By Amy Gosch
Now that we’ve had our first snow, it finally feels like winter (maybe not the solstice winter, but conventional winter)! Hiking in the snow is one of the best ways to experience nature. If it’s actively snowing, there’s a peaceful calm and quiet around from the falling snow. If it’s not, there aren’t many others on the trail, so there’s a good chance for solitude. Snow creates a whole new look from what you routinely see on summer hikes. We have amazing mountains right in our backyard – they’re even more amazing with a blanket of snow.
To get the most out of your winter hiking experiences, make sure you’re prepared. While hiking in the snow is fun, it’s quite different than on dry trails. It will take you longer than you think and it will take more effort than you think. With this in mind, here are some things to bring on winter hikes (yes, even the short ones!).
I’m sure at this point you’ve scrolled down to scan. Yes, there are a lot of words. Don’t worry, most of them are explanations! To a lot of people, this list seems like overkill. If I’m hiking anything longer than Sanitas, I have everything on this list. Yes, everything. Most of the time, I don’t use it all. Some of the time I don’t use any of it. Some of the time I end up with more things in my pack than I started with. And some of the time…I’ve been so incredibly glad that I hike in “Mom Mode”. I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. And with the number of times I’ve lent out things from my pack to my hiking partners, they’re incredibly glad as well. (Fun anecdote: one time, a friend of mine forgot her whole backpack at home. We were going to hike Quandary Peak (one of CO’s 14ers). With a combo of things I always have in my car and my extras in my pack, I was able to outfit her for our hike. We made it up, and were happy and comfortable the whole time, even with the winds at the top!)
Upper layers. Don’t just put on a sweater and a down coat. Chances are you’ll get hot and sweaty pretty quickly (snow really does make it harder!). You take off a layer, and the sweat chills you quickly. Dress in multiple lighter layers. Typically I wear a tank top, a long-sleeved shirt, and, depending on the temperature, either a light jacket or a fleece or soft-shell. Try for fabrics other than cotton, at least for your bottom layer. Wet cotton is cold! There’s a saying: “Be bold, start out cold!” Don’t bundle up the moment you get out of the car. You’ll warm up quickly when hiking uphill.
Pants. Try for pants other than jeans. There’s not much out there more uncomfortable than wet jeans. They get wet, stay wet, and stick to you. As a runner, I wear my running tights, but any hiking pants work great. If it’s cold enough, you can always put long underwear on underneath.
Socks and shoes. Again, here, cotton isn’t the best for socks. They get wet and stays wet (notice a theme?!). Wool socks will keep your feet dry even when wet. There are a variety of options for thickness in wool socks, ranging from super thin to thick thick socks. Figure out what works best for you! For shoes, waterproof is nice, but not always necessary. If it’s not too cold, I actually wear my running shoes, which are mesh (definitely not designed to keep water out!). My wool socks keep my feet fairly warm. Colder weather, I wear waterproof winter boots. If your feet tend to get cold, try a pair of silk sock liners. They are great at keeping your feet warm. With these go gaiters. I love mine. I don’t like hiking in my snow pants (too hot and bulky), so I throw on my running tights and gaiters, and I’m happy as a clam in knee-deep snow. They keep your feet dry (from the top, anyway) and the bottom of your pants dry. Keeping dry is a key in cold weather.
Hats and gloves. Bring them! You never know when your ears or fingers will start to get cold. A baseball hat, an ear band, a full beanie…they all help. Plus, if you have long hair and it’s snowing, it keeps your hair dry, which keeps it from dripping down the back of your neck (surprise cold water drops are never fun, unless it’s on someone else). Gloves are great – no frostbite and you can make a snowman or throw a snowball without losing all feeling in your fingers! If your hands are always cold (like mine), mittens. They’re not as versatile as gloves, but I like warm fingers! You’ll have to look a little harder for mittens, because they’re not “cool”, but they’re out there. If being able to use your phone without taking off your gloves is important, a lot of manufacturers are now making gloves that have the ability to work with capacitive screens.
Your phone. Most people use their phone as their camera. And bringing it on a winter hike is important, because the beauty is incredible. However, most of them aren’t waterproof. Stick the phone in a Ziploc (or similar) bag. If you don’t have gloves on, you can still use the touchscreen through this thin layer of plastic. I don’t have a smartphone (I’m one of *those* people…), so I haven’t tested whether or not you can use the special gloves with a plastic bag over a phone, but if you go into a store to try gloves on, bring your phone in a bag and try it! During the hike, keep your phone close to your body – the cold weather drains your battery quickly, and you don’t want to miss out on any great photos of snowball fights because your battery died.
A headlamp or flashlight. This is on my list as the second most important thing. This might seem silly if you’re just going out for a short hike, but I’ve run into situations where I didn’t think I’d need light but luckily had it with me. I’ve only been without a needed light twice in my life. Coming down a mountain with no way to see where you’re stepping is scary and takes forever. After that second time, a headlamp is a permanent fixture in any pack I take with me, no matter what. Headlamps are the easiest, because they require no hands, but a flashlight also works. You can pick up a headlamp for cheap at a lot of different stores. Don’t rely on your phone’s flashlight…like I said above, they can die quickly. And don’t forget the extra batteries for your light source. I’ve used mine on multiple occasions.
Traction. In my opinion, this is one of the most important aspects of winter hiking. Having traction that is external to the traction on your shoes makes a world of difference. There are a slew of options, but they all boil down to one thing – keeping you from slipping down the mountain. Fresh snow doesn’t need much traction, but once the trail gets walked on a few times, it becomes slick. And in Boulder, that happens pretty quickly – I’ve only gotten to break a trail through fresh snow once…people get out there quickly! Screw shoes are the DIY option. You take an old pair of shoes or hiking boots and put screws in the bottom! Some make it sound simple, but here’s what I think is a little more realistic of an outline of the process. Definitely research this one a little before attempting. The other options are all devices that slip over your shoe. Pricier, but I like this style better. YakTrax are the most common one that comes to mind. I’ve found (through watching other people) that they’re not that great. This is based on the number I’ve seen on the side of trails, both broken and unbroken. Probably because most people go for the cheapest option, which are made for walking. I’d recommend stepping up a little from the cheapest models. Personally, I use Kahtoola MICROspikes. They’re on the pricey side (if you look around, you can find some deals), but as someone who runs almost full speed down mountains in the snow, I decided to spend the money on these and not emergency room bills. They last for awhile. Mine are on their 4th season. I use them frequently (and run on rocks sometimes). They’re not as sharp, of course, but they’re still doing great. Now, no traction is going to work on pure ice (that isn’t full-blown, I’m-hiking-Everest crampons) or slush (swimming might be the best option for this), but in between these extremes, they’re great.
Poles. Sure, you might think they’re just for old people, but man are they useful! They help take the weight off your legs (great if you have hip, knee, or ankle issues). They are very useful for balancing. And they give your arms and shoulders a workout. When walking on snow, they help you balance to avoid falling down in the snow. Unless you’re purposely making a snow angel, falling down isn’t fun. There are a wide variety of pole types. They vary by weight, length, foldability, height adjustment. Some people use old downhill skiing poles. I personally like my Black Diamond Z Poles. Being able to adjust the length depending on whether I’m going up or down is nice (or if I’m lending them to someone…). No matter how fancy you get, they will definitely help.
Water and food. Winter hiking takes more energy than summer hiking. Bring food and water, just in case. Even if it’s just a couple of Singer Energy Chews (my favorite…they work in the cold and heat) packets or granola bars, it’s nice to have something. Water is always necessary. If you’re used to a hydration pack, you’ll have to make some adjustments, depending on the temperature. Water freezes at 32°. You have water in your hydration pack. Therefore, it will freeze. Usually the water in the bladder stays liquid, since it’s moving around and has heat from your back, but in the tubing and mouthpiece? That is fair game for the weather. There are insulating options, but even have their limits. If you can’t live without your hydration pack, there are tricks that can help. 1. Keep the tube and mouthpiece inside your clothing. 2. Keep it warm, it won’t freeze! Blow the water back into the bladder. Less water to block the tube and mouthpiece. 3. Keep drinking. This one is my favorite. When it’s cold out, you don’t drink as much. You still need it, but you don’t feel like you do. This is a good way to get the water you need. Keeping the water moving doesn’t give it a chance to freeze. You don’t need to drink constantly, but take a few drags of water every couple of minutes. If you’re ok with doing away with your hydration pack, grab a Nalgene or other wide-mouth bottle (they make inserts to make it easier to drink – get one (or one for each bottle)). Wide is the key. It’s harder to freeze a more open body of water (think pond versus lake). If it’s really cold, put the bottle face-down – the water at the bottom is the last to freeze. If it’s really cold, get an insulated sleeve to keep it warm. Just make sure it’s not going to leak – otherwise you’ll end up with frozen layers of clothes!
10 Essentials. They’re essentials for a reason. This is where maps, compasses, and all those go. There are millions of lists out there for these. My backpack even has the list sewn on the inside (REI is pretty good about safety). Google around for these, or ask someone at an outdoor gear store.
The amount of clothing; weight of clothing; amount of food and water; and number of coats, hats, socks, and gloves all depend on the hike you’re planning on (and the size of your pack will depend on that amount…). Sanitas, you’ll probably have less than Bear Peak. Distance, length of time, elevation, and temperature dictate what exactly you’ll bring. You’ll definitely have less for any of Boulder’s peaks than you would for a 14er, but these categories go for everything.