Discover IntrepDan.com’s “7 Tips to Surviving a Winter Hike,” your ultimate guide to cold-weather adventures. Learn expert advice on winter hiking essentials, clothing layers, navigation, hydration, and more. Stay safe, warm, and prepared on your frosty trek with our proven strategies.
Beginning January 1, 2018, I hiked 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail… journeying through frigid temperatures, snow and ice. I will help you avoid making the mistakes I did; mistakes which could have cost me my life.
Take these 7 important considerations into account before embarking on a winter hike. The tips will not only make your hike more enjoyable but will also help you stay safe in harsh winter conditions.
1. Proper Clothing:
As you may have noticed, ‘hike naked’ day does not occur during the winter months. There’s a reason for this! Winter conditions can be extreme and unpredictable, so wearing the right clothing is crucial.
Dress in layers, starting with a moisture-wicking base layer followed by an insulating layer and a waterproof outer layer. My personal gear is:
- Patagonia base layer, tops & bottoms.
- Xtreme gloves, because they are water resistant
- Darn Touch socks, because they are made from merino wool which will wick foot-sweat, they are cushioned and they have a lifetime warranty… never buy socks again… they may smell after 10 years but they won’t get holes!
- A merino wool beanie,
- …and last but definitely not least, a buff. I own 3 buffs; a wind-proof buff for temps below 30° F, one for temps 30° F to 50° F, and a thin one for temps above 50° F.
Of course, always bring a spare set of clothes in case you get wet. To be real, if you are wet and cold, the clock is ticking.
I choose comfortable, waterproof winter boots with good traction and insulation to prevent cold feet and accidental slips on icy surfaces. Why boots? The trail is much less forgiving in the winter. I like the extra ankle support of boots because mud, snow and ice are slippery. Too, protection from water on stream crossings is a must.
Some hikers swear by gaiters but I have never used them. But if snow or debris gets into your shoes or boots, wear gaiters. Dirty Girl Gaiters are the most light-weight I have found.
Make sure you have all the necessary equipment for winter hiking. This includes crampons and trekking poles. I took many a tumble on my first 300 miles of the AT, most of which could have been avoided had I put on my crampons… yeah, they were in my backpack but I didn’t take the time to put them on.
Trekking poles? Treat them like an American Express card; never leave home without them. Seriously. You will thank me. Ergonomically they make hiking far safer and provide added balance when walking over miles of tree roots and rocks. Use them in the summer too.
Make sure to tell someone exactly where you are going, the direction you are walking, and when you plan to return. I took an extremely hard fall on a patch of ice north of the Smoky Mountains; my left upper leg landed first and took the full impact of my body weight and backpack. I could have easily broken a leg. Keep in mind there are fewer of us on the trails in the winter and it is not uncommon to go a full day without seeing anyone. With that experience in mind, having a trail app on your phone, a printed copy or both, will allow you to give your location if you should need help.
Winter conditions can make it easy to get lost or disoriented. Bring that map, compass, and GPS device, and make sure you know how to use them. Also, pay attention to trail markers and landmarks, and consider hiking with a partner.
5. Water and Food:
Your body needs extra energy to keep warm in winter, so bring plenty of high-energy snacks and water. Keep your water bottle beside your body to prevent it from freezing. Carry your water bottle upside down since water freezes from the top. And at night, is comes in my sleeping bag (making sure it doesn’t leak, of course).
One added tip, if you like hot tea or hot coffee when you wake up in the morning, prepare it the night before. The one ‘comfort’ item I always carry is a ________ thermos. Even in the most frigid temperatures this thermos keeps my coffee hot during the night, and when I wake up it is at a perfect temperature.
6. Emergency Gear:
The balance between preparation and weight is a personal decision. ‘We pack our fears’ and that may quickly add up to a heavy pack weight. A couple items you may consider bringing include a first aid kit, fire starter, whistle, and a space blanket.
What emergency gear do I carry? I have spent untold hours assessing gear, weighing it to the gram, creating spreadsheets and more. I carry a fanny pack, yes you read that right, a full-on 1990’s fanny pack, with my emergency gear. It’s not a GQ fashion show out here so I choose function over fashion. My lightweight fanny pack includes a small Bic lighter, a ferro rod, snacks, a lightweight pocket knife and a survival blanket. Some of these items would normally be carried in my backpack so I have just changed their location to be more accessible in an emergency.
7. Safety Tips:
If you are hiking in a group, stay together and make sure everyone is accounted for. Be aware of the signs of hypothermia, such as shivering, confusion, and drowsiness. If you notice any of these symptoms, take immediate action to warm up and seek medical attention if necessary.
Remember, winter hiking can be a wonderful experience. The trees have dropped their leaves exposing magnificent views most will never see. To do it safely, however, will require preparation, caution and common sense.
You must know the conditions you are hiking into and be prepared for worse.
You must communicate with others so a rescue, if needed, can be easily isolated to a predictable geographic area.
Finally, many mountain forest service roads are closed in winter months due to downed trees. There are times when you will be isolated for 20 to 30 mile stretches with limited access to assistance. You are on your own. It’s the most real survival exercise in which many of us will ever participate in our lives. Proceed with extreme caution.
Warning aside, by following these tips and ‘using your noggin’ (as mom used to say), you can enjoy a safe, memorable winter hike of a lifetime.