Vegan Winter Hiking Tips
Fair weather hiking requires less gear and often times less planning and preparation than winter hiking. So why do it? Because winter hiking gives you an all new perspective, even on trails you’ve hiked a zillion times. The fresh snow is so beautiful, and so are the ice sculptures on the tree branches and pine needles. The woods seem so much quieter without the throngs of summer hikers.
That being said, there are some important things to remember when hiking in colder weather.
- Choose a route. Always know exactly what hike you’ll be doing ahead of time. Don’t take a drive and decide on a whim because you’ll have no idea what to expect on the trail. Choosing a route ahead of time lets you plan for how long you’ll be out, what gear you’ll need and to be able to inform others of your itinerary.
- Tell someone where you’ll be hiking. (And when to expect you back.) This should go for every hike you plan, regardless of the season. Many trails are in an area without cell service and you may not see another person for the entire trip. If something happens, as long as you’ve told someone your precise plans, they can inform the right people if you’re not back by the time you should be. Rescue teams will know exactly where to look and this could mean the difference between life and death.
- Research trail conditions online. Many areas have some form of online trail conditions database, whether it’s a forum where people who have completed hikes can post their experiences, or a more official website run by park services or a government agency. These can help you figure out if the trail has been broken since the last snowfall, or if there is a lot of ice or downed trees on the trail. And from this information you’ll be able to decide the amount of food and water you bring, what you wear and how much time to allow yourself to complete the hike. Some sites with trail conditions I found with a quick Google search include: http://www.adkhighpeaks.com/forums/, http://www.newenglandtrailconditions.com/nh/, http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/trail_conditions.htm & http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/trip-reports
- Check the weather. Over and over, right up to the time you’re heading out. Weather conditions can change quickly, especially on mountaintops, so be sure you know what to expect. And if it looks like things might get nasty, reschedule.
- Get an early start. It gets dark earlier in winter and while hiking after dark isn’t the worst thing, it’ll most likely be getting colder once the sun goes down. And if you’re anything like me, the likelihood of tripping and falling becomes far higher. And that can be dangerous. So bring your headlamp just in case, but plan to be back at the car with time to spare before dark.
Having the right gear for winter hiking makes all the difference. When people find out that I hike all year round, their main concern is always the temperature. “But don’t you get cold? It must be miserable.” Sure it’s cold out. That’s the whole point of winter! But you obviously can’t go hiking using all of the same clothing and gear that you use in the summer. If you’ve got the right layers and equipment, winter hiking is a blast!
Along with the usual necessities including a first aid kit, map, compass, multi-tool, food, water and headlamp, you should include the following in your winter hiking pack:
- Extra layers. Everyone’s body is different. Some people are always hot, and some are always cold. Knowing yourself will help you layer up and know what extra layers to pack. I’m always cold, so I bundle up until I look like a walking marshmallow (usually pink instead of white) and bring even more layers in my pack. You can always take layers off if you’re too warm, but you can’t magically make additional layers appear in your pack if you’re cold, so always bring extra layers. I’m going to say it again. Always bring extra layers! It’s cold on top of mountains, especially if you’re above treeline. Don’t chance getting too cold, because it’s so hard to get warm again!
I like to wear a thermal layer, with a fleecy layer on top of that with a waterproof and windproof layer on top of that. And I bring another layer to add on under my waterproof shell just in case. Sometimes I end up not needing most of it and carrying it all in my pack, but it’s worth it to know I won’t be cold. Being cold sucks!
- Crampons. A must for icy trails and bald mountaintops. Good luck getting up steep trails of pure ice without them! Crampons act like spiky teeth, cutting into the ice and giving you amazing traction. I’ve walked straight up very steep slabs of ice in my crampons like it was the easiest thing in the world. Try the Camp Stalkers. I give them two thumbs up!
- Extra warm socks. Wet, cold feet are a huge no-no when you’re winter hiking. When your feet get cold it’s next to impossible to warm them up. And if your feet are wet it can be downright dangerous. Always bring a few extra pairs of warm socks. Replacing your socks with a clean, dry pair will help your feet warm up.
- Warm hat, gloves & mittens. Keeping your head and ears warm is essential for an enjoyable and safe hike. Gloves are great for completing tasks that require dexterity, but mittens are so much warmer because they keep your fingers together. I bring both with me on winter hikes and when I just can’t seem to keep my fingers warm, I break out my crazy warm, giant REI mittens. I’ve never had cold hands with these babies on! They’re magic!
- Snowshoes. Nothing is worse than trying to hike a trail of deep snow and you just keep sinking in up to your thighs, no matter how lightly you try to step. Come on, we’ve all been there, right? Snowshoes help keep you on top of the snow by distributing your weight over a larger area. Snowshoes are mandatory in the Adirondack High Peaks in winter to keep people from postholing and ruining the trails. I’m sure there are many more areas where this is the case, so it’s best to bring your snowshoes just in case. I’ve had the MSR Evo Ascents for years and I love them. They’ve got some serious teeth on them for traction on slippery parts of the trail.
- Hand warmers. Those little packets of instant warmth and happiness. I don’t use them all the time, but I do keep a few in my pack as a last ditch effort to warm up my hands or feet when they seem unwarmable.
- Gaiters. Gaiters go over your boots and pants, keeping the snow out and the warmth in. A knee-high pair would be best for deep snow in winter. And the great thing is you can use them all year round to keep water, mud and ticks out of your boots and pants. Try these Mountain Hardwear Ascent Gaiters.
- Sunglasses and Goggles. If it’s a sunny day, the glare off of the snow is going to be too much for your eyes. Not only is it annoying, but it can be dangerous. So make sure you’ve got a good pair of sunnies with you. Snow goggles are a must in windy, snowy conditions and on mountaintops, too.
- Backpacking stove. MSR makes the teeny tiny MicroRocket. Considering how handy having a stove is, at just 2.6 oz, bringing this one is a no-brainer. The stove can be used to melt snow if you’re out of water or make a nice, hot cup of cocoa to warm you up.
To be as prepared as you can, it’s important to think about every scenario. There are times you could have to spend a night in the woods. And for that reason, you should always have overnight supplies in your pack. Think about packing a sleeping bag & pad, a tent, something to start a fire, and enough food and water to get you through to the next day. I doubt anyone has ever been upset with themselves for over preparing. But how many people have been kicking themselves for not being prepared enough? Please be as safe as you can whenever you head out on an adventure.
Being the first group on a trail after a fresh snowfall can be one of the most beautiful things in the world. But it’s a completely different story if it happens to be two or three feet of fresh snow that you’re trying to break trail though. That’s why it’s so important to know what you’re getting into before hand. Have the right clothing, gear, mindset and preparation and you’ve got the best chance to have an awesome day in the woods. But don’t ever feel bad for deciding to turn around. If you’re uncomfortable with the conditions of the trail or your abilities, it’s best to head back to the car and try again another day.
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Like winter hiking? Leave a comment below with your best tip and gear suggestion.