The days are getting shorter and colder and it’s easy to lose motivation to hit the trails. But don’t let the frost keep you indoors.
Hiking is a great way of staying fit and boosting your mental health over the dreary winter period.
Though it might not be as simple as it is in the warmer months, with kit needing a bit more planning and weather conditions being make or break, it can actually be really fun.
So shift that mindset, beat the winter blues and follow our tips below for some incredible winter hiking.
Start at square one
When organising a group hike, base the plan on the least experienced/able person. If you reach your destination faster than expected, it’s no bad thing.
Once you’ve decided on a route and timeline, be sure to share the basic details with family or friends.
Let them know which trailheads you’ve chosen, contact details of various members of your group and your return date/time.
If possible, incorporate some uphill or more challenging sections into your hike.
They’ll get your heart and blood pumping and raise your internal body temperature to keep you toasty for hours to come.
Brush up on your trail skills
Heavy snowfall or low cloud can hide the trail and markers, making it difficult to find your way. Make sure you know how to use an old school map and compass.
If you’re at all in doubt about your ability to do so, opt for a GPS device or a satellite messenger. This allows for two-way messaging (without relying on cell service) and gives you the ability to call for help in case of an emergency.
You should also brush up on your knowledge of issues such as hypothermia and its symptoms.
When your body’s core temperature decreases too much, hypothermia can set in, affecting your ability to think clearly and get yourself to safety.
Warning signs include uncontrollable or violent shivering, the inability to communicate, lethargy or fumbling.
If you’re taking to extreme environments, you will also need to read up on frostbite, hypoxia and maybe altitude sickness.
The Quebecois have a saying that goes “s’habiller comme un oignon” literally translating to “dress like an onion”. What we’re saying is layers, layers and more layers.
From sheltered valleys or forest trails to exposed peaks and plateaus, temperatures can fluctuate drastically.
Once you work up a sweat you want to be able to strip off a couple of layers without being left in one thin t-shirt.
Having a variety of insulating clothing will help to regulate your body temperature and keep you comfortable.
A long base-layer, merino sweater or light fleece and then a soft shell or insulated jacket is a good combination.
Always opt for non-cotton clothing, favouring wool or polyester. A quick-drying, base thermal layer won’t chafe and combining it with a merino long-sleeve keeps it breathable.
If your clothing doesn’t breathe and wick moisture, it be clammy to start with then get cold quickly
Thick, winter-weight socks are a good idea too, as toes are always the first place to feel the cold. Fingers also bear the brunt of harsh conditions, so invest in some decent insulating and waterproof gloves.
Protect your eyes
As soon as snow starts to settle, the sun’s glare can be both uncomfortable and hazardous.
High quality sunglasses with UV400 protection are a must and polarised lenses are a bonus.
Glasses are also handy if a blizzard kicks up to keep snow out of your eyes and maintain at least a little visibility.
Don’t skip the safety gear
It’s always tempting to skip the extra weight when you’re packing for a hike but all hikers should carry basic safety items in case of emergency.
These include a first aid kit, trail maps and a compass, a pocket knife or multi-tool, heat pads/ packets and a head torch.
Split them out amongst the group so no one member is weighed down.
If you’re hiking a mountain, even on a day climb, consider taking a bivy sack or sleeping bag, foil blanket and a sleeping pad.
This way if someone gets injured and has to lay down or even spend the night, you’re partially prepared.
Part of your backup kit should be a portable charger or batteries. Technological devices tend to malfunction or run down quickly in cold temperatures, so don’t rely on your phone to hold its charge.
Check the weather
Then check it again, and again.
Do some research into the trail conditions in winter, including whether it is definitely open and how regularly it is maintained.
Then before setting off, double check the upcoming weather conditions.
Although the temperature is important, looking at wind speed and chill, precipitation, daylight hours and even avalanche reports should also be part of your final prep.
Land managers and national trusts can usually offer information around conditions, safety, and high risk areas.
If it’s stormy with poor visibility, the chances of getting lost and into trouble increase massively. As the pros say – when in doubt, don’t go out.
Consider microspikes, snowshoes or crampons
Crampons make it easier to walk, hike, run or climb in cold environments.
They are built with spikes or studs underfoot to enable wearers to grip the hard parts of the ground and provide stability.
The added traction of good crampons will mean the difference between completing a climb or hike, and having to turn back early.
Read up on crampon techniques, practice putting them on and taking them off and try them out on an easy trail first.
Microspikes work on the same theory but are a little less savage and often fit over standard hiking boots without needing to be clipped in to special grooves.
Even if you’re not opting for spikes, you’ll still need a waterproof boot with a sturdy sole and decent lugs.
Start early and leave plenty of time
When planning your route, be realistic about the distance and difficulty of the trail.
Daylight hours are much shorter in winter, so get going at first light and make sure you’re off the trail before dark to avoid getting lost or having an accident.
In summer you want to avoid the heat of the day but in the winter, it’s the opposite.
For short routes, try to time your hike for when the sun is highest in the sky (and therefore the warmest).
Also bear in mind that hiking will take longer due to the cold conditions. You could well run into ice or deep snow.
Sometimes popular trailheads are closed or unploughed over the winter, adding mileage to your trip in the form of a detour.
Hiking in cold conditions burns more calories, so you need to replenish more often.
Eating and drinking right will help you to stay warm too. Remember that dehydration expedites the onset of hypothermia, so stay hydrated.
If you feel thirsty, you’re already in water deficit.
Snacks need to tick two boxes – high in protein and carbs to give you energy, and easy to eat whilst on the move.
Anything that is slow and cumbersome to put together will mean stopping for extended periods, during which you (and your muscles) will get cold.
A re-usable water bottle doesn’t hold much appeal in winter so fill up a big thermos with hot cocoa, tea or soup broth.
Avoid coffee and definitely leave the alcohol well alone – both of these will dehydrate you.
Don’t forget to use an insulating hose on your Camelback or insulated bottle sleeves to prevent water from freezing in extreme temperatures.
If you don’t own one, just wrap your water bottle in some wool socks or a beanie then stuff it into your backpack.
Pack a good attitude
Yes, we know it’s a cliché, but having a positive outlook as you drag yourself out of the tent or door on a frosty morning will make all the difference.
If something unexpected crops up, take it in your stride. If you face a little mishap or the rain clouds roll in, laugh it off and adapt your plans accordingly.
Hiking in Winter – Amazon BEST Sellers
Charlotte walks anywhere and everywhere she can. Although she hasn’t ticked off as many official routes as she’d like, she has walked her way around large parts of Latin America, Southeast Asia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
Bucket list routes:
Last update on 2021-01-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API