I hiked a few miles to and from our fitness center this morning and it was glorious. The air was clean, visibility unlimited, and the sky bluer than blue with just a few cumulus scattered about like perfectly placed ornaments on a Christmas tree. It was also 19 degrees!
In most cases, cold weather should not keep you from training for next year’s John Muir Trail hike, or keep you from enjoying one of the best times of the year. The summer fires – and concomitant smoke and haze – are long gone, the flying pests are dead, the crowds are out shopping, the UV index is hovering around 3, and (if you dress appropriately) you can complete the most strenuous hike without breaking a sweat. All great stuff!
Here are a few tips you may find useful, should you decide to venture out when most of your friends and family are drinking hot toddies around the fireplace. Note: although most people have no problem exerting themselves in cold weather, there are a few exceptions. First, it can get too cold. For me – a healthy, 62-year-old male – the limit is the low single digits. Different people react differently to different temperatures, but I would not recommend going out, even if you are in great health, if the ambient air temperature is below zero. Second, if you have respiratory problems like asthma or COPD, too cold might be considerably warmer. My wife has mild asthma, so she doesn’t go hiking when it is below 20. For you it might be 30 or higher. Talk to your medical professional before venturing out.
On to the tips!
You Gotta Layer. You will want to experiment some at different temperatures to find what works for you, but I’ve settled on three layers: one for when I am really exerting myself (e.g., during an extended ascent), two for when I am on level or descending terrain, and three for breaks. Don’t take breaks? In my opinion you still need that third layer, in case you have an accident and have to stop walking. My base layer is usually a mid-weight, long-sleeved, sweatshirt made of some high-tech fabric. My second layer is fleece, and my third layer is something with some insulation AND is waterproof. Below the waist I have mid-weight hiking pants and I pack a set of silk weight long underwear. None of these, including (especially?) my socks, are cotton.
You Gotta Stay Cool. If you are hiking in the winter you MUST stay dry. That not only means avoiding falls into streams, it means no sweating! Even with synthetic fabrics, dampness increases the risks of hypothermia. Take the time when you get to the bottom of that hill to remove a layer. Try to stay at the cool end of your comfort zone whenever you are walking.
Pack Something Warm for Breaks. If you have read my book or this blog, you know I adore the perfect break. In winter, there is no better complement to a great view and a good seat than warm soup, stew, or a pasta dish, served piping hot from an insulated carrier. Combine that with a warm beverage and it is heaven-on-earth.
Plan Shorter Jaunts. If your normal training hike is eight miles, consider six. If six is more your speed, consider four. You will find that you will exert yourself more when hiking in the cold. If you are walking through snow or over slippery surfaces, it will be even more exhausting. Remember, also, that you will have far fewer hours of daylight in the winter (particularly if you live in the mid-latitudes, as I do).
Be Extra Careful. Remember that hiking in the winter can carry additional risks. A broken leg and a night in the wilderness without shelter might be uncomfortable in June. It could be deadly in January. Do what you can to mitigate the risks: carry the ten essentials (plus a rescue whistle), leave a hike plan with someone, bring a companion, and keep to the trails.
Don’t let the cold weather intimidate you. Get out there and enjoy it!
Good hiking, Ray