Originally written for the Upstate New York Outdoors Blog
Hiking in the winter is a magical experience with many mind, body and soul benefits. It is without a doubt different than hiking in the summer. However, with these simple steps you can make it one of your most enjoyable outdoor experiences.
The days are shorter in the winter so you need to give yourself more time. You typically move a little bit slower in wintery terrain. If you normally hike at a pace of 2mph, plan to possibly cut that in half depending on the snow conditions. If you are planning a longer hike, it is advisable to start around sun up and be back at your car before sundown to avoid the coldest temperatures.
As with summer hikes, always share your route and itinerary with a friend or relative. If there are problems encountered on the trail, the cold temperatures can escalate the situation quickly. In addition to the 10 essentials, you will need to take some extra planning for clothing, traction, nutrition and hydration.
Finally, double check the batteries in your headlamp and GPS. The cold drains weak batteries very quickly.
There is a famous quote by Ranulph Fiennes that says:
There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.
Layering for winter hikes is the key to success. If you dress too hot, you will sweat and create dangerous moisture in your clothing. If you dress too cold, you got it, you will be cold. You will never find the perfect single piece of clothing for each situation. This is why people say to layer your clothes.
REI has some great advice on layering basics. Ideally, you want a base layer that can wick perspiration. There are a ton of options for a synthetic base layers in nylon and polyester materials or natural material like merino wool. Your base layer should NEVER be cotton.
For my base layer, I typically wear a wicking tee and a synthetic lightweight or expedition weight long sleeve shirt depending on the temps.
The next layer in winter is your insulating middle layer. Most people choose a synthetic or down jacket or fleece. I, personally, am a fleece person.
Unless the temperatures are below 20 degrees, I will start my hike in just my middle layer. I like to start my winter hikes feeling a little bit cold. Due to the extra exertion in the snow, you warm up quickly. You want to avoid overheating and sweating.
The final layer is the outer layer. This layer protects you from wind, rain and snow. The performance of this layer highly depends on the temperatures. If temperatures dictate, this layer might be a heavy shell/parka or just a waterproof rain jacket. I usually throw this layer on when I stop moving or when the temperatures drop or wind picks up.
What did I miss?
Right, hat, gloves and maybe a Buff. I would suggest having a backup of each in case you get any of the items wet. Another add-on is a few hand warming packets. Gaiters can protect your lower legs from the wet, cold elements of deep snow.
My final suggestion is always take sunglasses. Although many winter days are gloomy, when the sun peaks out the reflection of the sun on the snow can be intense.
Proper Footwear, Traction Devices and Snowshoes
Proper footwear and traction is the key to an enjoyable winter hike. Warm waterproof hikers or pack boots are recommended. It is a good idea to choose a half-size or whole size up for your winter boots. This allows you room for an extra pair of socks and room to wiggle your toes. Improper fitting boots can restrict blood flow and cause your feet to get prematurely cold and even result in frostbite.
In the winter, you will encounter many different terrains from frozen ground to ice to snow. This requires specialized gear depending on the terrain. I would suggest that every winter hiker invest in a set of microspikes. Microspikes are used in icy conditions or packed snow, I prefer the Kahtoola Microspikes.
For deeper snow, snowshoes will be needed. Just about any major brand of snowshoe will suffice for most trails in WNY. If you are thinking about hiking in the Adirondack or Catskill Mountains, my go to snowshoe is the MSR EVO Trail or MSR EVO Ascent. I would also suggest using ski poles or trekking sole.
Before going out and investing in snowshoes, I suggest renting or borrowing a pair. I bet some of your friends have a pair. If they don’t, your local gear shop like Gear for Adventure will rent them very inexpensively. Many local conservation organizations, like BN Waterkeeper, organize free snowshoe hikes.
As you learned in our previous post, we learned that you burn more calories hiking in the winter due to the cold temps and more rugged terrain. Therefore, you must plan your nutrition appropriately. I suggest taking 1/3 more calories than you normally would during a summer hike. My rule of thumb is about 150-200 calories per hour on Adirondack High Peaks OR 100 calories per mile (flat ground) in the Spring, Summer or Fall. I will increase to 200-250 per hour on Adirondack High Peaks OR 130 calories per mile (flat ground) in the Winter.
There is an increased dehydration danger in winter. The reason you do not feel thirsty in winter is due to a process called vasoconstriction. This is your body’s response to the cold by decreasing the amount of blood it sends to your extremities to decrease heat loss. Your brain does not detect this blood volume decrease that normally triggers the “thirsty response”. On top of that, your kidneys detect the increased blood volume in your core which triggers your “pee reflex”. Why do you think you always have to pee when it’s cold?
Not feeling thirsty and peeing frequently results in a net water loss in the body. Remember to drink even when you are not thirsty in the winter.
Also remember, it is cold in the winter and water freezes. Camelbak drink tubes will freeze. You can prevent this by blowing the water back into the bladder, but this will only last for so long. Nalgene bottles also will freeze. The best you can do is store them upside down so the cap freezes last.
My suggestion is using a stainless vacuum bottle like a Hydroflask. For short hikes, cold water or room temperature water will not freeze. For longer hikes, I suggest hot water or non-caffeinated tea.
Remember avoid to avoid caffeine on winter hikes. And absolutely NO alcohol! Save that for after the hike.
- Know the weather forecast, take into account windchill.
- Be aware of the signs of hypothermia, frostbite and frostnip.
- Test the ice at any creek or stream crossing.
3 thoughts on “Preparing for a Winter Hike”
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It seems that snow shoe is only available in one size, 22 inches. so if you weigh above 180lbs they are not recommended. other snow shoe brands do come in different sizes which can accommodate those of us over 200lbs. Do you have any recommendations for other brands of snow shoes?
For the MSRs they make 6in. float tails which will help taller heavier hikers. Tubbs and Redfeather make 30″ aluminum tube style which provide more floatation, however you give up the traction. I am 6’1″ 180lbs and I have never used the float tails. For types of hiking I do in WNY and Adirondacks, the trails are usually packed a little bit. And if it is fresh powder, I kind of suck it up and get a good workout in.