Hiking is an exceptional form of exercise (especially if you’re looking for something that is low impact), does wonders for your mental health and is a pleasant bonding activity for pairs, groups or families.
Hiking is particularly popular in the warmer months but there is no reason that this hobby can’t extend into the winter as well. In fact, winter hiking gives you the added excitement of being able to see fresh animal tracks. Fortunately, I have been hiking in the winter for over 5 years and have already made all the mistakes for you.
Don’t Wear Too Many Layers
This may seem counterintuitive, especially on extremely cold days but trust me, you will get hot. As soon as you get moving and your heart starts pumping, you will feel the heat!
The first time I went on a winter hike, the temperature was at least -10 and the hike was about 4 hours long. I wore way too many layers, couldn’t take many of them off and started sweating almost immediately. Instead of feeling warm from moving so much, I was frozen because all of the layers touching my skin were damp – including my socks. It was a very long and difficult hike, which could have been avoided if I had been dressed properly.
A good general rule is to dress as though it is 5 – 10 degrees warmer than it actually is but test this out for yourself and find which articles of clothing work best for you. Make sure you can remove layers in case you get too hot.
If you are going on a long hike that is far from your home, bring a change of clothes (or at the very least, socks), in case you overheat and finish the hike damp. This will allow you to change into your dry clothes and warm up while you drive home.
When In doubt, Choose Wool
Now that you know that the achilles heel of a winter hiker is sweat, let’s talk about wool. Unlike fabrics like cotton, wool wicks any sweat and doesn’t get damp as easily. This is particularly important for socks and other items of clothing that touch your skin. Thick wool gloves, hats and a scarf will also be essential to your success.
Always bring water and snacks – always! As you get moving and start to sweat, you will also get dehydrated. Depending on the terrain, you will also be burning a lot of calories and need a snack or two to keep going.
Depending on the length of your hike, you may want to bring a larger snack/smaller meal to have halfway through (e.g. if your hike is 4 + hours long). You don’t want to eat too much though, because you could feel some post meal fatigue while you’re digesting. A sandwich or a small bowl of soup or chilli will suffice.
If you have a long way to drive after your hike, you will want a post-hike snack so you have energy to get home safely. Once you go on a couple of longer winter hikes, you will get a feel for how much food you need. Unlike wearing too many layers, bringing too much food will not impede you – if anything you will just have some food for later!
Icers: These are so essential for safe winter hikes. A common mistake is assuming that the amount of ice and snow in your neighbourhood is the same as the amount on the trails (if you live in an urban area). Large parks or conservation areas with a lot of tree coverage prevent the sun from melting snow and ice as quickly as more open residential areas – be safe and assume you are going to an area where you will need icers. They allow you to safely walk over ice, as well as ascend and descend icy hills.
Gaiters: If you are hiking in areas with a lot of snow, gaiters will prevent it from getting into your boots. They are a waterproof piece of material that strap around your legs from below the knee, to your boots. While not as necessary as icers, they will help you stay dry.
Hiking poles: Many hikers use poles all year round, but they can be particularly useful in the winter. They can help you balance (although they are no replacement for icers) and help take pressure off of your knees. You can also just borrow from nature, and find a suitable hiking stick on the trail!
While winter hiking does require a little more prep than hiking in warmer weather – it’s worth it! Give a try and don’t let the cold temperatures scare you.