If you’re up for a bit of adventure, you don’t have to wait for warmer weather to go hiking. Whether it’s the dead of winter or you’re venturing up into the higher, colder altitudes, if you want to hike in the cold, you need to be prepared. It can be just as dangerous to hike in the cold as it is to hike in the heat. Here, Ranger Mac will go over some tips to keep your cold weather hike as safe, enjoyable, and comfortable as possible!
Clothing for Cold Weather
If you already have clothes for hiking in warmer weather, they can often be adapted for use hiking in the colder weather. The best tip for preparing for the cold is to dress in layers. This way, you have layers to put on or peel off as you go. Not only can the temperature change on you at different times of day and at different elevations, but it’s also hard to tell how warm you’ll feel after exerting yourself. Ironically, it’s easy to get overheated in the cold if you’re too bundled up, and that can become dangerous fast. Choose layers that are made of light fabric and easy to remove.
To get the most out of your layers, start with a base layer that’s made of a moisture-wicking fabric. This will pull the sweat away from your skin, helping to keep you dry and warm.
Cover your skin. Wear fitted light fleece gloves and put some heavier gloves over those if necessary. Wool socks are great for keeping your feet warm. Make sure you pack extras in your backpack as well, in case they get wet and you need to change them out. It’s amazing what a difference fresh socks and gloves will make on your hike. You should also protect your face and neck. You can do this by wearing a face mask or a neck gaiter under your jacket. A good warm hat is crucial for keeping you warm, because we lose a lot of heat from our uncovered heads. Make sure your hat fits properly and stays dry.
Gear for Cold Weather
Once you have your layers ready, you need to consider your gear. Here are some ideas of gear to bring to make your cold weather hike safe and enjoyable:
- Goggles or Sunglasses - It’s always important to protect your eyes from the wind and sun. Some types of goggles and sunglasses allow you to switch out the lenses based on the brightness of the sun, so you can get the best coverage for your hike.
- Headlamp - If you’re planning to hike in the winter months, you will have less daylight available. You need to take into account how many hours of daylight you’ll have to work with. If your adventure will continue after the sun goes down, bring a headlamp and backup battery along.
- Sunscreen - Just because it’s cold, it doesn’t mean that you won’t get sunburnt. In fact, if there is snow on the ground, the sun can reflect back up at you, making you more likely to get a sunburn. Apply your sunscreen just as you would any other time of the year, even if it’s cloudy.
- Batteries - Lithium batteries tend to hold their charge longer in the cold than alkaline batteries, but you should keep them warm no matter what type you choose. Keep items like your phone, GPS device, and headlamp close to your body heat to help them keep their charges longer.
Food and Drink in Cold Weather
Don't forget to stop to eat and drink while you’re on your hike. It’s easy to forget to stop regularly while spending time outside in the cold weather, but your body needs the hydration and energy even more. Keep your snacks simple and have both your water and food easily accessible, so you don't have to stop for long. Choose foods and containers that won’t freeze. Some foods that tend to stay softer in the cold weather include cheeses, protein bars, and nuts. No matter what food you choose to bring, keep it close to your body so that you don’t bite into a frozen brick of food.
To keep your water from freezing, you will likely need to use an insulated water bottle instead of a hydration reservoir. A wide brim is helpful to keep your water available as ice forms inside. Ice will form on the top of the water first, so if you store your water bottle upside down, the lid won’t get stuck shut. If you stow your water bottle near your body or in your pack (not on an outside pocket), it will stay warmer and will be less likely to freeze. You can also pack hot tea or hot chocolate to sip on when you stop for breaks. This added warmth will keep you comfortable on your cold weather hike.
Cold Weather Conditions and Injuries
There are several medical conditions that can result from hiking in cold weather. Knowing your body and realizing when you need to stop is key to preventing serious injury. Here are some problems to watch out for as you hike in cold weather:
Frostbite - This is the freezing of tissue and is most likely to happen on your fingers, toes, ears, or nose, since blood doesn't flow as easily to these extremities. There are three levels of frostbite, and each one looks the same when frozen, meaning you will not know how severe it is until it has thawed out.
To prevent frostbite, you will want to know the following signs, so you can warm up as soon as possible:
- Skin is cold, waxy, and pale.
- Tingling, numbness, or pain.
- Skin feels soft if partially frozen and hard if totally frozen.
- After thawing, blisters will often form.
Hypothermia - This happens when the body’s temperature goes below normal. This can happen with a cold rain, cold river water, and in winter or high-altitude weather. This condition is serious and needs to be treated as soon as possible.
The signs of hypothermia include the following symptoms, increasing in severity:
- Minor clumsiness (unable to operate a zipper).
- Intense shivering.
- Slow thinking, confusion, or quick change in mood.
- Clumsiness gets worse (stumbling or losing balance).
If you have any of these signs and they start getting worse, you need to get somewhere safe and warm right away.
Hiking in the cold can be a refreshing, beautiful experience, but you need to be prepared for whatever the cold weather can throw at you. Having plenty of layers, extra socks and gloves, as well as enough food, water, and supplies, can make your cold weather hike more enjoyable. And by knowing what to watch out for when it comes to frostbite and hypothermia, you can stay safe on your trip. Now go out and hit those cold weather trails!