5 Tips for Cold Weather Hiking

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By: Peter Flanigan

Cold weather, it’s not just for hockey players and polar bears, it is for hikers as well! In fact, a lot of hikers I know like hiking in colder weather, it puts the proverbial “spring” in one’s step, and creates its own set of challenges as you go tromping about in the outdoors. Here are some tips that will hopefully help you as you explore the colder (i.e., better) seasons.

1. Layering

Didn’t your mama tell you to “bundle up”? Well, she was right! To best enjoy the chilly outdoors, I suggest putting on several layers that you can shed if you warm up or put back on if you cool down too much. You can layer your top-self in things like long sleeve shirts, heavier fleece sweaters and even heavier jackets if need be. You can layer your bottom-self with items like long johns, soft shell pants or jeans, snow pants, etc. Heck you can even layer your gloves! If you are a believer that a seven-layer bean dip is better than a single layer bean dip, then you have the right mindset for cold weather hiking. Most people will tell you not to layer in cotton because if it gets wet it takes longer to dry which means you stay colder for longer. If possible, pick up some synthetic and wool clothing which you can put on to help stay dry (unless you challenge everyone you meet to a snowball fight).

2. Having the Right Gear

The cold makes great ice cream but it also makes ice. Ice can be treacherous on the trails especially if you are hiking in an area that hovers around freezing as the water will freeze, melt and refreeze again giving you lots of traction problems on the trail. Snow causes its own problems because without snowshoes you go post-holing and that snow is so, so hungry to eat your boots, and will make your feet miserable. Make sure you gear up for the conditions and track the weather and recent trip reports to see what you need; your feet will thank you.

3. Knowing the Route

When hiking in the outdoors, it is always good to know where you are and where you are going (heck that applies to life in general). An essential hiking skill to help orient yourself outside is knowing how to work a compass and a map or your GPS device. Having the ability to know where you are and how to get to your destination is doubly important when hiking in cold weather, especially if there is snow on the ground obscuring the trail. When the familiar landmark of the trail is wiped out, you need to get yourself around somehow. There are lots of resources for learning the skill of orienteering, either online or better yet in person by taking a course. The snow taketh but the compass will giveth (quoted from W. Shakespeare).

4. Be Over Prepared

Ben Franklin, that noted mountaineer and BASE jumper had it right, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” My favorite maxim is “it’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it” (take THAT Franklin!). I usually take a knit hat with me when hiking in colder temps just in case I work up a sweat or the temp drops. I always like to have a couple layers stuffed in the backpack like a vest or jacket to help layer. While ultra light hiking has taken off in recent years, I like to hike “heavier” than I need to, making sure I have a first aid kit, even bringing along some climbing rope if I know there will be scrambling. Hiking in colder weather means warmth is the key to your happiness so make sure you bring along something you will be able to start a fire with or get yourself warmed up the good old synthetic way.

5. Always Tell Someone Where You Are

I know this goes without saying but do you really want to end up like the guy who didn’t tell anyone where he was going and lost an arm in a slot canyon somewhere in Utah (spoiler alert for “127 Hours” which I hope you have Netflixed by now)? When hiking in colder weather and especially in snowy conditions, your margin for survival is much less compared to the warmer months, especially if you skipped over tip 4 above. If something goes wrong and you don’t have gear like a zero bag, and you can’t help yourself get out of a situation (much like I can’t help myself whenever I go to a cupcake store), then you will need to rely on the Search and Rescue people to help you out. They can get to you much quicker and much more accurately if someone is keeping an eye on your itinerary. Go have all the solitude that you desire but on the 0.001% chance that you need humans to help you out, make sure someone knows where you are.

Guest Contributor

Peter Flanigan hikes the decidedly warm trails of Southern California and you can read about his adventures at EastWestHike.com. Follow his shorter musings on the outdoors on Twitter @ADKinLA.

 

 

 

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