Winter hiking can be a wonderful experience. But it also presents its own set of challenges. Before you head, think ahead and prepare for both the expected and the unexpected conditions. Here are 6 tips that will help you stay safe on your winter trek.
- Check the weather
It may seem like the obvious place to start, but it’s also very important. Do some research and get a complete picture of weather conditions for your trip, not just the temperature. Is it going to rain? Will it be windy? How cold is it going to get? Plan your hike for a day when conditions are manageable.
- Never go out alone
Hiking with friends is always preferable in the winter. Not only is it more fun to share the adventure with others, but it’s also safer. If you can’t find a hiking companion, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Also give them your planned route. Remember that hiking in snowy and/or icy conditions can take considerably longer than usual — plan accordingly.
- Start small and start early
Be realistic about the distance and difficulty of the trail. While your favorite trail might be a cinch in summer conditions, you may run into ice, snow or mud on the same trail during the winter. Many access roads may be closed and unplowed in the winter, adding significantly to your trip. Remember the sun sets earlier in the winter months. Reduce the chances of getting lost or having an accident by completing your hike before dark.
- Carry the Hiking Essentials
While no two packing lists are exactly the same, there are some basic items that every winter hiker should carry with them. Most avid winter hikers invest in the following items:
- Proper Footwear
Be sure to wear proper waterproof footwear with a good tread. If there is deep snow, wear snowshoes and carry some extra traction devices for when the trails are icy. Remember trails can get packed down and become icy very quickly.
- Map and Compass/GPS
A map and compass not only tell you where you are and how far you have to go. It also help you find campsites, water and alternate and emergency exits should the need arise. GPS units are very useful, but yours may not work everywhere. Always carry a map and compass as a backup.
- Extra Water
Your body’s muscles and organs simply can’t perform at peak performance if not properly hydrated. Not consuming enough water will not only make you thirsty but it will make you susceptible to hypothermia and altitude sickness.
- Extra Food
Any number of things could play force a change of your schedule. Some good: enjoying time by a stream, stopping to watch wildlife. Some not so good: getting lost, an injury, or difficult terrain. Packing extra food will help keep up energy and morale in case of a change.
- Rain Gear and Extra Clothing
Dressing in layers and having extra clothing allows you to adjust to changing weather conditions and activity levels. Avoid cotton (it retains moisture) and always carry a hat. Because the weatherman is not always right.
- Safety Items
- Fires: more specifically – the essentials to start one to keep you warm; also a great way to signal for help if you get lost or injured
- Whistle: to call for help (use 3 short bursts)
- Flashlight/headlamp: a must-have item to see your map and where you’re walking.
- First Aid Kit
Pre-packaged first-aid kits are available at any outfitter.
- Knife or Multi-Purpose Tool: allows you to perform a myriad of tasks (cut strips of cloth into bandages, remove splinters, fix broken eyeglasses, perform repairs on malfunctioning gear)
- Sunscreen & Sunglasses
You’ll need sunglasses to prevent snow blindness and sunscreen to prevent sunburn.
You’ll need something you can carry comfortably your gear. A backpack with a rain cover (some packs come with one built-in) will keep your belongings dry in a sudden rain.
- Proper Footwear
- Avoid hypothermia
The best remedy of hypothermia is dressing in layers and having extra dry, warm clothes in your backpack. Sweating from exertion and/or getting wet is a constant danger in cold temperatures. Dressing in layers of clothing allows you to add or detract clothing as need be.
- Stay hydrated
Your body still needs water and electrolytes even in cold water. It may be tempting to drink only coffee and hot chocolate when it’s cold. Don’t overlook your need for water. Be sure to take sips of water everytime you stop.