Embracing the Cold—Tips for a Safe and Rewarding Winter Hike
Embracing the Cold—Tips for a Safe and Rewarding Winter Hike
It may come as a surprise to many, but winter can be one of the most rewarding seasons to hike and spend time outside. Snow-covered landscapes make for beautiful scenery, and often, popular warm-weather destinations are quiet and serene during the winter months.
If you’re new to embracing winter, hiking is one of the easiest ways to get started—the gear needed is relatively inexpensive and the learning curve is small compared to skiing, for example. With some basic knowledge of winter safety, anyone with an adventurous spirit can have a blast hiking outdoors.
This article is the second installment in what is becoming an ongoing series dedicated to making the outdoors more accessible and rewarding for everyone. In our first, we covered Safety Tips for New Hikers. Here, our focus is on winter hiking safety, and addressing the unique challenges, and opportunities that come with it.
And once again, we turn to Kahtoola Founder & Adventurer, Danny Giovale and Hiking Guide & Friend of Kahtoola, Myriam Bishop for guidance. They’re both experienced winter hiking enthusiasts and have devoted much time and effort to making winter hiking more accessible and rewarding for others. They’ve identified four main areas of discussion around winter hiking: The environment, gear, leaving a margin for error and going into it with the right attitude.
Consider the Environment
Environmental factors, and how you approach them, can play a huge role in the success of any winter hike. It’s cold, it can be snowy, and the weather can change quickly. And, while this may seem obvious to many, these factors can affect your winter hike in some unexpected ways.
Snow is part of what makes winter hiking so special. Snow can be beautiful, and just “getting out in the snow for the fun of it” is a goal in itself for many winter hikers. But it’s important to take snow seriously, and be ready for it, even if there’s none in the forecast.
As Myriam explains, unexpected snow can catch hikers off guard. It can move in and cover tracks or even entire trails, making finding your way difficult.
“If there’s snow on the ground, you won’t always be able to see the trail, and your chances of getting lost can be much higher than in the summer. I’ve been to places that I’m familiar with, places I’ve been a dozen times before. Then, I go in the winter, and snow is covering everything, and I can’t even find the trail anymore.”
Snow is an important environmental factor to be aware of, and is (usually) only found during the winter months, another is windchill.
Factor in the Windchill
Windchill can make an otherwise pleasant winter day miserable, and it can make an already cold day unbearable.
Windchill is determined by a formula that takes into account the cooling effect wind can have on body temperature. In a forecast, windchill is always noted as a temperature value lower than the air temperature, and the faster the wind speed, the higher the windchill (the lower the temperature). In North America, windchill is factored into forecasts when the air temperature falls below 50°F (10°C) and where wind speeds are higher than 3mph (4.8km/h).
For Myriam, it’s important to consider windchill when planning a winter hike as it can greatly increase the chance and severity of frostbite and quickly lower body temperature.
“Having guided a lot in the Grand Canyon in the winter, I know the effect windchill can have on a hike,” says Myriam, “For example, if you’re on a ridgeline, and the wind is blowing even 10 or 15 miles per hour, it can drastically reduce the temperature. And maybe knowing it’s windy doesn’t mean you stay home, but it might mean you pick a different hike or try to stick to areas that are more sheltered, like in a valley”.
So what is one of the best ways to prepare for winter environmental challenges? Have the right gear and know how to use it.
Gearing Up for Winter
The right gear—used properly—can set you up for success and help you embrace everything winter has to offer. The longer the outing, and the more severe the weather, the more you want to make sure you have the gear you need to be successful.
Layering Your Clothing
A breathable base-layer, a mid-layer for insulation and a shell (jacket and pants) to keep the wind and moisture out is the minimum that any winter hiker should have with them. Three layers allow you to remove one when you get warm and add a layer when you get cold. This is crucial in cold weather because you want to avoid sweating as much as possible as any moisture can cool you down very quickly.
When choosing layers, pick breathable materials (often synthetic) that will wick moisture away, rather than soak it up. Materials like cotton should be avoided at all costs, so if you’re unsure, talk to your local outdoor store about what layers make the most sense for your climate and weather conditions.
“I’ve been on hikes where people in the group are doing almost everything right—they’re wearing all great layers: a synthetic base layer, a fleece sweater and a shell,” recalls Myriam, “But then, between the base layer and fleece, they’ll be wearing a cotton t-shirt. That just ruins everything, because it soaks up and holds all of the moisture, so you never really stay dry. If you have just one bad layer, that’s enough to kill it all.”
Now that the body’s core is taken care of with proper layering, let’s turn to the extremities.
Taking Care of Your Hands and Feet
Keeping extremities—namely hands and feet—warm is key to any successful winter adventure.
“That’s very important for staying happy overall,” notes Myriam, “I feel like when my hands are cold, I can get grouchy, and it even affects my decision making. Also, when your fingers are numb, there are so many things you can’t do. You can’t zip up your jacket, open your water bottle, adjust your traction devices, tie your shoelaces or even unlock your car!”.
In addition to warm gloves or mitts, Myriam’s advice for keeping hands warm is to pay special attention to the openings where cold can seep in. Close the gaps by tucking your base layer sleeves under your gloves or mitts, and pull your shell over top. That way wind and water won’t be able to get in.
When it comes to keeping your feet warm—which in the winter means keeping them dry—Danny recommends waterproof footwear, whether the temperature calls for them to be insulated or not.
“If you’re getting any snow on the top of your shoes during a hike, it’s just going to warm up and melt and soak right into your shoe if it isn’t waterproof,” he cautions.
And like with hands, Danny believes that keeping air and moisture from penetrating the openings around your feet and ankles is one of the best ways to keep them warm. And that’s where a good waterproof, breathable gaiter comes in—they’ll keep snow, water and wind out.
“It’s really true that if you can close up that gap around the top of your footwear—especially when wearing low-top shoes—your winter hiking experience will be much more comfortable,” he notes.
Choosing the right gaiter for your winter hike is crucial for the best experience. For general winter use, we recommend the tall version of our LEVAgaiter Ultra-Light Gaiter. It will keep snow, moisture, and wind from creeping into your shoes or boots while allowing sweat to escape. For heavy use in demanding conditions, our NAVAgaiter Ultra-Tough Waterproof Gaiter is your best bet. While not as lightweight, they’ll stand up to abuse, including repeated strikes from traction (which we discuss later in this article).
Often overlooked, good quality footwear traction is an important piece of gear that can keep you safe and add an element of fun and excitement to your winter hiking adventures. Being able to move confidently over icy, slippery terrain can make or break a winter hiking adventure. And it may not always be obvious that you’ll need traction on a hike until it’s too late.
Winter hikes can easily look dry in a sunny open area if the snow and ice have melted, but they can turn icy as you move into shady areas that rarely see the sun. This type of situation is something Danny has first-hand experience with.
“One day I was heading to a local climbing area called The Pit, recalls Danny, “ I had heard that the access trail was in the shade and that it was really icy. But it was a nice sunny day—a great day for climbing—and I forgot. It hadn’t snowed in a while, so I didn’t have traction with me and the need for it didn’t even cross my mind as I got out of the car. It was fine at first, but as soon as we crossed over the edge of a canyon and into the shade, the trail was covered in ice. I literally had to slide on my butt for a good five minutes just to get through this one icy section.”
So, how do you decide if you should bring traction or not? Myriam has some tips.
“First, I ask myself: Has it snowed yet this year?” she says, “If you’re going out after the first snowfall of the season, you can’t assume that all the snow has melted everywhere, so it’s likely better to be safe than sorry and carry traction. Another option is to talk to someone that has been in the area recently to get an idea of what the conditions are like, but if that isn’t possible, again, I would assume that I need it.”
On top of making winter hikes more accessible, hiking with traction can actually be a great experience in and of itself.
“There’s some real joy and bliss to it because it’s almost like having a superpower!” remarks Danny, “You can be out playing on trails that you wouldn’t consider touching otherwise. You feel that crunch under your feet. That confidence. And you’re like, man, this is really fun!”
Choosing a traction product designed to excel on the type of terrain you intend to cover will make your time on the trail safer and more comfortable. For steep, mountainous terrain, we recommend our flagship traction product—MICROspikes®. On the other hand, if your hikes will be on mixed terrain, like city streets and backcountry trails, our versatile EXOspikes™ traction will have you covered.
Being prepared with the right gear is essential for a safe and rewarding winter hike, but you also need to expect the unexpected and be ready if things go wrong.
Leaving a Margin for Error
Weather can change quickly in the winter. Cold temperatures and short days mean that consequences can be higher than they are in the summer. For example, if the trail becomes snow-covered and you can’t find it again, spending a night outdoors can have very serious consequences. That means you should always leave yourself a larger margin for error. Three important things to consider are food and water, gear and having a backup plan.
Food & Water
Carrying extra food and water with you is a good idea any time of year, but winter provides some unique challenges that extra food, in particular, can address.
“When you get behind on calories you are at a very big disadvantage when it comes to staying warm,” notes Danny, “One way to warm up cold fingers and toes is to eat.”
And just being out in the cold itself can burn calories.
“Shivering is actually a mechanism your body uses to keep itself warm,” says Myriam, “It’s creating energy in the form of heat, but doing that drains your calories. So, if you’re not able to replenish them, you’ll eventually lose the ability to shiver, among other things, and that’s part of the process of becoming hypothermic.”
Carrying that extra supply of food and water will ensure you have extra calories with you should the hike last longer than expected.
We’ve already looked at some of the essential gear that will help you thrive on a winter hike, but creating a comfortable margin for error means having extra gear that you may never have to use. And with cold temperatures, that starts with extra clothing.
“I like to think about what would happen if I sprained my ankle,” imagines Danny, “In that case, I might have to stay still for two, three, four hours waiting for help. And I would ask myself how does my margin allow for that? If I only have the bare minimum amount of clothing I need to stay comfortable while hiking, it’s not going to be a pleasant experience if I have to stop and I start cooling off. But if I have a spare down puffy jacket with me, for example, then I just improved that margin drastically as I’ll be able to stay warmer longer.”
Other pieces of gear that can help increase your margin of error are a headlamp, as winter days are shorter, an extra battery pack for your cell phone in case the cold drains the battery and a paper map for route finding.
The Ultimate Backup Plan
Having a mobile phone with you to call for help is essential. But cellular service in the backcountry can be spotty or non-existent, and technology can fail, so you should always let someone trustworthy know where you are going.
“This is important on a summer hike, but it’s even more important on a winter one,” cautions Myriam, “I always let someone know where I’ll be hiking, what trailhead I will be leaving from, and give them a time that I will check in to let them know I made it home safely.”
Taking environmental factors into account and choosing the right gear are crucial for planning a successful winter hike. But, for Danny and Myriam, perhaps the most important of all is going into that hike with the right attitude.
Attitude can make or break a winter hike. Being in the right headspace when it comes to goals and group dynamics is crucial for a safe and successful adventure.
What Is a Worthy Goal?
Whether you’re hiking alone or in a small or large group, don’t get fixated on any one specific outcome. Ask yourself, and those you’re with, what constitutes a worthy goal.
“Is the goal to get to the summit at all costs, or is the goal to have a great outing where everyone comes back wanting more?” asks Danny, “Defining that goal ahead of time ensures everyone is on the same page going into the hike.”
But for both Danny and Myriam, it’s also important to stay flexible, so that if things don’t go according to plan, you’re able to modify those goals.
“It’s really important to have a plan that has a lot of options and to be attached to the experience and the fun of being outside, rather than being super goal-oriented,” says Myriam, “It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to hike a certain number of miles or climb a certain number of feet in elevation, even when you know you shouldn’t.”
Pushing too hard toward a specific goal can lead hikers to take chances they wouldn’t otherwise take and to put themselves in risky positions. And, it’s important to remember that when hiking in larger groups, there can be a lot of different ideas of what constitutes a worthy goal.
Attitude is especially important when hiking in a group. Everyone is different, and it’s important to be flexible and empathetic so that everyone feels comfortable and has a successful hike.
Goals and abilities should be taken into account before starting out on a hike and should be re-evaluated regularly by the entire group to make sure everyone is comfortable.
“Sometimes people have individual goals of say hiking 10 miles, but you need to make sure everyone on your team is on the same page,” cautions Myriam, “And to make sure that everyone is comfortable with that goal regularly throughout the hike because goals can change. Maybe a group member didn’t realize how cold it would be, or maybe their feet are starting to hurt. If that person is pressured to keep pushing, it can have consequences down the line. Maybe those hurting feet turn into a limp and then they’re unable to walk, and now the group is all stuck out in the cold together. It’s important to check in with everyone without applying any pressure.”
In addition to different or changing goals, it’s important that everyone starts the hike prepared.
“I know a lot of people who do things really spontaneously,” says Myriam, “They look up at the mountain, and it looks beautiful, so they decide the same day to go for a hike and invite a bunch of people. That’s fine, but you have to make sure that everyone has all of the information about the hike and that they all know what’s expected and what they need to bring.”
If people in the group show up unprepared, then the whole group should be ready to change their goals if necessary.
“It can’t be just about me and what I’ve got,” says Danny, “How prepared and comfortable the group is affects everyone in it. You can be 30 minutes into a winter hike thinking everything is good, but what if someone who is less prepared already has numb feet? That affects everyone because you can’t just leave them behind!”
At Kahtoola, embracing winter is something we encourage everyone to do. It’s a magical time of year that can reward those who venture out with beauty and a sense of accomplishment not found during any other season. Now that you have some of the basic tools you need to make your winter adventures safer and more rewarding, we hope you’ll get as much out of your winter hikes as we always have.
More About Your Guides
Danny is passionate about the outdoors and outdoor safety. In fact, making outdoor adventure safer is why he founded Kahtoola nearly 20 years ago. Danny loves alpine rock climbing, backpacking, skiing and rafting in the wilder places on the planet. He lives in Flagstaff, AZ, and has taken his adventures to dozens of countries on six continents.
Myriam grew up in the French Alps and currently lives in the southwest United States. She has a degree in Outdoor Recreation and Tourism and has been guiding hiking and backpacking trips for nearly two decades. She’s explored and hiked on four continents—from the Sahara Desert to the glaciers of Greenland—and is a certified Wilderness First Responder and European Mountain Leader. Currently, she’s a hiking guide with US-based Wildland Trekking, and through her guidance, hundreds of beginner hikers have returned safe and happy from their adventures.