All You Ever Needed to Know About Winter Hiking

Each season presents its own dangers — summer has oppressive heat, spring brings deluges of water — but winter is particularly serious. Even locked safely at home, people face myriad threats from winter’s low temperatures, from blizzards making movement impossible to ice cutting off power to entire cities. Death and injury due to difficult winter weather are still common place even in developed nations — and yet, people still enjoy a nice winter hike.

In truth, winter is a fabulous season for hiking. Landscapes everywhere are transformed by the season, as the usual stunning green turns to dazzlingly crisp white. However, winter hiking excursions require significantly more forethought to combat any potential obstacles or unforeseen developments before they arise. Whether your potential hiking adventure will take a day or a month, keep these safety tips in mind as you make plans to see the real winter wonderlands.

Don’t Skimp on Safety Gear

The resources you bring with you are all you’ll have to work with in the event of an emergency, which means that you need to be wise about what you pack. No matter what season in which you are hiking, you should always bring essentials like water, snacks, and first aid. However, during winter trips, it is even more crucial that you include survival gear like the following:

  • Trail map and compass. During the winter, it is possible that even well-trodden trails will be covered by snow or other debris. A map will be able to tell you what shape the trail should take, and a compass should be able to point you in the right direction if you aren’t sure where to go.
  • Pocket knife or multi-tool. Portable, safe, and exceedingly useful, small multi-use gadgets like pocket knives are handier on a hike than you might think. You should never underestimate the power of tools, no matter how small, especially when you might easily become stranded in the wilderness.
  • Chemical warming packets. In nature, temperatures can drop quickly and without warning, and a reliable outside source of heat will be invaluable. Even if you or your group doesn’t encounter a crisis situation, the packets can provide comforting warmth during resting periods.
  • Headlamp. For the northern hemisphere, winter means shorter days and longer nights — though since the spread of electricity, it is easy to forget the latter element. Darkness comes quickly and quietly in the wilderness, but if you have a headlamp, the sudden onset of nighttime shouldn’t preclude you from seeking shelter at camp or in your car.
  • Satellite phone. Unlike cellphones that receive connection from land-based towers in urban areas, sat phones and services provide reliable reception no matter where you go. Even in the depths of a blizzard-wracked forest, you should have the ability to call for help, which is exactly why you should research top satellite phone rentals before your excursion.

Bundle Up in Layers

French Canadians always advise travelers to their region to “s’habiller comme un oignon,” or to dress like an onion. The best way to dress in any cold weather, but especially in variable natural environments, is to don several easily removable layers so you will feel comfortable no matter the temperature or level of activity. Temperatures usually vary between trailheads and summits, which means that you may be taking off and putting on layers throughout your hike. Importantly, you want to avoid being both too cold and too hot — if your ample layers are causing you to sweat, shed some of them promptly, or else feel the harsh cold when your sweat-soaked clothing begins to freeze.

Know Your Aptitude

If you are a hiking maniac in the warm-weather months, you may be inclined to choose harder trails even during the winter. However, those who have little experience with winter hiking would do well to start small. While you might be able to navigate your favorite black diamond trailhead blindfolded in the summer, the winter brings new and unexpected challenges, like slick ice or deep snow. It is much better to experiment with cold weather hiking on a milder hiking trail and then escalate in difficulty as your seasonal skills improve.

Bring a Friend, Experienced or Otherwise

Even the most seasoned winter hikers prefer not to hike alone during the cold weather months. The risks of becoming lost or stranded are significantly higher when there is snow on the ground, and navigating these new challenges unaided is simply too dangerous. The best candidates for accompaniment on a winter hike are those who have prior experience with the season’s obstacles; they will be able to provide useful advice regarding required gear and appropriate trails.

However, by no means is a veteran necessary on most winter hikes. Instead, you can simply invite one or a few of your friends to share in the thrill of winter hiking. Exploring nature is always more enjoyable together, and when a crisis occurs, you know you’ll have help to make it through safe and sound.

Written by Steve Manley