3 Tips for Winter Hiking Safety
Glittering snow. Gleaming icicles. Glorious solitude. The peace and stillness of a frozen wilderness is the definition of tranquility. Ready to go walkin’ in a winter wonderland?! Not so fast, snow bunny. Winter hiking safety means taking some extra precautions you don’t always need to consider in the warmer months. It’s important to protect yourself from both the colder temperatures and potential winter hazards. Mother Nature is a warm and welcoming hostess, but she’ll turn cold-hearted bitch on you without proper planning. Here are three tips to help you stay safe during your next winter hike.
1. Pack the Right Equipment
Proper equipment is a winter hiking safety no-brainer. First and foremost: Make sure you have the 10 Essentials! These should be with you for every single hike—one day or several, summer or winter. Packing the 10 Essentials means your top priorities are covered: light, warmth, food, safety and water. However, there are a couple of additional items to consider packing when hiking in cold temperatures. If you’re a total hiking beginner, you can also see a more complete rundown in our guide of beginner hiking essentials.
Emergency thermal blankets form a barrier between you and the elements. They are most often made from Mylar, a brand of water- and windproof polyester film which retains most of your body heat. Here are the best thermal blankets, according to Backpacker.com.
Chemical Heat Packs
Chemical heat packs can warm up numb fingers and toes and help relieve stiffness. The single-use packs contain bits of iron and other natural ingredients. When the iron is exposed to oxygen, it oxidizes and begins to heat. Simply open the package to expose the pouch to air, shake, and tuck into gloves and socks once heated. Refer to this list of chemical heat pack FAQs for more information.
Gaiters are covers that go over your hiking boots or shoes. They are great in all seasons and provide and extra layer of protection against moisture and debris. Most gaiters are lightweight and only cover your ankle and footwear. If you’ll be hiking in the winter, however, you may want to consider high gaiters. These are shin height, waterproof, and heavier than regular “trail” gaiters. Here are some recommended gaiters, both low and high types.
2. Plan Your Hike Carefully
We know you’d love to lace up your favorite hiking kicks and hit the snowy trail, but you’re an Explorer Chick. That means you’re blessed with both charisma and common sense. When it comes to your winter hiking safety, you wouldn’t dream about heading out on a hike before taking a little extra time to research and plan. All the extra effort may feel a bit like overkill, but trust us: you don’t want to set foot out the door without it.
First, plan out your route. Find out if there are any safety advisories in the area where you want to hike. Decide if you need to adjust your equipment list to accommodate these unexpected changes. Next, begin watching weather reports several days in advance of when your trip is planned, and make any necessary adjustments to your schedule. Finally, let a few different people know your planned route and expected schedule. You can also set up shared tracking with Lifeline from AllTrails Pro.
3. Be Mindful of the Temperature
Temperatures often drop quickly during the winter, and it can be very easy to underestimate the effects of these temperature shifts. On the other hand, it can also be tempting to overestimate how cold you’ll feel. You layer up so much, you look like Randy in A Christmas Story. Here’s the main thing you need to keep in mind: part of winter hiking safety means staying warm and dry. The Scandinavians even have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
Quickly dropping temperatures can increase your likelihood of becoming sick, and can also put you at risk for hypothermia. In addition to any blankets or heat packs that you bring, it’s important that you dress appropriately for the projected temperatures on the day or days that you’ll be hiking. Dress in layers and bring extra shirts, jackets, pants, or other clothing that can be added with relative ease if necessary.
In addition to feeling incredibly icky, wet clothes and skin in cold weather can put you in danger of dehydration. Be mindful of the amount of sweat hiking can produce—even in cold weather! Tackling switchbacks up a steep hill, scrambling over boulders—you’re not exactly on a leisurely stroll. First and most importantly, no cotton! Instead, look for wool or synthetic fabrics that wick away moisture. Coats with zippered armpit vents are another feature to consider when looking for winter hiking gear.
Keep winter hiking safety in mind as you plan your next adventure of frozen fun. Planning ahead and preparing means you can chill knowing you can handle elements—and we think that’s pretty cool. (OK, we’ll stop.)