cold weather hiking

Warm up to cold weather hiking with these strategies

If you’ve been hiking in the last couple days, you’ve likely walked out the front door on hike morning and had your first Aha! moment of the season. 

Aha! as in, “Aha, I need to grab another layer or two!”

As Aha! moments go, it’s one of our favorites. We love hiking late-fall-into-winter: the air is typically dry, the diminished foliage lets you see deeper into the woods, the increasingly angled winter sunlight seems to lite the forest from the ground up.

And yes, it’s cold. And we suspect some of you may shy away from hiking in the cold. But you shouldn’t give up an outing in the woods just because there’s a nip in the air. There are ways to work with the cold so you can enjoy some of the aforementioned attributes of cold weather hiking. Here are some of our favorite ways to cope with the cold.

Start smart. The big mistake most folks make at the start of a hike is that they’re overdressed. Bundle up before the hike, sure. But when the hike leader indicates you’re about to head out (as he/she should), shed a layer. You might be cool for a minute or two, but you’ll warm quickly.

Keep close tabs on your personal thermostat. An easy and efficient way to regulate body heat is with hat and gloves. Your head and hands and are two of your easiest heat vents to regulate. Start your hike with a wool cap and gloves to keep heat from escaping. Once you warm up, shed one or the other. Give it a few minutes to see what effect the change is having. Getting a chill, put it back on.

Pack smart. If you’re undecided between a lighter fleece and heavier fleece, pack both. And pack more snacks than you might in warmer weather; you burn more calories in the cold.

Layer up at breaks. When you stop for a snack, grab a layer before you grab your gorp. You’ll want to retain the heat you’ve built up hiking, and this will do it.

Hike in the sun. On an especially cold day you can up your odds of staying warm by choosing a trail that lets in a bit more light. That can mean picking a trail that you know has more hardwoods, which have shed their umbrella of leaves for winter, rather than hiking under evergreen pines. That can mean looking for trails that are double-track, which are wider and thus have a wider opening in the canopy, rather than narrower single-track. A couple ways to distinguish between the two on a map: a wider double-track may be marked with parallel dashed lines, and trails marked as “multiuse,” especially if they allow horses, are more likely double-track.

Hike in the sun II. Pick a trail with a southern exposure. You’ll need to know how to read a topo map to pick a south-facing trail. 

Hike early. You’ll want to take advantage of the sun as much as possible. So start early, when the trail is still be in shadows, and finish while the sun is at its brightest, rather than finishing as the sun is setting, the air is cooling and, if you’ve mismanaged your layering, you may have worked up a little sweat.

Hike early II. Remember that the sun sets early this time of year. Today, for example, official sunset in Raleigh is 5:14 p.m., with diminishing light remaining for another half hour. Note that with the winter sun lower in the southern sky, you will lose light hiking the north side of a mountain even earlier. The temperature can drop like a rock once the sun sets.

More about layering. Add layers to get warm, then, at the first hint of sweat, strip down to cool down. We actually have a whole post on layering, which you can check out here

We’ll have a warm day or two, certainly, over the next four months. But for the most part, we’ll be hiking in the cold. 


Hike with us!

As always, keep an eye on our GetHiking! Meetup sites for information on our regular day hikes throughout the late fall and winter; find the GetHiking! group nearest you, here.

Plus, here are two of our upcoming programs restricted to winter for reasons that will become obvious.

GetHiking! Tuesday Night Hikes. At least once a month from November into early March, we’ll hike into the night on a different trail. The hikes will be about 3 to 4 miles long and will be followed by hot chocolate! Winter tie: Hiking in the dark, for many of us, is the only way to get in a midweek hike! Learn more and sign up here

GetHiking! Winter Wild: Discover New Adventures Where You Most Love to Hike. As we mentioned above, one of the things we love about winter in the woods is the reduced understory, which offers views deeper into the woods. It also lets you hike deeper into the woods. That’s the premise of this monthly hike series that begins later this month and continues into March. Learn more and sign up here.

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