No Excuse For Winter Hiking

It may be winter, but that's no reason to stop hiking.

You may be looking outside and seeing nothing but white right about now. Too many of you take that as an invitation to stay indoors and avoid taking a hike. Shame on you. If you're going to atrophy into a couch potato we should take away your subscription to Backpacker right now.

These days, no rational reason exists to avoid a winter excursion. You don't have to be cold, you don't have to get wet, and you don't have to slip and slide all over the landscape. Get the right gear and you can stay warm, keep dry, and have decent traction on any winter surface, be it ice, snow, mud, or all of the above.

Yes, extreme conditions arise from time to time, and you'll be uncomfortable on occasion. But that's true of spring, summer, and fall, too. Your primary winter concerns are threefold: hypothermia, getting lost, and getting hurt. But how's that different than summer? You can still get lost or hurt, and heat exhaustion can be every bit as dangerous as hypothermia. Better still, a little preparation can help you reduce the risk of any of these problems. For example, a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver can help you stay on track during near whiteout conditions (though you really shouldn't be moving during a full whiteout, unless it's absolutely necessary).

No, winter is one of my favorite times to get outdoors, and you'll have a hard time convincing me otherwise. Besides not having to worry about allergies, I can think of nearly a dozen reasons why you should try winter hiking:

  • No problem finding water. Sure, you may have to fire up the stove to melt snow, but you won't have to carry 2 gallons (16 pounds) of dead weight in your pack.
  • No need to follow trails. With good navigational skills you can wander virtually anywhere on snowpack without worrying much about your environmental impact. You still need to be sensitive to biologically fragile systems, but you don't need to carve another groove into the trail ruts.
  • No crowds, even in the most popular wilderness areas. Winter is one time you can count on not seeing anyone else on most trails. No rude campers a few hundred feet away making too much noise, no fighting over the best campsite, no random litter lining the trail. (Note: You'll need to avoid trails that allow or are adjacent to snowmobile routes to achieve total solitude.)
  • No waiting for permits. Because almost no one hikes in winter, getting the necessary permits usually doesn't take preplanning or involve wait lists. In August I've sat at the entrance of Alaska's Denali National Park for as long as a week waiting for a backcountry permit. For winter hikes, getting a permit usually takes only as long as you want to talk to a ranger.
  • Rangers are more approachable. In the busy summer months, it's sometimes hard to get park staff talking about their experiences and all the things they know about the park that aren't printed anywhere. You can't blame them, what with carloads of unprepared families demanding their attention during the peak months. In winter, though, I've had rangers spontaneously decide to come hiking with me. It's like having a professional guide hang out with you for free. And quite frankly, most rangers tell better stories than the professional guides I've met.
  • It's easier to track wildlife. Winter is a great time to learn wildlife tracking skills, since the signs are harder to miss.
  • No pesky bears. True, a rampant moose can be every bit as threatening as a bear, but at least the moose doesn't see you as a potential meal. Although you don't have to worry about carrying mooseproof food containers, you should hang your food.
  • Bugs, what bugs? Mosquitoes, flies, bees, wasps, and other nasty insects are mostly a memory. Snakes still roam some of the non-snow country, as do scorpions, but in general the air and ground troops won't harass you.
  • "Real" weather. Maybe it's because I'm a photographer that a long series of sunny, no-cloud-in-the-sky days just isn't as interesting to me as approaching storms, changing weather patterns, cloud formations, and falling snow. True, whiteouts and blizzard conditions are drawbacks, but choice of locale, careful attention to weather patterns, and diligent preparation all can mitigate the chances of severe weather ruining your winter walk.
  • Drinks in your trunk stay cool. If you're one of those hikers who just has to have a treat waiting for you at the end of the trail, you've no doubt encountered your share of hot trunk beverages and melted chocolate. In the winter, just stick everything into a cooler (so they don't get too cold) in the trunk for the perfect post-hike treat. (What's that? You want a hot toddy, instead? Sorry, can't help you.)

Of course, to be fair, I should note that I'm a bit of a hypocrite. While I'm exhorting you to get out into the winter wilderness, I'll be wandering around Patagonia, South America, basking in the inverted seasons of the southern hemisphere.

Or maybe not. As any visitor to Patagonia can tell you, even summer can be like winter there.