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It never occurred to me to hike in the winter before COVID shut the resorts down. As a part-time ski instructor, all my free time was claimed by skiing. Without that I was at a loss as to what to do with my Saturdays. Desperate to enjoy the outdoors but without the crowds, I discovered winter hiking.
The first time I went, I threw my winter clothes in the car and drove to a spot without much thought beforehand. I’ve learned a lot since then. Here are five tips to have a safe and fun winter hike.
Tip 1: Getting the Right Gear (which doesn’t mean expensive)
I had always thought to hike in the winter, I needed avalanche beacons, snow shoes, and different clothing—all of which I did not have the inclination to buy so I didn’t go. What I didn’t realize was that if it hadn’t recently snowed (IE, within 24 hours) and depending on the trail, I didn’t really need snowshoes. The trails get packed down very quickly, making snow shoes more of a hindrance than a help. I also chose trails outside the avalanche areas.
What I actually needed to hike was spikes to go over the snow boots I already had. These are usually metal spikes hooked to chains hooked to a rubber circle that stretch over your boots. Super easy yet incredibly helpful. These can be super cheap or more expensive depending on what you get. My philosophy with gear is to always start cheap until you know how much you’ll do a sport and what you really need to be successful at it. I found a pair online at Walmart for only $16 (this being March a lot of winter gear was discounted).
I also carry poles, which I already had in the form of hiking poles. I didn’t need anything special beyond that. I have to say, though, I haven’t really needed the poles. Most of my winter hikes haven’t been on steep trails and I usually end up carrying them.
Tip 2: Getting the Right Clothing
I have a confession: I am way too obsessed with getting the “right” clothing for my outdoor pursuits. I thought for hiking, I would need different pants, different, jackets, but I really didn’t. I’m not going to lie, it would be nice to get some waterproof stretchy pants, but I really don’t need them. What has been super helpful was having tall snow boots and base layer ski pants, which I already had. Since I’m hiking on trails that are fairly packed down, I haven’t needed any sort of snow pants. In fact, every time I’ve started hiking in my ski pants, I’ve ditched them 100 feet out for being too hot and too tight. I’ve been just fine hiking in one or two pair of base layers.
When it come to my top half, it’s been all about lots of thin layers. Leave your thick, heavy winter coat at home. You don’t want to end up getting overheated but unable to strip it off because underneath all you have is a t-shirt. During my last, very cold, hike, I stripped down to long-sleeved shirt and an insulated vest.
With the extreme shift in internal temperature (not to mention external), the one thing you’ll definitely want is some sort of backpack for the extra layers you’ll end up dumping.
Tip 3: Picking the Right Trail
If you’re new to backcountry hiking, it’s far better to be safe than sorry. DO NOT HIKE when avalanche danger is high. Since I don’t have avalanche gear, I only hike trails that my local avalanche center has deemed safe. Remember, even if the trail is not steep, the mountains around can still slide. We had a woman killed twenty or feet from the parking lot.
In the summer, I pick the more strenuous and farther away trails to avoid the crowds. In the winter, when the crowds are already thinner, I want the more popular trails. These trails are more packed down and easier to hike without snowshoes. The easier trails are also less steep and don’t come with the avalanche danger that other places might.
Tip 4: Getting the Right Amount of Hydration
I never go hiking without my hydration pack so on my first trip I, of course, filled mine up with water and hauled it up. Within ten minutes, I couldn’t take a single sip of water. The darn hose had frozen solid. Next time I tried filling up with hot water, but, by the time I drove to the trailhead and made it up a ways, the water had cooled and frozen. I now have an insulated sleeve for the hose to keep the water warmer. I also have a hand warmer for extra cold days to put in with the bladder.
Tip 5: Getting the Ambition to Go Up
Sometimes I think the hardest part of hiking is getting the energy and ambition to leave my house on a cold, dreary day. After all if I’m already cold on my own sofa, it’s going to that much worse on the mountain, right? Wrong, I’m warmer and more comfortable walking up a sunny trail than in my own home (which may mean I need to turn up my heat, but I digress).
To get the energy to get up and out, make a plan. Decide on a trail and a distance ahead of time. Put out your clothing and pack your backpack the night before. Plan a treat that you can only have when you’re done (I like cheesecake).
To keep you from giving up, make a plan to meet friends up there. Don’t know anyone willing to hike on a colder winter day? I joined a hiking group to make it more fun and safe. I’ve met more people hiking than doing anything else in 2020.
Wherever you go, always check the weather and conditions before you leave. Have a great trip!
The snow is falling in Lost Gorge, filling the resort with skiers. When one goes up the lift but never comes down, it’s up to ski instructor Mina Park to search through the blizzard. What she finds changes the town forever. While Mina doesn’t believe in myths, she does believe in murder.
Great tips! I totally agree about micro spikes – they make such a huge difference on icy days. We tend to bring snowshoes if we are heading to higher elevation trails with new snow…but to be honest most of the time we stick to those microspikes.
Hiking in winter wonderlands is sooo worth the effort (once you can get out of your cozy bed!!)
These are great tips! Sometimes the hardest part is just getting out the door!
Great tips! Especially the micro spikes… I used to avoid going out on the trails when I know it’s going to be icy but these micro spikes give me so much confidence!!
I know. I’m also surprised how I don’t notice them.
These are great tips. I think the motivation to get out is the biggest factor. One silver lining of these times is that people are wanting to be outside. The trails are packed. I hope that creates a lot of people concerned about the outdoors
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I have always enjoyed walking on quiet trails in the winter, but only started really hiking in the winter over the past few years. I couldn’t do it without my microspikes! I love your tips! Here’s to many more days out there this winter!