlamp. The list sounds long, but you’ll be thankful you’ve got these things if your day gets rough. If you are taking a more intense hike, you may even want to consider bringing along a down sleeping bag or a small shelter…y’know, just in case.
Check the Weather
I once took a backpacking trip that called for rain, so I packed endless rain gear. Clearly I didn’t put 2+2 together because at 11,000 feet, rain is snow and ice. So we camped in a blizzard and woke up to four inches of snow. We were not exactly equipped to hike out, but we did it anyway and it was miserable. Try the NOAA weather app, and you can pinpoint the exact weather using coordinates and avoid the “but the weather in town looked nice” argument.
Crampons are a hiker’s secret weapon in snowy conditions. Purchase a pair at any outdoor retailer for starting around $100 and learn to use them. Keep in mind, it’s encouraged to use crampons with an ice axe in case you slip, as they are not meant to break your fall. Have a more experienced hiker show you how to put them on, take them off and, most importantly, go uphill and downhill in them. These are literally metal spikes attached to your shoes, so no funny business. If you’re not quite ready for something of that caliber, you can find snow and ice grips that attach to your hiking shoes
Take a Vet
Please don’t kidnap a war veteran and take them with you on a winter hike. But rather, bring someone along who knows the ropes and can help you find your footing…literally. More experienced winter hikers have most likely caught themselves in some sh*t. Learn from their mistakes before you make them yourself.
Hot, Hot Drinks
I somewhat recently invested in a JetBoil Flash and my camping and hiking trips have never been the same. Bring it along to boil water for coffee or tea on your hike or whip up a quick warm lunch (our favorites are Mountain House brand). You’ll never know how you survived winter without it. Otherwise, invest in a good thermos and make a warm drink beforehand to carry with you!
Don’t be a Hero
Pushing through on a summer hike can become a funny story or a lot of blisters; refusing to turn back on a hike in winter could mean death. Be prepared to turn around if things get dicey. No one wants to see your frozen face as an Internet meme.
Whatever you do and wherever you roam, be sure to use your noggin and stay safe out there!