Winter Hiking: How to Have a Great Hike and Stay Safe

by Tom Lamb Categories // Outdoor Adventures

Winter Hiking: How to Have a Great Hike and Stay Safe

Late fall begins my favorite season to hike in the mountains. There are many reasons why winter is the best time of year to get out on the trail.

Such as:

• With the leaves off the trees, you get panoramic views that are not available in other seasons.
• There are no venomous snakes to avoid stepping on, no insects, no poison ivy, and no 90-degree temperatures.
• There are fewer people on the trail, so you can have a quieter and less populated experience.
• If camping, the cold temperatures make a campfire more enjoyable with its welcome warmth.

Along with these advantages for cold weather hiking come increased dangers and strategies to stay comfortable, but also safe. The key is to stay mindful of the threat of hypothermia, the condition in which core body temperature gets a few degrees lower and can lead to confusion and possible death. The best way to avoid hypothermia is to stay dry. Wear clothes that wick away moisture from your skin. Wool is an excellent wick, as are modern synthetic materials. These fabrics draw the moisture away from the skin to the outer clothing to evaporate into the air. Cotton is a poor wick and holds the moisture next to the skin, which causes cooling.

Be mindful of the change in the hours of daylight. On the longest day of the year the winter solstice, there are only nine and half hours of daylight. It gets dark at 5:30 and temperatures drop quickly when the sun sets. If you are out in the dark in the winter, you should be prepared to deal with the cold and the darkness. Always carry a flashlight and bring extra warm clothing. Even if there is no rain predicted, take a rain jacket to use to block the wind.

It is more important to plan for rain in the winter than in other seasons. It can actually be pleasant to hike in the rain in warm weather. Being wet in the summer is perhaps inconvenient, but it’s not dangerous -- in winter it can be deadly. Always have adequate rain gear to keep you dry (rain jacket with hood, rain pants, gloves) even if there is no precipitation predicted. Better safe than sorry!

If hiking in the snow or ice, stay mindful of footing. Wear boots with good soles for traction. If it is icy, consider a pair of light hiking crampons to grip the ice and stay farther back from overlooks and steep drop-offs in ice or snow that will be extra slippery.

Wear a good, warm hat to hold in body heat. The head radiates 10% of the body’s heat.

Be more careful when crossing streams, as a slip or fall-in will increase the chances of hypothermia.

So if all of this sounds daunting, it’s not! With preplanning and a little extra equipment, winter is a wonderful time to see the magnificent forests in the mountains. Take the season seriously and be prepared and you can have some of the best hiking you have ever done.

About the Author

Tom Lamb

Tom Lamb

Tom Lamb is a retired 36 year teacher and avid outdoorsman. He moved to Dahlonega 13 years ago to live in the heart of hiking, backpacking, and whitewater boating country. He is the chairman of the Dahlonega Trail Fest and active in Yahoola Outdoors and a member of the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Tourism Committee.

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