Winter Adventuring 101
If you only hit the trails during the spring, summer and fall you are missing out on what remains 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. This is a missed opportunity. If 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.
Heading out in the winter demands attention in three main areas--weather conditions, your gear and nourishment. This piece focuses primarily on hiking trails and climbing mountains but there are even more outdoor experience options on the trail, including cross country skiing, snowshoeing and mountain biking. With proper preparation, getting outside in the winter can be a rewarding and even 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. But proper preparation 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. The following tips should get you started to a positive experience outside in winter:
1. Prepare for the weather conditions. Don’t just rely on 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 on a mountain range at higher elevations or a more challenging trail with few exit points. Time and distance are critical, even if you're in your local area. Most states have a central weather advisory report daily available online; this provides the most valuable weather information you can have for your outdoor adventuring. Also—bring your phone for GPS purposes or purchase a specific GPS device. This can be a literal life saver or, at the very least, make for a much better day by keeping you aware of your location. 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.
2. Make sure your gear matches your plans (or, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing”). Clothing is key and forms the foundation of how you'll feel throughout the day. Layers are essential ("wicking" or Dri-Fit material work best) and always have fleece to cover the intital layers followed by a good, light down jacket or water-resistant shell. If you're hitting upper elevations, you'll want various layers for different times of the hike. You want proper footwear (waterproof) that will keep your feet warm. This is a must. No cutting corners on this part. 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). Ditch cotton anything--it will absorb sweat and moisture, weighing you down and making you colder eventually. A good mantra to remember is “cotton kills”. Extreme? Sure. But not completely inaccurate. On snow- or ice-covered trails solid footing is crucial. 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 to your pack fairly easily for truly adventurous outings in the winter months. Along with covering your head (most heat is lost via the head so winter hats are always a good choice; again, wool rules) make sure you have a good pair of gloves and don't underestimate the value of a good scarf. Layering up the legs is a must and there are plenty of light options for pants (no need for the bulky "snowpants" from your youth--light, fleece-lined material works well and is generally affordable) 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 hiking poles for added balance and lower knee impact on varying, longer terrain. Most are light and retractable, easily fitting into or attaching to 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.
3. Pack food and keep hydrated. Before any outdoor trek, make sure you eat something and hydrate (many outdoor enthusiasts swear by “cameling up” with a good dose of water prior to heading out). 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 (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, winter included. It is tempting to skimp on this during the cold weather but don’t. Your body uses a tremendous amount of energy keeping warm during the winter—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 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.