Hiking When It's Cold Outside

On a recent hike I was reminded of just how different hiking in colder weather can be from trips into the woods during warmer seasons. Winter hiking is great exercise at a time of year when most may not be as active as they are during greener months. It also presents challenges specific to the weather, temperature and terrain that aren’t as critical considerations during warm weather. For anyone just starting to venture out in the winter and as a reminder for the more seasoned here, I’d like to offer some helpful tips for ensuring that your hike remains enjoyable and safe.

As I’ve previously mentioned I regularly hike the Connecticut Blue Trails and hope to eventually finish the entire system. My latest hike covered the first 12 miles of the Tunxis Trail from the Massachusetts state line south to Route 219 in Barkhamsted. The Tunxis Trail is approximately 40 miles long in total and stretches north from Southington to the Massachusetts boarder. The northern section cuts through the Tunxis State forest and follows a ridge that makes up the western edge of the Connecticut River valley. The terrain is varied and features several streams with picturesque small waterfalls and interesting rock formations. Of note through this section is the Pine Mountain overlook offering beautiful views of the surrounding landscape and the Indian Council Caves. You can learn more about this particular trail here https://explorect.org/tunxis/.

On this hike we left from the parking area at about 9:30am. The air temperature was in the low 20’s with a gentle breeze occasionally throughout the day. It warmed up to about 30 degrees by mid-afternoon and we finished hiking at about 3:30pm. On our hike south we had about 1200 feet of overall elevation gain and about 1400 feet of elevation loss, with a lot of this being covered in the first few miles. The ground generally had a dusting of snow with up to an inch or so in some areas. Although only 45 minutes away, I didn’t have any snow and the temperature was at least 5 degrees warmer at home. This wasn't a snow shoeing adventure or a trek across a frozen tundra, rather a fairly standard hike on a typical winter day in southern New England. The weather, distance and terrain provided the elements needed to challenge our winter hiking skills and provided for some examples of best practices to pass on.

A successful hike in any season is largely reliant on a few key elements. The first of these is the hiker's ability to comfortably regulate body temperature. In the winter this means proper layering of clothing and paying extra attention to protecting exposed skin and areas that are susceptible to freezing like fingers and toes. Most hikers are at least familiar with the basics on this topic. Wear fabrics other than cotton because cotton clothing doesn’t insulate when it is wet and it doesn’t dry fast. Wear layers that are easily changed. Wear insulating socks in properly fitting boots. With those in mind, here are a couple of additional considerations. When out in the woods for several hours in sub-freezing temperatures every stop requires at least a little planning. Several breaks may be required for food and water, to relieve yourself and to just rest. With each stop the body’s heat production changes quickly because of the change in work being done. What this means is that even a brief stop can allow the body to get cold very quickly. You can minimize the impact of your stops on your ability to remain warm and comfortable by making sure you have an outer layer to add on that is warm and dry. Even if you’re not feeling cold as you stop consider putting your hat, gloves and coat back on as you do (I find that I take mine off quickly even when hiking in fairly cold temperatures). If you’re sweating, get ahead of your potential to rapidly cool down by covering up early. Always carry an extra dry layer with you. When you do stop, try not to sit for long if at all. Your body will radiate heat away to cold surfaces quickly, so if you do sit down use an insulating layer underneath you.

For winter hikes like this I find two pieces of gear very helpful for staying comfortable. I carry a Buff neck gaiter made of Merino wool and a pair of glove liners. The thin Buff replaces my heavier hat for covering my head and ears as I warm up and then stays just on my exposed face and neck when I want to let out some heat. When it is really cold the Buff compliments my hat without adding too much bulk around my face. Similarly, thin glove liners are a great alternative to heavier gloves as you warm up but still want to keep the stinging cold off of your skin. I tuck my regular hat and gloves into my sweatshirt when I’m not wearing them so they are not frozen and uncomfortable to put on when I stop.

The second element of a successful winter hike is remaining safe on the trail. For trip planning purposes I typically use 2.5 miles per hour as my overall goal, accounting for stops and adding time for significant climbs. In the winter I cut this back to 2 miles per hour to account for ice, frozen terrain and slower travel due to the cold environment and having bulkier gear. On the Tunxis trail hike there was a significant amount of ice covering the rocky trail as it descended along and across the many streams in the first three miles from the northern trailhead, slowing our progress to closer to 1 mile per hour in the beginning. Even as the trail leveled out there remained several areas of ice. Slowing down to account for hazardous conditions avoids the consequences of rushing over slippery, rocky terrain. Plan for a pace that is reasonable for the time of year and the terrain so you aren’t rushing to finish on time. To prepare for winter trail conditions consider ice cleats. There are many different styles and which is “best” often comes down to personal preference or exact use case in my opinion. Most slip quickly over your hiking boots and can be hung on the side of your pack when not being worn. The other must-have in the winter is a trekking pole or pair of trekking poles. Especially on uneven or slippery terrain, trekking poles can provide the extra stability needed to safely navigate a challenging descent. Using at least one trekking pole ensures that the hiker can always maintain at least two points of contact with the trail, dramatically decreasing the chances of falling. A broken ankle can become a life-threatening emergency in freezing temperatures when you’re miles away from road access so it’s advisable to take reasonable precautions to avoid it!

The third element of a successful winter hike is ensuring that you’ve got enough of the right food and water for your trip. If you’re only out for an hour this may not be much of an issue but if you’re spending the day in the woods it becomes absolutely essential. Beyond just carrying enough to stay hydrated it is important to be able to maintain your energy, especially toward the end of a long hike. Winter hiking burns more energy than hiking in other seasons. It is also just as easy to become dehydrated in the winter as it is in the summer. When it comes to water, bear in mind that bladder systems aren’t good in freezing temperatures. Although the water reservoir may not freeze, it doesn’t take that long for the delivery hose and mouthpiece to turn to ice when the temperature is in the 20’s. Carry your water in bottles that are less likely to freeze and store them in a protected part of your pack. Consider bringing along a backpacking stove to heat water for soup, coffee, tea or to make a warm lunch. Most are easy to use and if you get lost or have an emergency in the woods they can be a real life saver too. Carry snacks that won’t freeze and are easy to eat with gloves if necessary. Bring enough food and water to be out at least twice as long as you anticipate, just in case.

Winter hiking offers a unique perspective of the outdoors. In addition to the landscape changes from warmer months, winter hiking also presents different challenges. If you want to learn more about how to be better prepared for cold weather hiking consider attending one of the many classes and seminars offered by local outfitters on the topic. If you’re looking for a trusted source of information on this and all things outdoors I recommend checking out local guide Matt Jobin’s programs through Reach Your Summit https://www.reachyoursummit.net/ . Happy hiking!

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