For many of us across America the time of seasonal depression is upon us. As creatures that operate during the daytime, it's all too easy to lose motivation during the winter months. With sunsets earlier and temperatures dropping, the idea of being outdoors becomes less and less favorable to many of us.
But I have to say that one of my favorite things about the outdoors is observing the natural changes with the changing of the seasons. Have you ever watched those timelapse videos showing the daily changes to a scene over the course of a year? Those videos quickly show you how the landscapes change, but it's an entirely different thing to experience it yourself. I'm not talking about going out to the same spot every single day of the year, but moreso the mental image you have of that landscape. Just as we hike annually in New England to observe the famous Fall Foliage - hiking during the winter is another experience that is unique in its own right. Watching an active ecosystem teeming with life transform into an icy sheet of white, seeing the occasional footprints of wildlife as you observe an entirely different scene, despite the landscape remaining the same.
Winter hiking is certainly more dangerous and tricky than Spring or Summer time hikes, and additional preparation is needed to make sure you are properly prepared. Keep these things in mind when you're planning your next winter trek!
This goes without saying, but it gets pretty cold in the winter. Keep in mind that you can always remove layers, but you can only pack on the layers you brought with you. Make sure you dress warmly enough for your trip, and if you heat up during your hike, you can always remove a layer. With that in mind, be sure to opt for materials that are designed to wick away moisture, as sweat will lower your body temperature if not properly mitigated. Things like a poly/cotton blend will work much better than 100% cotton fabrics.
Waterproof outer layers are a must - keeping yourself dry will be the name of the game on winter hikes. Inner layers should help insulate you, and these can be the first to go if you start building up a sweat. Make sure to wear thick socks underneath some waterproof boots as well - personally I prefer Wool socks for this purpose. You can of course use heated gear but that is entirely up to you. You'll want to make sure you're not overheating, which is especially easy when you're packing on layers to insulate you from the cold. Walk at a pace that's comfortable, as straining yourself is going to increase your sweat production, which can lead to hypothermia if it's not properly mitigated.
If you're going to be doing a Winter hike, you should be doing so as early as possible. Keep in mind that sunset times are significantly earlier in the winter, so make sure to leave daylight for your descent. As the sun sets, temperatures will also drop, so you really do not want to be caught out after dark on a what was supposed to be a day-hike.
Keep a close eye on weather reports as well - winter weather can be extremely hazardous, so it's best to avoid problems if you can. Hiking during a blizzard or during extreme fog is entirely not recommended. Hiking a trail in the winter is also going to take you longer than it normally would, so be sure to keep an eye on your watch. If your ascent is taking you longer than you expected, it might be best to descend and come back another time. Many inexperienced hikers will forget that descending takes just as much time and energy, so be sure to call it quits if daylight is becoming an issue. You certainly don't want to find yourself in an overnight situation if that wasn't your intention.
You're going to burn more calories hiking in the snow than you would during the spring or summer, so bringing extra high calorie snacks is a must. It's not recommended to stop for long periods of time and eat your meal, especially on a day hike. Things that you can eat while walking are preferred, allowing you to regain some calories as you continue burning them to help keep yourself warm. I'm a huge fan of jerky sticks for this specific purpose, as it's easy for me to walk and eat, storing the trash in my pocket for later. Save the full meals for after the hike!
Water is obviously still going to be very important, and if you don't have an insulated water bottle, you may want to consider wrapping your water in a blanket or placing a sock around it. This will help insulate the water so it does not freeze over as quickly. If you're using a hydration system, look into insulation covers for your hoses so they don't freeze over either. One thing that helps prevent your water from freezing over is constant movement - if you're constantly walking or moving, it's much harder for the water inside of the bottle to freeze.
Finally, a warm drink in a thermos is a huge boost if the elements start to get to you. When everything around you is ice cold, having a warm beverage to lift your spirits and get your blood flowing is a fantastic reprieve from the elements.
You should always bring the essentials, regardless of the season. That would be:
• Several ways to start a fire (lighter, matches, etc.)
• Multi-tool or bushcraft knife
• Flashlight or other light source
Even though you might just be planning on a day hike, you should always pack some materials just in case you do end up having to spend the night. For the winter, you'll want to consider some other things for a worst case scenario. A survival blanket is a great item that packs small and is extremely lightweight, but can provide much needed insulation to keep you warm on a cold winter night. It can also be used to craft rudimentary shelters to put a roof over your head if need be. They're also waterproof, so they can keep you off the snow, allowing you to stay dry.
Additional considerations should be based around the trailhead you'll be visiting. If you know to expect icy trails, or areas of heavier snow, plan to bring extra gear to make it easier to hike through. Snow shoes have been around for centuries, displacing your weight so you don't sink deep into softer snow. Additionally, traction spikes can be used to give you some extra grip on those particularly slippery surfaces. Not only will this make your trip safer, it will also save energy you would normally spend fighting to stay upright, or trudging through waist-high snow banks.
Especially in the winter, be sure to do extensive planning prior to the trip. Bring extra food and water and some other items such as a survival blanket, just in case. Never push yourself past your means - you can always come back another time!