Cold weather hiking has its rewards for the hiker who makes extra preparations and takes extra precautions. One reward for hiking in the colder months is more solitude on the trail. A deciduous woodland of leafless trees sure looks different in January than it does in its fully leafed-out splendor in July. The cold air is invigorating and the vistas inspiring in the clear mountain air.
Dressing for a Cold Hike
Get out all the synthetic fabric clothing you have out of the closet and get ready to do some serious layering. If it’s really cold, begin with polyester long johns top and bottom-a poly T-shirt if it’s not quite so cold. Continue with a fleece jacket or vest and fleece pants. Top that with an outer layer of wind/rain jacket and pants and you’ll be ready for just about anything.
Don’t forget some kind of neck covering-scarf or hood. Remember to wear a hat and a pair of gloves or mittens.
Weatherproof boots and warm socks are essential. Each year boot-makers make footwear more water resistant and more breathable, but a hiker’s socks still get wet and sweaty. To keep your feet warm and happy, bring extra socks and change them out during the day. Gaiters help keep mud and moisture out of your boots.
Food and Fluids
Fueling the body in cold weather is a challenging task because stopping to prepare or consume a meal means that at rest body temperature drops, often leading to stiff fingers and numb toes. Rather than stopping for a sit-down lunch, refuel “in flight,” so to speak, munching along the trail. Choose “high octane” high carbohydrate/high fat snacks and stash them in your jacket pockets and pack pouches for easy access. Chocolate bars, energy bars, dried fruits and nuts are ideal snacks for this purpose.
When hiking in cold weather, you’ll burn more calories in order to stay warm; however, if you’re well dressed for the cold, you really won’t be burning too many more calories than normal to maintain your body’s core temperature.
Even in cold weather, even though you’re not feeling particularly thirsty, drink plenty of water-two liters per person per day. Pack a thermos of hot tea or soup.
Dehydration increases the effects of the cold on the hiker, further exerting the heart and muscles, and contributing to fatigue.
If the temperature is below 32 degrees F., wrap your water bottles in insulated sleeves to keep them from freezing. You can also slip them inside your jacket to keep warm.
Adding a sports drink or sugary mix such as Kool-Aid to your water will lower the freezing temperature. However, if you put too much sugar into the water, you’ll increase diuresis (in other words, you’ll pee out more fluid than you gain)—not a good thing when you’re trying to stay hydrated.
Start with the weather forecast from radio, TV and the internet, but remember most of the reports are oriented to population centers. Often the park or remote wildland where you wish to hike is off the radar—literally and figuratively—of the weather service, and may have a distinct microclimate that’s different from the nearest city. Call the local authorities or land manager to get more specific weather information about the terrain you plan to trek.
Hike at a steady pace, fast enough to generate some body heat, but slow enough so that you don’t start sweating a great deal. Find a pace you can sustain and stick with it, so you don’t wear yourself down and you don’t have to stop very often to rest.
Those short autumn/winter days mean that the day hike you planned could unexpectedly turn into a night hike. Take along a flashlight or headlamp (and spare batteries) in the event your return to the trailhead takes longer than expected.
Autumn is a great season for wildlife-watching, a chance to view land birds and waterfowl, deer, moose and many more creatures. It’s also hunting season in many regions of the country. To avoid being mistaken for any animal that a human needs a license to kill, wear at least one article of bright orange clothing if you intend to take a walk in the woods during hunting season.