When there’s snow on the ground, I like to pretend I’m walking in clouds.
— Takayuki Ikkaku
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 also end in misery or even disaster if you are not properly prepared. Several years ago I was hiking the Bond Cliff Trail in November with my son and, as we climbed to the top of the cliff edge, we were blasted by wind and snow. As we looked up the trail, we saw two figures struggling to find their way. When we approached them, we noticed they wore only lightweight clothing, running shoes, and small packs hung 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 this 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 5,000 feet.
The Quebecois have a saying, “S’habiller comme un oignon," which literally means to dress like an onion, in layers. Proper clothing and layering are the most important part of any winter journey. Layering enables you to easily adjust your clothing 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 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 applies 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 from perspiration, 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."
Two pairs of insulated mittens or gloves with liners are also an important ingredient for a safe and happy hike. As Sir Ranulph “Ran” Fiennes, author, explorer, mountaineer and extreme adventurer said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
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, trail crampons and mountaineering crampons are also going to be needed, depending on the conditions of the trail. Even though there may be green grass around our homes, the higher elevations in the mountains could have three to four feet of snow and ice. Trekking poles are important for balance in snow or going over icy spots. You also may want to consider wearing gaiters. They add extra warmth to your lower legs and keep snow and ice out of your boots.
Bring plenty of food and water. I usually carry two liters of water in insulated bottle jackets. I boil the water before pouring it into my water bottle to ensure it doesn’t freeze during the hike. Hot soup in an insulated bottle is also a great addition to your food litany. You could also place your bottles in 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.
• Being in good physical condition.
• 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.
One last point: Do not depend on your GPS, cell phone, or other electronic devices 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. The Appalachian Mountain Club offers winter hiking/camping workshops. Check its website for dates and location at www.outdoors.org.
Hike safely and sensibly are keywords for any tramp in the woods and take on extra significance in the winter, as there is little room for error. Plan your winter hike wisely, so you can return to the trail and enjoy those crystal-clear views that only winter can offer.