Longer Walks in Winter
Winter has arrived, and it’s time to get friendly with the season. Enduring the cold can certainly become the focus of a long winter walk, but there is much more. The contrasts abound: body heat and cold air, chill breezes and warm sunlight, white snow and dark tree trunks, soft snow and hard ice, the quiet of the forest and the crunch of snow under foot. A stand of snowy pines is a sight to enjoy, especially when the low sun shines through the branches. When the moon is bright above a wide, snowy path, the Earth shimmers before the walker. When the winter ground is exposed, the observer can see the raw edge of life awaiting its chance to burst forth in spring. Getting friendly with winter is also a remedy for cabin fever, a chance to feel the sun on your face and all the trees, rocks, and snows that are still out.
I have been outside on many winter days of around 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and I will say that all you really need to enjoy them are a few layers of clothing and the knowledge of how to get back to your warm shelter. But enjoying longer walks in winter, for example a day of hiking, requires a bit more preparation. I am going to discuss some equipment that works for me. The perfect kit for you will require some trial and error to find what makes you most comfortable. Bring extra layers out with you and leave room in your backpack.
If your winters are as wet as those in the northeastern US, you really will benefit from some waterproof boots. Stores with good selections of hiking and camping equipment are good places to find them, especially when sales are on. Boots should have a waterproof liner, be rugged and designed for movement, and might or might not have insulation depending on the user. I usually do winter hikes in leather hiking boots or backpacking boots that have waterproof lining, but are not insulated. I do have some insulated hiking boots, but they come out on days that are colder than usual for around here. In my youth I hiked through much snow in Gore-tex lined combat boots.
I wear merino wool socks in winter. I have had good results from Smartwool socks, but there are other good brands out there I haven’t tried much.
After the footwear, I would say that base layers are the next most important clothing to consider. A base layer consists of long underpants and a long sleeve shirt, and it is supposed to go against your skin in order to pull sweat away from the skin. They also provide some insulation. I usually wear polyester midweight thermals on hikes. I have had good results with EMS, REI, and Polarmax branded base layers. I also got a Smartwool baselayer pant and I find it to be very comfortable and effective. Base layers should be made of material that dries quickly, so cotton should definitely be avoided.
The item I would consider next would be the overcoat or shell jacket or whatever you call the thing that goes on your torso and keeps the water off of you. I recommend durable water repellant jackets from brands that specialize in active outdoor recreation. They should include a hood and pockets. They should be big enough to wear comfortably over layers, but not too baggy to keep the breeze out. I used to do a lot of hiking in a military field jacket with some extra sprayed-on water repellent when I was into that kind of thing.
Obviously, you should be wearing pants out there. For many trips, hiking pants or military pants that are not all cotton will do fine. Sometimes waterproof pants are good to have. It’s pretty common to fall in the snow at least once on a snowshoe trip, and you might want to slide down a nice slope or sit down without getting soaked. There are a few kinds of waterproof pants out there. You could wear the thin nylon rain pants over your other pants, but they don’t usually breathe too well. A woven water repellent material might be better. I would probably go light on the insulation here, because legs can get really warm from exertion and you can add a layer of light fleece pants or thicker thermals for colder trips.
For torso insulation, I usually like to wear a fleece or commando sweater between my base layer and my shell. They seem to balance warmth and breathability well, and they are comfortable to sweat in. For times when I won’t be getting as warm, like a leisurely walk, a slow night hike, or a careful descent, I have a puffy zip-up layer. If it’s really cold I will wear both. For leisurely walks, I might be wearing a flannel shirt. Despite what you may have read on the internet, it is possible to wear cotton in the woods and walk out alive. However, is better to go with other fabrics because cotton dries very slowly and insulates poorly.
Hats and gloves might be considered accessories, but I would consider them necessities for winter hikes. A simple knit hat will do the job, as will a fleece hat, a wool cap, or anything else that is warm but not too heavy. A knit ski mask is one of my oldest pieces of gear that I use with some regularity, usually folded up as a cap until the wind kicks up. I like to bring light water repellent gloves for ascents and heavier gloves for descents, but I often just go with whatever gloves are in my pockets. A scarf or neck gaiter might be nice to have as well. I sometimes wear sunglasses if it’s a really bright day.
Water repellent gaiters that cover the area where your boots meet your pants can do a great job of keeping snow out, provided you take a little time to buckle them properly for your size. This can make a long walk in the snow much more comfortable.
So that’s clothing. There is a lot of it, because it is serving as your shelter for a day when other people are inside a solid structure with modern heating. My list goes pretty well with the theory of three types of layers: base, insulation, and shell. I do find that for many activities, the base and shell provide a good amount of insulation.
There are other things that you or your hiking party should have. Water is essential. The air will be dry and you will be exerting yourself. Water should be carried in bottles, not hydration bladders, as a narrow hose will freeze more readily than a bottle neck. Food can make a huge difference. Water and food are the fuel that will keep you walking upright and will allow your body to generate heat. You need to fuel the fire.
Bring navigational equipment, emergency supplies, and small wilderness tools. Winter days are short and winter nights are cold, so bring a light, preferably one that you can wear on your head. They can be found at outdoor recreation stores, and sometimes home improvement stores carry cheap models. If you are exploring an area big enough to get lost in you should have a map and compass and know how to use them. Smartphones can often use their GPS function even without cell network coverage, but that won’t help you if you haven’t downloaded the maps, there are no features on the map that can guide you, your battery drains, or you have no idea where you are in the first place.
An emergency kit is a good thing to carry. It should include an emergency blanket and fire starting tools. Your party should have at least one first aid kit that includes bandages, moleskin for blisters, tweezers, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes, medicines, gauze, and medical tape. It’s even better if there are people trained in first aid who can make use of a larger kit. A knife or multi-tool is a good thing to carry in the outdoors as well. I like to keep some water purification chemicals in my hiking kit too. I also carry some paracord and a miniature roll of duct tape in my kit. I don’t think I would actually lash together a shelter unless I was planning to stay a while, but paracord is something I have always carried so I’ll keep doing it. Some chemical hand warmers are a good thing to have, if only to help other hikers enjoy the day as much as you would like. All of this plus extra clothing should go in a backpack that is comfortable enough to enjoy carrying and will not fall apart on the trip. Most backpacks are not waterproof so you may want to line it with a waterproof bag or pack your gear in freezer bags.
So how do you actually walk when the forest is covered in snow and ice? There are ways. If it’s just a little snow, you can be patient and plod your way through it. If there is ice, micro-spikes will help you keep your grip. If the hill is steep and icy, consider going heavy duty and strapping on crampons. If you can’t walk without sinking into snow, it’s time to consider snowshoes. If you want to go far or get a workout, cross-country skiing is an option.
If you want to get out, be active, and get the feel of a place, you don’t need much beyond the right attitude. But if you want to go farther and have a better experience, some planning and preparation will take you a long way. Winter can be dangerous, but a person in the right mindset can be friendly with winter.