The Ups and Downs of Winter Hiking… I’m Not Talking Elevation
Winter hiking is very beautiful. Winter camping is cold AF. When I started my SOBO AT thru-hike in June of 2017 I did not foresee a January 2018 finish, but it happened. So did winter.
Winter hiking is good.
The leaves are all down, so views are all around on any ridge or mountaintop. I hiked with my friend Smiles during coldest of the cold days (polar vortex days) in December and there were a few notable conversations about leaving the trail to return and enjoy the end of our trek in the spring. (Here is a blog entry I wrote on one of those days.) But we tried to remember that we were experiencing the trail in a way many thru-hikers miss because they aren’t out in the winter. Snow and ice is rough, and it can definitely slow you down, but it’s beautiful. When you are up high enough that everything–literally everything–is frosted over, it’s like a different world. Think Narnia during Age of Winter. It’s hard to describe and hard to capture in a picture, but it’s real and it’s amazing.
While bathroom and snack stops can result in chilly extremities, as long as you are moving, warmth is (mostly) feasible. However, finding the sweet spot with clothing layers can be a challenge. As many are aware, sweating through your clothes is a good thing to avoid in the winter. Cold is a bummer, but wet and cold can be dangerous. As a result, I was donning and doffing layers incessantly—I’m talking gloves, hat, fleece, rain shells, etc. Wind and cloudy skies had me throwing on more layers, while sunshine and hard climbs had me stripping down. This may sound like a hassle, and it is. But it’s worth it, because Narnia.
Snow/ice are not super fun to walk on. We may have eaten it a few times. We carried microspikes and threw those on for very icy sections. A lot of times we navigated around dangerously slick spots. But for the most part, we just walked slowly, and relied very, very heavily on trekking poles.
On the flip side, fresh powder is a little easier on your feet than the plain, old rocky trail. There was one morning, ironically just north of Hot Springs, when we literally ran/skied down a four-mile descent because the wind was biting our faces so fucking hard. I cannot imagine having slammed the weight of my body and pack down on the trail like that without a layer of powder to cushion my footfalls.
Winter camping is a bitch.
All of the positive things I just said you can enjoy about a winter hike do not apply to camping. At camp you are, relatively speaking, sedentary. Staying warm is so much tougher.
I carried layers that I almost never wore during a hike just so I could put them all on as soon as I got into camp. For example, I never hiked in these these socks, but wore them over my wool hiking socks every single night. I rarely kept these gloves accessible during the day but often wore them, under the lightweight mittens I hiked in, while at camp. These wool leggings, with the exception of a couple super cold days, acted as pajama bottoms which I threw on over my hiking tights every evening. There were some brutal nights that kept me chilly despite wearing everything I had. But, usually, if temps were in the teens (Fahrenheit) or above, I was comfortable enough to rest really well. Would I have preferred fresh-out-of-the-dryer PJ’s and… I don’t know… heat? Yasss. But, the goal is really just to be warm enough to get the sleep you need so you can get moving in the morning and start sweating again. You aren’t gonna feel toasty on a below-zero night, but if you don’t die of hypothermia while you sleep, that’s a win in my book.
With freezing temps come water woes, but they are manageable. First and foremost, hikers gotta hydrate. This means being forced to drink really cold water, even when you are already cold. None of that “cold treats are for summer-time” nonsense. If you are not the type of person to enjoy ice cream on a blustery winter day, then 1) you are wrong; ice cream is always good, but 2) consider an ice cold bottle of water while hanging out in freezing temps. Staying hydrated in the cold definitely requires conscious effort because water is not as tasty as ice cream, but it’s important so the effort must be made.
When it comes to purifying practices, I used a filter during most of my thru-hike, but switched to iodine tablets for the last month or so because keeping a filter from freezing when the water you are filtering is freezing, literally before your eyes, seemed impossible. I know that extended iodine use is often not recommended, but there is a ton of info out there about such guidelines, and I felt comfy using it for the month or so that I did. This is one article that helped put me at ease. (Please take time to do your own research on this if you have concerns.) Chlorine drops and/or boiling are additional options for purification when a filter is not practical.
I also slept with my water bottles inside my sleeping bag; they will freeze overnight otherwise. Retrieving water from a source in the morning rather than at night is one way to avoid this necessity, but my nighttime routine included cooking with water and drinking a liter before I went to sleep, so I got it all at once, and kept my extras in my sleeping bag so I could get moving in the morning without another stop. It’s not crazy-comfortable but it works. Go body heat!
Setting up / taking down camp
These parts of a winter day are not nice. Sometimes they are painful. Even warm-weather campers can attest that getting up and moving in the morning takes some resolve. So does setting up camp after a long day of hiking. When it’s cold outside, it takes all the resolve. In the morning, you are dying to get moving so you can warm up. At night, you are dying to get into your sleeping bag so you can warm up. This is instinctive. It’s your body telling you to quit doing whatever you are doing in the cold and go warm up. But, your brain just has to be like, “Body? You know what? If we don’t put up this tent and cook some noodles right now, we are gonna die tonight.” In the morning, your brain has to be like, “Body? We gotta pack all this gear up and take it with us, or we’re gonna die tonight.”
The concept is simple. Camp must me made and unmade. Even when it’s cold.
Will freeze. Even waterproof boots will eventually soak through, and then freeze overnight. (I’m definitely on the waterproof boots train for the snow, but some people do it in breathable shoes. That could be a whole other essay.) All I have to say is that forcing your feet into frozen footwear is, in my opinion, far and above, the worst part of winter camping. You may think I’m being dramatic, but I’m just telling you, until you do it, you cannot understand how much it hurts. And the only thing to do about it is what thru-hikers do about most ailments—walk it off. It takes some time for your feet to even remember they are feet. Then the muscles start working, but your toes still hurt for many, many minutes—sometimes hours, depending on how cold the morning is. It’s terrible. But, you’re feet will warm up. They will.
And by the time they do you are probably already starting to sweat. Which means–yay!–it’s time to enjoy the day’s winter hike.
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