Winter hiking is otherworldly.
At least it can feel that way, especially after a fresh snowfall when the whole landscape is cloaked in white, like rooms full of furniture draped with dust covers in a long-abandoned mansion.
The snow settles in with a hush, making the woods feel calmer and quieter than in the summer months, drawing attention to the rhythmic crunch of boots in the snow, the metallic clank of microspikes on ice. And since foot traffic diminishes dramatically on most mountains when it gets cold, it can feel like you’re the only person on the planet as you trek up to the summit. Sometimes it even feels like you’ve landed on a new planet altogether.
Winter hiking is a special kind of stunning, too. It must be the combination of frosted evergreens, snow-topped glacial erratics, and trickling rivers lined with icicles. It’s the way the early morning sun casts long shadows through stands of birch trees and how the snow shimmers like pure sugar.
And with the trees free of leaves, views are unencumbered and more abundant. Even familiar terrain feels new this time of year.
In a nutshell: Winter hiking rules.
Of course, not every hiker agrees with me. Many prefer to hang up their packs until mud season returns (I think it has something to do with the frigid air temperatures, trails of ice, and how sometimes your sandwich is too frozen to eat).
But for folks who started hiking this summer as a healthy and socially distanced way to spend the day, or fair-weather trekkers ready to try the winter thing, the trail explorations don’t need to stop.
They do, however, need to be reenvisioned a smidge.
Winter hiking requires a few pieces of particular gear, smart layering, and an awareness of how early the sun sets and how truly dangerous the elements can be (and how dramatically conditions can differ from trailhead to summit).
It’s a good idea to begin your cold-weather forays with easier hikes and alongside experienced winter hikers who can share their own tips, tricks, and preferred gear. While the suggestions that follow are by no means comprehensive, here are some winter hiking basics to help get you started.
Master the layers
Stay comfortable and warm even on single-digit days with the right layering. The popular three-layer approach includes a sweat-wicking base layer, an insulating middle layer, and a windbreaking/waterproof outer layer. The key is to be able to add and remove layers easily as you warm up on steep terrain or cool down when you stop to snack or enjoy a frozen waterfall.
Cotton is the devil
Leave the cotton T-shirt and sweatpants at home and layer up with fleece, wool, and quick-drying synthetics. Cotton absorbs sweat and takes forever to dry, which means you’ll be wet, freezing, and uncomfortable. Not to mention the risk of hypothermia.
Cover your ears, keep your fingers together
A knit hat keeps the noggin warm. I also like to have a fleece or wool headband on hand, so I can let my head cool down if I’ve worked up a sweat, but still keep the wind off my ears. As for the hands: mittens are warmer than gloves. Your phalanges help keep each other cozy when they’re in the same compartment.
Microspikes will change your life
Icy trails are a dangerous and daunting hazard in the winter. Microspikes* that slip on over your winter boot provide excellent traction and are a winter hiking essential. You’ll feel like an ice-conquering champion once the microspikes are on. (*Not to be confused with Stabilicers, which are great for walking on icy sidewalks in the winter but aren’t intended for hiking.)
Just bring the snowshoes
Yes, snowshoes are extra weight and you probably won’t even need them. Bring them anyway. You don’t want to find yourself two hours into your hike sinking into thigh-deep snow. This is known as post-holing, when your leg sinks deep into the snow, sometimes right up to the hip, and it not only makes hiking arduously slow and frustrating but can also be dangerous for you and any other hiker who has the misfortune of stepping into the hole you created.
Use your headlamp
A headlamp is a good piece of gear to have year-round, but especially in the winter when sunset does a better job of sneaking up on us early. Pack extra batteries, too.
As with most adventures, some planning and prep go a long way. Choose hikes appropriate for your experience and ability, pack extra layers and dry socks, give yourself plenty of time to be done before the sun goes down (but be prepared to be on trail at night, just in case), and bring an emergency kit that includes hand warmers, an emergency blanket, a way to start a fire.
Winter hiking should make for excellent memories and not “that terrible time we nearly froze to death on a mountain.”
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.