Despite common perception, Winter can be the best season to get outside, rack up some miles, and catch the most beautiful views of the season. Sure, it is wet, cold and dark, but here are some simple tips that may just help you enjoy it.
Tip 1. Dress Appropriately
This is the one that I cannot help but mention, despite it being my most common tip. Changing your clothes can literally change your life. All too often hikers hit the trail completely unprepared, despite a heavy backpack full of gear. Jeans and hoodies are, basically, worthless. If you’re wearing any cotton, you’re doing it wrong. Fleece, down, and synthetic fibers will provide lots of warmth at low weight, and completely change how the winter air feels. This can turn into an entire article in itself, so I’m going to link to and old but still entirely relevant article on how to layer up and stay warm. The first time you hit the trail and don’t feel cold at all, despite the frozen Earth beneath you, really is eye opening, so definitely give this a read.
Tip 2. Plan With the Weather, Not Against It
Planning is a skill that many of us could stand to get a little better at, and that is understandable. It is difficult to know all the factors and obstacles that will come up on even the smallest of adventures, but there are a few things you can consider that will help. When you plan your trip, take the weather into account, and use it to your advantage. If it is going to be very cold and windy, perhaps choose a route that is lower in elevation, deep within the trees for wind cover. Try to avoid anywhere that gusts can push through. Also avoid anywhere that is completely hidden from the sun (think deep valleys), or near roaring sources of water. The suns rays will provide precious warmth, while evaporation cooling from rivers can drop local temperatures considerably. If it is bright and sunny out, find a route that will take you through fields, onto exposed cliffs, over heat radiating rock, and soak up sun (if it isn’t too windy). If it is exceptionally cold, perhaps find a route that is steep, challenging, and short. This will allow you to burn off lots of calories, create warming body heat, and get in a workout without exposing yourself to the elements for too long. Even better, try your hand at trail running at a local park. You may start out cold, but you’ll heat up fast. Just don’t rely on the forecast too much, as they tend to be unreliable. Also, factor in how elevation affects the temperature.
Tip 3. Time Your Trip Better.
I am naturally a morning guy. Because of this, summer works well for me. I get up with the sun, hit the trail before it gets hot, and I’m home before the views begin to ripple in the distance under the crushing heat of the Sun. Now, that doesn’t work as well in the Winter. Early mornings tend to be cold, wet and frozen. Instead, I check the hourly forecast starting a couple days before my trip, and I move my activities around according. If I’m biking, I may push hitting the trail off to 11, or even 3 or 4 in the evening, providing ample time for the sun to warm the air. Instead of a long burn, I’ll instead power through a couple hours of hard intense climbing or cycling so I get my workout, but also get home as the sun is falling again. Hiking, I will often plan to hit the trail an hour or two before lunch, bringing along a high calorie meal and something warm to drink along on the trail. These tweaks, while the do require some forethought and even possible life changes, can often have a big impact on the enjoyment of the experience. After all, there is a big difference between hiking at 30 degrees at 9, and 50 degrees at 11. I instead use my mornings for chores, shopping, grabbing lunch out, or other projects.
Tip 4. Take Advantage Of Natural Refrigeration
So, you can’t avoid the cold. It will come one way or another. Why not integrate the cold weather into part of the experience? One thing that I like to do is use the cold air as natural refrigeration, packing food that otherwise would spoil, or melt on the trail. Ever stuffed ice cream in a thermos and packed it on the trail? Scoop it in, freeze it overnight (with the lid off) and bring it along. Yes, it is a cold treat, but the sugar and calories will help you regulate your body temperature after consuming it. Pair it with hot cocoa in a separate thermos for a delightful duality. Sandwiches, leftover pizza slices, chocolate, and much more can be safely stashed away for an exquisite lunch or snack now that the temperatures are regularly below freezing.
Tip 5. Target Areas That Are Normally Crowded
My favorite part about Winter is hitting areas that are normally swamped with people, which are now completely empty. This is especially true with backpacking. The crowds avoid the freeze, but you shouldn’t. I purposefully delay hiking certain areas to certain seasons when snagging an epic camp spot is more reliable. I stash away low elevation (warmer) or high popularity hikes for when it is too cold for most, rewarding myself with excellent views and trail systems that are a bit too touristy for my tastes when it is warm out. Many areas that require permits for camping or even hiking lift these restriction in the summer also, meaning getting in is no longer a problem. If they do still have a permit system in place, the chance of actually getting in will be much higher. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been even unable to park in some of my favorite spots during the Summer, only to pull into a ghost town in January. This is also a great time to avoid an uglier crowd: insects. Wet, marshy areas that are normally swallowed by mosquitoes are now ripe for hiking.
Tip 6. Use Off-Trail Time To Your Advantage
O.K. Let’s say it is just unbearable to be outside. The sky is blowing rain and ice at hurricane force winds. One of your boots blew away and the roads are impassable. You can still improve your trail time while not being on the trail at all. Use this time to weigh your pack, scrutinizing any items you don’t absolutely need. Weigh each item independently, determining how useful or necessary it really is. Did you use this item this month? This year? Pinpoint items that are too heavy or bulky that you could exchange for something lighter, perhaps something multi-purpose, removing two items and replacing them with one more flexible piece of equipment. Perhaps this is a good time to wash and revitalize old gear (incoming article alert). You can also use this time to strength train, pumping out push-ups, squats, planks, sit-ups, or whatever exercise suits your needs. Maybe a few minutes on a treadmill or exercise bike are good ideas. This is also a great time to plan future trips, marking them in ink on your calendar. Set some goals, or even just organize your gear closet. If nothing else, this is also a good time to go Mall walking, breaking in those new boots, or just keeping yourself active while abiding your time. If you cannot be on the trail, find a way to make your time on the trail even better when you can be.
These are just a few things that have come to mind lately when planning my own adventures. These tips aren’t necessarily a guide, but more put together to get YOU thinking about what you can do, and how you can use the conditions around to become an advantage. What are some ideas or tips that you have found that help you enjoy the colder months?
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4 thoughts on “2018’s Final Tips for Hiking and Backpacking this Winter”
Great post.. Great tips
Thanks Gear Guys!
“My favorite part about Winter is hitting areas that are normally swamped with people, which are now completely empty. “. Great line! Great post. You hit the nail on the head.
Trail presence makes a huge difference on how any backpacking trip “feels”. Lots of traffic and it feels like you’re camping in a park, or at least I think so.