Winter Hiking 101
We at Trekalong seek out adventure all year round, and we want to help you do the same. We consulted Menasha Ridge Press author Victoria Logue, to get the scoop on winter-weather wilderness. Here’s a bit excerpted from her book, Hiking and Backpacking: Essential Skills, Equipment, and Safety (Menasha Ridge Press, 2 ed. 2007).
While the majority of this excerpt was written by Victoria Logue, some portions were edited or added by the editor, for length and content.
Experienced hikers have learned that backpacking is pleasurable not only during the warm months. Cold-weather hiking and camping is possible in many parts of the United States and — more importantly — provides much more solitude. It is a way to experience the Earth during its darkest season — to discover a new world both physically and mentally.
In winter, you’ll find the trails much less crowded — even in the South, where, contrary to popular opinion, it does get cold and occasionally even snows. You can find snowy places throughout the country where you can hike and camp in peace. But don’t just throw on your pack, seal your boots, and head out into the elements: cold-weather backpacking requires a little more forethought and preparation.
There are several factors to consider when preparing your winter-weather pack. Here’s a run-down of the choices you’ll need to make when getting ready for a snowy or icy hike:
If the snow you’ll be facing is not deep (or if it’s hard-packed) and the trail is over gently or only slightly mountainous terrain, hearty hiking boots will probably suffice. A pair of gaiters and well-sealed hiking boots will make the trip more comfortable. Avoid the hard, plastic, cold-weather mountaineering boots that were designed for technical climbing.
However, if you’re traveling in icy conditions or over steep terrain or deeper snow, you will probably need to consider crampons, snowshoes, or cross-country skis. Crampons, which usually have 12 points or claws, strap onto your boots. They must be fitted properly — using loose crampons can be as, if not more, dangerous than hiking without.
If a crampon’s mighty grip isn’t necessary, snowshoes or cross-country skis offer an alternative… but which one to choose? Snowshoes, if you have the money to invest, are great if you like to explore and take your time. Skis, on the other hand, are great for moving toward your destination quickly. If you’ve never been on skis before, however, consider snowshoes first.
Remember that layering your clothing is of utmost importance when hiking during the winter. Begin with a layer of long underwear.
Next, you may want to add a shirt and pants made of pile or fleece. You can top these off with a warm parka and waterproof, insulated pants if the weather is really cold, or with a lighter rain/wind suit if the temperature is only reasonably cold.
Don’t forget that you can add greatly to your warmth by donning a hat or balaclava (see right).
You should also pack extra clothes with you, in case you get wet.
Even the most thorough layering can get you through a winter’s day on the trail, all bets are off when the sun goes down. And in the winter months, that’s a lot earlier than the summer months prepare us for. Be sure to check overnight temperatures and weather conditions before setting out on an overnight winter excursion. Or, just make sure you’re home by supper!
Overnight Gear: Tents
If you’re heading into snow, you’ll need a three- or four-season tent, preferably one that is freestanding and has a waterproof floor. An added bonus would be a tent that offers a cook hole (a zippered or gathered hole in the bottom of the tent that can be opened to allow cooking directly on the ground). If you’re traveling into temperatures below 20-degrees Fahrenheit, you will want to strongly consider a four-season tent. Otherwise, a three-season tent will probably suffice.
When pitching your tent, be sure to level the area and pack down the snow. If this is not done, it is very likely you will wake up when the tent collapses around you. Leave your pack on while stamping the ground to add extra weight and make the job go more quickly. If you make the base wider than necessary, you’ll be able to walk around your tent without snowshoes or skis. (This is useful in case nature calls during the night!)
Overnight Gear: Sleeping Bags, Pads
You will also need a sleeping bag with a low-degree comfort rating — a zero-degree bag will do for most situations. If you don’t want the expense of two sleeping bags, consider using a liner to make your three-season bag warmer. And you MUST opt for a mummy-style bag (see left): it will simply keep you the warmest, and if the temperature really drops, you can tighten the hood until nothing but your nose is showing.
Since your tent may be pitched on top of snow or frozen ground, you will want some good insulation underneath you, as well. While a three-quarter-length sleeping pad may do for three-season camping, you may want to consider a full-length pad for cold-weather camping.
Know the Causes/Symptoms of Hypothermia
You are most likely to become hypothermic after you have stopped hiking, especially if you are tired and wet (from sweat or otherwise). Movement keeps you warm, and your body’s core temperature will drop slowly once you stop.
Fortunately, hypothermia is easy to combat if recognized early. If you experience numb fingers, a slight case of the shivers, severe trembling, sleepiness despite the cold, and marked muscular weakness, you are coming down with hypothermia. Drop everything and make yourself warm. Strip yourself of your wet clothes and put on dry clothes if possible. Crawl into your sleeping bag and, if you’re able, heat up something hot to drink (tea, coffee, hot chocolate — even hot water). Drinks with high sugar content are best. A good hack is heated Jell-O: tastes great warm and is full of sugar. But remember: warm body, then warm drink.
- Trekking/Hiking poles: these can help you navigate icy or snowy terrain.
- Lighting: given the lower amount of daylight, a lighting solution will be a must. A lantern is a classic option, but a headlamp — if powerful enough — can offer more dexterity if hiking through the darkness.
- Stove: It’s a good idea to take a portable stove. In the event you succumb to hypothermia, you will want to heat up some fluid to drink. Avoid stoves powered by blended fuels, as they are harder to use in cold weather. Same goes for butane. The best option is denatured alcohol: it heats quickly and in low temperatures. Denatured stoves are also frequently the most portable (a current trend is to construct these out of soda cans).
- Sunscreen: While it seems counterintuitive, if you’re hiking across a snow-covered slope on a cold but sunny day, not only are UV rays assaulting your face from above, but also from below, as it reflects off the snow.
- Sunglasses: See sunscreen.
Hiking and Backpacking: Essential Skills, Equipment, and Safety
If you want to enjoy a well-planned, well-equipped day hike or backpacking trek, take charge of your outing with Hiking and Backpacking: Essential Skills, Equipment, and Safety (formerly Backpacking: Essential Skills to Advanced Techniques). Logue demystifies the outdoor experience, proving that you don’t have to be a wilderness warrior to get back to nature and have fun. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned path master, the wealth of tips, techniques, and tricks will have you trailblazing like never before.