The winter scenery completely changes a landscape. The snow covered surroundings brings an aura of peace and calmness, yet excitement. Many of us take this time to stay in and hibernate (including me), but when you get a chance, go for a day hike or two and experience what this season has to offer.
If you’re new to hiking and you want to get out there this winter, I’ve made a short guide of things to keep in mind and how to prepare for your winter hike.
Note that this guide is meant for solely day hiking on trails roughly between 5 and 15 km long. Depending on how well you know the trail and the weather conditions, you may have to adjust your preparation.
#1 – Know your terrain
See these photos below? It’s safe to say that I did not know my terrain.
(The photos above were on the Opal Loop trail in Jasper, Alberta. It was the first time Steve and I were going on the trail and we really underestimated the amount of snow near the top of the mountain. The snow was also hard and unwalked, which made it very challenging to get through)
Knowing your terrain includes researching the trail, such as the length, incline, ground type (rocky/ragged, flat, icy, snowy, etc…). Check the park website for the map, ground conditions, facilities in the park (any washrooms, water refilling stations etc…), and any updates. If the ground is very icy, consider buying hiking cleats. Depending on the amount of snow, you may want to consider snowshoeing instead. Also consider the wild animals that reside in the area. When in the mountain areas, don’t forget to check for avalanche risk. You can also ask the locals for tips, and even search the place or tags on Instagram to get a look of the latest conditions ( ie. #banffnationalpark you’d be surprised how effective this is. Sometimes faster than the weather man). Knowing what you’re hiking into brings you to the next step, which is to plan ahead.
#2 – Plan ahead
When planning ahead, consider these points:
– Based on your fitness level and reason for hiking (ie. catching up with friends, playing with your new camera…) estimate the range of time you think it will take you to complete the hike. If you plan to take plenty of photos, or it’s been a while since you were outdoors, or if you’re going with a large group, be sure to budget for more time.
– Consider the sunlight. What time is the sunset? What is the latest time for you to get back? Make sure to budget some extra time in case of an emergency.
– Take the time to really read the map before starting your hike. If the only map you have is the one on the billboard at the entrance of the trail, take a photo of it with your phone as backup. You have to know where you’re going. Nonetheless, most day hiking trails (especially in Canada) are well marked and well maintained. However it is still easy to get lost and make the wrong turn which can impact your estimated time of completion.
(Photo of Steve planning ahead by reading the trail map)
Side story: The photo above was taken at Jacques Cartier National park in Quebec. I did a 13 km solo hike of a trail I’ve never been on before. I started the hike just before 12, and estimated taking a few hours to complete the full trail (as per the trail guide). I didn’t realize I spent a lot of time taking photos along the way, which set me back quite a bit. Sunset at that time (around November) was at 4pm, however in the mountain areas, it started to get dark around 3:30. I also made a small wrong turn which set me back even more. I brisk walked and sprinted the last few kilometres of my hike to make it back before sundown. It was a bit scary and I definitely did not want to be in that situation again!
#3 – Dress warm
When hiking in the winter, no doubt it’s important to dress warm. However when doing so, you need to keep in mind clothing combination that wicks away moisture, insulates you to keep you warm, and protects you from the wind. You also need to keep in mind that you will generate a lot of heat while moving. Although it’s important to bundle up, you don’t want too warm on the onset. You can also always bring extra layers in your backpack!
- Base Layer – This is the first layer you put on that is in direct contact with your skin. As you sweat, the base layer works to wick away moisture to the outer layer of the fabric so that it can evaporate. Its purpose is to keep you fairly dry and regulate your body temperature. Merino wool and synthetic fabrics are two great base layers to wear for winter hiking. You can also further choose between lightweight, mid-weight, and thermal weight base layers depending on the temperature and your preference. Make sure to refrain from cotton as it soaks up moisture which will in turn make you damp and cold.
Check out the following link for more detailed information on base layers: https://besthiking.net/comparison-of-base-layer-materials/
- Insulating Layer – This is the next layer after putting on the base layer. The purpose of the insulating layer is to keep you warm by trapping heat that emits from you body. Generally, the thicker your insulation is, the warmer you’ll be. I prefer to wear a combination of light polyester fleece and then either synthetic or down insulated puffy jacket. What I love about down puffy jacket is that its extremely light-weight and compresses really well which makes it great for travel. The disadvantage however, is that is loses effectiveness when damp. Synthetic jackets on the other hand, still retains its insulating abilities even when damp. The downside is that generally, it’s not as compact and light-weight as down jacket (unless you buy the super high end ones –> $$$) .
- Shell Layer – This last layer is to repel wind, rain, and snow in order to keep you dry and warm. It’s ideal to have a waterproof shell layer rather than a water-resistant one. Most shells also have zippers at the side, for better breathability.
Other clothing items…
- Pants – Synthetic pants are ideal as they’re lightweight and fast drying in case some snow comes in contact. I recommend wearing pants that are long and wide enough to cover the top of your boots to help prevent snow from going in. Personally however, I prefer to wear athletic tights (and that is why I always get snow on my ankles) with really lightweight leggings underneath. However I do pack slush pants in my hiking bag just in case!
- Footwear – Steve and I prefer to wear actual hiking boots (vs runners or winter boots) and this has worked for us. For winter hiking, I recommend waterproof boots (most hiking boots are) with higher cut ankles to help prevent snow from going in. You can also find actual winter hiking boots that are more insulated to withstand colder weather. Make sure to bring extra socks!
- Socks – Similar to your base layer, merino wool and synthetic socks are highly recommended as it wicks away moisture and keeps you warm. I personally really love the Kirkland Signature Outdoor Trail Sock Merino Wood Blend found at Costco (note that this is a personal preference and I’m not paid to document this). These socks are about 70% Merino Wool, 29% Nylon, 1% Spandex. I’ve used these socks on numerous winter day hikes and they’ve kept my feet warm whether they’re dry or a bit damp. They’re also very affordable and were about $25 for a pack of 4. Also always make sure to bring extra socks!
- Accessories – A lot of heat escapes through the head and hands. Make sure to wear a toque, earmuffs, and gloves or mittens. It also doesn’t hurt to bring extra gloves!
Photo below: My outfit vs. Steve’s outfit
#4 – Do pack some food and water
Hiking burns more calories than you think, with all the extra layers of clothing you have and additional resistance from the snow. Make sure to bring snacks such as granola and energy bars, dried fruits and nuts and meat jerky to help replenish your energy.
As for how much water to bring when day hiking, the rule of thumb among seasoned hikers is 1 litre for every 2 hour of hiking. Keep in mind that this is only a general rule dependent on a lot of other factors such as your body type (some people generally consume more than others) and the type of hike (flat terrain vs constant uphill elevation). My take on this is that water is crucial and it’s always safer to bring a bit more than less. Some hikes also have water refilling stations, which you can taken into consideration when planning for how much water to bring. Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are also great additions as they help restore electrolytes and add calories that your body needs to burn.
#5 – Inform someone of your whereabouts
This is crucial especially when hiking at a place for the first time. Even if you’re going as a few other people, it’s important to tell someone that is not hiking with you where you plan to go, the trail you plan to take, and the your estimated time for completion. Let that person know that you will contact them when you’ve finished your hike, and if they don’t hear back from you after a certain amount of time, instruct them to contact a park ranger.
#6 – Know yourself
Here goes the common saying, “know your limit and stay within it”.
Know your fitness level. Start with a shorter trail if you’re not a seasoned hiker. Pace yourself and take frequent short breaks and make sure you’re energized and hydrated. It’s not a race to the finish line.
Photos above: Steve taking a break when hiking the Lake Agnes – Plain of Six Glaciers trail. Photos session make great breaks!
#7 – Be aware of your surroundings
Be aware of cliffs, possible rocks covered in snow, stones, or slippery surfaces where you might slip or trip. Some of these accidental falls can cost you your life. Look twice before you go, and take each step with care. Make sure you are safe and secure before taking photographs or posing for selfies. There are many people who have fallen over cliffs doing this.
(When obstacles emerge, make sure you take the time to be careful).
#8 – Pack essentials and emergency items
Especially on remote hikes or hikes where you’ve never been before, consider packing these items:
– Emergency blanket
– Map of the vicinity
– Sunscreen (it’s easy to forget this, but UVA rays are still strong in the winter!)
– Bear spray (bears hibernate in the winter, but you never know!)
– Extra clothing such as gloves and socks
– Toilet paper and waste bag
– Flashlight (In North America, the sun sets early in the winter and it’s important to be prepared in case you fall behind on your hike and are still on the trail after the sun sets)
– Fire starting gear such as a match or a lighter (Same reason as above. These items are light and take up almost no space. It can help you out a lot in case of an emergency).
#9 – Leave no trace
Make sure you leave mother nature as is. Pack your garbage (food, toiletries, etc.. ) and dispose of it after your hike.
Only less than a couple of months left until winter is over. That’s still plenty of time to get out there! Happy hiking!