By Sylvia Karcz, Contributing Blogger
When temperatures drop, daylight hours wane, and blistery weather becomes a weekly occurrence, it’s normal to want to hunker indoors and focus more on planning outdoor adventures rather than living them. Being active outside during winter months, after all, usually takes more gear, more preparation, and a little more, well…work.
But hear me out, fellow movers and shakers: don’t let winter be an excuse to stay indoors! It’s worth every ounce of energy trying to make those cold-weather adventures happen, and they often offer some of the most exhilarating, connected, and rewarding experiences in nature.
Preparedness, however, is critical when venturing out during winter months, and even the shortest, most straightforward hikes shouldn’t be taken lightly. Heed these tips for staying safe when planning your next winter escapade!
1. Know Before You Go
A large part of being an outdoor recreationalist is taking responsibility for your own experience and your own safety. So: do the research! Choose your adventure destination wisely based on your skill set, the time you have available, the gear you have at hand, and most importantly, the weather conditions forecast for that particular area.
Always have an idea of the topography and trail conditions you plan to venture out in, too. Are there water crossings or sections that pass through avalanche terrain? Do recent trail reports mention any snow or ice? If so, how much? Never go into an area blindly. Surprises are fun, but not when they present dangerous outcomes.
If you’re new to winter hiking and don’t have crampons or microspikes, for instance, don’t set out on a high-elevation hike where icy scrambles will be likely. Or, if you only have a couple of morning hours to spare because you’re trying to beat an incoming blizzard, maybe save that multi-mile hike for when the forecast looks a bit more forgiving.
By making smart choices about where we recreate on a particular day, we can navigate around potentially life-threatening hazards that can catch us off guard and turn a mellow winter hike into a grave ordeal.
2. Dress Appropriately- and Bring Extra Layers!
I’m sure you’ve heard it before: there’s no such thing as poor weather, just poor gear.
Quality layers, outer shells, and footwear that can handle the elements you plan to encounter are all crucial, especially when you add cold temperatures and precipitation to the mix. Staying warm is a given, but staying dry at all times is equally vital; if moisture freezes, you have a recipe for hypothermia that’ll be hard to recover from unless you seek shelter.
Anyone setting out on a winter hike, therefore, should be prepared with a waterproof shell (and waterproof or water-resistant pants, if precipitation is excepted), gloves, a warm hat, and lightweight extra layers, at minimum; even if they are just stored in a daypack. Waterproof hiking boots and gaiters are also recommended if you plan to hike in snow or cross any water (however minimal), as are sunglasses for eye protection. Snow blindness is a serious concern!
3. Pack Like Your Life Depends on It
A common hiking adage encourages those venturing outdoors to pack for the worst-case scenario, even on the shortest of hikes, for good reason.
Every outdoor outing carries with it a certain level of risk. Things like surprise weather events, poorly marked trails, or unexpected slips and falls can all throw a wrench in your adventure and lead to a dire situation pretty quickly. So, simply put: pack like your life depends on it.
Does this mean bringing a 50-liter pack filled with days worth of survival gear? Not exactly. But it does mean to bring the essentials. Here are the top items to stuff in your pack whenever you venture outside during the winter (or any time of year for that matter):
- Extra food and water
- Warm extra layers
- Lightweight microspikes or traction cleats
- Spare batteries and/or a lightweight battery bank (be sure to keep them warm!) ● Emergency foil blanket
- Small, basic first-aid kit
- A digital trail map and a paper map of where you’ll be
- Emergency whistle
- Extras of any medications, supplements, or aids that are needed for your day-to-day functions (contact lenses, insulin, etc)
4. Take Precautionary Measures
It’s hard to plan for life’s happenstances in general, but the variables of nature and the outdoors make planning for those unexpected moments even that much more complex. A few easy precautionary steps are often the difference between the best-case and worst-case scenario.
- Always tell someone your plan. And, when to expect you back. It can be a simple text message or a note left for a friend or family member at home.
- Know when it’s time to turn back. There’s always another day, so don’t push yourself if something feels off, is taking longer than expected, or the weather turns for the worse.
- If your phone is your only navigation source and/or mode of communication, keep an eye on it! Conserve battery power by turning on “Airplane Mode” and be sure to keep your phone warm in an inside pocket, so the battery doesn’t drain from cold temperatures. Also: try to avoid having your phone be your only saving grace! Bring a paper map and compass as a backup.
- Don’t forget to hydrate! Especially when we’re not sweating bullets in hot temperatures, it’s easy to overlook drinking water. Staying hydrated during winter adventures is vital, though, so be conscious of your water intake, and always pack more water than you think you need.