Many hikers tend to run from the woods as soon as the first snowflakes begin to fall. However, winter is a great time to hit the trail. Not only are the crowds gone, but many parks show off their true beauty after a fresh snowfall. With just a little more attention to detail beforehand, winter hiking can be safe and enjoyable for anyone.
Dress in Layers
Although it might feel quite frigid at the trailhead, your body will begin generating plenty of heat after just 10 or 15 minutes of walking.
The best thing you can do to keep the cold out is to dress in layers: a base layer that wicks moisture off your body, a fleece jacket for insulating warmth, and a shell to keep you dry and to keep the wind from penetrating your core.
Most importantly, dressing in layers allows you to adjust your attire as you heat-up or cool-off. When dressing for a winter hike, always remember the adage: cotton kills! Never wear anything made of cotton while hiking in the backcountry. Once wet, cotton no longer insulates you from the cold. Moreover, it wicks heat away from your body and puts you at risk of becoming hypothermic.
To round-out your winter apparel, don’t forget about a good pair of gloves, a ski cap and maybe even a balaclava.
What’s on Your Feet Matters
Some people are prone to cold feet in the winter. One of the keys to keeping your feet warm is to make sure they stay dry. Wear a good pair of hiking socks, made of wool blends or synthetic fabrics, that wick moisture away from your skin, retain heat when wet, and dry faster if they become wet. I always keep an extra pair in my pack in case the ones I’m wearing do get wet.
You should also wear above-the-ankle hiking boots which help to keep snow away from your feet. You may want to consider wearing gaiters, especially if there are several inches of snow on the ground.
Consider Ice and Deep Snow
If the snow is too deep in the mountains, consider hiking at lower elevations, or even wearing snowshoes. If you expect a lot of ice, especially in areas where there might be steep drop-offs, consider bringing crampons specifically made for hiking. These are sometimes referred to as traction devices, or in-step crampons, which you can either strap-on or slide onto your boots.
Hiking poles are another excellent choice for helping to maintain your balance on sections of trail with slick ice and snow.