Advice: Winter Hiking Tips

Some tips from Adventures in the Outdoors for hiking and enjoying the outdoors in the Winter

Wintertime hikes, cross country skiing, and snowshoe trips can all be fun, adventuresome and beautiful, but they do require more advanced planning than a summer trip, as there significantly less room for mistakes and errors on a winter hike because of the colder temperatures, higher winds, snow, ice and limited daylight hours.

Keeping Warm: You should always be prepared on any hike, ski or snowshoe trip to keep warm and sheltered with nothing more than what you are carrying with you by having the right clothing and the right supplies and gear with you.  You should not count on a campfire or stove to keep you warm.  You need to always stay alert to the dangers of hypothermia and frostbite - know the signs on both and learn how to treat them.

Daylight: Unlike the long hours of daylight in the summertime, Winter days are very short and darkness can easily surprise anyone in the woods with its quick arrival.  Always plan out your trips to maximize your use of daylight.  Always carry a flashlight or headlamp in case you are stuck in the darkness and always make sure it has fresh batteries or is properly charged.  Also remember that cold temperatures deplete batteries more quickly, so try to keep your gear as warm as possible by packing it close to your body in the backpack.

Skiing and Snowshoeing: Hiking in the snow takes a lot of effort since most often hikers will post-hole their way along a trail if the snow is more than a few inches deep.  That is, with each step, a hiker sinks deep into the snow creating what looks like a hole for a post with every step.  If there is more than a few inches of snow on the trail, you should be using Cross country skis or snowshoes to reduce your effort and reduce your chances of being injured (in some areas, snowshoe or ski use is required on trails when there is a deep snowpack).  Cross country skis and snowshoes will keep you on top of the snow and let you travel further with less energy than trying to hike on your own.  Skiing and snowshoeing open up a whole new way to look at the trails and the woods, allow you to reach areas you may not otherwise and find new adventures around every corner.

Trail Markers: What were familiar trail markers in the summer months can be hidden by deep snows, especially on mountain summits where you often have several feet of snowpack in place.  Having a map and compass (and knowing how to use them) is always a good idea, but they are a necessity in the wintertime to make sure you do not lose your way.

Tips and Tricks: Here are some additional ideas, tips and suggestions for winter hiking, skiing and snow shoe trips:
  • Stay dry and waterproof with the right clothing. Make sure you manage your core temperature while hiking to prevent sweating, which gets your clothes wet and limits their insulative value. Wear gaiters to help keep your legs dry, and pop your hood over your head when trekking through overhanging trees to prevent snow from getting in at the neck and getting you wet.
  • Winter is the wrong time to think you need to pack lightly. Carry many insulating layers including a spare set of long underwear tops and bottoms – putting on dry, cold clothes may shock the system initially but you will feel warmer quickly.
  • Make sure your equipment works -- finding out your water bottle is cracked when it is 10 below at lunchtime is the wrong time to learn about it.
  • Be aware that solid food items freeze; cut up those snickers bars ahead of time and even cold cuts on a sandwich can freeze!
  • Drink constantly because you will not feel as thirsty in cold weather and you could become dehydrated without even realizing it.
  • Know how to repair cross-country ski, snowshoe and crampon/creeper bindings.  You do not want to be stuck miles from the trailhead with broken equipment that can't be repaired.
  • Don’t use those ski pole wrist loops – a downhill fall can wrench a shoulder if you go one way and your ski pole stays put.
  • Ideally know your winter hike ahead of time; trail finding is tricky with deep snow so knowing the route well is a good idea.  It is often best to start your winter hiking on trails you already know well from the summer months.
  • Favor hikes with few stream crossings; crossings are dangerous as both a water hazard and possibly soaking everything you are wearing and carrying. Even just getting your snowshoes wet can result in heavy globs of ice stuck on them, which makes it much more difficult to continue on.
  • If you’re hiking with a dog regularly check their paws for icing, make sure they are staying adequately hydrated and are staying warm.
  • Be especially careful if conditions are icy; crampons and creepers/cleats only work if you stay on your feet.
  • If you are a beginner winter hiker, consider a group hike to learn more about trail conditions and preparation. Many areas have a number of outdoor clubs that leads hikes throughout the year that are open to new hikers without having to become a member.
With proper planning, the right skills and the right equipment, winter is a great time to get out and enjoy the trails.  Not only that, but one of the best ways to fight off winter's cabin fever is to get out of the cabin and get into the woods!

The Trail Conference and Unboring Exploring have put together a quick, fun video that cover many of the basics for winter hiking:




Need more hiking and camping advice?

Adventures in the Outdoors offers a number of guides and advice columns on a number of different hiking, camping and outdoor adventure related topics, including our introductory guide to hiking, Hiking 101 and our Guide to Buying the Right Pair of Hiking Boots.

Browse our full Advice Section for more information and to get out and start enjoying the great outdoors!

Comments

  1. good ideas but why would you need to drink if you're not thirsty?

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  2. Generally if you've already started to feel thirsty, you are already starting to get dehydrated.

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  3. That actually makes sense that you should drink constantly, even when you're not that thirsty, out in the cold weather with being dehydrated without being conscious about it. I guess finding the right hikes with fewer streams and running water would be a good idea since getting wet in those conditions would really turn ugly pretty quick out in the 0 degree weather. Honestly, you have so much experience and tips that is really going to help our outdoor adventure. We're going to plan accordingly to make sure that we have everything that we need. Thanks so much for sharing all of your insights!
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