Winter Hiking Safety

Winter is one of the most magical times of year to go for a late afternoon walk or take a Saturday hike in a State Park. I especially love seeing delicate branches encased in ice after a storm. It’s like strolling in a crystal kingdom from a fantasy novel. 

Freezing or near freezing temperatures bring some notable challenges that we should anticipate to keep everyone safe. Cold, darkness, and inclement weather can easily swoop in on the uninitiated ruining an otherwise good hike or worse. Fortunately, a few elementary rules will keep everyone happy and safe to enjoy some of the most beautiful views of nature you’ll get all year.

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Always Check the Weather

It is a general hiking rule that you should check the forecast before hitting the trail. However, here in the northeast, the temps and visibility can quickly turn uninhabitable during winter. Whether it is a snow squall or all-day cloud cover, you should know what visibility and precipitation to expect before setting out.

How cold is too cold for a winter family hike? That depends on your level of experience, preparation, and how far you’ll hike. With small children, under 40 degrees is generally too cold for comfort for more than 30-60 minutes. Older kids may have the stamina for temps between 30 and 40 degrees with proper layering. 

In addition to knowing the forecast, know the time of sunset for an afternoon hike. The light can disappear in a blink before you’re ready. It’s vital to time your return walk to get back to the trailhead before dark. Using a pacing app like Strava is helpful. Keep in mind that the cold might kill your phone battery.

Carry Extra Layers

Start with a moisture wicking base layer and warm clothes. Put on additional layers as the weather dictates. You may find that on a sunny day with temps in the 40s you only need a sweatshirt as your top layer. Pack your outermost layer in your backpack just in case. Even if you are suiting up for a freezing cold day or an extended time outdoors, only put on what is most necessary at the time. 

Carry A Hot Beverage

I like to keep warm from the inside out. A good-quality thermos or travel tumbler can keep coffee and cocoa hot for hours. Don’t forget about water though. Hydration is just as important in winter as other seasons. The unfortunate aspect of coffee, cocoa, and most tea is the diuretic effect. A pit stop in the woods is highly undesirable in winter. 

You can keep it from getting too cold in a few ways. Start with warm water in your thermos or water bladder. You can carry it close to your body in a bladder under your clothes if a thermos is heavier than you want to carry. Otherwise, fill a large thermos or two with hot water and refill everyone’s mug as you go.

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Wear Proper Footwear

A pair of snow boots are great footwear for everyone. My kids don’t have a separate pair for snow play and hiking. We make sure we get all-purpose boots that have a good tread. You can add microspikes to everyone’s boots if you think the conditions warrant them. They are particularly helpful if the trail has patches of ice.

Inside your boots should be a quality pair of socks. I like SmartWool and Darn Tough Socks. They may seem expensive at first glance, but they work better than multi-pack cheap socks. I’ve had my wool socks for years and they are still going strong. Have each family member pack an extra pair in case of sweaty feet or getting water inside their boots.

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