Winter Hiking Advice

Winter Hiking
By Eric Harvey, MHADK Education Chair

Print article

Do you have the winter blues, or maybe the quarantine blues?

Winter Hike Break, photo courtesy Eric Harvey
Winter Hike Break, photo courtesy Eric Harvey

Going for a winter hike may be just what you are looking for. Think of the advantages: there are no bugs, drinks stay cold longer, and hiking trails tend to be less crowded than other times of year. With a bit of preparation, hiking in winter can be most enjoyable.

To begin, select a hike that is within the fitness level of the least capable member of your group. Extended rest stops are more problematic in winter due to temperature conditions. Due to the shorter days in winter, plan your start time so that you will have ample time to complete the hike before darkness descends. If possible, determine what the trail conditions are, as you may need traction devices or snowshoes. It is also wise to check the weather forecast for the day, so that you are prepared for potential changes in temperature or trail conditions.

Photo courtesy Adrienne Scivolette

When it comes to clothing, the key word is layers. The innermost layer should be made of a material that will wick moisture away from your skin, such as polypropylene. The next layers should be made of wool or fleece, as those materials will maintain their insulating properties even when damp. Wool socks are best for the same reason, perhaps with a sock liner that will wick away moisture. Avoid cotton, as it loses its insulating properties when damp. Your outer layer should be made of a material that will serve as a wind breaker. A good warm hat and pair of gloves or mittens are a must.  While the need to stay warm is obvious, what may not be as obvious is that the biggest risk while exercising is getting overheated. Getting sweaty in the winter can make you much colder and vulnerable to hyperthermia.  During the hike you will need to regulate your temperature by adding and removing layers.  It is best to start by being a little cool at the trailhead, as you will soon warm up.   Add layers as needed later — for example, a lunch stop.

In terms of other gear, always bring traction devices. There may be ice on the trails even when there is none at the parking area. We recommend Kahtoola Microspikes or Hillsound Trail Crampons, as other kinds are less effective. If the snow is deeper, snowshoes should be used. Stuff in your backpack should include a headlamp with extra batteries, fire starting material, extra clothing including dry underneath layers, and a seat pad or piece of Styrofoam if you intend to stop. A thermos containing a hot drink or soup is often worth the extra weight. Many hikers like to use hiking poles, as they can make for additional stability in slippery conditions.  A pair of gaiters is useful for keeping snow out of your boots in deeper snow.

Our bodies consume significant energy when out in the cold, so packing high energy foods is a good idea Keep them accessible so you can keep eating as you walk.  At lunch, pull out the hot drink and an additional layer. Carrying and consuming water regularly is also necessary. You can become dehydrated before you feel thirsty. A wide mouth water bottle packed inside the pack that is insulated or wrapped in a wool sock is the best bet. Camel Back hoses have a tendency to freeze in colder temperatures.

While the amount of stuff you need to bring will certainly vary with outdoor conditions and the hike you choose, this should provide a good starting point for winter hiking preparation.
Hope to see you out there!