Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Day Hiking in the Winter

Winter snow and ice on the Pocosin Hollow trail in Shenandoah National Park
A day hike in the winter can be a wonderful experience. Cold, brisk days. Outstanding views you can’t see in the summer. No insects. Few visitors. Ice sculptures on cliff faces and waterfalls.

But it also requires some careful planning so it becomes an experience to treasure and not to dread. Winter hiking usually involves winter travel. That means walking on snow and ice. In normally warmer climates, when winter precipitation falls, snow can thaw then melt, making for icy travel (such as in Shenandoah National Park where I just walked an eight mile circuit hike in snow and ice). Snow walking can easily sap your strength quicker than you realize. It’s important when planning a day hike to use wisdom for calculating time and distance. Don’t be afraid to limit your hike for the day. It’s better to walk the trail and return safely with limbs intact than try for a higher mile day, slip due to fatigue and sprain an ankle or worse.
Snow filled Appalachian Trail

When walking on snow and ice, some sort of traction device on your feet is wise and makes for better assurance on the trail. Yaktrax work well in snowy conditions. Microspikes (such as Kahtoola) are useful in steeper and icier terrain. When walking in snow, use trekking poles to help with balance and give support in icy spots or over stream crossings. Take care that sometimes snow will cover rocks and logs in the path that could trip you up. Also, you are working ligaments and tendons much more in snow. Don’t overdo it or it can set you up for overuse injury such as straining a calf muscle, overworking the arch in your foot, or putting a strain on the Achilles tendon. It's also a good idea to use gaiters to keep snow and ice out of your boots. Once inside your boot, the snow can chill your feet and even cause frostbite and blister issues.

When contemplating a winter hike, be sure you carry necessary gear in a sturdy daypack. Typical gear includes warm clothing (hat, gloves, insulated jacket, a pair of silk long johns can add warmth under clothing with minimal weight, a wind jacket helps break a cold wind or bring a rain jacket), a first aid kit, a headlamp (there is much less daylight in winter), maps, food and water, and a charged cell phone. Be sure to let someone on the home front know where your will be and how long you will be gone.
Winter view from Hightop Mountain, Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park
With just a few safety measures, winter hiking can be a great experience.

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