by Sam Ortiz
Winter recreation can seem daunting! With special considerations for cold weather and changing conditions, it’s tough to know where to start, but getting outside in winter is possible (and fun!) even if you don’t ski or snowboard. With a few key pieces of gear and know-how, you’ll be ready for winter hiking adventures in no time.
I first fell in love with winter hiking when I attended a free ranger-led snowshoe walk at Mount Rainier National Park. As someone who had always written off winter activities because I simply didn’t know how to begin, I was excited for the opportunity to learn from the expertise of a park ranger.
Now, six years later, I am deeply in love with winter and all that it has to offer. Perhaps, more than anything, I’ve fallen in love with winter recreation because getting outside is accompanied by vitamin D, serotonin, and endorphins—a much needed combo during the darkest time of the year.
When it comes to winter recreation, simple gear staples can really make a difference in both comfort and safety.
These are all things that you can add to your shoes to make it easier and more enjoyable to move around in snowy and icy conditions. Three common types of winter traction are microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons.
While not necessary, trekking poles are a piece of winter gear that I never leave home without. By its nature, winter recreation is a little more slippery and awkward than regular walking! With things on your feet that you might not be used to, trekking poles can help keep you steady and balanced.
In addition to packing all the basics for a day on trail (which you can learn more about with our Illustrated Guide to Packing a Day Pack), there are some extra items you might want to consider bringing along on your winter adventures.
The best thing to wear for winter recreation is layers! I typically opt for 3 or 4 lighter layers, rather than 1 or 2 heavier layers. Having more layers allows you to adjust easily and regulate your temperature throughout your trip.
It is both normal and expected to adjust your layers numerous times throughout your adventure! You’ll need less layers when you’re working up a sweat heading uphill and need more insulation while taking a break or heading downhill.
Opt for fabrics that are breathable and moisture wicking, like merino wool. Stay away from fabrics that contain cotton which traps moisture from sweat and can make you very cold!
An important consideration before heading out for a winter hike is whether or not avalanche danger is present. The Northwest Avalanche Center is a great resource. They post daily avalanche forecasts mid Nov through mid April and also offer free avalanche awareness courses throughout the season.
Winter trail conditions can change quickly! Look at recent trip reports from trails associations or AllTrails to see current conditions.
Don’t forget to check the weather forecast for the area you’ll be headed to. You can also check in on road conditions of any mountain passes you may be traveling through. Many states’ Department of Transportation sites have live webcams on all major mountain passes, and also update their Twitter pages with real time traffic.
Winter brings shorter, colder days and with that comes an increased need for implementing safety measures before an outing. You can also expect for snowy trails to take more time to complete than the same trail might take in the summer.
Choose a turnaround time prior to your outing and stick to it! After sunset, temperatures can plummet and navigation gets more difficult. It can be very tempting to push on if you haven’t reached your goal destination. However, having an agreed upon turnaround time can help to make the decision to stop easier.
While getting outside during winter does require a little extra gear and planning, the beauty of snow-laden adventures definitely makes winter hiking worthwhile.
If you’re interested in finding groups or events to join for new winter experiences, there may be a number of options depending on the area that you live in.
All photos courtesy of Sam Ortiz.
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