Winter Hiking? Sure!
By Evie Kirkwood
Many avid warm weather hikers shun the chill of winter, but it’s a great time to be on the trails. If you’ve stayed away from winter hiking, wary of slippery or cold conditions, the right gear can improve the experience.
I recently met up with a group of hikers on the snow-packed trails at Lydick Bog Nature Preserve, a Shirley Heinze Land Trust nature preserve in St. Joseph County, Indiana. These active retirees walk weekly at “the Bog” and some gather three times a week to hike other natural areas—even in winter.
So, I asked them for tips on their favorite winter gear.
It’s About Your Feet: Traction and Warmth
A recent ice storm glazed many area trails, including those at Lydick Bog. When these folks rolled into the parking lot, many strapped “crampons” over their boots. Ranging from coiled steel to aluminum spikes, these traction control “add-ons” come in a variety of styles and price ranges. But all provide grip and added peace of mind on slippery surfaces. Some brands include Yaktrax, Kahtoola, and STABILicers, and prices can range from $20 to $80 or more.
Boots themselves are a personal preference, but one tip I learned years ago, is that snug footwear reduces circulation and results in cold toes. I purchase boots that are one size larger than my regular hiking shoe size. Resist the urge to cram in multiple layers of socks. A good pair of wool or wool blend socks will do the trick.
Many in this hiking group don high cut winter hiking boots that cover their ankle, adding stability, warmth, and protection.
When I asked the hikers about their clothing, they chorused with a resounding, “layers!” Rosemary likes overpants she slips over another pair of pants or winter tights. They offer protection from wind and water. Others like flannel-lined work pants or fleece-lined hiking pants. Charlie is a fan of a lower base layer, the modern technical term for “long underwear.”
A good base layer is comfortable, non-binding and wicks moisture away from your skin, whether you are perspiring… or you’ve taken an accidental fall in the snow. A variety of fabrics will do the trick, from polyester blends to lightweight silk.
I recently was gifted a set of Merino wool leggings and a quarter zip top that has become my favorite cold weather base. It is soft, machine washable (hang dry) and it doesn’t get smelly like some polyesters do. Beware cotton long johns as they trap moisture against your skin.
Cover your head and your **!
Most everyone in the hiking group wears an insulated jacket cut long enough to at least cover their hips. A drawstring in the waist holds in heat. Easy access pockets are essential for snacks, handkerchiefs, or these days, an extra face mask. Down or polyester insulation adds loft to trap heat.
And no matter what type of hat you wear, put one on. Without one, as heat escapes your head the body reduces blood flow to your fingers and toes. I don’t like wind rushing past my ears, so I often pull on a fleece ear band under, or over, another hat.
Likewise, several in the group touted their neck gaiter for keeping out chilly air, especially near jacket zippers under your chin.
My hands are the most susceptible to agonizing cold and women especially seem to struggle with numb fingers. Mittens are warmer than gloves, but whatever you choose, find something that is well insulated, stops wind, and is loose enough to allow for blood circulation.
Kathy says her warmest handgear is the double-layered wool mittens she knitted from yarn she brought back from the Falklands. (Besides that, the colors are fun.) I, too, have a pair of double layer ragg wool mittens I bring out for the coldest conditions.
If I will be pulling my hands out of my gloves frequently, perhaps to take pictures, I stuff an air-activated hand warmer in my gloves.
And here’s a handwarmer hack! Most air-activated handwarmers will last many hours. If you used yours a short time and there is still “heat” left in the packets, seal them tightly in a zip lock bag. Be sure to press out all the air, or draw it out with a straw. Wrap it in a small towel. You can reuse the handwarmers later in the day, or sometimes the next day, after they are exposed to air again.
Recently, I’ve been eyeing a battery operated, rechargeable hand warmer you can stuff in your pocket.
The Poles Have It
If you are handy like Joe, you can fashion your own hiking stick from a wooden tool handle. He attached a rubber grip and a bottom spike for traction!
Others use single or double trekking poles. These hiking sticks are often adjustable in height. When you hold the poles with the tips near your feet, your elbows should be at a 90-degree angle. The poles have a spike on the tip to help with traction, nice for traversing the rolling hills at Lydick Bog, to provide support when climbing over obstacles. Trekking poles range in price from $30 to $150. Black Diamond, Komperdell and Leki are three well-known brands.
Don’t let cold weather intimidate you. Grab some gear and head out to a Shirley Heinze Land Trust Nature Preserve and explore!