Clear cold days, rime ice, outstanding views, ice crystals hanging from spruce bows, solitude on a snow covered trail and no bugs: these are some of the many reasons why I and many others take to the mountains during the winter season. A winter tramp in the woods and mountains of the Lakes Region and beyond can be an experience that some would say is addicting. Others I know cannot fathom the idea of trekking up a mountainside in three feet of snow, with the wind howling and temperatures hovering around zero. But with careful planning, appropriate skills and knowledge it can be a wonderful, exhilarating experience with incredible intrinsic and physical rewards.
However, a winter hike can end in misery or even disaster if you are not properly prepared. Several years ago, I was hiking the Bond Cliff Trail with my son and as we climbed to the top of the cliff edge we were blasted my wind and snow. As we looked up the trail, we saw a couple of figures struggling to find their way. When we approached them, we noticed they wore only lightweight clothing, running shoes and had small packs hanging from their backs. They had lost their way in the changing weather conditions. They had no map, compass or other gear to get them back to safety below the cliff edge. After a brief exchange of words we led them back down the mountain to the shelter of the woodlands below. Their winter sojourn could have ended in disaster, because of poor planning and being ill-equipped for hiking in winter conditions.
If you are contemplating a winter hike and do not want to end your hike as these two characters did, there are several things you need to consider. First and foremost is planning. Research the route or trail you plan to hike. Write down the trip itinerary (route, day/time start and end the hike) and leave it with a friend or spouse. Check the most recent weather report. As most of us know, weather can change quickly in the mountains, so you need to be prepared for any and all conditions. In addition, the conditions at the base of the mountain or the trailhead are usually much different than at higher elevations, particularly on the summits. It isn't rare to see flatlanders hiking up Mount Lafayette totally ill-equipped for weather at 4,000 feet.
Proper clothing and layering are the most important part of any winter journey. Layering allows you to easily adjust your clothes to regulate body moisture and temperature. After you begin hiking your body will start to warm. You do not want to get overheated and sweat. Adjust your layers of clothing by adding or removing to prevent heat buildup and sweating. Three layers are considered normal: a liner layer against your skin, a fleece layer for insulation and a wind/waterproof layer. This is applied to both your upper and lower torso. You should also have additional clothing in your pack for further warmth and protection. None of your clothing should be cotton. As the expression goes, "cotton kills." Cotton clothing holds moisture when it gets wet, either from sweat, snow or rain. Wear only wool or a synthetic material. Over half of your body's heat loss occurs through the head. A balaclava and cap will ensure you stay warm. I was told, "If your feet are cold, put on a hat."
Your footwear should be of well-oiled leather or plastic winter hiking boots, with good insulating qualities. Do not wear summer hiking shoes. There is nothing worse than hiking in cold, wet feet. Snowshoes, micro spikes or crampons are also going to be needed, depending on the conditions of the trail. Even though we are seeing grass around our homes, the higher elevations in the mountains could have three or four feet of snow and ice. Trekking poles are important for balance in snow or going over those icy spots. You also may want to consider wearing gaiters. They add extra warmth to your lower leg, and keep snow and ice out of your boots
Bring plenty of food and water. I usually carry two liters in insulated bottle jackets. You could also place your bottles in a heavy wool socks. It's very important to include plenty of carbohydrates in your food bag to provide fuel for hiking and for simply keeping your body warm. I like to bring two peanut butter and honey sandwiches made from Nancy's home-made bread and our own home-grown honey.
Be sure you're in adequate physical condition for the trail.
Hike with a buddy.
Carry a headlamp, with extra batteries
Bring a first aid kit.
Pack a map and compass, and know how to use them.
Bring 2 pairs of gloves or mittens, with liners.
Pack an extra pair of socks
One last point: Do not depend on your GPS, cell phone or other electronic device for trail finding or to call home when you get lost. In the mountains, cell phone service is not always available and batteries die in cold conditions. These devices can be helpful, but depending on them is not wise.
If you would like to learn more about winter hiking and backpacking, there are several good books and websites, such as www.winterhiking.org. The AMC also offers winter hiking and camping workshops. Hiking safely and sensibly are the key words for any tramp in the woods. This takes on extra significance in the winter as there is little room for error. Plan your winter hike sensibly, so you can return to the trail and enjoy those crystal clear views that only winter can offer.
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