Winter Hiking: What to Know Before You Go
For many, winter can be the ideal time to take a hike on the Appalachian Trail — or pretty much any trail! Leafless trees allow for miles-long views, the cool air keeps the crowds at bay, and there isn’t much that is more satisfying than sipping hot cocoa next to a hot campfire (in a designated fire ring, of course). However, winter has earned its reputation for danger for many good reasons, and being prepared for your winter hike is one of the best ways to ensure that your cold-temperature adventures are both safe and enjoyable.
Before setting out on your winter A.T. adventure, remember these tips for a successful cold-weather hike.
Don’t forget that winter weather can change from week to week. Howling winds, temperatures in the teens, and almost a foot of snow to trudge through are not exactly the ingredients for a “wonderful, completely uneventful night” on the Trail. It’s not uncommon to see February days in the 60s and April days below freezing along the A.T., so be flexible with your dates and go when the weather is kind.
Do your research.
During winter, many facilities on public lands are closed, meaning that spigot you were depending on to fill up your water bottles before your hike may not be so dependable. Visit the website of the local land manager and contact them if necessary, to find out what’s open and what’s not, including things like roads, bathrooms and campgrounds. If you are new to winter hiking, consider a section of the Trail that you have hiked on in the summer for your first winter outing.
Be an underachiever.
You may crush 20-mile days in the summer, but the winter is a different ballgame. There could be snow or mud that slows your progress; moreover, it’ll be dark by five o’clock. Always bring a headlamp, even on a short day hike, and plan fewer miles than you normally would — better to watch the sunset from your living room than to be shivering your way down a dark Trail.
Get the right gear.
Layering is crucial in the winter, as you want to stay warm without getting too sweaty since moisture will chill you quickly as soon as you stop moving. Your base layer should fit snugly, as moisture-wicking material has to be in direct contact with skin to work well; and don’t wear any cotton, because it holds moisture.
As far as footwear goes, traction support is necessary if the Trail is covered in snow or ice — wear snowshoes for snow, and MICROspikes®, which you strap on to your normal hiking shoes, or even crampons for ice.
The margin for error on the Trail is much thinner in winter than in summer. Always bring an emergency shelter and a headlamp even on a short day hike, because the days themselves are short and this is one case where a few ounces can save your life. Be sure to also bring an extra insulating layer and a waterproof layer, like a rain jacket, even if skies are blue when you set out. And remember to have a plan for human waste — a trowel is a good start, but consider bringing a “wag bag” if the ground may be frozen and/or covered in snow.
Bring extra snacks.
Anyone who has broken trail through deep snow can attest to how difficult winter hiking can be. Your body is working hard to get you to the summit – feed it! Pack some extra snacks and water even for short day hikes. Sugary food like candy and dried fruit can feed your body’s furnace if you start to feel cold. The tubes on hydration packs can freeze, so opt for water bottles (and store them upside down so the end you drink from doesn’t freeze – just make sure the lid is on tight!).
Elevation makes big differences in temperature and weather. An area just 1,000 to 2,000 feet higher than your neighborhood may have significantly more snow on the ground, particularly if it’s an area with little sun. If possible, check weather forecasts for an area with a similar elevation near where you’re headed instead of just the nearest town. Weather data for individual peaks can sometimes be found online.
Be extra prepared if you plan to hike above treeline in New England or along the high-elevation balds near the southern end of the A.T. Without the cover of trees, wind chill can cause temperatures to drop significantly lower than in the valleys and whiteout conditions can strike with little warning.
Don’t be afraid (or too proud) to quit.
Sometimes conditions are worse than you expected, or you realize a mile in that you left your headlamp in the car. Hypothermia and frostbite are completely preventable in an era with heated cars and homes, and being out in the woods in winter is not the time to be stubborn. Know the signs of cold injuries (numb, waxy skin) and the beginning stages of hypothermia (shivering, clumsiness), and don’t ignore them. It’s always an option to turn around – the Trail will be there another day.
The A.T. wove its way into Amanda Wheelock’s life when she moved from Georgia to New Hampshire to attend Dartmouth College. There, she worked on a Trail crew, taught backpacking, and hiked from Hanover to Moosilauke because it was “tradition.” She quickly discovered that her love of long-distance trails was more than just a college fling.
Amanda now works for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition and stays connected to her first love by volunteering on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Next Generation Advisory Council. “Writing about winter hiking toward the end of a year jam-packed with change gave me a welcome opportunity to look back at a wonderful weekend spent on the A.T.”
Chris Gallaway, a writer, photographer and filmmaker, has produced this beautiful and calming short video featuring winter hiking and spring thaw. Chris and his wife, “Sunshine,” live in Black Mountain, North Carolina with their young son and infant daughter.
Chris’ award-winning production company, Horizonline Pictures, produced ATC’s exceptional myATstory video series, which featured inspiring stories and individuals from the Appalachian Trail. Chris also produced and developed the critically-acclaimed documentary,“The Long Start to the Journey,” which chronicles his 2013 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Header image provided by “weathercarrot.”