Hiking is a wonderful way to experience the outdoors, and many hikers find peace and joy in nature. Unfortunately, hikers tend to limit themselves to enjoying only the spring and summer months, with perhaps only a few brave souls who venture out during the fall. The cold and dreary days of winter seem to get hardly any attention at all. Truth be told, winter can be a treacherous season, but with adequate preparation and planning, its harsh weather and low temperatures can easily be beat. For novice and avid hikers alike, the winter season can be enjoyed by following a few simple precautions. Below, you’ll find winter hiking tips and the basic steps to assuring a safe winter hike.
Check the Weather
First, know the weather forecast. If you’re planning a hike, check the local forecast for the area throughout the week in order to get a feel for the current weather patterns and temperatures. More importantly, check the forecast on the day of your hike, preferably as close as possible to your time of departure. And know what type of weather and temperatures to expect. For example, what types of precipitation are common in the region you’ll be hiking? Rain? Snow? Should you expect mildly cold or freezing temperatures? Additionally, be aware of any change in elevation, as conditions change with elevation — what starts as rain could turn to snow at higher elevations.
While it’s never advisable to hike during harsh winter conditions, the weather is often unpredictable and can change drastically in a matter of moments. You should always be prepared to face whatever conditions arise. The remaining tips should also help prepare you for any unforeseen circumstances.
Apparel, Apparel, Apparel
Layers, layers, layers. The deceptive aspect of winter hiking is not realizing how cold the temperature actually is until you’ve stopped moving. When you’re hiking, increased blood circulation naturally warms your body. Instinctively, you’ll want to toss off all that extra clothing, but it will be imperative to survival if an emergency should arise.
When choosing appropriate clothing to wear, lean toward breathable fabrics, especially ones that repel water rather than absorb it. This is particularly important advice when donning socks and cap, as your feet and head are the two places where heat escapes the body. Consequently, cotton is a particularly ill-suited material for winter hiking because it absorbs sweat, rapidly cooling the body and keeping it that way.
Adequate route planning is an often overlooked part of winter hiking (and outdoor recreation in general). You should always tell someone your planned route and the estimated times of departure and return. Never leave without doing this. Additionally, taking a map and compass are excellent precautions to ensure you stay the course you’ve intended to take. Develop an exit strategy — know when to turn around and the quickest possible way to safety. Be advised of any obstacles that may present themselves. Icy ground should always be avoided, and downed trees or large branches should be expected and treated with caution.
Part of hiking responsibly is packing responsibly. There are a few items you should never leave without. You’ll likely need some sort of backpack or waistpack to hold these items, which may discourage some, but the added security is priceless. First, pack water. You simply cannot survive without it. Next, bring a few energy rich snacks like trail mix or protein bars. Nuts and dried berries work especially well. Also, always carry a flashlight, headlamp, or lantern. If it’s a cloudy night and you’re in the middle of the wilderness, there’s little hope of finding safety without the aid of a reliable uv flashlight or lantern. Pack a small first-aid kit with an emergency blanket and whistle. Additionally, consider carrying a knife, pocket bushcraft knife, or multi-tool. A knife, coupled with the many functions of a mutli-tool, is a highly versatile instrument that will always come in handy.
Finally, never hike alone. The old adage, “safety in numbers,” doesn’t change if you’ve hiked a million times or only once. The fact remains that it’s safer (and more fun!) to travel with another person. Never hike alone.
If you love hiking, don’t let the winter months deter you from enjoying all the beauty the season has to offer. Simply take the appropriate precautions by following the tips and suggestions above, and you’ll never have to miss out again.
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