Hiking in winter can be an amazing experience, with white landscapes offering stunning vistas. It's also generally a lot quieter on trails, so if it’s the peace and quiet you are after, this can certainly be found!
Knowing how to hike in a snowy winter will make you a more knowledgeable hiker and outdoor adventurer. It’s important to put the effort into learning about the risks and conditions before you go, but the reward can be well worth it!
YOUR GUIDE TO HIKING IN WINTER
Plan Your Trip
Like any trip in the outdoors, a winter hike should first start with some planning. Research your intended route and check if it goes through avalanche terrain. If you are unfamiliar with this, stick to flat hikes in valley bottoms. When doing your first winter hike, start slow and pick a shorter hike to get used to what you will encounter and find out what it's really like.
Check the Forecast
If a decent dump of snow has just happened, or is about to, consider an alternative plan and try to get out in better conditions or leave it for another day. Not only is hiking through deep snow exhausting, it requires special gear like snowshoes or skis to stay on top of the deep snow.
Making sure that you aren’t going to be caught out in bad weather is also very important. In alpine terrain, the weather changes extremely quickly and can catch you unawares. Wind can be downright dangerous as it lowers the temperature significantly. Also, new snow or a change in wind direction almost always means that the avalanche risk is heightened in certain terrain.
Layer With the Right Clothes
Having the right clothing is not only important for comfort, but also for your safety. In winter, even if its forecast to be nice and sunny during the day, make sure to always take ALL layers. Layering is a skill, and should be honed with each trip you do. You can read more about it in my post about layering which has examples.
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Hiking in the snow requires boots that are waterproof and insulated. For very short hikes, you can probably get away with your regular hiking footwear, but to be comfortable and safe, its best to have the correct shoes. You should also consider using gaiters to keep snow out of your boots. Deep patches of snow can be found anywhere along trails, so having gaiters keeps your feet nice and dry!
Take the Right Gear
Being prepared is always a good idea, no matter the activity or time of year, but in winter it's especially important. Don't skip on the essentials!
Taking the ten essentials is recommended for every trip into the outdoors. Rather than individual items, it’s been refined to a ‘systems’ approach which is adjusted for each trip.
These systems are:
1. Navigation. A map in a waterproof container, compass, altimeter or GPS device.
2. Sun protection. Sunglasses, sunscreen, hat and clothing.
3. Insulation. Layering with the right clothing.
4. Illumination. Headlamp with spare batteries.
5. First-aid supplies
6. Fire. Can be a lighter or waterproof matches.
7. Knife and repair kit. For any gear you are carrying and to help with basic tasks.
8. Nutrition. Add an extra days worth of food for multi day trips for emergencies.
9. Hydration. Water and hydration salts.
10. Emergency shelter. These can be bivvy bags or emergency space blankets.
And in winter, consider whether you need extra traction like microspikes which can attach to any shoe. Like mini crampons, these are great for moderate terrain and help you get traction in the snow. Also, for deep snow, snowshoes that help you float on the surface and not sink are a must!
Hiking poles are a lifesaver, and will help you balance and move more efficiently. I was never a fan of hiking poles until I started hiking in snow.
Hypothermia is one of the main dangers of being out in the cold. To avoid it, make sure you have layered correctly for the conditions and have spare warm layers, have emergency equipment found in the ten essentials (specifically your space blanket or bivvy bag).
To learn more about hypothermia, click here.
Be Prepared to Turn Back
When conditions and/or the weather worsens, it's important to have the discipline and common sense to turn around and go back to safety. By turning around, and making that call sooner than later, you can save yourself a whole lot of trouble (or danger). When starting out on your winter hikes, don’t push the limit, make the call by being cautious and conservative.
OTHER WINTER HIKING TIPS
As hard as it is to consume liquid when its cold, it’s actually even more important in these conditions! Your body uses a lot of water to keep you warm, and with cold temperatures, the air is often quite dry, adding to the issue. So make sure to consume plenty of water while hiking in winter. A good tip is to bring a thermos with a warm drink. I find taking a sip of hot tea or coffee the ultimate treat when winter hiking, almost as enjoyable as the hike itself!
Snack on the Go
Every time you stop for a break on a winter hike, you lose precious heat. Its best to keep moving, even if its at a very slow pace. Taking an extended lunch break is also not the best thing, so eat snack size portions so you can minimize the time you are stationary. Picking foods high in fats and balanced in carbs also helps.
Keep an Eye on Each Other
Most importantly, keep an eye on your hiking buddies and look out for each other. Sometimes we may be too proud or shy to say we are cold, but it’s really important to be able to speak up! Have an open, honest policy about sharing. Likewise, check in with them periodically and see how they are going.
While it may seem like a little more work and effort to get out on the trails in winter, you get to see a beautiful landscape, blanketed in pure white, quiet and serene, and this I think is well worth pursuing!
Have you hiked in the snow before? Did you enjoy it? Share your thoughts below in the comments!
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