Winter Hiking: Charming or Miserable?

How to safely explore the joys of winter hiking.

Winter hiker, seen from the waist down, wearing blue snow pants and walking on a snowy trail among the pine trees

By the middle of winter, our desire to hibernate can start to feel irritating instead of comforting. What better antidote to staying indoors than hiking in the great outdoors?

Winter backdrops are stark, serene, and often stunning. With fewer people on the trail, you might spot more creatures out there. It’s an excellent opportunity to interact with the seasons and the living planet around us, says Dr. Stuart Harris, chief of wildlife medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. But trekking several miles across rugged, frosty terrain is very different from hiking in warm weather, which requires considerations for health and safety, he notes. Here’s what you should know before you go.

Winter Hiking: Safety First

“The challenge of hiking when environmental conditions are more demanding requires a completely different approach on a winter day than it does on a summer day,” says Dr. Harris. “But it gives us a chance to immerse ourselves in the living world around us. It is our ancient heritage.”

A safety-first attitude is especially important if you’re hiking with others of different ages and abilities – for example, with older relatives or young children. It is crucial to have the right equipment and the right mindset to make it fun and safe for everyone involved.

Plan and prepare for a winter hike

Prepare well in advance, especially if you’re mixing participants with vastly different fitness levels. Plan your route carefully, rather than just wing it.

People at their extremes—very old or very young—are most vulnerable to freezing temperatures, and hiking in cold weather can be even more stressful on the body. “Winter conditions may be more demanding on the heart than a perfectly balmy day,” says Harris. “Consider the physical capabilities of everyone in your group, and let that determine where you go. It’s supposed to be a fun activity, not a punishing one.”

Before proceeding:

  • Find out how far, high, and how far you’ll be going, Dr. Harris advises, and check the forecast for the area you’ll be hiking in, taking into account wind chill and speed. The weather can change from hour to hour, especially at higher elevations, so keep abreast of forecasts for temperature levels and any precipitation.
  • Find out if you can access emergency cell coverage if something goes wrong.
  • Always share plans with someone who is not on your trip, including the expected route and time you will return. Fill out trail logs so park rangers also know you’re on the trail in case of an emergency.

What to wear in the winter

Prepare for extreme cold, wind, snow, and even rain to avoid frostbite or hypothermia, when your body temperature drops dangerously low.

  • Layered dress. Several thin layers of clothing are better than one thick layer. Remove a layer when you feel warm in the high sun and add another layer when you are in the shade. Ideally, wear a base layer made of wicking fabric that can pull sweat away from the skin, followed by layers that insulate and protect against wind and moisture. “As they say, there’s no bad weather, just ill-fitting clothes,” says Dr. Harris. “Take a daypack or backpack and throw a couple of extra thermal layers in it. I never go out for a hike without some ability to change as the weather changes.”
  • Protect the head, hands and feet. Put on a woolen hat, a thick pair of mittens or mittens, and two pairs of socks. Bring dry spares. Your shoes should be waterproof, have a sturdy sole and grip.
  • Apply sunscreen. It’s still possible to get a sunburn in the winter, especially in places where the sun’s glare is reflected off the snow.

Pregnancy essentials to help ensure safety

  • More food and water. Hiking in the cold requires serious energy, as it burns far more calories than the same activity done in the summer temperatures. Pack nutrient-dense snacks like nut mixes and granola bars, which often combine nuts, dried fruit, and oats to provide needed protein, fat, and calories. It is also important to stay hydrated to maintain a normal body temperature. Bonus points for bringing a warm drink in a thermos to warm your heart if you’re feeling cold.
  • First aid kit. Bandages used for slipping or scraping on the trail and heat-reflecting blankets to cover a person showing signs of hypothermia are wise. Even at temperatures above freezing, hypothermia is possible. Watch for signs such as trembling, confusion, fatigue, or slurring of words, and seek immediate help.
  • light source. Time your trip so you’re not on the dark trail. But bring a light source in case you get stuck. “A flashlight or headlamp is very useful if you’re hiking anywhere near the edges of daylight,” says Harris.
  • Phone, map, compass or GPS device plus extra batteries. Don’t rely on your phone for GPS tracking, but charge it fully in case you need to get to someone quickly. “Make sure you have the technology and skill set to be able to move around on or off the trail, and that you have a means of outside contact, especially if you’re in a large, mixed group,” says Harris.

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