Enjoying Winter Hikes

    A friend expressed interest in an AT hike early next year, while harboring concern about readiness for winter weather. Although not an expert, I shared some thoughts about the cold.

With respect to cold weather…I have had several memorable forays into the cold:


A cold ridge line near Nightmare Range

  • A night in the national forest several hundred meters east of Springer Mountain: memorable for water trapped in my boots;
  • A night on a bare, windswept ridge-line: memorable as one of many, many cold places in Korea and for frozen boots in the morning;
  • Two weeks in Alaska: memorable for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was the 100-meter dash to the outhouse on a dare…with just boots;
  • I can make the case that every winter in the Army was memorable – in fact I can go back a full decade from the first night above to the ‘63 winter in Germany that allegedly approached the winter of ’44-cold. As an Army brat and a Boy Scout 2nd Class on a week long campout in a pristine German forest, I had one heck of a memorable week of cold-weather learning – with lots of time by the bonfire! As I recall, my flannel Boy Scout sleeping bag was nothing like the down bags of today!

None of those cold weather experiences was ever life/limb threatening while each made me more aware of Mother Nature and my limits – and the need to Be Prepared.

   One key to successful cold weather hiking, as you know from your years up north, lies in layering – and never allowing your clothing to be soaked from either sweat or from immersion in water. Once off the trail, get into your insulating layer – a fleece zip-T is popular. And dry socks! Of course there are other precautions: calorie intake and liquid intake to name but two. As I hinted in my earlier reply, my concern on winter days is boredom. After the day’s planned, total miles have been logged, what to do with the remaining hours of daylight! Maybe work on STAYING WARM! I noted on my blog that I tried out my 20-degree quilt last weekend; I was warmer in the quilt even with its inherent capacity for drafts, than I was when I went back inside the house! Hunkering down in a tent/shelter with a sleeping bag/quilt is a good way to stay warm. Then add to your blog or journal and plan the next day’s hike.

    To the precautions noted above, it is important to include knowledge of cold weather injuries: what are they, how are they prevented, and how are they treated. If you or anyone you are hiking with suffers any of those symptoms, you must know how each should be treated! Always remain alert to the potential for cold weather injures.

  • Symptoms of frostbite include in the early stage skin turns a pale yellow or white, then hard & shiny, and finally cold to the touch & blue/black. It results from improperly covering body parts in freezing temperatures. How Treat Frostbite
  • Symptoms of immersion/trench foot include maceration (“pruning”), wrinkling of the soles, large watery &painful blisters. It results from from wearing cold, wet socks for extended periods of time. How to Treat Trench Foot
  • Symptoms of hypothermia include fatigue, violent shivering, loss of coordination, drowsiness, mental fogginess, and slurred speech. It results from an inability to compensate for cold temperatures due insufficient warm, dry clothing so the body’s core temperature begins to fall. How to Treat Hypothermia

    In my experience, don’t fear of the cold – Be Prepared for the cold. An AT hike should be a wonderful experience – and cold weather should only add to it! It has all the potential of being classic Type 2 fun!

    Of course there are types of fun! Type 1 fun is taking a shortcut with skis from a tram stop to the condo. Type 2 fun is a shortcut to the condo that requires 100-yards of post-holing. Jack and I did that at Copper Mountain about ten years ago – we were dragging our skis since we never could get a footing sufficient to get on top of the snow and into the skis! I never laughed so hard in my life while doing something ill-conceived. We were exhausted by the time we finally got to the condo and got a cup of hot chocolate. It most certainly was Type 2 fun; and it remains was one of my all-time favorite memories of time with Jack.

 Winter tips collected:

  • Leave a travel plan at base camp
  • Start your hike early in the day – to finish in daylight at your objective
  • Get a daily weather report: and prepare for the worst weather
  • Carry an extra day of food
  • Hydrate as frequently as in warm weather
  • Wear lip balm
  • Wear foot gaiters to keep snow out of the boots
  • Wear a neck gaiter to keep snow and cold out
  • Wear layered clothing; remove layers as you heat up on the hike – add layers as you become less active
  • Wear gloves and mittens of choice – keep them as dry as possible. Think loose fleece with an outer cover
  • Wear a hat in camp
  • Wear a Balaclava in windy conditions
  • Always have a dry shirt for camp
  • Always have dry socks for sleeping
  • Value the heat-retaining trifecta of your tent, sleeping bag, and ground pad
  • Smaller tents heat (& retain heat) better than a larger one – design factors being equal
  • Prevent the water bladder tube from freezing
  • Prevent water containers from freezing
  • Carry plastics grocery bags – for foot covering inside boots, tent anchors, trash, etc.
  • Carry water bottles upside down in freezing temps (keep air in – water out – of the bladder line)
  • Carry fire starting material (tinder, matches, steel-flint, etc.)
  • Carry chemical hand-warmers for emergency
  • Carry a headlamp with spare batteries
  • Carry an emergency blanket (space blanket)
  • Use dummy cords on small items – like gloves, knife, compass, wallet, tent-stake sack, bottle flip-tops, etc.
  • Remove boot insoles at night & store in the sleeping bag/quilt

Helpful websites:

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