Winter Hiking Tips & Tricks 101

Do not fear the snow. It’s one of my personal favorite times of year to explore outside in Utah. (That is, as soon as I stop my whining about how cold it is. Hey, I’m human.) Here are some of my hard-earned learnings about how to hike right when it’s really cold outside.

[ed. note: A version of this post originally appeared on my previous blog in March 2010.]

Hiking in the winter? In snow? In cold? Can you even find the trail?

Yes, yes, yes, and (sometimes) yes. Really! And you don’t even have to be Davy Crockett. The key, however, is to do it the old-fashioned way: using your two personal sherpas, otherwise known as your legs. Wintertime exploration on foot is a sublime experience. Why?

1) Unlike a ski resort, you won’t get plowed down by an out-of-control novice snowboarder or pay an exorbitant amount for lift tickets.

2) Snowmobiling may take you farther into the backcountry, but its noise pollution can ruin the experience not only for you but others, including Bambi and Thumper.

3) Amazing exercise. You thought just hiking was tough? Try hiking through snowdrifts. As someone I knew once put it, that’s a major ass-blaster. (Snowshoeing is a fabulous way to go, as I’ve recently rediscovered.)

4) Best bonus? Seeing the landscape in a way few will.

Safety considerations are paramount, of course. We all like to come back alive and whole from our adventures. Here are a few of my favorite pieces of wintertime hiking advice.

1) Dress warmly, but don’t go for overkill. Layering is key. Too many layers, however, and you’ll head out feeling like that Stay Puft Marshmallow dude. Which means you’ll quickly get too warm, which means sweat, which means ultimately really cold when it dries on your skin! I like to wear a synthetic (remember, “cotton kills”) long john top as my first layer, then a fleece pullover, then a down vest, then a waterproof outer layer. For the lower half, I again go for synthetic long john bottoms, then jeans, usually Carhartts. (Yes, I know I just said cotton kills, and wet jeans will definitely make you an unhappy hiker. I’m used to it and can take care of myself. If you’re not an experienced winter hiker, don’t do it!) If, however, I’m snowshoeing and likely to fall down in deep drifts (yes, I am that coordinated) or it’s actively snowing, I’ll wear waterproof outer pants instead. Note: if it’s sunny and warmish, those are already too many layers! Layer down just a bit in that circumstance. But keep those layers with you if you suspect the weather may change during your trip.

(Notice my NEOs–New England Overshoes–which keep my tootsies and boots inside dry and warm. Also, my très excellent snowshoes)

2) Water. Yeah, on a cold day you think you won’t want water. Sorry, your body needs it no matter what. And when you’re hiking through snow, you’re working out, which means you’ll eventually dehydrate if you don’t replenish. Your best bet in chilly outdoor conditions is a hydration system that includes an insulated drinking tube. Camelbak,which makes a lot of stuff I use, has some good cold-weather options.Such a hydration system also often comes pack-style, which means places for you to stash those pesky extra layers when you start to get your heart pumping.

3) Ye olde trail mix. For some, good old gorp is outdated. But you can make your own yummy & instantly fueling mix from just about anything, as long as it gives you a bit of energy just at that moment when you’re about to bonk (not that kind of bonking, folks. I mean the kind where your blood sugar is hurtling straight down to your toes). And of course there are dozens of energy bar brands on the market, as well as various energy goos and gels (this concept makes some, such as yours truly, a bit ill). My current energy boost of choice? Shot Bloksby Clifbar. (Beware, however, if they harden a bit from the cold and you have dental work in your mouth! Could be asking for trouble unless you let them warm up in your pocket first.)

4) Map. Compass. GPS. Directions. Companion who knows where the heck s/he is. Frankly, I wouldn’t rely solely on any sort of GPS…satellites aren’t necessarily receptive right when you need them to be, and batteries can and do die. Having map & compass skills is still a great thing for outdoor messing around, even in our highly technological age.

5) Pace yourself. Slogging through snow can be way tougher than you’re used to. Trust me, you’ll get wiped out much sooner than you’d expect. Usually can hike four miles no problem? Aim for two in the snow, and don’t be surprised if it takes you as long as or even longer than a snowless excursion with more mileage.

6) Um, tell someone where you’re going! If nothing else, scribble a note to put on the dash of your car. Last-minute itinerary changes have been the downfall of many, even experienced outdoorsy types. You may feel silly, but better silly than frozen and undiscovered out in the wilderness for months. Seriously. There are also cool little devices on the market that can help searchers find you should you fail to return at a pre-designated time.

7) Wear sunscreen. Bring a container of it with you. Sun hitting the snow reflects with even greater intensity on your face, much as sunlight hitting water, and can therefore make you crisp up a little sooner.

8 ) Favorite tip: take a dog. Your own, or borrow one. They love it so much, they make snow hikes that much more fun. (Just make sure your dog is at least as fit as you are. Hiking in snow is tough on them too.) And who knows, maybe they’ll play Lassie for you if you make a mistake and end up wandering in circles.

Have at your snowy adventure, be safe, and enjoy your winter wonderland adventuring. I know I sure do.

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