By: Sawyer Smith
Getting caught in the snow isn’t always romantic, but there are many things you can do to be prepared for a variety of situations.
On the “Meet the Guides” section of the Holiday River Expeditions website, you can find a list of all the dedicated, hard-working individuals whose combined efforts make for amazing river rafting and mountain biking trips all spring and summer long. Another thing you might notice is how many of the guides list skiing as their favorite winter activity, and speak of their love for being in the mountains during the HRE off-season.
As a regular content contributor to the Holiday River Expeditions blog who currently lives in one of the flattest states in the country—Missouri—I haven’t been skinning in some time, but I do a lot of hiking. We can’t exactly call the area in and around St. Louis ‘mountainous’ but we have some decent hills, and growing up in the snowy valley of Salt Lake City, I can say that winter is my favorite time of year to be outdoors.
That said—even an experienced winter hiker like myself can find herself in over her head when it comes to facing the elements. Like I did last weekend when I showed up for what I thought would be a leisurely 7-mile hike on a chilly day and found myself on a 10.5-mile trail with upwards of three or four inches of snow weighing me down with each step. It was freezing, I was exhausted, and a little bit underdressed, but don’t worry… I made it back alive.
If only because I was lucky… and because I followed at least some of my own hiking rules and guidelines. (I really should’ve had more layers. Rookie mistake.)
This is why I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a guide outlining the dos and don’ts of winter hiking so we can all enjoy the cold months without putting ourselves at risk.
What to do:
There are three things that I would consider to be the most important steps you can take before going out on a cold, winter hike.
First, plan your route ahead of time.
- I highly recommend downloading the AllTrails app and making an account. It’s free (unless you want to pay $2.99 a month for pro, but that’s really not necessary), and the app will not only tell you things like the distance of the hike, how hard it is, and the elevation gain, it will also keep track of where you are on the trail as you go. It’s very user-friendly, and a great thing to have in your back pocket in case of emergencies.
Second, make sure your phone is charged.
- I know we all go out into nature for different reasons, and some of you may be the adventuring type who likes to leave all your devices behind and escape the tech world. I’m not here to tell you what to do… but I am here to tell you that you can bring your phone and put it on ‘do not disturb’ mode. You never know when you might need to make contact with the outside world, whether it’s because you got lost on the trail, or you got back to your car after hiking 10+ miles only to realize you have a flat tire.
All I’m saying is unless you’re trying to be the next Bear Grills — and if so, more power to you — just charge your phone and throw it in your pack. *Bonus points if you have a satellite phone!
Third, prepare for snow, wind, and low temperatures.
- Even if you’ve checked the weather app half a dozen times the morning of, that doesn’t mean the weather can’t change its mind. I know because it does so at least ten times a day in Missouri. And you’ve heard the old saying, right? It’s always better to have your water-proof boots and not need them than to hike on wet feet and risk hypothermia.
What not to do:
You would think that the list of things you shouldn’t do would be easier to follow than a list of things you should do, but you’d be surprised by the stubbornness of some hikers (myself included).
That said, here are some rules I have learned (the hard way) to follow over the years:
- Don’t assume that just because it’s cold, that means you can automatically handle a longer hike than usual.
- Yes, it can be a lot easier, and a lot more enjoyable, to do a long hike when it’s not 90 degrees outside and you have some cloud cover. There’s a reason I don’t hike as much in St. Louis in the summer, and it’s called humidity.
Even still, hiking in the winter can be just as exhausting and challenging on your body. Your joints can become stiff if the air is cold enough, and people tend to drink less water when it’s not as hot, which can lead to them accidentally becoming dehydrated. Stick to hikes you know you’re in shape for and don’t underestimate how tiring the cold can be.
Don’t skip meals or snacks.
- I know it can be tempting, when you’re all bundled up and you’ve found your stride, to just keep going until you reach the end of the hike rather than stopping to have a snack, but resist the urge to ‘power through’. As opposed to hiking in warmer months, in the winter, your body is burning calories on two fronts. It’s burning them not only from the exercise but also from the increased effort it takes to keep your body at 98 degrees. This means you have to be refueling—a lot.
Don’t go off trail.
- In general, you shouldn’t be going off trail any time of the year. It’s not good for the environment and there is always a risk of getting lost. But in the wintertime, when the temperatures can drop quickly and the sun goes down in the late afternoon, you really don’t want to take any chances. Just stay on the beaten path, and make sure you make it back to the car before dark.
What to bring/wear:
For many, hiking in the spring and summer is more of a casual hobby than a sport. Maybe you only hike in tennis shoes and bring a little drawstring bag with a single water bottle. There’s nothing wrong with that approach when it’s 65 degrees out and you’re only half a mile from the nearest road. But if you’re planning on truly going into the woods, in the middle of winter, you’re going to need to be a little more serious when it comes to packing your bag and getting dressed.
What to bring:
- You can buy them for a couple of bucks, they are only about the size of a wallet, and they are literal life savers.
Extra pair of socks.
- If your socks get wet on a winter hike, you really should change them out as quickly as possible, otherwise, your risk of getting hypothermia is going to skyrocket.
- Every outdoorsy person I know swears by Bic lighters. They are cheap and durable, and it doesn’t matter if they get wet. If you find yourself caught in a storm or lost on a snowy trail, you don’t want to be wasting time trying to remember that day in scouts when they taught you how to start a fire with two rocks.
Extra food and water.
- This is self-explanatory. Bring enough food to sustain you for the entire hike and then some, and if you’re worried about the weight of all that water in your pack, consider buying a filter. If you live in a snowy area, then you will have plenty of water sources to choose from as you’re hiking.
- It’s typically cloudier in the winter, and the sun goes down earlier, so it’s always a good idea to have a light source- other than your iPhone flashlight- in your backpack just in case you find yourself losing daylight when you’re still a few miles from the parking lot.
What to wear:
Layers. Layers. Layers.
- Remember, you should dress for the low listed on your weather app, not the high. And if there is even the slightest chance of snow or rain that day, make sure to have a waterproof layer with you.
- Unlike cotton, wool doesn’t absorb water. This means that if your feet get wet, they won’t stay wet for long, which is very important when we’re talking about hiking in freezing temperatures.
- Technically, in some areas, you can probably get away with doing a winter hike in just your short, breathable tennis shoes, but I don’t recommend it. I have waterproof boots that I wear on every single hike, and I quite honestly think they are the reason I’m still hiking today after years of struggling with knee pain and general clumsiness.
Heavy-duty boots protect your joints better, they keep you warmer, and if they are waterproof, then you’ll be prepared to take on any river crossings or unexpected snow patches that you may encounter.
One last thing I thought was worth mentioning was that while serene, hiking alone can also be especially dangerous in the winter, so I recommend you bring a buddy if you can. Also, if your companion of choice is of the K9 variety, make sure you are taking care of their paws in the snow and checking that they have enough food and water as well.
Happy hiking! I leave you with this final reminder – if you think you have enough layers, you don’t. Add more.
Sawyer Smith is a Utah native currently residing in St. Louis, Missouri. When she isn’t working as a freelance writer or hiking through sections of the Mark Twain National Forest, she is planning trips in her head back to her beloved state to once again climb on the red rocks and ski down the snowy mountains.