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Winter Hiking: A Beginner’s Guide
The change of the season from chilly, bright days to freezing, blustery, dark and dull times shouldn’t mean a change in your adventure habits too. If anything, hiking is one of the few outdoor pursuits that can be enjoyed year-round, without having to change time zones to feed ones addiction. There’s no doubt that hiking during the winter poses a few challenges – no-one chooses blistered cheeks, frostbitten fingers and chaffing nether regions. But with the right preparation and knowledge, winter hiking can be equally as enjoyable and rewarding as getting out at more clement times of the year. The trees, stripped of their summer plumage, no longer obscure vistas of neighbouring valleys, and the low sun casts magical hues on the landscape. But the icing on your big slice on wintery cake is that you seldom have to share any of it with other people!
If you’ve not given winter hiking a go before, then here are our top tips on how to get the best out of your adventure:
Be prepared for anything
Do your homework
Don’t get cold
Words of wisdom
No adventure is complete without a cracking feast before, during, and after the action! First up, plan your post-hike refuel at a local eatery. It’ll spur you on during the harder bits of the hike and will be a great reward for all that hard work.
Next up, have a big and balanced breakfast that is full of complex carbs, high in protein and has lots of healthy fats. It’s the one time when it really is OK to have a stack of almond covered pancakes after your main breakfast of hot oatmeal, eggs, bacon and toast! You’re welcome.
Pack some high energy snacks to top up your fuel levels as you go. The low temperature forces your body to use up energy fast – just to keep warm. Homemade energy bombs or flapjacks will give you an instant boost as well as a more sustained release of energy.
And finally, pack a high calorie lunch that is easy to eat on the go. If it’s windy and wet, you don’t want to have to stop for long, so go for something like wholemeal bagels with peanut butter or a container of cheesy tuna pasta. Take a flask of something hot; soup, coffee, hot chocolate or tea and save it for when you really need it. It will raise the spirits as well as the body temperature.
Drink lots of water and remind each other to do so regularly. It is all too easy to forget the dangers of dehydration when the temperatures are low. You don’t feel as thirsty in the cold but your body is working harder than normal to humidify the dry air at altitude and in cold conditions. Dehydration can also accelerate the effects of hypothermia, frostbite and fatigue, so glug away and turn the overexposure of regular pee stops into a cheeky reminder that your body is functioning well.
Be prepared for anything
Most would agree that hiking sits fairly comfortably in the low risk category for outdoor activities. The act of putting one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, for hours, poses few problems for most, and when things do go awry, it’s usually down to bad planning, ill-judgement or sudden changes in the weather. When mishaps happen during the cold of winter though, the consequences can be a lot greater than during warmer times of the year. But don’t let that put you off – Sir Robert Baden Powell didn’t chose the Scouting motto ‘be prepared’ on a whim. His experience taught him that good planning and thorough preparation enabled him to be ready for the inevitability of the unplanned. So we recommend being a good Scout and jumping on the Baden-Powell bandwagon of over-preparedness, and doing the following before you head out into your first winter blizzard:
Plan to start the hike at first light – daylight hours are limited during the winter months, so drag your butt out of bed way before sunrise to make full use of what light you do have. It gives you a time buffer that may be used up dealing with setbacks that can’t be planned for. Plus, watching the sunrise from the summit is always worth getting up early for.
Check the weather forecast – the weather in the mountains can change in minutes so keep a close eye on the forecast leading up to your hike day for a greater understanding of what might hit you whilst you are out there.
Take a cellphone – and find out the local emergency rescue numbers. Don’t rely on there being signal though and keep it switched off to save the battery.
Pack a bag with following items:
spare layers, gloves and warm socks – stored in a dry bag
hand warmers – hot magic for when your gloves stop doing the trick
cooking stove and gas – to enable you to make a hot drink
matches/lighter – for the stove or to light a fire
emergency blanket – wrap around someone with even a simple sprained ankle to help conserve body heat whilst the injured party is stationary
headlamp – just in case your hike takes longer than planned
first aid kit – check it is up to date and stocked up
penknife – never go into the wilderness without one!
bivy bag – get inside if injured or hypothermic
emergency whistle – never use outside of an emergency situation
map – stored in a waterproof case
compass – don’t head out without it
vaseline – to help prevent wind burn on your face
neoprene cover for your water bladder tube – it prevents the water from freezing in the tube
sunglasses – bring if there is snow on the ground or in case the… sun comes out?!
Do your homework
Being prepared doesn’t finish there I’m afraid! Winter hiking is a great excuse to broaden your horizons, and doing a bit of learning before you go will add another couple of degrees to your awesomeness as a human being. More importantly, your knowledge will hopefully prevent you from getting into sticky spots of bother or at least give you the capability to wriggle your way out of them. So spend some time learning or recapping on a few things before you go:
Know your route – study your map and identify potential tough sections; steep ascents, exposed ridges, marshy valleys, river crossings, cliffs to avoid walking off etc. Ask questions on hiking forums about your route – hikers love to share their knowledge of the hills with fellow enthusiasts.
Know how to use a compass – this is an essential skill to have, and when bad visibility sets in, your route finding will be really tested – way markers and landmarks won’t be visible to help you.
Learn SOS signals – there are a variety of ways to put out an SOS signal; smoke, whistle, light, flags. Learn them all.
Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite – scrub up on some first aid knowledge so that you know the answers to questions like what is frostbite and what causes hypothermia, as well as how to recognize and treat these conditions. Catching the signs early can be a lifesaver.
Don’t get cold
There are times during winter hikes when you’ll wish you only had a t-shirt on and others when an arctic snowsuit seems more suitable. Big ascents will have you sweating like a pig, even after having stopped to de-layer. But as soon as you start a descent, the lack of exertion will cool your body temperature quickly. So stop again for a preemptive redress to nip that potential problem in the bud.
As you may have guessed, wearing layers is the only way to dress in the winter wilderness. More of a survival thing than a fashion thing – wearing multiple layers allows you to adjust your temperature and stay warm when you need to.
Head – cover it up. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t actually lose 70% of our body heat through our heads – that ‘fact’ was debunked years ago. But that doesn’t mean your head doesn’t need clothes on too. So put a lid on and keep it on! If you’re a sweater then try a Merino Buff to wick away the moisture, and if you get the itches from wooly ones then go for a fleece hat instead.
Feet – give them love! Keep them comfortable, warm and dry and they will love you back. Otherwise, winter hiking can turn sour very quickly. There’s a reason why the military are such big proponents of a good bit of healthy foot love!
Choose wool socks over cotton for their moisture-wicking properties and try using two pairs if you have room in your boots.
Your hiking boots should be fully waterproof with thick, stiff soles and high ankles. Give them a re-wax before you go if needed. They should be laced up tightly for support but don’t get too over-enthusiastic – you still want blood to reach your toes.
Gaiters are also a good idea to prevent any water getting into your boots through the top.
Hands – it’s easy to overlook the impact of cold hands on the spirit of even the hardiest of hikers. Get those digits into a good pair of insulated and waterproof gloves to prevent the unnecessary dampening of the mood. That said, keeping your hands totally dry from sweat, rain or snow can still be a challenge in the more wintry of conditions. So it’s also a good idea to bring a thinner pair of under gloves to put on when finger dancing is no longer having the desired effect.
Legs – waterproof trousers are a must. As well as preventing sogginess to your lower extremities, they also keep out unwanted draftiness from the icy wind. For quick changes and easy access, many models have side zippers that run the full length of the leg – an appealing feature. Along with your jacket, re-waterproof them before you head out.
Wear a brightly coloured jacket – Where’s Waldo is not a game that mountain rescue like to play. So be bold in your wilderness fashion choice, and should the unthinkable happen, your rescuers will find you quickly and be left pondering over how you managed to look so darn good in your hypothermic state.
And finally, a really simple way to make sure you and your group don’t get cold, is to keep asking each other how their temperature is. No-one wants to be that guy who keeps stopping the group to faff with changing layers all the time. But the chances are, if they need to alter their temperature – you will too. So be one of those considerate types and ask your buddies if they need to stop and hopefully the favour will be repaid. A warm team equals a happy team!
Words of wisdom
If it is your first time heading out in winter then it’s probably a good idea to do a hike that you are familiar with. But if you’re determined to go exploring further afield then consider the following:
Go with an experienced hiker – having a wise head in the group is invaluable. You’ll learn loads and gain the confidence to take others out on future hikes.
Never walk alone – it’s more fun exploring with friends and if you need persuading then watch the film 127 hours. You’ll soon find some people to drag out with you.
Log your route – tell someone your plan; either a friend, the park ranger or the local tourist office. Give them details of your intended route and your expected return time.
Locate emergency phones – many national parks and reserves have emergency phones that can be used without coins. But take a couple of coins too – you just never know.
Know when it’s time to turn back – as a team, you need to have some rules in place for when it’s time to turn back. You won’t necessarily all see this the same way. So before you go, agree on your rules and how you will enforce them if the time arises.
So now that you’ve got enough gear to keep a whole family warm, have learnt all there is to know about how not to lose your fingers, are ready to feed an army and have some wise words to hold close to your heart, all that’s left is to get out there and enjoy the freedom and quiet of wandering through the winter wilderness. The chances are, that you won’t even need to think about all the over-preparedness, but having done it, you can just relax and be confident that whatever challenges winter hiking may pose, you’ve got it covered.