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Beginners Guide to Winter Hiking

Winter hiking is beautiful, relaxing, and exhilarating, but it can also be dangerous if you’re not prepared. Hiking in general poses some risks and challenges during every season, and winter is no exception. Winter hiking is all about bracing the erratic, gnarly weather changes, preparing yourself mentally and physically, and preventing yourself from becoming injured or lost. Here are five basic protocols and tips to consider on your next winter adventure.

 

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Do Your Research  

Prior to hitting the snow-covered trails, it's crucial that you do some research. Read up on trip reports, trail conditions and anything else that might affect your hike. Study the trail and area you'll be visiting, and make sure you educate yourself on the basics of survival and how to handle backwoods emergencies. Many hikers get injured slipping and falling due to icy trails and lack of preparation. You should always bring a pair of Yaktrax along as well as some snowshoes.


Get In Shape

If you're active and feel confident in your stamina, reconsider that before hiking in the winter. When the snow is deep, heavy, and wet, it can bring an entirely new set of challenges. You get tired quicker when your body is fighting against the elements (wind, snow, rain, freezing temps, ice, etc) while trying to carry you up and down a mountain. There's a difference between being in shape and being in winter hiking shape.


Keep Your Expectations In Check

Unfortunately, you aren’t guaranteed to get spectacular views on every winter hike. Often times you'll get absolutely zero views from start to finish. If you're hiking only to chase the views, you might find yourself a bit disappointed. Try to focus less on the views and more on the beauty of winter. The glistening trees and snow-capped peaks make up for the lack of summit views. Learn to embrace navigating your way through a thick cloud of fog while appreciating everything mother nature has to offer.

 


Know Your Comfort Level

Pick a hike with achievable mileage and level of difficulty. Don't push yourself to do anything you aren't comfortable doing or anything that's unsafe. If you feel unsafe at any time on your hike, turn around. If an emergency situation arises, stay calm and ask yourself these three questions:


Can I get myself out of this situation safely and sufficiently without any help?

Can I safely get down the mountain without assistance?

Am I putting myself and/or anyone else in danger?



Invest in Quality Gear

Do some research on what gear you think will work best for you. It's about trial and error. Some things are going to work for some people that just won't work for you. Don't invest in cheap, poor quality gear to get you by, you will quickly regret that decision. Sometimes the name brands are more expensive for good reason and the gear you pick will be proof of that.


Recommended Winter Gear List:

  • Waterproof + insulated footwear

  • Wool socks (2-3 pairs)

  • Wool hat

  • Gloves or mittens

  • Glove liners

  • Gaiters

  • Down jacket w/ hood

  • Windbreaker

  • Neck buff or face mask

  • Hand warmers

  • Goggles

  • Base layer bottom

  • Mid-layer bottom

  • Outer-shell bottom

  • Base layer top

  • Merino wool or fleece top

  • Wide-mouth water bottle

  • Snowshoes

  • Yaktrax (Summit’s are pictured below)

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What's in my first aid kit?

  • Bandaids (assorted sizes)

  • Tweezers

  • Insect repellent

  • Sports tape

  • Alcohol pads

  • Stove (optional)

  • Dehydrated meals (optional)

  • Utensils + cookware (optional)

  • Safety pin

  • Aspirin

  • Gauze

  • Sunscreen

Survival gear:

  • Fire starting kit

  • Waterproof matches

  • Headlamp w/ extra lithium batteries

  • Whistle

  • Extra food + water

  • Extra clothing layers

  • Knife

  • Personal emergency beacon

  • Compass

  • Paper map

  • SOL Bivvy sack

  • Emergency shelter

  • Sleeping bag

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Personal items:

  • Toilet paper

  • Hand sanitizer

  • Bandana

  • Water filtration system

  • Sunglasses

  • Drivers license ID/money

  • Chapstick

Other tips & considerations:

  • Bring a friend. For safety purposes, never hike solo alone in winter.

  • Start early. Daylight hours are limited during the winter, and the sun goes down quickly. Start early and always remember to pack a headlamp with extra batteries just in case.

  • Share your plans. Let a friend or family member know your exact plans and an estimated time in which you plan to return by. Always stick to those original plans. If your plans do unexpectedly change, be sure that you let them know beforehand.

  • Carry a map. Topographical maps and a compass are necessary on a winter hike. Do not rely on a GPS. Be sure that you know how to use both of these tools prior to hitting the trail.

  • Never underestimate the mountains. Don't underestimate the power of the mountains. They make their own set of rules, and sometimes those rules won't be in your favor. If you are overly confident in your abilities, you will be put in your place very quickly.

  • Dress in layers. Ditch the cotton and pack extra layers of clothing in case you get wet or the weather changes.

  • Turn back if the weather is bad. The last place you want to be in inclement weather is above tree line. If the weather is poor, it's probably time to turn around. The mountains will always be there tomorrow.

  • Practice LNT principles. Following the rules of "Leave No Trace" is necessary at all times. Be sure to pack out your food, trash, and toilet paper. Never litter or leave waste behind.

  • Pay attention. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. If you are experiencing any of those symptoms, do not ignore them.

  • Charge up. Make sure that your phone battery is fully charged prior to leaving and bring a portable charger to play it safe. Batteries tend to die much quicker when they are exposed to cold temps.

  • Stay on trail. Use the intended trail. Be sure that you're following any visible trail blazes and the trace from previous hikers. Avoid stepping off trail and sinking into deep snow along the trail. Do not attempt to bushwack and make your own path. If you do wind up getting off trail, use your GPS system and/or map to find the best route to get back on it as soon as possible.

  • Eat and drink frequently. Even if you don't feel hungry or thirsty, fuel yourself. It's essential to fuel your body with enough calories to function properly when exerting energy. Drink a few liters of water over the course of the hike and bring a back up plan in case your first hydration method fails.

  • Have fun!

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