Words by Kylia Goodner
Hiking isn’t only for those sunny days with mild temperatures, and a slight breeze that draws you outside. Sometimes, and especially in colder climates, the weather isn’t perfect and yet you still feel drawn to escape into nature.
Something about the snow and ice completely transforms the trails into a completely new, unique experience. It could be the quiet of the snow, the glistening of the icicles, or the creaking of the frozen trees, but winter hiking adds a different, more peaceful take on the same trails I hike in summer.
But, hiking in the snow and ice can be dangerous if you aren’t properly prepared. So, if you’ll be heading out to hike in winter weather, be sure that you have the proper winter clothing, footwear, trekking poles, and have created a specific emergency plan for winter hiking. With these 4 winter hiking essentials in place, you’ll be sure to safely enjoy your winter hike in the snow and ice.
The trick to keeping your body warm while hiking in the snow and ice is to layer up with sweat-wicking clothing. Even though the weather outside may be cold, as you start to hike you’ll likely start to sweat, and in winter it’s crucial that the sweat you produce gets wicked away quickly. Otherwise that sweat will make you more susceptible to hypothermia, and put you in a potentially dangerous situation.
The three layers you should have while hiking in snow and ice include:
The base layer should be made of a synthetic or merino wool that wicks sweat away keeping your body dry. For the insulating layer, a fleece or warm synthetic material, like this Micro Grid Fleece Pullover, will keep you insulated and warm. Finally, the waterproof layer should be a breathable, but waterproof shell that keeps you completely dry. When choosing clothes for winter hiking, always avoid cotton due to the lack of sweat-wicking abilities and keep in mind the ultimate goal is to stay dry and warm.
A standard hiking boot paired with a mid-to-high weight insulated sock will typically be just fine for winter hiking in the snow and ice. If winter hiking is something you’ll do frequently then investing in a winter-specific insulated hiking boot may be worthwhile to help keep your toes warm while hiking through snow.
But, hiking in the snow and ice is a lot more about what you attach to your boot than what type of boot you’re wearing. The three options for footwear attachments include:
Micro spikes are small spikes and chains that slip over your hiking boot and can be used on relatively flat, but icy terrain. They keep you from slipping on the sheets of ice that often form on trails during winter. If you’ll be doing easy-to-medium hikes with limited elevation and inclines, micro spikes will likely work just fine.
Crampons are much larger spikes that attach onto your boot, making them more durable and supportive when hiking on icy inclines. It isn’t really feasible to walk on non-icy trails with crampons on though, so you’ll want to use these on trails that are entirely covered in ice/snow or take the time to remove them when you come to less icy portions of the trail.
Snowshoes are wide extensions that attach to your hiking boot, which allow you to hike in deeper snow. They do this by increasing the surface area of your boot, which keeps you from sinking into deep snow with every step. There are multiple types of snowshoes depending on the hiker weight and snow depth, so you’ll want to choose the right one for the trail before heading out. Snowshoes aren’t always ideal for icy conditions though, so you’ll want to use snowshoes when there is a fresh layer of soft, powdery snow on the trail.
Even with the best footwear and years of experience hiking in the snow and ice, it still can be a bit slippery. So, using trekking poles will help provide an extra level of support and traction that is essential if you’ll be winter hiking.
There are two points to note when using trekking poles in the snow and ice. First, you’ll want to make sure to take off those rubber tips. In ice especially, it’s important to have the traction with the ice that the metal tips provide. You can always pack the rubber tips with you and should you need to use them, throw them on.
You’ll also want to consider using big trekking baskets on the end of your pole if you’ll be hiking through deep snow. Just like snowshoes prevent your feet from sinking in deep snow, the snow baskets prevent the pole from sinking in deep snow. This is a winter hiking necessity as a pole that sinks in snow isn’t providing you with the traction needed to stay upright in snowy or icy conditions.
Although you may have a warmer monthhiking emergency plan, developing one for winter specific concerns is essential if you’ll be hiking in the snow and ice. The colder weather, decreased visibility, and snow cover of the typical trail path makes winter hiking its own beast and something you need to specifically prepare for.
The three additions to add to your typical hiking safety plan are:
To start, hypothermia occurs when your body’s core temperature becomes too low that it starts to harm your muscle and bodily functions. But, with the right gear, and especially the right clothes, hypothermia can be prevented. The goal here is to stay dry, because wet clothes will suck the heat right out of you more quickly than you would think. But, even with the best of material you may still find yourself getting too cold. Know the signs of hypothermia and build a plan around what to do if you start experiencing them on the trail.
Snow and ice transform hiking trails into something entirely new. So, even if you’re hiking a trail you’ve been on several times, it may seem completely unfamiliar in the winter. The well-worth paths become entirely covered, and it becomes harder to navigate even well-maintained trails. In an emergency situation you’ll need additional navigation gear, whether that's a satellite communicator, or just a basic compass/map that you’re confident using. Just knowing that navigation won't be as easy on snow-laden trails and preparing for that will help you prevent a disaster before ever hitting the trail.
And finally, preparing for the worst case scenario for weather is essential. Heavy snowfall or squalls can come on quickly and completely reduce visibility making it even harder to navigate. You need to come prepared with ways to stay warm in these extreme situations in addition to being prepared to navigate out in poor weather with low visibility.
By adding these three additions to your hiking safety plan you’ll be much more prepared, and much more safe, while hiking in snow and ice in the winter months.
Kylia Goodner is an avid hiker, kayaker, and backpacker located in Connecticut. She runs KGAdventures, an outdoor adventure blog dedicated to helping people learn all about the outdoors by providing trail guides, gear recommendations, and tips.
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