Winter Hiking 101: Basic Rules

The “winter hiking 101” series are obtained from the Winter Activity Committee (WAC) of the Appalachian Mountain Club Delaware Chapter, which are adapted from an original from Bob Vogel of the Southeast Mass chapter.

Winter hiking isn’t about being cold; it’s about learning how to keep warm in the cold, staying well hydrated and well-fed, and hiking “smart.” Here are a few simple rules.

Rule #1, Stay cool to keep warm!

In theory staying warm sounds easy: wear lots of warm clothes! It isn’t that easy. Staying warm in winter is more moisture management than insulation.

There are several techniques that help. The first is that to keep warm, stay cool. This may sound counter intuitive, but it works. If you do not stay cool, you will sweat and when you sweat you give off water vapor. As the water vapor pass are cotton, fleece or Gore-Tex®) the water vapor cools until, as it approaches the outside surface, it reaches the dew point. Then it becomes liquid water and your clothes get wet

Rule #2, Ventilate!

Even when cool, you will sweat some. The next step is to address removing that moisture without getting your clothes wet. Everyone has heard of Gore-Tex®. It’s great stuff, but not perfect. While it will allow moisture to pass through, it does slow it down. Better is to have no outer shell, or one made of uncoated nylon. Better still is to have good ventilation. Pit zips help a lot. Other coats have body vents, and ways to adjust the cuffs to admit or restrict air. These are as important as the water-proofness of a coat. Shop carefully.

Rule #3, Drink (and eat) a lot!

Being cool and ventilated is a great start, but to keep your body warm, you also need to keep your blood flowing throughout your body and to do this, you need to stay well-hydrated. In the summer, when it’s hot, we naturally drink a lot. In the winter, when it’s cold, that’s not always the case. We still sweat and we also lose large amounts of water vapor every time we take a breath of cold air. As the cold, dry air fills our lungs; the moisture evaporates to humidify the air. We breathe out and see “steam.” To keep our blood thinned and moving through our bodies, that water needs to be replaced. Just like in the summer: Drink enough so you keep peeing! To encourage drinking, carry your water bottle where you can access it without stopping.

Finally, we have our cool, dry, hydrated hiking machine in full swing. Nothing is going to stop us now. At least until we run out of energy. To prevent that: eat! Winter hiking doesn’t lend itself to stopping to eat, so the solution is to eat on the move.

Rule #4, Hike smart (be conservative)!

It’s especially important to hike conservatively in the winter. During the summer, if you undertake a hike that’s too long or too hard and get in over your head, you can just hike out and try again another day. If you make a really big mistake, you might spend the night in the woods and hike out in the morning. Winter is fundamentally different. If you make a big mistake in the winter, it can be fatal.

Pacing in winter is equally a part of hiking smart and is also an integral part of proper ventilation; not sweating more than your clothing layers can dissipate. In addition, proper pacing helps maintain your energy reserves, preventing excessive fatigue and helping you to stay safe and comfortable. It’s important that everyone understands that winter hiking isn’t a game; it’s serious business. It deserves respect and concentration in the same way that driving to the mountains deserves respect and concentration. You wouldn’t drive to the mountains in a snowstorm with bald tires and brakes that didn’t work. You shouldn’t winter hike without the proper equipment, clothing, and knowledge.

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