Prep for winter hiking and you’ll be ready for anything

A good shoe for winter hiking trips will have a tough sole and waterproof outer layer.
Janet Hostetter | MCT
A good shoe for winter hiking trips will have a tough sole and waterproof outer layer.
Posted Nov. 18, 2011, at 11:43 a.m.
High winds blast jets of ice, creating a mist-like effect below the pinnacles near Mt. Whitney (right). At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. When hiking in the winter, always be prepared for the change in weather that comes with the change in altitude.
David Whiting | MCT
High winds blast jets of ice, creating a mist-like effect below the pinnacles near Mt. Whitney (right). At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. When hiking in the winter, always be prepared for the change in weather that comes with the change in altitude.

In the parking lot at the base of the Harding Trail in California, Gerry Loughman greets me for our first Mount Kilimanjaro training hike.

It’s cold and raining, and we’ve barely discussed our outdoor experiences, much less hiking in a storm. Concerned about safety, I ask if he’s prepared.

With the brogue of a man born and raised on a farm near Dublin, Loughman grins from beneath a hood and says, “Rain? Hey, I’m Irish.”

We head up the Harding Trail. The higher we go, the harder the rain falls, the faster the wind blows and the deeper the chill seeps into my bones.

After an hour, I’m still dry and relatively warm inside my waterproof jacket with a monster hood. But I’ve forgotten a few things.

Like how cold exposed hands can get.

It has been a while since I’ve hiked with trekking poles and I confess, “My hands are freezing. How are you doing?”

Loughman, tough Irishman that he is, replies with mild surprise, “Really? I’m fine.”

Come February, I have a feeling we’ll have similar exchanges in Africa.

Hypothermia

In many respects, Orange County was fortunate to get cold storms so early in the year.

The unusually early storms helped plants and critters, reduced fire danger and prepped local ski resorts for a strong season. And unlike the epic weather we sometimes see in December, the storms were a gentle reminder of how to prepare for winter.

Winter? Yes, winter.

Living in balmy southern California, it’s easy to dismiss a little rain, a dip in temperatures. But the protection and low elevations of our trail head parking lots belie what’s often above. Real winter.

At 5,600 feet, Saddleback Mountain sees its share of gusting rain, snow, hail — and searches and rescues.

As Loughman and I near our turn-around time on the Harding, it’s only in the low 40s. And we’re less than 3,000 feet above sea level. But as we ascend into the clouds, the wind picks up and so does the risk of hypothermia.

My core starts to chill. In my pack I carry a polyester long-sleeve shirt. But I don’t want to slow our hike nor do I want to put on what is undoubtedly a wet shirt.

Dumb.

Unlike cotton, polyester helps retain body heat even when wet. Had I put on the shirt, my hands would have remained cold but my torso would have been toasty.

At least I’m not shivering, the first sign of hypothermia when the body tries its best to warm up.

Synthetic clothes

When heading into the outdoors during our colder months, it’s important to wear the right attire and take along a few extra items.

Proper clothing is especially important when going into the Santa Ana Mountains or even venturing into our coastal range. It’s surprising how cold low ridge lines become when wind blasts off the ocean.

Wear synthetic pants, a synthetic shirt and sturdy boots or trail shoes. Stow away an extra shirt jacket, a hat with a visor to keep the rain out of your eyes and a waterproof-windproof jacket.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget gloves.

Also, keep in mind the days are shorter, and that means darkness arrives faster than one might anticipate.

If you hit snow, particularly in the San Gabriels or San Bernardino mountains, keep in mind it can take four times longer to cover a route you blasted in the summer.

I’ll mention that this column is limited to hiking tips and isn’t about winter trekking equipment. But the slower paces and early sunsets mean at least one piece of life-saving equipment — a headlamp.

Storm beauty

As Loughman and I head down, the rain eases up a bit and we can make out the steep, rugged escarpments of the Harding watershed and the verdant oak and sycamore forests that run through Modjeska Canyon.

As wisps of cloud thread their way through ravines, the vista is a reminder of the special beauty of Orange County during a storm.

But as I approach my car, all I can think about is warming my hands. I click my remote to unlock the car but my fingers are too numb to turn the key in the ignition.

I press my palms together and somehow get the car started. But I stuff my hands in my armpits to get enough dexterity to drive.

And Loughman? He’s good to go.

Winter hiking tips

Some important things to wear, bring and do:

• Waterproof-windproof jacket with hood

• Synthetic pants

• Polyester shirt, extra one in pack

• Sturdy boots or trail shoes

• Visor for rain

• Headlamp

• Food, water

• Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return

• Gloves!

 

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