This story was originally published in February 2012.
This incomplete list of things that can ruin winter hiking is based on my outdoor experiences. I hope it helps you hike successfully in the cold.
Long rest breaks. As soon as you stop moving, you start to cool down. If you’ve been sweating, the moisture will cool you down further. Hypothermia usually sets in when a person isn’t moving. Solution: Keep your breaks short or stand up and move around a little bit on your breaks.
Snacks that freeze. A caramel snack bar sounds delicious, until it nearly breaks your teeth. Solution: Don’t pack snacks that freeze, and if you do, warm them up with your hands before chomping down. Try jerky, a granola bar or nuts.
Deciding that you don’t need water. Bad idea. You need to stay hydrated. It may seem weird, but a swig of cold water will actually keep you warm. Solution: Force yourself to drink water.
Falling down. Ice is out there, and usually it’s hidden under snow. You don’t have to be clumsy to fall while hiking. One moment of inattention, and you’re on your butt. Solution: wear ice cleats or crampons if hiking in a slippery area. Ice cleats make you feel invincible. Snowshoes with metal traction spikes are also a good idea, if there’s enough snow. Most of all, pay attention and don’t try to hike above your skill level in the winter.
Starting late. The sun sets early this time of year. Bad visibility leads to injuries. Solution: Start your hike early and bring a headlamp or flashlight.
No hat. A lot of heat escapes from the top of your head. I actually regulate my body temperature by taking my hat on and off. Too hot? Take it off. Too cold? Put it on. Solution: Wear a hat, preferably a fleece- or fur-lined hat.
Frozen batteries. Batteries die faster in the cold. That means your camera, SteriPEN and other gadgets that run on batteries might die mid-hike. Believe me, this is something I have to deal with. Solution: Bring an extra battery and keep it wrapped up in your extra mitten or hat.
Cold hands. I’m not a fan of frostbite. The extremities become very uncomfortable when they start to freeze. They burn and ache, and pretty soon you can’t move them at all. Sound fun? Solution: Wear warm gloves, but also consider packing an extra pair or at least bring an extra face warmer or hat to wrap around your hand if you lose a glove. Oftentimes mittens are warmer than gloves.
Wearing too much. When you start out a hike, your body is cold. In the winter, you’re wearing a base layer, a fleece, a shell jacket, hat, mittens, face warmer, maybe another fleece tucked in there somewhere – because you’re cold, right? Well, as soon as you get moving, you warm up. Then you start to sweat. The more you sweat, the colder you’ll be when you finally take a break and the sweat cools. Sweat increases a person’s risk of becoming hypothermic. Solution: Wear layers to start out, but when you feel yourself heating up, take some layers off and put them in your pack. You’ll end up putting them on again if the wind picks up or the temperature drops.
Incorrect footwear. I hate it when my feet are cold. Toes help you balance, and if you can’t feel them because they’re numb with cold, good luck. Solution: Wear boots that are graded for the temperature you’ll be hiking in. Visit a footwear store with knowledgeable employees. Most winter boots have a certain temperature written on the box. But if someone tells you that the boots are graded for 0 º F, that is for the active person. In other words, you have to be walking. If you’re sitting in 0 º F, your feet won’t be warm enough. Keep that in mind. That’s why hunters need warmer boots than hikers. I know people who hike in the winter in their summer hiking boots with really warm wool socks. You can try that out, but don’t go far. Everyone is different, but you don’t want to get in trouble if you’re miles down a trail. Sometimes
Not wearing sunglasses. Snowblindness isn’t just a thing that happens to mountaineers tackling Annapurna. For some reason sunglasses have been linked with summer, but when sun reflects off snow, it’s blinding. Solution: Wear some polarized lenses if it’s a sunny day, whether you’re on the beach or snowshoeing.