Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hiking In Winter Basics

Get The Right Gear: I'll cover this topic further in the winter gear list and perhaps even the glossary if you're unfamiliar with some of the terminology of winter hiking. By placing Gear first I do not mean to imply that it is the most important topic when it comes to winter hiking. I don't think that it is, but I do think that having the right gear will help you to enjoy your first winter experiences so much more that it could make the decision as to whether or not you continue to winter hike! IF all you have is summer trail shoes, a light weight pair of cotton pants, perhaps a fleece jacket and a shell, then please, get the proper gear first and assure that you'll be warm and safe and have an enjoyable outing your first time out.
        No, I do not think that you need to go out and spend a fortune to purchase all the "needed" gear. I think that with some scavenging through the closet, some judicious shopping, a bit of borrowing and maybe even a trial rental or two, you can have all that you need without breaking the bank. I confess I do prefer many of the newer fabrics and high tech gear but I also know that people were hiking and enjoying the outdoors in winter long before any of these products were even imagined!
        Remember though, when winter hiking you may well find yourself in a rather cold and possibly uncomfortable environment and the only means of escape is a long walk back to the car. Even that's assuming that you don't get momentarily misplaced or a minor injury slows you down to the point where you will have to be able to keep yourself warm for as long as it takes. That's why it's so important to have at least a modest amount of the proper gear and to consider the next topic on the list...

Find Some Experienced Companions: All right, I must say that for those of you with little to no winter experience, this point is actually more important than the gear point. When I stressed the importance of the gear being first I was going under the assumption that if you were looking to winter hike than you most likely had some basic experience with the outdoors. If not, just swap this with the gear point and you'll be fine! Sure, you can learn on your own and from reading books but you'll learn much faster and have a much better time if you take your first few real winter hikes with someone that has some winter experience. If it's very cold out you'll find that simple things you never gave a thought to before are suddenly quite challenging! Things like having a bite to eat for example.

Start Small: It's much better to get out and have some fun, enjoy yourself and get comfortable with the winter environment on shorter, safer hikes than it is to plan Mount Washington as your first excursion. You're also going to find that you'll be carrying much more weight in your pack even if it's just a for a short day hike. Also, if you've never tried snowshoeing you may find that it's often much more tiring than regular hiking. You'll have an extra five or six pounds on your feet!

Leave An Itinerary: It's a good idea to practice this on all your hikes but in winter it becomes even more important. No need to make a big deal of it but make sure someone knows where you're planning on going and what to do if you don't return as scheduled.

Understand Hypothermia: Why is hypothermia listed in the basics you ask? Because it is the number one killer of winter hikers and it is also a subject that most outdoors people know too little about! Simply put, hypothermia is a potentially fatal condition that results from your body being unable to maintain its core temperature. When that happens it begins to restrict blood flow to the extremities like your hands and feet in an attempt to keep your vital organs warm. The clinical definition would be, "Hypothermia: A decrease in the core body temperature to a level at which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired." It's vital that you realize that this condition can and does happen in ambient temperatures in the 40s and even 50s. It does not have to be 10 below for you to be concerned. The best advice I can give you is to learn as much as you can about hypothermia before you get too involved in any outdoor activity that does not provide one with access to immediate medical attention if needed.
Have Fun!: Yep, that sure sounds pretty basic but you need to know that hiking in the winter can be an absolute blast! So please, don't let all the details get you confused. They're not nearly as daunting as they at first may seem. If you start slow and get out there for a sunny afternoon stroll in the woods you'll love it and quickly be wanting more. In no time at all you'll be having so much fun you'll be wondering why it took you so long to try this!
With the basics covered above you're ready to start thinking about what you'll need for gear. This can get a bit confusing simply because it depends a great deal on exactly what you decide to do for a hike. Climbing a four thousand footer or venturing above treeline may require substantially more gear than a simple, level, couple mile hike into a pond or ledge or what have you. For that reason I'm going to try to give you enough information about the gear that I would say you should have for a short 3 or 4 hours out in the woods to what you'll need for climbing K2. Ok, perhaps not K2, but something in the Presidential Range for example. Just keep in mind that if you're going to start with a nice short walk on a well traveled trail to a nearby outlook you probably won't need to be as concerned with some of the points I mention. The point is to get out there and have fun! Be safe, be cautious but do not let that detract from seeing and hearing the beauty of the forest in winter!
        I'll tell you right up front that the gear list or any similar list is a very personal thing. Some people take much less, some much more. In my opinion it depends greatly on your level of experience with hiking in general. If you've been hiking in the Spring and Fall for years you're probably pretty familiar with how your body responds to cold, wind, etc. You're also more likely to know what you feel you should carry for first aid and other "emergencies."
        There's also the risk factor to consider. Only you know how much risk you are comfortable with. I know of many winter hikers that carry much less than I would feel is adequate in winter but they look at it differently. In their opinion the worse thing that can happen is that they have to spend a cold night outdoors or something similar. For me, it's not worth risking my toes or fingers to frostbite or worse, risking my life, in the name of having fun or trying to prove something out in the winter wonderland!

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