Cold-Weather Hiking

Home & Family, Outdoors
on March 4, 2001

Cold-weather backpacking? Day-hiking in the snow?

Winter trekking isnt as far-fetched as it sounds. Committed walkers welcome any chance to stretch their legs, and hiking in wintereven camping overnightholds unique rewards.

For one, winter hiking offers a chance to see nature in another guise. Aside from the loveliness of landscapes covered in snow, the lands contours are more evident when trees are bare. Not only can you see farther, the crisp air puts hills and fields in sharp perspective.

Solitude, if you crave it, is easier to find in cold months than in summer. State and national park backcountry permits may be difficult to secure May through September without applying months in advance, while in winter those permits often go unsought, which means you can have the countryside largely to yourself.

Even on a small scaleday-hiking in the local woods or meadows, for instancewinter walking has its delights. Animal tracks are prominent in the snow, and birds such as owls and hawks can be seen against the sky. Also great: the bugs are gone.

A few preparations for winter hiking are wise. Good clothing, layered to protect from the cold, provide both comfort and safety from possible chills or hypothermia. A good windbreaker is a must, as is a hat (with earflaps), insulated gloves, and warm, sturdy boots. So long as you keep your head, hands, and feet warm, youll be comfortable. In really frigid weather, consider a balaclava to cover the face.

Whether youre out for a day-hike or a two-nighter, take along high-energy foods. Calories equal warmth, so dont skimp on winter hikes. Drink plenty of water; dehydration is associated with hot weather, but cold, dry air can dehydrate the body just as fast as a muggy day.

Avoid getting wet. The best way to do that is plan to hike in dry weather, but if youre caught by a shower or a wet snowfall, have a waterproof jacket ready (this also can be your windbreaker), or put on a poncho. If necessary, seek shelter. If you have a tent, set it up and get in it.

If youre camping, youll want a tent with a fly, an insulated ground pad or inflatable mattress, and a sleeping bag with a cold-weather rating at least 10 degrees below what you expect to encounter. For hiking when temperatures are in the 20s, its wise to have a bag rated to 10 degrees, and so on. Ratings ordinarily are printed on the bags label, but if its not there, a letter or call to the manufacturerwith the bags model numbercan discover its rating.

With a little planning, and your adventurous spirit in gear, youre ready to hit the cold-weather trail. What you find in the frosty air of a winter morning may surprise and enchant you.