If you hike in the winter, you already know what it’s like, right? You start off cold… whoa, wait, back up. You actually start off warm, in bed, forcing yourself awake at the bequest of an annoying alarm. It’s time to get cold. You go through your morning routine warming up as you do then head outside into the dark, Arctic air to freeze again. You beat ice off of your frozen car with a brush scraper clearing an eye hole on the windshield large enough to drive with. Then, after (an amount of time you fill in here) you arrive at the trailhead.Warm, again, this time from the drive, you brace yourself against the gusts blasting through the forever-windy trailhead parking lots. Time to be cold, once again. In the parking lot you put on snowshoes or spikes, adjust your starting layers. You know you should feel cold at this time, for best results, but you also yearn for warmth. You hope and pray that everyone in your party is as fast as you at getting ready. Managing yourself can be hard enough in the cold. Managing others is near impossible. You, ready with your snowshoes on, start clip-clopping in circles in the parking lot. Your mates look at you as if you’re being impatient. You’re not, you’re just freezing.
Eventually you get moving and the warming process begins again, but this time it’s internal generation that makes you feel good. It’s not from a heated seat or fan. It’s good old exercise coupled with thoughtful layering. Soon some members of your team feel uncomfortable and need to de-layer. This is true of anyone who was comfortable standing around at the trailhead. You might think to yourself, let’s make this quick so we can all finally be on the same page. Finally everyone warms up and before long we’ll often start making jokes about how the weatherman was so wrong. The forecast, was in all actuality, probably right on, but we feel so darn comfortable we swear it’s fifty or sixty out, not eighteen degrees at all. Hikers laugh at this stuff.This warmth, this comfort, this security carries us through the day. Until, that is, we stop. As soon as we stop, if we don’t don good layers quickly enough, we will start getting cold. This will happen anyway, but if we’re quick enough we can at least delay the onset. The worst discomfort will probably be from our back, where our pack once was. Fortunately we normally keep breaks short in the winter. Layer up, eat food, drink water, go pee, then hike again. On some days that’s long enough. On some days during those short breaks you’ll get so cold you won’t want to take your breaktime puffy off. It’s okay, you don’t have to. Again, as long as everyone is on the same page, you can plan a super fast coordinated stop five minutes after the break. “Stop. Pack off. Puffy in. Pack on. Go.”
“Go” is the keyword. When we get cold we go. Now it’s time to get serious. Consider this: what if we are forced to stop and cannot go? What happens then? How long will we have? Everything freezes in the mountains eventually. We know we can stop for five minutes. Maybe even fifteen minutes or more on those rare days whilst basking in the warmth of the sun. But how about an hour? Be honest. Are you good for two hours, or four, or how about overnight? Can you survive overnight?! Do you carry a “twenty-four-hour pack” or even think of such things? If you plan for only the day of your hike and not beyond, you might be setting yourself up for a fall. Again, be honest, be brutally honest, how long will you last? Are you counting on rescue? It doesn’t matter if you have a Hike Safe Card (we recommend it, but it doesn’t make you safe), rescue can take hours!So what do you if you have to stop for hours on end? Assuming you packed suitable layers you might still get uncomfortable but you should survive, but on some days that’s really not possible. It means you can’t stop moving. In case of injury the patient will need layers to get through it. This may include layers from others. Assuming there are others! There are others, right?! So what does everyone else do? Well, as guides, we will quickly have the patient in a Bothy Bag, on a pad, protected and cared for. Everyone else will be instructed to get busy. In our Ready Packs we provide materials with which occupation is possible. “Get busy,” we will say, “build yourself a fort with the pad, tarp, and cordage we provide.”
Hiking in the winter can be dangerous if precautions aren’t taken. Even if precautions are taken, there are no guarantees. You improve your chances by sticking to well-known trails, hiking them during well-traveled times, leaving a detailed itinerary with a trusted someone, and carrying suitable layers so you aren’t relying on others to bail you out should you run afoul. And by suitable layers we mean layers enough to allow you to actually stop. And, since the most insidious way to go we cannot detect on our own, hike with others. Getting too cold can kill you and you will die long before you freeze. Nobody freezes to death.
Be honest, be independent, and be ready. It’s your life out there, at the very least.