Dr StrangeGlove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Snow: Winter Hiking Tips
This winter, I decided to throw myself into as many cold-weather hikes/activities as I could fit into my schedule. Thus far (mid-February at time of writing) that’s meant summits of a handful of White Mountain 4k’ers (Mt. Carrigain, Mt. Moriah, Mt. Flume) and a nice afternoon skiing by myself on the beginner friendly slopes at Blue Hills.
Mt Carrigain is definitively the coldest hike I’ve ever been on – 14 miles in deep snow, with trailhead temperatures of -22C and windchill on the exposed ridge below the summit (see the main photo) down in the low minus-thirties. Brrrr. Mt. Moriah was a mite less brutal – although the snow on the route was almost completely unpacked due to a thick layer of fresh powder, and so the going was a bit tougher, fitness-wise.
I learned some useful lessons about gear that will work its way into some of the reviews that I will write in the near-future, but I thought I’d note down some things that might not be obvious (or at least, weren’t to me – or took some prior research).
Everything that gets wet (and that includes the faintest whiff of condensation) is going to freeze.
The catch-22 is real – you need to cover your mouth/nose, or else you’re going to get frostbite. But when you breathe out, whatever is covering your face is going to get covered in water vapor. And then that’s going to freeze, and feel like a pumice stone as it rubs all over your skin (made extra delicate by the cold).
My solution so far is to start with a merino buff for lower level hiking. When I hit tree-line, I take off that now-crispy bit of material and put on a dedicated face-mask made from neoprene, with holes for moisture exchange. It should cut down on all but the most biting winds, and it’s so nice to put on something fresh.
Unfortunately, the above law of freezing applies to collars, gloves and goggles, too. As you walk and get ‘warm’, you’ll probably find yourself unzipping layers around your neck. Little do you know, your breath is getting all over that area too – and when you come to zip back up, you may find it more of a struggle than you expected. As with facial coverings, there’s nothing less pleasant than realizing your merino base-layer’s neck region has become a scratchy, crispy, frozen mess – so keep things tucked away. Similarly, if your goggles fog then say goodbye to toasty eyes and/or vision, because the lens is now covered in ice.
Bring a second base-layer in case the first one gets damp, and avoid putting your goggles on your forehead.
After crossing Lake Baikal, Russia, James wrote a great guide about how he planned the expedition including some brilliant advice on travel and gear.
Food and drink is going to freeze, unless you actively prevent it.
Everyone knows not to use a CamelBak or other tube-based container in winter – but it might be less obvious that when the temperatures really hit the floor, even a Nalgene stuffed deep in your pack is going to be more ice than water sooner rather than later.
And that goes double for things like sandwiches – your delicious, soft, fresh sourdough PB sandwiches need more than just aluminum foil to not taste as if you just pulled them out of the freezer (I speak from bitter experience here). I put my sandwiches inside my heaviest gloves now, and then eat them as I suit up for the summit.
For water, I have a nice array of Hydroflasks and other thermal containers, but it all adds weight so take that into account: it’s just another reason that Winter hiking is heavier. Outdoor Research also sells bottle parkas for Nalgenes – same deal.
Sweat control is far more important in the cold than in 3-season hiking.
We’re all basically down with the basics of wicking and layering, but the margin for error in 3-season hiking is so vast that if you push too hard and end up drenched in sweat for the rest of the hike, the punishment isn’t that severe. With serious Winter temperatures though, wetting out can be fatal. As previously mentioned, moisture straight up freezes solid on your body when it’s sub-sub-sub-zero, and you need to take care that you don’t redline and soak your clothes through. Judicious de-layering breaks and simply taking hikes at a more steady pace than you are used to are vital strategic concessions to unforgiving cold.
One addtional thought that comes to mind is that of your personal level of fitness. Moving with a heavy load is hard work, even more so when you have to contend with soft snow, and a good fitness plan will help overcome much of the strain that comes with long hikes wearing a heavy ruck. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our beginner’s rucking training plan.
Winter hiking is energy intensive.
It takes energy to stay warm. You have an extra couple pounds on each foot in the form of snowshoes, microspikes, crampons and heavy insulated boots. You’re carrying more emergency kit, and everything just takes that bit longer – mittens come on and off, water is deep in the pack, food is wrapped up… and unpacked powder absorbs energy as if you are walking in sand. That 14 mile trip that was a breeze in the summer might take you 1.5 times as long and feel twice as hard, so budget time accordingly.