One of my favorite times to go hiking is when it is really cold.
No, I mean freezing.
You know the cold that the school administrators consider calling off school for because they don’t want the students who have to walk to school to freeze to death.
Yes, that cold.
This coming from the person who has a space heater in her office and likes to work in a toasty room. Okay, a sauna. Anyways, where was I?
Ah, yes, hiking in freezing weather.
Layers are the live or die of hiking in cold weather.
Layer wrong or don’t layer and you are toast…albeit frozen toast.
All clothing should be water wicking. Cotton kills – cotton is great just not for hiking when you need to stay warm.
As cotton gets wet and then evaporation happens the cotton drawls heat away from your body. This heat sap could be the death of you.
Wear synthetic water wicking clothing.
Starting at against your skin: Nothing as nice as a pair of long johns – and not those baggy drawed ones that your great grandpappy padded around in the house in either. A good pair of water wicking long johns.
Add your hiking pants – if they have a insulate fleece lining all the better! If not, then you may want to double up depending on how far down those thermometer digits are dipping.
I wear a long john top topped off with my water wicking hiking shirt and a fleece sweatshirt jacket and then my coat.
Yes, I look like a Sta-Puff Marshmallow!
But, a warm Sta-Puff Marshmallow.
I don’t put the jacket and coat on until I’m out of the car – I don’t want to pass out from overheating!
Two pairs of gloves are the key to warm fingers. The simple stretchy fuzzy gloves and the other is Thinsulate lined wool gloves. I use this because the tendons in my hands physically do not work if they get cold. If I need to use my fingers, I can take off the wool glove but still keep my fingers warm. I’ve used this combo for over two decades and have yet to have cold digits.
My socks are winter grade and my boots are insulated with 600 gram Thinsulate. Gore-Tex helps prevent water from getting in but allows moisture to evaporate. (Thinsulate is ultrathin insulation the higher the gram number the greater the insulation and Gore-Tex is waterproofing that breathes.)
Keeping the old noodle warm is just as important as the rest of your body. I wear a cheap fleece headband over my ears and a knit hat on my head and cover all that up with my jacket hood. The fleece band helps the hat stay put and the jacket’s hood has a cinch drawstring so I can reduce the amount of cold air and snow whipping at my head.
A scarf wrapped around my neck stops cold air from nipping down my neck. (I can’t wear a turtleneck for longer than 10.2 seconds before totally freaking out.)
I don’t hike fast in cold weather. That is a great way to work up and sweat and then get extremely cold as the water evaporates. As I get warmed up on the hike, various layers or portions of layers can get unzipped or tucked in my pack. I can adjust as I need to so I am not sweating. Sweating on a winter hike is a great way to get hypothermia.
Tell at least two people that love you very much or at least like you w whole lot, where you are hiking, which trails you are doing and when you expect to be done. Check-in with them on regular intervals and let them know how the hike is going, share a few pictures, or witty texts. Your “keepers” as I call them are your lifeline.
My keepers will call if they haven’t heard from me in an hour.
I do believe that if I didn’t immediately answer or call them back the Park Ranger, National Guard, State Police, Sheriff, and every Boy Scout Troop in a 100-mile radius would be called to go find me.
Being in this field for a longtime, I have heard more winter hiking horror stories than I care to. And, all the stories boil down to the hiker being: overly confident, disregarding the weather forecast, ill prepared, and poorly equipped.
The only thing that saved some of these peoples’ lives was that they told someone where they were going to be and checked in. When they didn’t check in or answer their keeper’s phone calls, the keeper got worried and called the park, state police, and sheriff’s department to go rescue the hiker.
Winter hiking is fun and satisfying. You’ll likely have the woods or prairie all to yourself. On a sunny day the snow is brilliant with crystals as well as blues, silvers, and whites. The birds don’t pay much attention to you – they have more important things on their minds. The occasional deer crosses your path and snorts. You may see coyotes or foxes hunting in open fields.
Keep in mind that winter hiking is taxing. Hiking in snow takes a lot of effort. Hiking on ground that has been kissed with a slick layer of ice can be an adventure in and of itself.
Winter hiking will challenge you but the rewards are worth it. (Click here for the story on the photo below)