Hiking safety in the winter

Hiking safety in the winter

If solitude is what you’re after, winter hiking can be very enjoyable. Most hiking trails are never crowded during the colder months. If you are prepared, winter hikes can be some of the most rewarding of all.

1. Planning for a winter hike

Like any outdoor adventure, a winter hike takes planning. First, know your limitations and those of others in your party. A six-mile hike in and out on the same day might be fine for some, but not everyone will be able to handle that. Carefully study maps of the area in which you plan to hike so that you are familiar with the terrain. Carry a day pack containing essential items and always let others know where you will be going and when you plan to return. If you are hiking in the backcountry or off-trail, this becomes doubly important. In such a case, it is critical that you also leave an itinerary with a friend or family member that includes your destination and when you are scheduled to return. 

2. GPS and compass

When hiking, use your GPS (Global Positioning System) and compass. If there is snow on the trail, you could lose it, so trust these instruments to keep you on track. Because it operates on satellites, GPS can be affected by tree cover and weather conditions, but a compass is almost always reliable if you know how to use it. In addition to other navigation aids, you will need good maps of the area. Even if you don’t plan to rely on them for navigation, they can add enjoyment to your outing, because they will show important features and sites that you might want to check out along the way. Maps can also show you the most practical route out of an area in an emergency.

3. The danger of hypothermia

The main thing you will want to protect yourself against while hiking or pursuing any cold weather activity is hypothermia. Hypothermia is a condition where your core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. On a wet, windy day, hypothermia can strike if you don’t have enough clothing, even in air temperatures as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It can also happen if you are in water that is 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. The obvious solution to prevent or reverse hypothermia is to make sure you have warm, dry clothing when the weather gets cold. Always be prepared for wet conditions.

4. Layering

Proper layering of clothing prevents excess sweat and moisture build up, which can chill you under winter conditions. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer against your skin. Modern undergarments made of breathable synthetic fabric fit the bill. These can be had in long or short versions. If you prefer undergarments made from natural fabrics, silk is a great choice, but it is expensive. 

Next come your pants and shirt. In cold weather, wool works great for both, but it is heavy and some people don't like the feel of wool on their skin. In this case, you can again opt for synthetics. I personally like wool pants over synthetic long underwear for warmth. Wear a light breathable long sleeve shirt on top. 

Keep your feet warm and prevent blisters. Include synthetic socks with wool hiking socks on top. Make sure your footwear is broken in before a long hike. 

If conditions call for outerwear, you can wear a wool or fleece sweater. If it warms up, remove it and place it in your pack, so that you don't sweat too much. Depending upon conditions, your outer garment could be a wind and water-resistant outer shell from Gore-Tex or a lightweight goose down vest or jacket. Mix the top garments as needed. You may want to also bring along gloves or a scarf. Choose a material like silk, synthetic or cashmere that won't irritate the neck. Top it all off with a wool or synthetic watch cap.


6. Snacks

Carry some snacks to ease hunger and sustain energy. High carb, high fat combinations, especially those that contain dried fruit, nuts, and peanut butter, are popular, but tailor these to your specific dietary requirements. Always bring along a little more than you think you'll need. If you don't eat them, you can always share with others.

7. Contingency planning

As with any outing, you must consider the unexpected. You will most likely be hiking in a remote area. In such areas, cell phone service may be spotty at best, and in the event of an emergency, you could be on your own until help arrives. A charged cell phone with an extra power source is important, but also carry a day pack containing essential items.  

I have a lightweight sleeping bag that I pack in my rucksack if I am taking a long hike in a wilderness area. It doesn't weigh much, and its cheap insurance if I become stranded overnight when it’s cold. At the very least, on any outing in winter, carry a jacket, some windproof/ waterproof matches and a sharp knife to make kindling and perform other tasks as needed. 

Enjoy the solitude and peace of winter hiking!


Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision. - Winston Churchill

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