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Cold Weather Hiking


By: PURINIZE Ambassador, Jonathan Roberts

“There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” ~Sir Ranulph Fiennes


With a few exceptions, I believe in that quote. I hike a lot. I hike year-round. If the weather is really bad and I can find somebody to go with me, I’ll still head out. I enjoy hiking in the rain and snow, actually. Most of the time, bad situations are totally preventable, and I’ll touch on what to do if something happens here too. The key is preparation.

Most outdoors writers who post about cold weather tell you the same old things:

  • make sure you layer, 
  • wear a hat,
  • limit your time outside when it’s really cold. 

Great! You already know this stuff. Your mom told you this stuff on snow days when you were six. In this post, I’ll get past all that and talk to you about some other considerations. I’m going to cover:

  1. Should you go in the first place? Should your dog?
  2. Hiking in the cold.
  3. Keeping warm.
  4. Keeping your stuff warm.
  5. Thoughts on emergencies, A.K.A knowing when to bail
Why should you listen to me talk about this? I spend a lot of my time trying to stay warm. One of my biggest hobbies other than hiking is caving. Caving involves being in wet, muddy, and chilly conditions for hours on end. Sometimes you have to stay warm when you’re sitting still, like if you’re waiting at the bottom of a rope to start climbing or you’re waiting for a survey crew to catch up. Hiking and backpacking taught me a lot about how to stay warm, but caving really put it all into practice. I’ve dealt with hypothermia a couple of times and really don’t want to do it again.

I hope these tips help you to make safe, exciting, and fun cold weather hiking plans!

Hiking in the cold

Hiking in the cold is great! It means fewer people, often spectacular views, and no bugs. As long as you’re prepared for what you’re likely to face, you can have a lot of fun getting outside in the cold.

If you’re a reasonably fit person and wear enough layers (we’ll talk clothing in the next section) to stay warm, you’re good to go! So if you and your friends are contemplating going for a hike in the cold, go for it! Just make sure you’re prepared.

That does not mean your dog should always tag along every time, though. I have a hiking dog, Arwen. Going hiking with my girlfriend and me is pretty much her favorite thing. That doesn’t mean I take her when it’s too cold or too hot. I have to make a decision for my pup because she can’t make it on her own.

I know you’ve seen pictures of sled dogs sleeping in the snow or know that hunting dogs often sleep outdoors year-round. Your dog that sleeps on the couch all day while you’re at work is not that dog. Those dogs that sleep in the snow and run all day are bred for it and acclimated to that life. My dog--and probably your dog-- is not and that’s why smart decisions are important.

If you aren’t sure if it’s too cold for your dog, don’t take them! Same goes for yourself. If you aren’t sure that you can handle a cold weather hike, simply don’t go. That simple advice could prevent almost every issue cold weather hikers face. 

Keeping warm

We know all about layers, right? Layering makes it easy to stay comfortable in changing, often unpredictable climates. It keeps you warm and keeps you from sweating. If you start sweating, you can get in trouble fast. Once sweat gets cold, you get cold. You need to strike a balance.

Warmth is important. Fleece, wool, or down is great for insulation.

Warmth is only half the equation, though. You need wind resistance too. If the wind is cutting through all your layers, then you’re not keeping any heat in either.

Try to make sure your outermost layer is windproof. The good news is that you might already have some clothing that will shed the wind nicely. Most rain jackets are very wind resistant, even if they’re no longer waterproof. Even if it’s not going to rain or snow on you, grab that rain coat to keep the wind off. You will end up happier because of it, I promise!

Beyond wind resistance, you want to have as little skin exposed as possible. A scarf or balaclava over your face will keep you warmer and prevent sun and wind exposure.

If you’re wearing layers that aren’t made of cotton, limiting your exposed skin, and trying to cut the wind, you’re well on your way to enjoying the hike!

One note on insulation: down is great. I wear my puffy down jacket whenever it’s going to stay below freezing the whole time I’m out. Unlike synthetic insulation, though, down doesn’t stay warm when it’s wet. It also doesn’t dry quickly. The advantages to down are that it’s very warm when dry, lightweight, and packs down small.

A down jacket shouldn’t be your first jacket purchase or even your second. If you’re looking to buy a jacket, opt for synthetics to start with. You can always decide to pick up a down jacket after you have a solid layering system already.

Keeping your stuff warm

It’s way easier to keep yourself warm than the gear in your pack. Most of your stuff will be fine. Granola bars are kind of gross and tough when they’re cold, but you’ll survive.

Some things need to stay warm, though. I learned this the hard way hiking in the Smokies when it was about 10 degrees out. We were hiking along, putting deep boot prints through the snow, and having a good time heading towards the next peak. My water bottle was hanging out in my bottle holder on the outside of my pack. My water was even cold! This was way better than Summer hiking...until my water froze. Having one big ice cube for a water bottle was no fun.

Having ice in your water bottle is one thing. You can thaw out your drinking water. You shouldn’t let your filter or water purifier freeze, though. You should replace a Sawyer filter if it freezes because there's no way to know if it's still going to be fully effective once it's warmed back up, but Purinize can be thawed out with no loss of effectiveness; heat does not affect its efficacy. However, the plastic bottle should be replaced if it freezes.

In order to prevent this important gear from freezing, keep them close! Put your Purinize and Sawyer filter in an inner jacket pocket when you’re hiking. At night, keep them in your sleeping bag. You should also keep a water bottle and a change of clothes inside your bag, so they don’t freeze too. If you have a stove with you, heat some water for your bottle and stash it before bed! Just make sure the lid is on tight. Keeping your important gear from freezing is totally possible. Again, preparedness is vital on any hike, especially when it’s cold.

Emergency preparedness / knowing when to bail

 I keep saying that almost all issues people get themselves in during a cold hike are preventable. It’s true! If you make sure you and your group are prepared for the cold and anything that might arise while you’re out, you should be fine.

What if something does go wrong, though? The most important thing is to stay warm, stay dry, and make a plan to get out and get help.

If you have to stop moving for any reason, start by throwing on any extra layers. You want to conserve your body heat. This might mean something like putting your hood up if you’re just taking a break from hiking or getting into your sleeping bag if you’re going to be in one place for a while.

If anybody in your group gets cold, help them warm up. Huddle together for warmth. It really works!

The best way to prevent any situation from getting worse is to know when to bail. If you quit having fun, there’s no shame in bailing. Hiking isn’t a competition.

If you start shivering and can’t seem to stop after putting on extra layers and doing some jumping jacks, it’s time to bail! Get back to your car and crank the heat! If your home is a tent that night, pitch it out of the wind, fix some hot dinner, and get in your sleeping bag. You’ll warm up fast.

Final Thoughts

Being prepared is very important when you’re hiking in any weather. That same preparedness is even more important when it’s cold out. Little issues can turn into big problems quickly when you’re working hard to stay warm. With a little planning and an extra layer or two, though, you can have a safe, fun time hiking even when the temperatures get really cold!

Trust your instincts when it comes to hiking in the cold. There’s no reason to put yourself in danger or be miserable while hiking. The trail will be there in the Spring!



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