Winter Hiking Guide: Prepping for Chilly Adventures

Appalachian Trail in snowWinter hiking… Nothing feels better than waking up to a blanket of snow caressing the mountain tops. Your face pressing up against the cold glass of your window, just yearning to jump into it. The serene silence that winter and snow bring to the woods.

“I’ve never actually been hiking in the winter! Let’s get out there and see what the trails look like!” the young, intrepid adventurer said eagerly.

“Woah, woah there!” The narrator piped. “You can’t just jump out into the cold willy-nilly. You don’t have the proper gear on. Let alone even know where you are going.”

The adventurer was whipping their head around, looking for where the mysterious, omniscient voice was coming from.

“Who’s that?! Who’s talking to me?!” the adventurer shouted.

“These are two of many factors that are important to consider before hiking in the snow,” the narrator continued. “The season of winter is very unique when it comes to outdoor adventuring. It sets itself apart from the other seasons. Most of the time, shorts and a t-shirt in the summer is just fine. Winter however, especially with snow and ice, brings a lot more to the table with its extreme weather.”

Section 1: Where are you going?

Winter trail in woodsOne of the biggest things that will determine how you should prepare is where exactly you are going. Especially since we are situated in the mountains. “How high up will I be? Will I be inside of a forest or out on a mountain bald? What’s the weather like in that area?” These are all questions that will heavily affect your trip. For example, here in the valley of Asheville, we more than likely have a dry ground with weather in the 40’s around midday. Most trails will require basic, cold weather gear such as beanies, gloves, hiking shoes, and thermal clothes. However, in the Roan, we are traveling roughly 3,000 ft higher than Asheville. Temperatures there can drop to below zero degrees Fahrenheit easily! Snow is much more common due to the clouds ramming into the mountains, and with all that snow thawing around midday, then freezing overnight, you’re left with a layer of ice hidden under the snow. Quite the bamboozler that beautiful snow can be!  Even though the Appalachian Mountains may not be as frigid as the Rockies, they still carry their own dangers, and these escalate the higher you rise in elevation. You could very easily slip on that ice. Being so high up, you may hurt yourself, or even worse! For safety reasons, since this is your first time hiking in the winter, I recommend you stick to a trail lower in elevation, like maybe Sam’s Gap on the Appalachian Trail for example.”

The adventurer scratched their chin. “Well… Mysterious voice… Could you give me examples on how to prepare for each?”

“Sure! After all, that’s why I’m here,” the narrator replied eagerly.

Section 2: What to wear.

The adventurer was deep in their closet, clothes flying out from the dimly lit doorway and into the bedroom, like being shot out of a cannon.

“Oh I just don’t know! What if I’m not warm enough… Or too warm? What clothes will actually make me warm?”

winter hiker“Your choice of clothing is one of the most important things when it comes to winter hiking,” the narrator began to speak, with the adventurer looking around their room attempting to find where the voice was coming from. “But you don’t have to turn yourself into Ralphie Parker to feel warm. You want to make sure you have enough layers to keep you warm, while also made of the right material so you don’t set yourself up for failure. One major thing to keep in mind while hiking in the winter, especially in the snow, is to avoid cotton. Why? Say you’re hiking in the snow and you slip, rolling around in the snow. Your clothes will almost certainly get wet. When cotton gets wet, it’s almost impossible to get it to dry in a reasonable amount of time. Wet clothes get cold very fast, and quickly your warm, toasty layers alter into a cold popsicle! So most of your base layers, including your undergarments, should be polyester or wicking of some sorts if you plan on hiking in snow. With that, let’s break down some guidelines on stuff you should wear.

Wool Socks: You want to make sure those toesies are nice and toasty! They will be protected by your shoes and take a bit to get wet. Especially if you are wearing boots, these will help keep your feet from blistering.

Base Layers: Whether you are high in the mountains or hiking at sea level, you’ll want to make sure you have a wicking, thermal base to cover your legs and torso. You’ll be surprised just by adding this to your outfit how much warmer you are.  Nothing feels better than putting on a pair of long johns or leggings and the cold staying far away from your legs. These will help disburse any moisture you create while hiking, such as sweat, while also helping to keep in heat your body radiates.

Mid Layers: Your mid layer is where all the heat trapping magic happens. Fleece, synthetic, down, or other insulating material is key here. Fleece stays warm and dries really fast with some breatheability, keeping you from overheating while your body heats up. Down contains the ultimate heat trapping ability while also being super light, but loses this efficiency when it gets damp. Wool/merino wool is another material that can be used. If you’re heading into really frigid temperatures. You can double up on these layers, such as fleece then down, or wool then down.

Jackets and Outerwear: Depending on the temperature, your outer layer may also be your mid layer. However, even with all that insulation, a brief gust of wind can strip all that warmth away. This is where jackets come in handy. Down jackets can provide the needed wind resistance, while also being insulating and lightweight, but on a rainy or snowy day, you need to keep that down dry to stay warm. Synthetic jackets, while not as insulating as down jackets, can provide the wind and rain protection while also keeping you dry. If you have a down jacket as your mid layer, you can use a water-resistant or waterproof shell jacket to keep the wind and rain off as a light alternative. In frigid temperatures, a jacket/outer shell is a must.

Pants: Pants are another important decision when creating your outfit for your trip. Avoid wearing jeans as their cotton content can get wet easily and leave your legs quivering. Other than that, insulating pants are always a plus, but not a need if you have insulating long johns. Water repellent pants can be really useful if you plan on trekking through some deep snow.

Shoes: Your normal hiking shoes or boots you use in other seasons will most likely do fine in normal temperatures. However, if you are hiking in snow, you may want to invest in boots that have a higher ankle and are insulating to keep the snow out. Slipping is another concern while hiking in the winter. Most boots, however, don’t fit well on benchmarks to avoid slipping on ice. In general, you should try to avoid or tread very carefully on ice.

Hats and Accessories:

The adventurer was out in the snow now, bundled up in their winter gear, yet still the cold seemed to breach into their being, despite no air getting through their layers.

“W-w-why am I s-s-still c-c-cold?” they said, chattering their teeth.

“Well that’s because your face is still exposed to the elements,” the narrator spoke as if their voice was flying with the blustery wind. “Your face is a lot more sensitive to temperature changes than the rest of your body. Even though a small amount of heat leaves your body through your head, the sensitivity makes you feel much colder. A wool or synthetic beanie is a great accessory in cold temperatures and a must in frigid temperatures. This will cover your ears and forehead and keep your head from getting too cold. Scarves can help keep your mouth warm, and in really cold temperatures, it can prevent your snot/sweat from freezing to your face!”

Now the adventurer was ready. All suited up head to toe in insulating gear, a beanie, gloves, and even a scarf. The adventurer slowly inched outside into the cold, standing still for a moment to see if their equipment was working.

“Wow… I actually feel pretty warm, like I’m still sitting inside!”

“CONGRATULATIONS,” the narrator boomed from the sky. “You have officially prepared yourself for the chilling winds of winter. Remember to be safe, watch your steps for any ice, and most importantly… Enjoy the wonders of nature during the winter.”