By: Duncan McKee
Cold weather can be a huge deterrent to taking a hike in the winter months. This should not be the case, however. Winter offers some of the most spectacular and jaw dropping views that cannot be seen when it is sunny and 75°. When it is cold, however, different precautions are required to make sure you and your group have a safe and enjoyable experience. These are some tips on how to hike in the winter. This is not a comprehensive list, but a set of good practices to get you out to enjoy winter the right way! Before you look at this list, make sure to check our list of essentials for every hiking trip, then you can add these winter tips!
1. Dress in layers
This may come as the most obvious one, but dressing warmly is the first step in a successful hiking trip. Your body will eventually start to generate heat while you hike, but being prepared with a well-structured ensemble is essential. Every good winter hiking outfit has 3 essential layers:
- Base Layer
The base layer is for moisture wicking and the first layer of defense for your body. The insulator will be the main thing holding in your body heat, often this is a fleece or some other soft shell jacket. The shell is the water proof outer covering of your body. This is going to keep any type of moisture (and ideally wind) from getting on your clothes and making things much colder for you. Another huge benefit for dressing in layers is that if you get too warm, it is easy to shed a layer or two.
Pro Tip: Avoid cotton. Once cotton gets wet it completely loses its ability to insulate and will take a long time to dry on the trail. Synthetic layers will be moisture-wicking and quick drying. Also, make sure that your shell is also wind resistant. Cold weather can feel a lot colder when there is wind chill involved.
2. Eat all day
It is important to eat in cold weather. Your body is burning up to twice as many calories trying to keep you warm. Feeding yourself high protein snacks during your entire trip will help keep you warm and safe. Bring simple, easy to digest snacks with little to no prep required. Stopping for long periods of time will cause your muscles to tighten and it will be challenging for you to get moving again. Trail mixes with lots of nuts are the perfect thing to keep with you during your cold adventures.
3. Drink water
It may not be hot and you may feel like you are not sweating much, but it is still very important to remain hydrated on your hike. It may sound silly, but it is actually easier to experience dehydration in the colder weather due to the dryer air. Dehydration is especially dangerous because when it occurs, it is easier to experience hypothermia and frostbite. Try an insulated water bottle to keep your water from freezing. If you do not have an insulated water bottle and do not want to invest in one, try insulating it yourself with a thick sock or wool hat.
4. Hike during the heat of the day
Normally when going on a hike, you want to mostly avoid when the sun is at its peak. It can be grueling and dangerous depending on where you are. For winter hiking, however, it is exactly opposite. Hiking in the winter means that you want to plan your time around getting the most time in the sun as possible. This is going to be more comfortable for you, for warmth and for light.
Pro Tip: Make sure to know when sunset is. If you start a 5 hour hike at noon, it is possible you will be arriving back to your car at dark. This is also important for any winter backpackers. Planning your days according to the sunrise and sunset will be very important.
5. Understand the signs of hypothermia
Hypothermia is a real threat in any cold situation. It can sneak up on you if you are not careful. Hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature becomes lower enough that it begins to interfere with normal muscle and brain function. It can affect your ability to get to safety and think clearly.
Some things that lead to hypothermia include:
- Inadequate clothing for cooler weather
- Fatigue and exhaustion.
Some signs of hypothermia are:
- Uncontrollable shaking and shivering
- Slurred speech
If you think you are someone else may be experiencing hypothermia, do everything you can to make them warm and find help as soon as possible. Read more about hypothermia here.
Optional, But Suggested Tips
Here are a few good ideas to adhere to that will definitely improve your experience. While not necessarily required, these tips will improve your safety and enjoyment on any good winter escapade. Consider them as you pack for your trip.
Crampons or Micro Spikes
Crampons and Micro Spikes are tools that can drastically change your adventure from slippery icy danger to an attainable trail. Both tools are used to improve your traction in icy environments. However, they cannot be used lightly. Crampons especially can be very dangerous if used incorrectly. Typically, if you are going on a more moderate trail, high-traction hiking boots may be enough. Micro Spikes are added for additional traction if you know your trail will be especially icy. Crampons are usually for more serious ice inclines or mountaineering. If you think you will need additional traction, learn more about these two options and pick what is best for you.
Bring a warm drink
Nothing can help warm the body like a little hot tea or cocoa. Bringing a well-insulated bottle full of a warm drink can really help you warm up if things start to get especially cold. It also is a tasty addition to any gear load out. This should go without saying – but leave the alcohol at home. Alcohol can cause arteries and veins to expand, releasing more heat, and can lead to hypothermia more quickly. There will be plenty of time for a celebratory drink once you are safe and sound in a warm building.
There are hand and toe warmers that resemble tea bags that can be bought at many major retailers. These small packs, once exposed to open air, will begin to heat up and can be really nice for hands and toes. I hesitate to suggest these only because you CANNOT rely on them. While they will improve your comfort temporarily, these cannot be one of your main sources of warmth. They run out. Make sure to dress warmly enough that if you did not have the hand warmers, you would still have a fun and comfortable journey. These are just nice little additions to your pack.