Let It Snow, Let it Snow (Take a Hike)
The plan was simple--start out early in the morning, hit two New Hampshire four thousand footers in one nine mile loop and head back home. The temperature was cold (in the teens with a wind chill near zero) and a decent covering of snow was already on the ground in the Franconia region of the White Mountains so spikes were in the pack as were plenty of warm weather gear, including extra socks, gloves and hats. Plenty of water, too. We'd go up the Flume Slide Trail, summit Mt. Flume (4328 feet), continue northwest on the Franconia Ridge Trail to Mt. Liberty (4459 feet) and then descend back to the car via the Liberty Spring Trail. Challenging? Sure. Feasible? Completely. We started very early, had a plan, brought appropriate gear and supplies and our conditioning is strong.
Then things changed. The temperature felt much colder than what was reported and the winds made this feel even colder. Remembering the Flume Slide trail and the difficulty in ascending it in inclement conditions, we opt to change the route and do Liberty up the Liberty Spring Trail. This way, we could reverse routes if necessary and if things went well, could still hit Mt. Flume and have a way back out that didn't involve the Flume Slide Trail. Our exposed water tubes from our packs froze in about a half hour, leaving us only with our bottles (which held out much longer but were still icing up every few minutes). At a formidable, wide waterway crossing, one of us got our feet completely submerged while slipping off the iced-over rocks. Even though we recovered quickly and made our way back onto the trail, shoes were soaked. We soldiered on with minimal stops along the way. After several attempts to changes socks and warm the feet, as well as revive our water supply, we stood roughly 1,000 feet in elevation below the summit of Liberty. The air was clear as were the skies. Although the wind would certainly pick up intensity past treeline and on Franconia Ridge, it was relatively mild compared to the start of the day. We kept going for a few minutes and stopped, turned around and headed back down for the day.
It was a disappointing decision but the right one in every conceivable way. We were tempted more than once to trudge onward despite our misgivings but then regained our objectivity. When any hiker's feet are cold from water, they never get better unless there is a camp option to dry out the shoes and socks for an extended period of time. We had a decent supply of water still but because of the freezing and our lack of planning for that contingent, it was far from ideal and could catch up with us later on in the trek. We were close to the top, but really, we weren't. That thousand feet is really two thousand when you have to come down again, and with the aforementioned challenges already rearing their collective heads, things wouldn't get better. Although mild at the time of our decision, the winds would invariably pick up once past treeline, compounding the challenges we already faced. It would be mere endurance rather than progress and the risk was moderate to high that conditions would worsen and jeopardize the entire outing. Sure we missed out on what surely would have been great views on top, but the mountains will be there again and we followed a planned exit strategy. If faced with this choice one hundred more times, turning back would be the right decision every single time. These two peaks would have to wait until another day. Such is the many facets of heading out in the winter, but underlines why it can be the best experience all year if done properly and with the right mindset.
If you only hit the trails during the spring, summer and fall you are missing out on a vastly underrated experience of being outdoors during the winter, a time where most bunker down indoors waiting for the thaw of April or May to allow them to breathe in the fresh air again. Provided you prepare and dress appropriately, hiking or climbing (even biking) during the snow covered months of the year can yield spectacular sights and otherwise unseen aspects even in places you may think you already know.
(Mount Monadnock summit)
Heading out in the winter calls for your attention in three main areas--weather conditions, your gear and nourishment. This writing is going to focus primarily on hiking trails and climbing mountains but there are even more outdoor experience options if you're a mountain biker and feel like prepping for winter rides (any takers to be a guest blogger for this piece?). If done properly, getting outside in the winter can be a rewarding and intoxicating experience. The air is fresh, the hushed environment around you crackles with renewed clarity, and maybe best of all, you don't have to deal with bugs. Preparation, however, is key. If the three main areas mentioned above aren't given careful consideration prior to heading out, the result can make for a miserable, even dangerous, day.
First, prepare for the current conditions, in the air and on the ground. This means more than just checking the temperature outside--take a more comprehensive reading of the weather and other factors which will invariably affect your time outside. What will the wind chill be? How long will you be out? If you're climbing, what are the conditions at the top (not just on the ground) specific to the actual location you're hiking? If you're taking a trail walk around where you live, you're likely fine just checking the weather and heading out, especially if it's only for an hour or two. If you're local you can always turn back if the weather changes or you decide you've had enough. This gets more complicated if you are hiking in a mountain range or longer, more challenging trail with few exit points. Time and distance are critical, even if you're in your local area.
Depth of snow or ice, temperature, wind chill, and the terrain you will be traveling all have a significant impact on your experience. Hiking with a partner is ideal but if you're hiking alone, at least make sure someone knows so if things go awry or you're gone well past your planned time they could assist you. Have an "exit plan" and stick to it if necessary. This means knowing how you could abort a long trail walk or when you'd turn around on a mountain climb if the conditions change. "Go big or go home" is a cool mantra but not so much when things get really, truly hairy and decisions need to be made. When in doubt, opt out. Always. You can always come back and give it a shot another day.
(Tucker Brook State Forest, Milford NH)
Second, make sure your gear measures up to what you have planned. Clothing is key here and forms the base of how you'll feel throughout the day. Layers are essential ("wicking" or DriFit material work best) with proper footwear (waterproof) that will keep your feet warm. Wool socks are always a good choice but there are a variety of hybrid material socks available that offer similar benefits of breathing while keeping your feet warm (ankle high? Knee high? It's up to you). Stay away from cotton anything--it will absorb sweat and moisture, weighing you down and making you colder eventually. Some type of spikes for your feet help tremendously in snow and ice ("micro" spikes are relatively inexpensive and are easy to put on and light to carry in your pack). Snowshoes can also be strapped on fairly easily for truly adventurous outings in the winter months.
(Microspikes on Merrill hiking boots)
Along with covering your head somehow (most heat is lost via the head so winter hats are always a good choice but you could come up with your own solution) make sure you have a good pair of gloves and don't underestimate the value of a good scarf ("infinity" scarves are a fantastic addition to your winter gear collection) for keeping warm. Layering up your legs is a must and there are plenty of light options for pants (no need for the bulky "snowpants" from your youth these days--light, fleece-lined material works well instead) at most any sports apparel store. It's essential to have clothing that keeps you warm and dry for a long period of time and still light enough to move around with relative ease. Keep extra pairs of gloves, socks and hats in your pack if you're headed out for the whole day. You will be glad you did (and so will your partners if they forget their own backups). Consider investing in a good pair of ski poles for added balance and lower knee impact on varying, longer terrain. Most are light and retractable, easily fitting into your pack. Clothing is something you have to figure out by trial and error and multiple outings, as everyone has certain preferences, and as long as your warm and dry and able to move, anything can work.
(On top of the Mount Monadnock summit)
Finally, take inventory of your food and hydration. Before any outdoor trek, make sure you eat and hydrate. Once outside, you need to have calories you can easily eat and carry, which is why energy bars, nuts and dried fruit are popular but there are a myriad of options here (I swear by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or Clif Bars). Protein is essential as are sugars you can burn into energy--this is going to help keep you warm and energized throughout the day. There is nothing worse than being cold and hungry in the middle of a winter's outing with no real end in sight. Keep energy bars warm since they can damage your teeth in cold weather if too hard (I sometimes put them in my gloves for a few minutes before eating). Don't go crazy with food here--you just need to have some regular, easy to consume calories along the way, not a full course meal.
Water is absolutely essential to any outdoor adventure and this becomes even more paramount in the winter. It is tempting to skimp on this during the cold weather but it's important to keep hydrated at all times. Your body uses a tremendous amount of energy keeping warm during the winter and drinking water regularly will help this continue throughout your entire activity. Water "hydration packs" are great (CamelBak offers great gear at relatively affordable prices) and come with their own packs or can also fit into your bigger pack easily. If you go out in especially cold conditions (freezing temperature or under) make sure your water doesn't turn into a block of ice halfway through the day so keep it from being exposed for long periods of time. Make sure you are taking in plenty of water during your time outside--it's easy to overlook and very important to your energy and hydration levels. Many winter recreation beginners miss this because unlike summer, when drinking water is so obvious and necessary because of the heat, the winter cold lulls us into a feeling that we aren’t thirsty because we’re not hot. Push that impulse aside and drink at regular intervals.
Winter adventures outdoors offer sights and sounds you can't get any other time of year and there is a certain satisfaction and fulfillment heading out to places where most people won't go during this time of year. It's peaceful, refreshing and a huge physical and mental challenge and is completely different than the rest of the year in the very best of ways. But you need to prepare in the three main areas and have a plan. Bring on the snow and get outside.
(Heading up Liberty Spring Trail)