Winter Weather Safety

Winter is a fantastic time of year for enjoying the outdoors. I’ve found that the same stretch of trail seems like a completely different world in a new season. When the trees are bare, you can see much farther into the woods. You can see how the terrain changes in the distance and maybe glimpse wildlife that was well hidden before. 

While it is always wise to be aware of the weather forecast before a hike, this goes double in winter. In this post I’d like to define some weather terms and give some tips for staying warm on winter hikes.

Weather terms

If you live in the south, this section will be like a vocabulary lesson. There are tons of terms associated with winter weather safety. Honestly, before researching for this post, I didn’t know some of the distinctions here. Credit where it is due; my definitions come from the national weather service website.

There really is a difference between a winter weather watch, warning, and advisory. A watch means that dangerous conditions could develop so check the forecast often. A warning means that meteorologists expect dangerous conditions or they are currently happening. Take safety measures under a warning. An advisory means that the weather might inconvenience you but should not be life-threatening if you take care.

The technical definition of a blizzard is blowing or falling snow with winds at least 35 mph. It reduces visibility up to a quarter of a mile for at least three hours. If already fallen snow is being blown around and meets these conditions, it’s called a ground blizzard. That is a new one for me.

Wind chill is how the temperature feels to the body compared to the actual reading on the thermometer. This term will be important when we talk about when it is safe to be outside playing in the cold.

The last two terms I’d like to lay out are sleet and freezing rain. Where I’m from, we hear these from our weather forecasters all the time. Freezing rain is liquid as it is falling. Then it freezes as it hits the cold surface of the ground and other objects.

A fine coat of ice on bare trees is one of the most beautiful winter sights any of us could ask to see. You’ll never see a Currier & Ives more beautiful than a crystalline forest after a freezing rain.

stock photo, but we see this kind of thing all the time

Sleet is a mix of rain and melted snow that refreezes as it gets near the ground. It is ice but much softer than hail. When it builds up on roads it is one of the slickest things to drive on.

Layers and Temps

There is a wonderful little infographic on for laying your clothes in winter. I’ve talked about this on the blog before. One of the best strategies for dressing in cold weather is to use layers. You want to have just enough layers to keep warm but not sweat.

Chilly weather calls for adding a jacket to your normal clothing layer. In cold weather, you should add another layer on top, possibly another pants layer, and a warm hat and gloves. Extreme cold calls for three shirt layers, one of which is insulating. Two pants layers, hat, gloves, and face covering. 

You may be thinking that chilly, cold, and extreme cold don’t sound like specific terms. You’re right. Here is where we have to factor in wind chill. Even when the temperature is in the 40s, the wind chill could make it feel below freezing. 

Several sites that I looked at said that when the windchill is at or above freezing, it is generally safe for kids to play outside. Between 31 and 13 degrees, you should take breaks about every half hour to warm up. When it is below 13 degrees, frostbite can set it very quickly and it is better to stay inside.

Pet cold safety

It is important to remember that your furry family members feel the cold much the same way that you do. When the wind chill is at or below freezing, consider a coat or sweater for your dog’s daily walk. If it is below 20 degrees, keep outside time to a minimum such as potty breaks only.

I made a sweater for him!

Final Thoughts

Enjoying winter doesn’t have to be complicated or scary. Know the terms, keep an eye on the forecast, and have the right gear. We wish you all a safe and happy winter.

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