The Joys of Winter Hiking

Winter is a good time for hiking. With the leaves down, you can see views that are hidden half the year. Trails that are crowded in summer are quiet in winter. The cold weather is also a benefit. If you dress properly, you will be comfortable without overheating. And maybe the biggest benefit – no mosquitoes or black flies.

020417-fort-windham-rocks-view-from-the-top
View from top of Fort Windham Rocks, near Compton Gap

I like the muted golds of the dead grass and browns of the trees, particularly with a fresh snow cover. And while birds are fewer, those that are there are often easier to see without the leaf color. Also a fresh snow will show the track of every rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, and fox, as well as critters that are almost never seen, such as bobcats. You can see where an owl pounced on a mouse the night before or the tracks of a hunting coyote. In winter you get an entirely different vision of familiar trails.

So here are some tips for winter hiking:

  • Do your research. Steep trails can become icy, particularly if they are popular with hikers. The weather in the mountains also can be very different up on the Blue Ridge than where you are, particularly if you live in the city. And if you are planning to hike on the Blue Ridge you want to be sure that the Parkway is open – sometimes it isn’t even after only a couple of inches of snow.
  • Dress for the weather. Expect the mountains to be 10° F or more colder as well as more exposed to wind chill. Layering is vital, starting with silk longjohns. These are one of the secrets of winter hiking. They are thin and light but very insulating. A turtleneck and/or scarf is also a good idea to protect your neck. 
  • Cold and wind can be dangerous for exposed skin. If you are planning to hike in real cold – below zero Fahrenheit – you should have a heavily lined hat with ear flaps that tie down and on windy days a ski mask. Remember that knitted clothes will let in wind, and the exposed ridge will be breezier than the lowlands, so if you are hiking in wind you need solid exterior clothing. A heavy coat or a combination heavy sweater and lighter shell coat is vital, and warm gloves or even mittens over gloves is important. Do not expect the clothing you wear in the city to be sufficient.
  • However, do not over dress. Remember you are going to be exercising, which generates a lot of body heat, and you want some of that to dissipate. Start cool and warm up by walking. You will be able to walk further and faster if you are just warm enough without being sweltering inside your hiking gear. That is another advantage of layering – as you warm up you can open your outer coat or take off some of your headgear. You lost more heat per square inch of skin from your head than your body, so getting the right balance of headgear versus temperature/wind chill is important.
  • Foot gear is vital. Not all rubber bottom shoes are equal. Hiking shoes often come with hard rubber bottoms, which last longer and are fine for warmer weather hiking. However, in below zero cold they freeze, which makes them slippery. Especially if you expect to hike in slippery conditions on below-freezing days, you want soft rubber bottoms, which will grip on ice and packed snow. In more extreme icy conditions such as on heavily traveled steep trails such as Old Rag and Lookout Mountain, hiking crampons are recommended. Or just find a different trail. A walking stick or pair of ski poles can also be useful for helping you keep your balance, particularly in deep snow.
  • 020417-greenstone-outcrop
    Greenstone outcrop on Appalachian Trail just south of Compton Gap.

    Walking through deep snow is hard, so expect to expend more energy. Plan shorter hikes and wear waterproof, insulated boots that reach well above your ankles. LL Bean’s insulated rubber/leather boots are excellent. But they are heavier than normal hiking shoes, so they will tire you out faster. And they can be too insulated for warmer days, so again, do not over-dress.

  • Walking of slippery packed snow or ice requires a different technique than city sidewalks. Trying to stride forward pushing off with your back foot will result in your foot sliding out from under you. To stay safe take smaller steps and pick your foot up vertically with no push back as you walk. Also in icy conditions unless you have ice gear you might want to choose trails without steep climbs and particularly without areas that require rock climbing. Rocks are colder than the ground and can be covered with a thin layer of black ice – difficult to see but very slippery. Slipping on even a small rock climb can equal a bad fall, possibly a serious injury.
  • This winter has been mild for the most part, and the Blue Ridge has only been snow covered briefly so far. So the main issue may be mud rather than snow. For these conditions waterproof hiking shoes are important, but you do not need heavy boots.
  • Sunglasses are also important if you are hiking on snow on sunny days. Snow plus sun equals glare, so be prepared.

On the other hand, no experience matches walking down a trail during or just after a wet snow storm, with the snow coating everything, including tree limbs, and hushing the normal sounds. It is a magical experience, alone in a black and white world. Even if you are hiking in a suburban park among the trees it is unforgettable.

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