Winter Hiking Safety
No hiking hibernation this year! Stay safe and have fun with these winter hiking tips.
- Winter hiking can be a great way to enjoy breathtaking views without much distraction. It is important to dress appropriately, pack essentials and know your limits before venturing out on a winter hike.
- Dressing appropriately for a winter hike means wearing winter-ready socks and trail hiking shoes, as well as dressing in layers like an onion to regulate body temperature.
- When packing for a winter hike, it is important to bring the essentials, including navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first-aid supplies, fire-starting equipment, repair kit and tools, nutrition, hydration, emergency shelter and hiking shoes.
Winter is Coming, Don’t Stop Hiking
Autumn is known to be one of the favorite seasons. Its mild, but slightly cold weather gives us a reprieve from the hot summer nights without dipping too far into the frigid temps of chilly winter days. And although we all love autumn, we also know that it means winter is right around the corner.
In fact, if you live in an area that is good for hiking, you may already be experiencing the side effects of winter weather. Weekend travelers and hiking enthusiasts alike will tell you that as soon as fall hits the city, it is nearly winter in the wilderness. And if you plan to hike to a higher elevation, there is a very good chance that you will encounter snow.
It may seem like the season for trekking through nature is over, but that is not actually the case. Winter hiking can produce some absolutely breathtaking views, and with the busy season over, you can really take in the scenery without much distraction. With new technology and a better understanding of winter hiking safety, there fewer places that are off-limits to an experienced hiker.
But what if you are new to winter exploration? We have collected some tips and tricks from the pros to get you started and help you stay safe out there.
Dress Like An Onion!
That may sound a little whacky, but when you think about the varying temperatures on a trail it begins to make sense. Having different forms of insulation with varying levels of heat can make regulating your body’s temperature a lot easier. Always wear winter-ready socks since your feet are the first things that will get cold. Your feet need to stay warm and comfortable so warm socks and trail hiking shoes are a must.
Pack the Essentials
Before you get too far into your planning, you will want to ensure that you have all the major essentials for any backcountry trek. It is important to do some research about the demands of the area if you are unsure about what to take and what will just weigh you down.
Here are the eleven essentials as suggested by some expert outdoorsmen:
- Navigation: Navigation is a map, compass, and GPS (optional).
- Sun protection: Sun protection is important in the winter just as much as the summer since the snow and ice can reflect the sun’s rays and give you a one-two punch when it comes to sun exposure.
- Insulation: A light jacket and extra sweater won’t do it for you the way it would in the fall or spring. A winter jacket should be longer than a regular jacket (falls to about mid-thigh typically), have a water-resistant shell, and have enough insulation to act as a single layer garment. It’s also a good idea to have extra socks, and even some extra clothes with you. Being wet, no matter how warm your clothes were in the first place, can lower your body temperature in record time. That can lead to hypothermia. It is incredibly important to have dry things to wear.
- Illumination: Illumination is necessary for when it gets dark, of course, but do not rely solely on your fire to light the way. If you are on a trail or find a dark area, you probably will not light a fire to see the trail, so bring a flashlight or better yet a headlamp that keeps your light hands free.
- First-aid supplies: Bandaids, ointment, bandages, splints, maybe some Tylenol or aspirin- you know, the regular stuff. However, for winter hiking, we also suggest a reflective blanket. They come in a little square package so they take up very little space, cost a couple of dollars, and can be used to keep you warm in the event of an emergency.
- Fire: It’s hard to find dry kindling and wood in the winter months, so remember to bring kindling (newspaper), and either waterproof matches or a lighter of some sort.
- Repair kit and tools: The types of tools you’ll need depends on what you’re carrying with you. You’ll certainly need tools to set up your shelter, and a knife will come in handy for sure.
- Nutrition: Nutrition covers your food stores. Bring at least one extra day’s worth of food. Freeze-dried meals are a nice and simple solution. Also try to bring a few no-cook options like energy bars, nuts, dried fruits, or jerky.
- Hydration: Water can get heavy, so while you should always bring at least one water bottle or collapsible water reservoir, you will probably need to gather water while you are out. So bring a means to treat the water, which will help you in a pinch and also take up a lot less space in your pack.
- Emergency shelter: Shelter may seem like overkill for a day trip into the woods, but you may be surprised that this is a very important component, especially in the winter season. A light tarp or even an emergency space blanket can go a long way to help you if you get stranded or experience unexpected wind, rain, or snow.
- Hiking Shoes: Hiking shoes might seem obvious, but in wintertime, they’re of the utmost importance. Make sure you choose something with adequate traction and insulation to keep your feet warm. Frostbite affects extremities such as fingers and toes first. Not to mention, uneven terrain and slick surfaces pose the risk of injury to your feet. Your hiking shoes need to offer proper support for the arches and the ankles. You can get the proper foot care through KURU’s shock-absorbing shoes.
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Be Adaptable and Know Your Limits
Plan to start early and not get as far during your hikes in the winter. What may seem like an easy to intermediate hike in the summer can become very difficult in the winter if it is buried in snow and ice. The sun sets earlier as well so you have less time to work with to get to your destination. Of course, you will want to check the weather before you leave and if you can, bring a solar or crank-powered NOAH radio to carry with you to stay apprised of the latest weather warnings.
It should be safety first and always. If you are unsure of a route or do not know whether an area is beyond your skill level, do not risk it! Some trails are more difficult to navigate during the winter than in the other seasons. You should always opt for the safer option and wait until you have had more experience. A snowy ridge is not the place to try something “you saw online one time”. Stop by the area’s information center or ranger station for more detailed information about known risks.
Keep checking how you feel overall. Are you marginally tired from the hike or is it reaching exhaustion? Regularly drink water and eat more than you normally would so that your body has extra energy to keep your body warm. A common risk of winter outdoor activities is Hypothermia. Be aware of the symptoms and how to stop hypothermia before you go out. The following is an excerpt from the National Park Service winter guide:
Hypothermia is a life-threatening emergency where the body cannot keep itself warm, due to exhaustion and exposure to cold, wet, windy weather.”
Symptoms: uncontrolled shivering, poor muscle control, careless attitude, confusion, exhaustion (even after rest). Look for signs of the “umbles” – stumbling, mumbling, fumbling, grumbling.
Treatment: remove wet clothing and put on dry clothing, drink warm sugary liquids, warm victim by body contact with another person, protect from wind, rain, and cold. If re-warming is unsuccessful—seek help.
Avoid hypothermia by checking at the Visitor Center or the Backcountry Information Center for the latest weather and trail conditions, taking layered clothing for protection against cold and wet weather, eating frequently, replacing fluids and electrolytes by drinking before feeling thirsty, and avoiding exposure to wet weather.”
Bring a Friend
The absolute safest choice you can make when going out on a hiking or camping trip in the wintertime is to bring a friend. It is even better to find someone who is experienced in winter hiking, especially if you are still new to the activity. Having someone else there means that you have a second set of eyes to keep on the conditions and on one another. Plus, it can get so quiet in a winter wonderland that sometimes it may be nice to have someone to talk to at the end of a long hike.
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