Dress like an onion.
The Quebecois have a saying, s’habiller comme un oignon, which literally means to dress like an onion, in layers. This is especially important when hiking in colder weather, as temperatures can vary at the bottom of the trail and on the summit of the mountain. Having a variety of insulating clothing will help you regulate your body temperature and stay comfortable. I like to wear a layer of long underwear, a light fleece or soft shell jacket, and waterproof pants. I keep an insulated jacket (either down or synthetic loft), fleece pants, and a waterproof shell jacket in my pack in case of foul weather.
Always wear thick, winter-weight socks, since your toes are the first place you’ll feel cold. It’s also a good idea to have two layers of gloves or mittens, one for insulation and one for waterproofing. An outfit like this will keep you dry in case of precipitation and warm when you reach an exposed area or summit.
Start small and start early.
When planning your first winter hike, be reasonable about the distance and difficulty of the trail. While it might be a cinch to do a twelve-mile loop in summertime conditions, you may run into ice or deep snow on the same trail during the winter. Also, many access roads to your favorite trailheads are closed and unplowed over the winter, which could add significant mileage to your trip. There is nothing quite as frustrating as wading through waist deep snow for miles on end, so choose a trail you know you can handle without difficulty.
Also, be prepared for some early mornings. Don’t forget that the sun sets much earlier in the winter months. Plan to be off the trail before dark to avoid getting lost or having an accident.
There are a few basic items that every winter hiker should carry in case of emergency. Aside from basic hiking gear, you should always have a trail map, a first aid kit, a compass, a pocket knife or multi-tool, hand warming packets, and a headlamp. For a day hike, it’s a good idea to split up some of the heavier safety items among the members of your group.
Avid outdoorsman Frank Gibbons, who hikes and backpacks year-round in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, warns that even day hikers should be prepared to spend the night in an emergency. “Every member of the group usually carries some emergency gear like a bivy sack or sleeping bag, down parka, cell phone, sleeping pad (for laying someone down if he is hurt), etc.” While it may mean that your backpack is a bit heavier, it may also mean that you avoid frostbite if you have to stay on the mountain overnight.
Check the weather.
While this might seem like an obvious step, it’s important to get a complete picture of the conditions for your trip, not just the temperature. Look at the precipitation, wind speed, avalanche reports, and daylight hours. I spoke with Peter Crane, the Director of Programs at the Mount Washington Observatory. He advises winter hikers to become knowledgeable about winter weather:
“Do your research, learn about winter conditions and how they vary from summer conditions. It’s really a different world in the winter. A dozen people have died on Mount Washington due to avalanches. When you get above tree line, you have the added challenge of finding your way in limited visibility, or even whiteout conditions.” Be sure your hike is planned for a day when conditions are manageable. The good news is it is very easy to find this kind of weather information, and if the conditions are scary, postpone your hike.
Learn to use crampons.
When the trail is icy, crampons can make the difference between summiting and turning around, but if you use them improperly it’s easy to injure yourself. If you’re new to crampons, read up on techniques and try them out on an easy trail. Practice putting them on and taking them off. Have a more experienced friend show you how to use them going uphill and downhill.
I’ll never forget seeing an obvious beginner jog nonchalantly down an icy rock face in his crampons. One misstep, one stumble, and he could have cut open his leg or sprained an ankle. Take it slow when you’re starting out to avoid accidents. Never forget that crampons are in fact metal spikes attached to your feet!
Hiking with friends is always the way to go, especially in the winter. Not only is it more fun to share the adventure with others, but it’s also safer to be with a group. An experienced friend can help you with choosing gear, using crampons or snowshoes, and identifying dangerous conditions. Also, avid winter hikers usually have extra gloves, hiking poles, and goggles laying around that you could borrow to fill out your packing list. Be sure to leave at least one friend at home who knows where you’re going.
Make tea or cocoa.
It is essential to bring plenty of water when hiking in the winter, as dehydration is a common problem. Add some comfort to your trip by making tea, coffee, or cocoa in a lightweight portable stove, or carrying it with you in a thermos. A hot beverage can warm you up and provide a nice break from the hike. If your water is room temperature, it’s less likely to freeze and it will boil faster. There’s nothing like a hot cocoa break to motivate you for the summit push.
Invest in good gear.
While no two packing lists are exactly the same, there are some basic items that every winter hiker should be prepared to buy. Most avid winter hikers invest in the following items: crampons or snowshoes, waterproof pants and jacket, knee-high gaiters, waterproof boots, an insulated jacket, a lightweight backpack, hiking poles, a camp stove, hats/gloves, and goggles or wrap-around sunglasses. While it’s tempting to take the cheap route and get sub-par gear, I recommend looking for end-of-season sales and coupons instead.
Be prepared to turn around.
Legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs (who has climbed every 8,000 meter peak in the world) once said, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.” Echoing this sentiment, Mr. Crane told me, “The mountains have been here for a long time, and they’ll be here for a long time still.” Don’t hesitate to turn around if you run into conditions that look dangerous. Reaching the summit of a peak is just half the journey, and you must have time and energy left over for the descent. Focus on the entire trip, not just the ascent.
Treat yourself to a great meal.
Lastly, be sure to reward yourself for a job well-done. When I come off a mountain, I like to find the nearest source of comfort food. Sometimes it’s a cozy bar with great burgers, sometimes it’s a lively pizza place. No worries about your appearance and aroma; restaurants at the base of any big peak are used to hikers stopping off for a meal.