One should never understimate mountains and that's especially true in winter. The key is to be prepared. Good preparation leads to great adventures, but sometimes it also helps to protect one's health and even life. In spite of harsher conditions and perhaps a heavier backpack, winter hiking can be truly magical and more and more people are starting to realize that.
How should you prepare for winter hiking?
- Plan ahead
When planning a winter hike, we need to consider several factors and choose the right trail. Hike that can be finished by noon in summer may take a whole day in winter. Lots of fresh snow, unused or icy trails may slow you down and drain your energy. Apart from that, we need to take into account the fact that days are shorter and the sun goes down earlier. Thus we recommend picking a hike that can be safely completed during a daylight. Remember some hiking trails can be closed for winter season. If you are new in winter hiking, it might be a good idea to include some kind of hut or a mountain cabin into your itinerary. It is always safer to have a hiking buddy and inform someone else about your hiking plan.
- Check the conditions
Checking the weather forecast and warnings, snow reports and trail conditions is essential. We should never rely on weather at a given moment – even when it's a beautiful sunny morning in a valley, it could look completely different up there. Conditions may change rapidly in the mountains. In winter, just the sun getting behind the horizon could bring an instant drop in temeperature. Do not forget to watch avalanche reports and forecasts before hitting the trail.
The fact that the trail is open does not mean it is safe. It is not worth to take an unessential risk - if the conditions are not good, choose another hike or even another day. Mountains will be there for you later, too.
For hiking in Slovakia, you will find complex information about the conditions in the mountains on www.hzs.sk.
In mountains, the conditions may change rapidly. Never understimate preparation.
- Dress in layers
When choosing your outdoor outfit, you should always think of layers. Rely on high-quality materials with good functional features that will keep you warm and dry, but will make you comfortable even during intense performance. Merino wool is an excellent choice for winter, but you can read more about choosing clothes for winter hiking in a separate article.
- Equip with a gear to stay comfortable and safe
Having good clothes is not enough, proper equipment is needed, too. Besides good hiking shoes, which should be warm and water-resistant, you should not miss spikes, ice cleats or crampons depending on the terrain. In steep icy slopes, an ice axe should be part of your gear as well. Trekking poles are another helpful tool to keep yourself in balance. Hiking gaiters will prevent snow from getting into your shoes. And since days are shorter, have a headlamp or LED torch with you to stay safe in dark. Just in case. When planning a hike in an avalanche area, it is a good idea to pack an avalanche rescue set (beacon, probe and shovel) with you. If you hike in this kind of terrain more frequently, consider taking an avalanche course.
Many people do not consider sun protection as essential for a winter hike. That is a big mistake, though. Sunny day on a snowy slope may feel nice, but large white areas reflect the sunrays and make the sun much more intense. UV protection (especially for face) should therefore be a must, similarly to eye protection – choose high-quality sunglasses. Exposing your eyes to the intense light for several hours may hurt them and even cause snow blindness. When talking about eye protection, classic ski goggles could be helpful in strong wind or heavy snowing.
High-quality and functional clothes in layers are necessary, but don't forget about additional gear, too. It will keep you comfortable as well as safe.
- What else to think of?
Every hiker's equipment should certainly include a first-aid kit and mountain insurance. If you are sensitive to cold, you will appreciate heating gel cushions or pads (to insert in your gloves or shoes) to help you stay warm in critical moments. Even when it is freezing and you do not feel thirsty, do not forget to drink enough liquids. The lack of them leads to thicker blood and worse blood circulation, which causes insufficient warmth distribution in your body. Carry your drink in a thermos to prevent it from getting frozen (does not need to be a hot drink necessarily). Always take enough food with you, have at least some snacks as a quick source of energy – e.g. nuts, dried fruits, chocolate and cereal bars. If you plan to visit a mountain cabin on your hike, always check if they are open in advance so that you are not left surprised and with no supplies.
One more piece of advice, that could be applied all year round: Do not underestimate the mountains and overstimate yourself. Always evaluate the current situation and your skills and if necessary, return to the safe place.
Winter mountains have a magic atmosphere. If you prepare for them properly, they will reward you with amazing experiences.
What about you? Do you like winter hiking?
Photo credit: Flo Maderebner, Martin Hodoň, Black Hill Outdoor archive