Volume 24 Issue 1, Winter 2019
by Emily Cook
When the temperatures begin to drop and the summer clothes get packed away, most people tuck outdoor activities right into that storage box with them. Thinking it’s too cold, too windy, or that winter hiking may not be as rewarding as a hike through the fall color or spring greenery, many people snuggle up, hunker down and put their hiking plans on hiatus. What they don’t know is that with the right planning and preparation, winter
hiking can be quite beautiful and even somewhat addictive.
People typically assume that winter hiking requires much more preparation than it does in warmer weather. This is actually not the case. When you consider that a summer hike requires sun protection, hydration, proper nutrition on longer hikes, and protection against insects and overheating, preparation for a chilly or snowy hike can actually be a bit simpler.
While you still have to take similar precautions to ensure you are adequately protected from the elements and have the necessary supplies for an enjoyable hike, there are a few things that are often not considered. For example, one of the best things about winter hiking is that your excursion will be insect free. Nothing can make a hike more frustrating than being the first on a trail on a warm spring morning and having to clear the spider webs from your face as you go. The summer foliage has also died back, which means no wading through waist-high grasses where you can pick up hitchhikers like ticks, a very real concern here in Virginia. And I don’t think I even need to mention those bothersome mosquitos, who swarm onto your exposed skin the moment you stop to take a sip of water. Also, your chance of contacting poison ivy, oak or sumac is substantially reduced, since the bright, shiny greenery dies back during colder months and there are no leaves fluttering along the trail’s edge or brushing against your clothing.
Outerwear for a winter hike should incorporate dressing in layers, preferably wearing a wicking under-dressing so that you do not become damp from sweat and can strip down when you begin to warm up. You still need to ensure that you have adequate hydration and sun protection just as you would during the summer. Despite the cooler temperatures, you can become overheated, dehydrated or sunburned, as the sun can be quite strong on a clear winter day.
A winter hike can be a calming, serene experience. With the trees bare, the views become unobstructed. Suddenly the mountain peaks in the distance are visible and the fields appear more expansive and open. It is easier to spot wildlife, and during a snow there is a crispness in the air and a crunch underfoot that is cathartic and rejuvenating.
So now that you’re convinced a winter hike is for you, how do you prepare?
• Make sure to bring plenty of water.
• Wear layers so that you can strip down as you go when the temperature warms up.
• Wear appropriate footwear, including warm, comfortable socks.
• Go early! Remember that daylight is limited in winter months, so it’s best to get an early morning start.
• Bring along nutritious snacks.
• Wear sunscreen! Yes, you can get sunburned during the winter, too.
• Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from that intense winter sun.
• Bring a map of your trail. It’s easy to get lost when you’re unfamiliar with the landscape — and sometimes even when you are!
• Pack a flashlight, extra batteries, a whistle and a signal mirror, as well as a small first aid kit in case of emergency.
• Bring a walking stick or hiking poles.
Where should you go? This website lists a number of top winter hikes throughout Virginia. The hikes profiled on the site range in distance and fitness level. You can also just hike right along your neighborhood trails, up Sugarloaf or Old Rag Mountain, or along the C&O Canal, which is lovely any time of year.
Hiking is a wonderful way to enjoy the beauty of our natural world, and it doesn’t need to be limited to a certain time of year. So bundle up and explore. You might see things from a whole new perspective.