Have you packed away those hiking boots for winter? Pull them back out again quick smart, Mrs (or Mr). Winter hiking is fab for dusting off those winter blues and getting outside. I know, it is hard to get outside when it is cold, dreary and you just want to sit by the fire in your PJ’s wrapped in a blanket (it may or may not be what I am doing right now). Sometimes though you just have to make yourself do it. Once you are out though, you won’t regret it. Nature can be a great motivator
Top Tips for Winter Hiking
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I know I’ve said it before but you need to be wearing layers. Especially for winter hiking. Know your materials, synthetics, quick dry and materials that wick moisture work the best. If you sweat and you’re wearing the wrong materials you could find yourself cold and wet for the rest of your hike. You also want to steer away from clothing that sits right against your skin. Loose clothing that allows the air to flow is best.
When you are winter hiking, often the temperature is vastly different from the beginning of your hike to the summit (or wherever you are hiking too). Another good reason to ‘dress like an onion’.
Wear gaiters. These puppies are fabulous for providing that wee bit o’ extra security against wet feet. I forgot my gaiters when I hiked Rangi Hut and got snow over the tops of my boots. Not only did that mean I got soaking wet feet but as the snow sat on the tops of my boots between the tongue and my ankles, I had dry itchy ankles for days afterwards.
A good rule of thumb is:
- Wear a base layer such as a thermal or quick dry long sleeved top. Good socks are a must as your feet are often the first to feel the cold.
- Have a fleece second layer
- Wear an outer shell that will protect you from the wind and rain
During winter you will also need to wear a warm hat, a lot of your heat escapes from your head so a warm hat is essential. A pair of gloves and a neckwarmer are also a great idea for extra warmth. I always pop on my neckwarmer when I have stopped to keep the warmth in.
As well as spare dry clothes in your pack, pop some in your car as well. There is no better feeling than putting on dry socks after a hard days trek. Driving home with wet clothes is the worst.
Start cold. Not so cold that you are shivering but you don’t want to be too toasty and warm when you start hiking. You will just need to layer off again. I always start a little cold nowadays which saves me from stopping a few minutes into my hike to de-layer. When I stop for a length of time such as for a snack, I pop all my layers back on so I keep the warmth up from hiking but will take it off again when I start trekking again.
Be aware of the daylight hours
Daylight hours are reduced during winter, the sun goes to bed much earlier. You may need to start your winter hike much earlier than you would in the summer so you don’t get caught in the dark. You might need to pick a slightly shorter hike if you don’t feel comfortable hiking in the dark.
- Get an early start to make the most of the daylight hours.
- Research your hike beforehand so you know roughly how long it is going to take. This way you can work out what time you need to start to get back before the sun goes down.
- Remember, what might be a 6-hour trek in the summer, may take a little longer during the winter due to the conditions. When I did Rangiwahia Hut/Deadman’s Track last Autumn, it was a good hour quicker than when I tackled it this year in winter.
- Always pack a headtorch in your pack just in case those daylight hours run away from you.
This is a big one and something you need to be aware of, know the symptoms, prevention and treatment. I am not a trained Dr (not even close!) but I do know the warning signs and how to prevent it from getting worse. This is something everyone should know if they are going to do a bit of winter hiking. Hypothermia is a very real danger if you are winter hiking.
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when your body’s core temperature decreases to such a level in which normal muscular and cerebral functions don’t work as they should. It can affect your ability to think clearly and evacuate quickly to safety. This is where prevention comes in handy.
How can you avoid hypothermia?
Prevention is better than cure. Here are some ways that you can help ward off hypothermia. The main thing is, listen to your body and don’t be a hero. There is no shame in cutting your winter hike shorter if you need to.
- Wear layers and make sure that if you have stopped for any period of time that you increase your layers
- Keep your head and feet warm and dry if possible
- Take a thermos full of tea or coffee that you can regularly sip on to keep your core temperature up
- Pack extra dry clothes (and socks!) in your pack and change into them if needed
- Be aware of the changing weather. If it is getting too bad, turn around or re-route your trail to hit a closer shelter
- Monitor your extremities such as hands and feet. If they are starting to sting or go numb you need to either put on some more layers and drink more fluids – preferably warm. The stinging and numbness are early signs
- Take regular short breaks rather than irregular longer ones. There is less chance of your body temperature cooling if you stop for shorter periods
- Drink plenty of water. If you are dehydrated you are more susceptible to hypothermia
What can cause hypothermia?
- Cold temperatures
- Improper clothing and equipment for changing weather conditions
- Fatigue, exhaustion, dehydration, inadequate food intake
- Alcohol intake also expands your blood vessels which can lead to increased heat loss
What are the symptoms of hypothermia?
- Uncontrollable or violent shivering
- Slurred speech or inability to communicate
- Fumbling or lethargy
- Drop in body temperature
- Loss of consciousness
- Numb hands or feet
- Shallow breathing
- Exhaustion or drowsiness
How can you treat hypothermia?
- Call for help immediately. If you have no service on your phone, activate your personal locator beacon (which you should always be carrying).
- Restore warmth slowly by getting the person indoors if you can, removing wet clothes and drying the person, warming the trunk first (not the hands and feet as this can cause shock) by wrapping them in blankets or dressing them in dry clothing if there is some available and lastly, if you are using hot water bottles or hot packs, remember to wrap them first.
- Begin CPR if necessary
- Give warm fluids
- Keep the body temperature up
Choose your trail wisely
If you have the choice of a short uphill hike or a longer flat hike, go for the short uphill hike. Uphills help your blood pump through your body to keep you warmer.
Some short but punchy walks in New Zealand include:
- Deerford Track – A short loop that takes under three hours or extend it to shorts track and knights track to the ridgeline. Only extend if you have enough daylight hours as this is a looong hike.
- No. 1 Line Track – You can complete this hike in three hours or less with it being all uphill to the lookout and all downhill back again
- Rangiwahia Hut – Just to the hut and back is a great walk to get the blood pumping and still with the rewards of snow
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of long flat walks in New Zealand. Well, none that I have come across anyway.
Trails can be a lot harder in the winter, snow can cover the track or the markers making it more difficult to follow. If you are not an experienced hiker, I would suggest hiking a trail that you are familiar with or choose a short, well-marked track.
Sometimes, you may need to change your plans due to the conditions. This isn’t a bad thing. I had to change my plans when I did Iron Gate Hut as visibility was low, I didn’t know the track, up on the ridgeline the track is unmarked and the snow would have made it even more difficult to follow. I still had a lovely walk and will just have to try my planned hike another day. Flexibility is key.
Be aware of the changing weather. Again, being flexible is what the cool kids do. If the weather worsens or visibility becomes too low, change your plans or head back. Feeling disappointed is much better than injury, getting lost or worse. You can always try again. It’s a good excuse to get back out there again.
Bring a thermos and on the go snacks
Keep your core temperature warm with a good ole cuppa. Chuck a thermos of hot tea or coffee in your pack and sip away during the day at regular intervals. A good thermos will keep your cup of Joe warm for the whole day. Plus, it’s a good excuse to stop for a breather. Annd there is nothing better than sitting atop a mountain looking over the view with a hot cup in your hand.
Bring snacks you can eat on the go so you don’t have to stop for extended periods. Stopping for extended periods allows your body to cool, the muscles don’t like moving again after a good stop and find it harder to warm up.
Be even more conscious of the weather
Weather is a changeable beast. Even more so in the winter.
- Check the weather before you set off. Make sure to check hourly as well as the overall day. You may be able to time your winter hiking to miss the worst of the day
- Look at the precipitation, wind speed, avalanche reports and daylight hours. Not just the temperature. You want a complete overview of the conditions you will be tackling your winter hiking in
- Keep an eye on the sky and surroundings during your hike
- Make sure you change your plans sooner rather than later if the weather starts to get too bad. Remember, don’t be a hero. That’s your new Winter Hiking Mantra
- Good weather sites include metservice.com and accuweather.com
A little rain never hurt anyone (except if you are the Wicked Witch of the West), don’t be turned off if it is going to rain a bit. Just pack your waterproof jacket and you’ll be right. In fact, you will be invigorated (insert motivational fist pump here). I would never encourage you to not hike because of rain.
However, if visibility becomes too low or the weather becomes too dangerous, please use your judgement wisely.
Always trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right or you don’t feel safe, turn around or re-route. There is no shame in that at all. Often your gut is right so you need to learn to trust it. Ed Viesturs once said, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
The mountains have been here for a long time and they will continue to be here for a long time. They ain’t goin’ nowhere. If you have to turn around, they will be waitin’ for you for another day
Pack basic safety gear
You should be doing this anyway, regardless of the season, but it is such an important point that it needs to be reiterated.
Basic safety gear includes:
- Trail map and compass
- A GPS device (though, don’t solely rely on this. Technology isn’t always reliable). I have the exact one linked and find it the Bee’s Knees. Well, my Pa does but it has been in my pack for a while now so have claimed it. Shh, don’t tell
- First aid kit
- Personal locator beacon
- Pocket knife
Other gear to keep in mind for winter hiking:
- Gaiters – keep the snow out of your boots. Longer ones are better in snowy conditions
- Crampons – good for icy conditions
- Snowshoes – good for, well, snow, especially deeper snowy conditions. (these would have been useful a few weeks ago….)
- Trekking Poles – add stability in slippery conditions. I can totally vouch for trekking poles in the snow. Lifesavers!
Other safety things to note:
- Always tell someone where you are going and your expected return
- Research your hike beforehand to make sure you are capable
- Make sure that you have packed your bag appropriately. Check out this guide on what to pack for a day hike
- For more general hiking tips go have a nosey at my Top 11 Hiking Tips and Tricks (find it here)
Winter hiking is a wonderful excuse to get outside even if it is a bit rubbish outside. If you wear the right clothes and take the necessary precautions, hiking in the winter is a whole new wonderful world. A right ole winter wonderland. You won’t be disappointed. Promise.
Do you have any other winter hiking tips to add? Leave ’em in the comments below and I will be sure to add them.
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