If the polar vortex has brought anything (besides cold weather, that is) it’s cabin fever. Spring feels further away than ever for large swaths of the country—but that doesn’t have to mean the outdoors are off limits. Hiking in the winter has its own rewards, including crowd-free trails, snowy scenery and fresh air.
We reached out to Bruce Matthews, executive director for the North Country Trail Association, for advice on getting outside during the cold months. A former licensed Adirondack Guide and past Director of the S.U.N.Y Cortland Adirondack Winter Studies program, Matthews shared tips via email on planning your outing, staying safe and getting the most out of your winter hike.
(We also added a few pointers of our own and consulted the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference for additional advice.)
1. Plan your drive & check the forecast
Check road conditions and have your car stocked with winter supplies before heading out to the trailhead, says Matthews. “Choose a route that’s likely to be open.” That means using main roads—“no seasonal roads,” he says—and making sure someone knows your route and timetable before you leave. Also make sure your phone is charged, your tank is full, your spare tire is inflated and your car has the following items:
Plenty of blankets, a good shovel, bag of sand and salt, tow rope/strap, tire chains, plenty of road flares (check expiration) which can also be used as fire starters, tarp/plastic sheet/old shower curtain (to lay on when attaching tow rope, changing tire, etc.), snacks and water.
And, of course, while a good forecast is no guarantee of perfect conditions for driving or hiking, a bad one is a sign you should stay home.
2. Leave a plan & bring a friend
Because you’re less likely to encounter other hikers in the winter, it’s even more important that you leave a plan with someone. Tell a friend or family member where you’re going and when you expect to be back home. In cold weather, an injury can mean more than hobbling back to the trailhead on a sprained ankle: it can mean hypothermia, which can lead to death. Having company is also insurance against getting stranded alone in the woods if you (or your ankle) get turned around.
3. Wear the right clothes
Dressing warmly in multiple layers is only part of the equation. When hiking in the winter you’ll get wet from both sweat and snow. “[Be] prepared for getting wet from the inside,” says Matthews. Your base layer should be sweat wicking to keep moisture from collecting and sapping heat from your body. Clothes should be loose fitting and you should always avoid cotton. On top of an insulating mid-layer and a puffy coat, a wind- and water-resistant outer shell is a good way to keep from getting soaked from the outside: “Even sunny days can bring snow falling off trees.”
“I’m a fan of gaiters,” he added. Gaiters are a protective garment worn over the top of your boots and your lower pant leg to keep mud and moisture out.
Credit: Flickr user Ben Amstutz
4. Wear the right footwear
Depending on trail conditions, you may need extra traction on your boots or even snowshoes. “Break them in ahead of time,” says Matthews. “Try out snowshoes ahead of time to work out any bindings issues.”
“If you are using snowshoes, its good to use hiking/trekking poles or ski poles fitted to your height and snow conditions. You don't use the same length pole as when nordic skiing—a day of doing it and you'll know why! Bring some good quality duct tape and a couple 6 inch pieces of PVC for emergency repairs.”
Also, prepare to get wet: pac boots and wool socks will help keep the snow out and your feet toasty.
5. Leave earlier in the day
Remember: the sun sets earlier in the winter, and you don’t want to get caught out after dark. “Set a turn-back time that gives you an hour or more than you think you’ll need to get back to the car or shelter,” says Matthews. “Better to turn back and retrace than to keep going on a loop that may be longer than you think.”
6. Pick easier trails & don’t test your luck
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s always good to remember to scale back your expectations. Scrambles are out. Big climbs are out. Longer hikes may be a no-go unless you’re an experienced winter hiker or prepared for winter camping. “This is particularly true when snowshoeing,” says Matthews, “which slows experienced hikers to between one-half to two-thirds [of] their normal daily range.”
And, lest it need to be said: “Stay off ice-covered rivers and streams,” adds Matthews. Even a single soggy foot can ruin your day.
Hydration is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer. “CamelBak-style bladders worn closer to your body, or even inside your clothes are good options, and convenient,” says Matthews. “Leaving a little room for sloshing in your water containers keeps the water moving and less likely to freeze. Though uncomfortable, you can carry your water inside your clothing to help keep it liquid. Using a bladder or Bota-style container makes it more tolerable. Don't wait until the water freezes to bring it inside!”
“Snack regularly with high-sugar, high-carb foods. If you plan ahead, carrying a small stove, fuel (not butane, which doesn't work well in low temps) and a sierra-style cup can be worth their weight in renewed spirits and warmed up bellies. Cocoa's always popular, and a baggie of dried soup or powdered mashed potatoes (I like Knorr's spring vegetable soup mix) reconstituted in hot water can really hit the spot.”
A word of warning: “Save the alcohol for when you're back safe in your cabin.” Too many nips from the ol’ flask can increase your risk of frostbite.
9. Be prepared
“Bring good-quality waterproofed matches,” says Matthews—“and a pocket knife. Know how to start a fire.” (See also: “The Yellow Lifesaver” -Ed.)
“Don’t forget a headlamp and extra batteries. Even in low-reception areas, bring a cell phone with well-charged batteries (and turn it off until you need it).” He explains: “More and more rescues are being effected with signal tracing.”
Matthews also recommends carrying an emergency bivy sack.
10. Know avalanche safety
This one applies if you’re hiking in the mountains. Learn the basics of avalanche safety, know how to avoid risks and what to bring: beacon, shovel and probe are a must. An airbag might help save you in a slide, but best not to find yourself in one in the first place.