Winter hiking is ideal for those who crave the peaceful, restorative qualities of being outdoors. The crowds of tourists that flock to popular trailheads in the summer and fall—along with the occasional swarms of black flies and mosquitos—tend to vanish with the last of the foliage. Add to that a blanket of pristine, white snow and a touch of pandemic-induced cabin fever and setting off into the woods can feel especially enticing.
Unique challenges accompany hiking during the colder months, however. A sound plan is vitally important to outdoor adventure at all times of the year, but never more so than when it’s deeply cold and snowy. Preparedness for winter hiking comes in many forms and includes having an idea of where you’re going, how to get there, how long the adventure should take, what you need to bring for the conditions, and what to do if the unexpected happens.
How much experience you need to tackle winter hiking is debatable. But just as you wouldn’t expect to take on Everest without months of training, you probably shouldn’t consider the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, or anything else over 3,000 feet in winter until you’ve put in a lot of time at lower elevations. Everything in winter is relative to the distance from help. You are responsible for yourself, so be prepared.
While shorter daylight hours may just seem like a minor annoyance in day-to-day life, they are critical to account for when planning a winter hike. Virtually every hike will take longer during the winter. If you’re well prepared, you’ll be wearing bulkier clothing, heavier footwear, and carrying a larger pack than you would in summer. Walking on a snowy trail also requires more physical exertion, particularly if the snow is deep. All of this amounts to a much more challenging, time consuming experience than hiking at other times of the year.
If you’re brand new to winter hiking, plan to hit the trail early and start off with short, easy trips so you can learn at your own pace. You should also set a turnaround time, even if you don’t make it to your destination, to help ensure you hike back to the trailhead before dark. It’s better to take a shorter hike and finish early than to overreach and find yourself stuck on the trail as darkness descends and temperatures plummet.
Experts recommend hiking with a companion or a group in the winter since the risk of injury or other misadventure may be greater. This is especially true if you’re new to winter hiking. Hiking with a more experienced friend or going on an organized trip, like those run by the AMC Chapters or AMC Staff, is safer and offers the opportunity to learn important skills.
When planning a trip, make sure you honestly assess your entire group’s experience level so you pick a hike that everyone can safely complete. Newcomers to winter hiking should start off with short hikes on terrain without a lot of elevation gain. Groups should also stay together, move at the pace of their slowest member, and stop at all trail intersections to check in with each other so no one falls behind or takes a wrong turn. If you’ve had trouble staying in hiking shape this year, you may find this home workout helpful.
Navigating a Changed Landscape
Carefully assess the terrain you’ll be covering and research the local climate and conditions before heading out. Avoid hiking if heavy snow, high winds, or subzero temperatures are forecasted. You should also be aware of recent or forecasted rain and unusually warm temperatures which can cause snowpack to become unstable and make trails slushy. Rainfall followed by a freeze can cause slippery ice to form on trails.
If you know you’ll be encountering a river or stream on your route, make sure you’re prepared and consult resources beforehand. It’s also never more important to pack your map and compass, and know how to use them. Snowpack can obscure the trail, along with trail markers, like signs and cairns, which makes it especially easy to get lost.
Changes in elevation can also have a dramatic effect on trail conditions and weather. The conditions at the base of a mountain are no indication of what it will be like at the summit. As you travel higher, you will encounter colder, windier conditions along with more snow and ice. If you’re new to hiking in winter, start out at lower elevations, where you can still find breathtaking scenery and gain the much-needed experience to work your way up to peaks like New Hampshire’s 4000-footers.
If choosing the right hike feels intimidating, check out our guide on How to Find Local Recreation Opportunities. AMC also offers a wide range of maps and guidebooks for all skill levels. If you will be hiking in the White Mountain National Forest, call AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center Trails Information Desk at 603-466-2721 for advice on your itinerary as well as up to date trail and weather conditions.
Always consider the possibility of something going wrong on your trip. While scary to think about, imagining the worst will help you a plan a safer hike. In advance of your trip, connect with your hiking partner or group to evaluate whether you’ll have the necessary skills and tools if there’s an accident or other misadventure. What if someone breaks a bone or develops hypothermia? What if you’re stuck out on the trail overnight or get lost? What if the weather turns bad quickly? Discuss what scenarios would cause you to turn back and familiarize yourself with potential bail out points on your route or other nearby trails that could lead you to safety more quickly. Overcoming a challenging situation won’t be nearly as daunting if everyone is on the same page.
To help potential rescuers, tell a friend or loved one your plans, including what trails you’ll be hiking, who is on the trip with you and when you plan to return. If you’re hiking in the White Mountain National Forest, you should also consider buying a Hike Safe card for yourself or your family. This will limit your liability to repay costs in the event of a rescue and the revenue from sales gooes into New Hampshire’s Search and Rescue Fund. Depending on where you choose to hike, you may also need to buy a permit or make a reservation, like at Maine’s Baxter State Park.
Finally, never be worried or embarrassed about canceling your trip if the weather or conditions are too challenging. As the saying goes, the mountains will be there another day.
Hiking in winter means packing more gear in addition to the usual Ten Essentials. If you’re unfamiliar with them, the Ten Essentials are the pieces of gear that you need to have in your pack regardless of destination or season. They include: a topographic map and compass; extra clothing; extra food and water; a flashlight or headlamp; matches or firestarter; a first aid kit and gear repair kit; whistle; pocketknife; and weatherproof upper and lower layers.
On a winter hike, consider bringing an emergency shelter, sunscreen and sunglasses, extra warm laters, handwarmers, and trekking poles with snow baskets on the bottom for extra stability. A favorite extra piece of gear among AMC trip leaders is a sleeping pad or other foam pad to sit on when you take breaks. This allows you to avoid sitting directly on cold, wet ice or snow. When packing water, avoid using removable bladders (like Camelpacks) since the tube and mouthpiece are exposed and likely to freeze. Instead, bring water bottles insulated with a bottle parka or heavy wool sock and pack them upside down—water freezes from the top down so this will keep the cap and mouth of the bottle accessible. If you’re in avalanche country, make sure you have and understand how to use avalanche rescue gear. Without the proper knowledge, many outdoor items are useless.
Depending on your route, you may need some form of traction gear. Microspikes have better grip and are ideal for use on trails with hardpacked snow and moderate inclines for stability and traction—as a bonus, they’re easy to take on and off! Snowshoes are invaluable for navigating fresh or deep snowfall, so you don’t tire yourself out trudging through deep powder. Crampons, with their large, imposing spikes are only necessary for extremely steep and icy terrain. During your hike, you may find yourself alternating between using different traction devices so be sure to take more than one option if the terrain may call for it. Be mindful that while there may packed snow at the trailhead that only requires microspikes, those traveling to higher elevations or more exposed terrain may encounter deep, drifted snow that requires snowshoes.
If you’re going on an overnight trip, make sure you also know where you can stay (tent, cabin, lean-to, hut, etc.) and consider pulling your gear on a sled if the terrain allows rather than overloading your backpack.
Hiking in the winter months doesn’t have to be intimidating. All it requires is a little extra planning and a little more respect for the outdoors and your own limits. If you’re new to it, don’t be too hard on yourself when hiking slowly or needing to turn back before you reach your destination. As with anything else, there’s no substitute for experience. Who knows? Next summer you might find yourself on a busy trail daydreaming about returning to it during the more tranquil days of winter.