The winter hiking season is just around the corner. Soon we will be pushing through slick leaves and the hazards they conceal — as if that isn’t dangerous enough — and almost immediately after that we will be making our way through snow, dealing with winter’s inherent dangers. As many prefer, actually. The walking, after all, is generally easier (unless you’re packing out a trail through new fallen, wet snow), and the views and feeling of solitude can be amazing. So amazing, in fact, that some folks are lured into giving it a try, without realizing the profound differences between hiking on a summer day and doing the same thing on a winter day. Let’s look at eight of these differences and examine how they affect us.
This is an obvious one. It’s colder outside, even in our normal urban environment. If you’re from New England you know winter and you understand cold. But it’s different in the mountains. Winds blow on calm days, clouds descend upon summits making whiteout conditions on “sunny” days, and stuff happens fast, seemingly without warning. We can deal with this easily enough by simply adding more layers, right? Well, therein leads us to the next winter difference… one that isn’t that different, but is more important.
2. Staying Cool
Staying cool surely isn’t an issue in the winter… is it? Actually, yes. It’s easier to do in winter because one can remove clothing whereas in the summer one can only get so naked, but the perils of sweating in the winter are so much more serious. A real conundrum. Ideally, in the winter plan to start cold then generate heat by moving, then being prepared to add layers to conserve this heat as soon as you stop. Be sure to monitor yourself throughout the day and react accordingly. Also be sure to wear sweat-wicking base layers designed to deal with a fair amount of perspiration from exertion.
3. Day Length
In the summer we have long days that stretch out in both directions. We carry headlamps but rarely use them unless staying overnight. It’s pretty forgiving. In the winter, however, especially at the start of the season in December, we begin in the dark (or should be) and tend to end in the dark on all but the shortest hikes. Hiking in the winter, if the trail is unbroken, can be tricky at times. At night it is even trickier.
4. Road Closures
What was a ten-miler swells to fourteen after the fire road closes. People who have earned their AMC winter 4k patch know this all too well (and probably know the example cited). This adds not just miles but hours to your day and must be figured in, both in terms of time allocation, as well as your ability level. Plan for this.
In the summer it’s okay to stop at some overlook and just linger. After all, the days just seem to stretch right on into infinity. Moreover, it’s comfy. Cool breezes soothe us instead of the oppressive heat of the valley making us cranky. That’s summer. In the winter it’s another matter altogether. Stopping for any other reason other than taking a break of controlled duration (how long can vary a lot) and donning the appropriate break layers while doing so, can spell trouble. Everything freezes on the mountain.
6. Weather Trends
The current weather is pretty important in the mountains. In the winter, it’s even more so. Additionally, it is especially important to acknowledge weather trends. What is going to happen that evening is critically important. Let’s imagine a party of hikers at the edge of their comfort level concerning winds. If the forecast calls for a trend of increasing winds, said hikers should turn back. It’s all part of the judgement skill, that common-sense thing that is supposed to save us.
7. Ground Conditions
What normally provides sound footing (barring wet roots, slick leaves, and greasy waterbars), may not be so sound in the winter. One primary concern is ice. If you venture into the mountains in the winter and don’t think you’ll need light traction, bring it anyway, and if you know you’ll need it, bring actual crampons as backup. The spring of 2016 was exceptionally icy, but ice can be an serious issue any time. Be prepared.
8. Water Crossings
As serious as water crossings are in the warmer months, in the winter months messing up and getting yourself wet can be a real disaster. Knowing the route and current water levels is a good start. Accessing a current trip reports is also good business. Consider melt water later in the season, ice damns, and myriad other facets involved with crossings, especially those winter ones. Lastly, prepare for the worst. Keep your stuff dry and bring a change of clothes if applicable
Winter is Fun
Taking to the trails in the winter is a fun and rewarding experience, regardless of how you go about it. We wouldn’t want to convince you otherwise. Just be wary and respectful of the season. If you get wet and cool down at anytime of year you can become hypothermic and die, but the temperature of the air won’t generally kill you. In the winter, Mother Nature is a little less forgiving. Prepare thoroughly, just as you always do… right? Check a few forecasts, bring suitable gear, be fit, rested, watered, and fed, and don’t go alone (standard and very sound advice for winter hikers).
Oh, by the way, we can help. Our mountaineering skills course will keep you on your feet, our river crossing course (even though it isn’t a winter course, per se), can also help, and of course our winter skills course will assist you with your preparedness and help ensure you return from your winter hikes in one piece.