Clear cold days, rime ice, outstanding views, ice crystals hanging from spruce bows, solitude on a snow-covered trail, and no bugs, are some of the many reasons why I and many others take to the mountains during the winter season. A winter tramp in the woods and mountains of Vermont and beyond can be an experience that some would say is addicting.
Others I know cannot fathom the idea of trekking up a mountainside in three feet of snow, with the wind howling and temperatures hovering near zero. But with careful planning, appropriate skills, and knowledge it can be a wonderful, exhilarating experience with incredible intrinsic and physical rewards.
However, a winter hike can also end in misery or even disaster if you are not properly prepared. Several years ago, I was hiking the Bond Cliff Trail in New Hampshire with my son and as we climbed to the top of the cliff’s edge we were blasted by wind and snow. As we fought against wind gusts and blowing snow, we were astonished to see two figures struggling to find their way. After locating the rock cairns directing us along the trail, we approached them and were astonished to see that they wore only lightweight clothing and running shoes. Small day packs hung from their backs. They had been wandering along one of the most challenging trails in the White Mountains and had lost their way in the changing weather conditions. They had no map, compass, or other gear to get them back to safety below the cliff edge. After a brief exchange of words, we led them back down the mountain to the shelter of the woodlands below. Their winter sojourn could have ended in disaster, because of poor planning and being ill-equipped for hiking in winter conditions.
If you are contemplating a winter hike and do not want to end your hike as these two characters did, you must be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at you during the winter season: freezing rain, blinding snow, wind chills below zero, four-foot snow drifts, and ice covered trails. As we all know the weather can change quickly, and if not properly prepared your hike may end in disaster. Never minimize the risks of hiking during the winter season.
The following is meant to provide information to make your winter trek enjoyable and to get you home safely.
First and foremost is planning. Research the route or trail you plan to hike. Write down the trip itinerary (route, day/time start and end of the hike) and leave this with a friend or spouse. Do not change your plans and hike a different route without letting someone know. If you get lost or run into trouble rescuers will not know where to search.
Recently, a very experienced hiker left her home in Concord, N.H., to spend a week backpacking in the White Mountains. She covered her pre-hike basics by researching her route, checking the higher summits forecast with the Mt. Washington Observatory, and leaving a trip itinerary with not only her family but with a co-worker. However, she made the fatal mistake of changing her route without letting others know. Consequently, when she failed to return home at her designated time, New Hampshire Fish and Game began search and rescue efforts. The search failed to locate her because she was nowhere near her planned route. She was found several days later and many miles from the search area. She died of hypothermia after falling into a stream and soaking her clothes. She may not have lost her life if the search teams knew where to look.
Check the most recent weather report. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, so you need to be prepared for all conditions. The conditions at the trailhead are usually much different than at higher elevations, particularly on the summits, above the treeline. It isn’t rare to see flatlanders hiking up Camel’s Hump ill-equipped for weather at 4,000 feet.
Proper clothing and layering are an extremely important part of any winter journey. Layering allows you to easily adjust your clothes to regulate body moisture and temperature. After you begin hiking your body will start to warm. You do not want to get overheated and sweat. Adjust your layers of clothing to prevent heat buildup and sweating. Three layers are considered normal: a liner layer against your skin, a fleece layer for insulation, and a wind/waterproof layer. This is applied to both your upper and lower torso.
You should also have additional clothing in your pack for further warmth and protection. None of your clothing should be cotton. As the expression goes, “cotton kills.” Cotton clothing holds moisture when it gets wet, either from sweat, snow, or rain. Wear only wool or synthetic material. Over half of your body heat loss occurs through the head. A balaclava and cap will insure you stay warm. I was told, “If your feet are cold, put on a hat.” Two pairs of insulated mittens or gloves with liners are also important ingredients for a happy hike.
Wear footwear specific to winter hiking, with insulating qualities between 200-400 grams. Do not wear summer hiking shoes. There is nothing worse than hiking with cold, wet feet. Snowshoes, microspikes, and crampons are also going to be needed depending on the conditions of the trail. Even if we see grass around our homes, the higher elevations in the mountains could have 3-4 feet of snow and ice. Trekking poles are important for balance in snow or going over those icy spots. You also may want to consider wearing gaiters. They add extra warmth to your lower legs and keep snow and ice out of your boots.
Keep in mind that your hiking speed in snow and on snowshoes is much slower and more taxing. Know your approximate speed when hiking in winter conditions and have a turnaround time that allows you to return to the trailhead before darkness overtakes you.
Bring plenty of food and water. I usually carry two liters of water in insulated bottle jackets. You could also place your bottles in heavy wool socks. Do not carry your water in a water bladder, it will freeze. It’s very important to include plenty of carbohydrates in your food bag to provide fuel for hiking and for simply keeping your body warm.
Being in good physical condition. Hiking/walking several days a week insures conditioning for snow-covered terrain.
Hike with a buddy. This is one way to insure that help can be summoned if need be.
Carry a headlamp with extra batteries. These items cannot be overlooked, as darkness descends by late afternoon. The majority of search and rescues have to do with hikers being benighted.
Bring a first aid kit. Accidents happen and the sure way to address a minor or major injury is to have a first aid kit.
Bring a lighter and stove to melt snow for water.
Pack a small foam pad for sitting or resting.
Always pack a map of the area you’ll be hiking and a compass. Be sure you know how to use the compass in conjunction with the map. Map and Compass workshops are offered by the Green Mountain Club. Check their website for a schedule.
One last point: do not depend on your GPS, cell phone, or other electronic devices for trail finding or to call home when you get lost. In the mountains, cell phone service is not always available and batteries die in cold conditions. These devices can be helpful, but depending on them is not wise.
Recently a pair of hikers were fortunately found after losing their way while descending Mt. Washington. New Hampshire Fish and Game (the lead organization for search and rescue) reported that the couple had taken a picture of the map with their cell phone and were trying to navigate their descent using GPS. Their cell phone went dead in the cold conditions and they ended up on the Davis Path near Mt. Isolation, several miles away in an extremely remote area, far from their planned route. They were fortunately rescued at around 5:30 a.m. the following day. In a statement issued by N.H. Fish and Game, “Hikers should not rely on electronic devices when in the backcountry. Batteries fail and there is no replacing a map and compass if you know how to use them.”
The above hikers, after being rescued, made it home safely. However, a more tragic incident occurred Nov. 23. Emily Sotelo, a 20-year-old student attending Vanderbilt University, was found dead of exposure on the northwest side of Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch, Hew Hampshire. Sotelo began her hike three days earlier, hoping to traverse Franconia Ridge. However, she never made it home for Thanksgiving. According to New Hampshire Fish and Game Capt. Mike Evans, Sotelo was “woefully unprepared” for conditions on Franconia Ridge, which saw zero degrees on the summits and wind gusts of 40 miles per hour and ramping up to triple digits in the coming days. Evans reflected that it was apparent Sotelo was not prepared for a winter hike. She was lightly dressed in a jacket, athletic pants and sneakers. She carried only a small amount of food and water in a bladder. Emily’s ill-conceived plan ended in her death. This tragic incident should serve as a lesson for all hikers to plan diligently and be over-prepared for any winter trek.
If you would like to learn more about winter hiking there are several good books and websites you should check out. The Green Mountain Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club offer winter hiking workshops. Hiking safely and sensibly are the keywords for any tramp in the woods. This takes on extra significance in the winter as there is little room for error. Plan your winter hike prudently, so you can return to the mountains and enjoy those crystal-clear views that only winter can offer.
Gordon DuBois lives in Newport, Vermont. His passion for hiking has led him to thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail, Cohos Trail, John Muir Trail, Long Trail and the Quebec Section of the International Appalachian Trail. He is an avid off-trail hiker, bushwhacking to over 300 peaks in Northern New England. He has been published in Appalachia, Adirondac and in 2020 wrote a hiking guide, Paths Less Travelled, (Dorrance Publishing).