Winter hiking skills are essential if you plan to hike in the colder seasons.
Walking in winter should be treated with caution, but provided you are equipped with the skills and know-how to look after yourself, there’s no reason why you can still enjoy trails as usual.
The key to an enjoyable winter hike is to plan and prepare well.
Winter brings freezing conditions. There may be snows and ice on the ground, as well as cold air temperatures, rain, fog, and blizzards. Weather systems can change rapidly.
When you are out on the trail, a pleasant winter walk can become difficult, or even dangerous, if you are not fully prepared.
Winter can be an amazing time of year to go hiking, but safety must come first. Here are some winter skills that every hiker should master.
Pack the Right Gear
Knowing what to take with you for a winter hike is a basic skill. With cold weather conditions and less daylight hours, your equipment should consist of items to keep you safe and well.
If you are going on a long day hike where you expect to be in the elements for a few hours, there are some basics to have with you in your backpack. These include:
- High calorie snacks – keep energy levels up in cold weather.
- Warm drink in a vacuum flask.
- Headlamp – easy to wear when light levels are low.
- Spare hat
- Extra clothing layers
- Maps/compass/navigation equipment
- First aid kit
- Fire lighting equipment
- Lightweight shelter – in an emergency, a bivvy sheet can keep the worst of the wind and wet weather off.
- Sunglasses/goggles – snow on the ground reflects light. After a while, this can affect your eyesight or even led to snow-blindness. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
- Survival knife/multi-tool – useful for a variety of jobs.
- Ice axe and crampons if hiking on steep, challenging terrain.
The Art of Layering
Layering clothing is key to keeping warm when hiking in winter.
Wear a moisture-wicking base layer next to your skin, a mid-layer to insulate, and an outer layer that is windproof. You can also add a light waterproof layer to go over everything, if your windproof layer is not also waterproof.
A thick, down-filled coat is also great to keep you warm, and can be squashed down to pack small. You might not need it while moving, but if you stop for any reason, having it to throw over you will help keep you warm.
Ask experienced hikers about layering, and each will tell you why they prefer one material over another. The best way to find what works for you is to test a few different materials, such as merino wool or a synthetic. Avoid cotton, as it simply soaks up moisture.
Layering clothing works. On a winter hike, take extra mid-layers in your backpack to wear if you need to.
Don’t forget your hands and face too. Any exposed skin may feel the effect of cold temperatures. Gloves, hats and balaclavas protect your skin and keep you warm.
Add gaiters as an outer layer over your hiking boots and trousers. These help to keep snow and stones from getting into your boots, and keep the bottom of your trousers dry.
Check weather forecasts before you set off on a winter hike.
In some areas, weather can change quickly. Always be aware of how the sky looks so you can anticipate changes.
You don’t need to be attempting to climb huge mountains for conditions to become dangerous in winter weather. The effects of exposure can happen to anyone who spend time on a winter hike.
While your goal is to reach a summit, or cross miles of remote wilderness, if the weather conditions are not favourable, be prepared to turn back.
If the landscape is covered in snow, or you can’t see far in front of you due to weather conditions, navigation can be a challenge. This is when knowing how to get a bearing by using a compass and a map can be a lifesaver.
On orienteering compass has a flat, clear rectangular base. This allows you to place it on top of a map and still see what is underneath.
Using a compass correctly means you know what direction you are heading in. Using it with a map means you can to align the map to your surroundings, allowing you to work out a bearing from one point to another. You can then use the compass to follow a straight line between these points.
To learn how to do this, there are many tutorials online or try an orienteering course.
Ice Axe Arrest
While this is a skill mainly used in mountaineering, it can be useful for winter hiking. If you are planning to hike across steep ridges or hills, an ice axe arrest can save your life if you fall.
Slipping down a snowy slope, you can quickly gather momentum and find it difficult to stop. On terrain where there are sheer drops or crevices, this can lead to injuries and death.
The ice axe arrest is a skill where you dig the ice axe into the ground to slow and stop your fall.
Crampons are the spiky grips that are worn with your boots, to help get grip on icy and snow covered hills. Walking in crampons is a skill in itself. They are sharp and can easily tear your clothing. Practice using crampons before going on a hike where you’ll need to wear them.
Winter hiking is an enjoyable activity, but it is important to treat it with respect. Mountaineering comes with obvious dangers, but so can hiking. Sometimes, the notion of hiking as ‘going for a walk’ can lead a false sense of security.
Being out in the elements for long periods of time, especially in remote areas, can leave any hiker vulnerable, and you don’t need to be climbing a mountain to be in danger.
Winter can be one of the beautiful seasons to enjoy the great outdoors. The landscape and quiet trails have a quality that you just don’t see in other seasons.
If you like getting out there and exploring some of the best hiking trails, don’t let winter hold you back. Learn some basic winter hiking skills, plan your route well, and you are set for some fun adventures.