Winter is a great season for outdoor pursuits. Most everyone has a favorite winter activity. One of mine is snowshoeing. It’s as close to hiking as I can get, just with insulated boots, and of course the snowshoes.
But before I head out I remind myself that if I don’t take certain precautions, winter conditions can be life-threatening. What follows are a few reminders and tips that I use to stay safe in our winter outdoor state of play.
Planning your hike:
Avoid trails that are known for ice. There’s a lot of ice on Acadia National Park’s trails because of the amount of water that runs off steep mountain slopes, particularly east and west slopes. Once that water freezes, unless you’re equipped with aggressive mountaineering crampons, some trails become impassable due to ice buildup. Snow just slides off them. The Emery Path and Canon Brook Trail are just two examples of ice-prone trails.
The 45 miles of carriage paths are perfect for snowshoeing. If you do snowshoe the carriage paths, stay to one side of the groomed skiing tracks. Call Acadia National Park Headquarters at 288-4338 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday though Friday for current conditions.
The important thing in planning a snowshoe excursion is to have a plan in the first place.
Any one of our state parks makes a great snowshoeing destination. The park roads are great for snowshoeing. They’re level and well drained. Land trust properties as well as community trails also are ideal. Get as much information on your destination as you can find.
Here are a few websites to check for snowshoeing hikes:
healthymainewalks.com: It lists all of the community walks in the state. There’s probably one near you. Check them out to find which ones have snowshoeing trails.
mltn.org: Lists and contact information for all the land trust properties statewide. Most allow snowshoeing.
maine.gov/doc/parks: A great site for every state park and public land.
Don’t overestimate your ability or underestimate the hazards. Be honest in your assessment of your own skills and go prepared to turn back if conditions dictate it. A snowshoe trek on a state park road may not seem like your idea of an adventure, but it’s better than getting in over your head. And it’s a fairly safe place to build experience.
Buddy up. There’s safety in numbers. If you must go solo, leave a plan with someone at home and stick to it. If you feel like you have to change your plan or even the trail you’re taking, call them and leave a message if they aren’t available to talk with directly.
What to pack:
Pack layers. No cotton. It soaks quickly and has no insulating qualities. Layers trap heat between them and keep you warmer. But layering is not just about what you put on, but when. If you start off wearing all the layers you have in your pack, in about a half-hour of even moderate hiking, you’ll soak though at least one inner layer. Then you’ll be wet and colder. It’s all about moisture management, namely sweat. Pack a spare set of dry hats and mitts.
A layering system that works for me might not be the same for you, because we all tolerate cold differently. We also sweat at different rates. I like silk as a base layer. It wicks moisture great. Then I add a polypropylene layer over that. Wool or wool blend is a great midlayer because it’s the only material that gets warmer when wet.
I throw in a down jacket with a hood as an insulating outer layer. And a pair of insulated ski pants when it’s really cold. I add a rain- and windproof shell in case the weather gets ugly. The key is to build a versatile system that works for you.
Pack the 10 essentials: First aid kit, extra water, waterproof matches, map and compass, knife, whistle, sunglasses or better yet goggles to prevent snow blindness, extra food, emergency shelter such as a space blanket and a headlamp. I know that’s 11 items, but map and compass counts as one. Throw in chemical hand and foot warmers for subzero temperatures. Also pack a neoprene face mask. Scarves will work as extra protection.
If you have a cell phone, bring it, but be aware that batteries fail and reception can be spotty, especially in the deep woods and valleys. There are places where you can’t get cell phone coverage. Don’t rely on any single device for your safety.
Pack lots of high-calorie snacksL dried fruit, sardines, jerky, chocolate bars, granola bars, crackers, peanut butter, protein bars. Put them in pockets of your clothes for quick, easy access. Pack a thermos of hot cider or hot chocolate.
Skiers usually use ski poles; snowshoers should too for balance.
On the trail:
Start off needing to get moving to warm up. That way you won’t soak through your base layers. When you do stop for water breaks and views, throw on the outer layers you brought, down or the wind shell. Then, before you move again, take the outer layers off and pack them away before you move.
Wind chill can occur at speeds of as little as 5 mph and temperatures of 40 degrees, believe it or not. At higher wind speeds and lower temperatures cover exposed flesh. Tighten all the cord locks on your clothing and tuck everything in.
Eat often and drink more often. Maybe more than in summer. Winter air actually is drier than summer air. Drink before you’re thirsty. Pack water in insulating bottle holders to prevent freezing.
Know the early signs of hypothermia. If you have the “umbles” — mumbles, fumbles and stumbles — then you’re becoming hypothermic, meaning your body’s core is getting cold. Drink something warm and get to a warm place soon.
By no means are these tips all you need to know to explore winter’s quiet beauty safely. Check out www.themountaineers.org for more winter safety skills and advice.
Winter exploring should be fun, not dangerous. You can have a great time just gaining skills. It’s a unique world in winter. Views look different than the ones you’re familiar with in summer. Mountains just look bigger with snow on them. Whenever we get it that is. But, to use the words of the police captain on that ’80s TV show “Hill Street Blues,” “Let’s be careful out there.”