At the time of writing this, it is mid-January; I am in Boulder, CO, and looking outside my window, I see a blue-bird day coming in at a damn near tropical (for this time of year anyway) 60 degrees. To say the absolute least, this is unusual. Typically, I'd have had to start my car 30 minutes early this morning to soften the layer of frost on my windshield enough to make a dent with my ice-scraper. By now, I would have re-ignited my resentful relationship with the snow shovel that's been in storage since April. Were this a typical winter, most hikers and cyclists would have shelved their gear and brought out their skis. The congregation of adventure seekers that usually inhabits Boulder's vast network of hiking trails would begin to thin. Not because hiking in the snow is reserved for the 'extreme' winter athletes out there, but because it is unpredictable. You might be successfully trekking on top of a hardened snowbank and then find yourself in a posthole up to your thigh. The sun spends fewer hours in the sky, and as evening sets in, cold temperatures quickly become even colder. Winter hiking is spectacular and opens the door to an entirely new experience, even if you're on a trail you've hiked a dozen times. It also, however, opens the door to new dangers and complications, and if you partake unprepared, you could find yourself in potentially life-threatening situations.
Here's what you need to know about hiking the snow.
Jackets seem relatively obvious to most of us, but it's rarely that simple. Having the proper clothing on isn't only going to make you more comfortable on your hike; it'll protect you from medical emergencies such as frostbite and hypothermia. There are a lot of factors to consider here; is it currently snowing, how cold is it, how long is your planned hike? All of these may dictate what you should have with you, but your best bet is typically to wear three layers:
Layer 1: Wool or thermal base layers and socks. These are usually tight-fitting, which is essential because they trap your body heat and prevent it from escaping.
Layer 2: Fleece/insulated pullovers, jackets, and pants. These will further trap your body heat and keep the cold air at bay.
Layer 3: Waterproof and windproof shell top and bottom layers. These keep you from getting wet and protect you from the wind.
You'll also want to have a warm hat, gloves, and waterproof/insulated hiking boots (tennis shoes aren't going to cut it). As a rule of thumb, start your hike with these items on and toss them in your pack as you warm up. If you're unsure how light or heavy to go with your clothing, the safe call is to pack both.
Plan ahead and be prepared
Before setting out, do your research. Check the weather conditions where you're planning to hike. If visibility is poor or heavy snowfall is forecasted, it increases the likelihood of getting lost. Study the trail you plan to follow on maps and know where you're going. Staying on the path continues to be vital in snowy conditions. Erosion can still occur, and foreign plant species can still spread and harm the ecosystem.
Additionally, leaving the trail may lead you to an unsafe area. You'll also want to make sure to tell friends and family where you're off to, what your expected hiking time will be, and when you plan to be back. As previously mentioned, winter weather can be unpredictable. If you find yourself stuck, caught in a sudden storm, or a different dangerous situation, having people who know your general location might save your life.
Maintaining proper hydration is imperative. Hiking in the snow is more strenuous than hiking on a sunny day. You're often required to take bigger steps in deep snow, sometimes you may take a step and sink into 4 feet of snow, we call that "postholing", and you also engage your core and leg muscles constantly to compensate for decreased traction and balance. All of this causes your body to need to work harder. Conditions like this can expedite dehydration drastically, and by the time you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated. Packing and drinking plenty of water is one of the most important aspects of winter hiking, as dehydration can very quickly hasten the onset of hypothermia.
Frostbite is a cold-related injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. You are most vulnerable to frostbite when you leave skin exposed in cold, windy conditions. Still, skin covered by gloves or shoes can also be affected if temperatures drop and you are not adequately equipped. If unaddressed, frostbite can lead to permanent damage to skin, tissue, muscle, and bone.
Keeping hand and toe warmers handy is an excellent way of mitigating the potential for frostbite, as well as having proper gloves, socks, and shoes.
Hypothermia is an emergency condition that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it produces heat. When your body's temperature drops, your nervous system, heart, and respiratory system cannot function normally. If left untreated, it can lead to organ failure and death.
Hypothermia is generally brought on by a combination of circumstances, including cold temperatures, fatigue or exhaustion, dehydration, inadequate food intake, wetness, improper clothing and equipment, and alcohol consumption.
Be sure to take the necessary precautions when hiking in the snow, and pay attention to your body. The symptoms of hypothermia are:
Anything that is going to help you stay safe and warm is recommended. Bringing extra layers on longer excursions is never a bad idea if you have a roomy pack. Keep hand and toe warmers in your pack in case the temperature drops. You can even bring a thermos filled with a warm (non-alcoholic) beverage to increase your body temperature.
Try to plan your hike to have the sun high in the sky the entire time. Once the sun dips below a ridge, the temperature in the area can drop very fast.
Try to keep moving! Exercise gets the blood flowing and keeps your body's temperature at a safe level. When you stop for rest, your heart rate decreases and puts you at risk of lowering your body temperature to a dangerous level.
There is a smattering of gear that, while non-essential, can significantly improve your comfort and safety while out on a snowy trail:
Spikes or boot tracks can provide additional traction and reduce your chances of slipping and falling.
An insulated straw for your pack's water bladder will prevent the water from freezing and being undrinkable.
Finally, wear sunglasses and sunscreen It is easy to think that cold temperatures mean the sun isn't burning your skin, the opposite is true. The sun's rays reflect off of the snow's surface and can cause just as much damage to your skin and eyes, if not more (I'm talking to you folks with the goggle-shaped sunburns).
Winter is a wonderful time to experience your local trails in an entirely new way. The quiet and stillness of winter are as beautiful as it is eerie and will leave you with a whole new feeling. However, as with most of our favorite outdoor activities, it is crucial to make sure the proper preparations are made, and the correct gear is brought along to avoid potentially life-threatening situations. Above all, listen to your body. It is okay to turn around before you reach your intended destination, make sure you drink enough water, eat enough food, and once again, wear enough sunscreen!