How to stay safe while snowshoeing and winter hiking
By Aislinn Sarnacki, Bangor Daily News Staff
Hiking during the winter in Maine can be a great way to experience the beauty of the season, with its crisp air, sparkling snow and whimsical ice formations. But if you’re more accustomed to warm-weather hiking, there are a few things you should consider before you drive to the trailhead.
To have a safe and successful winter adventure, you may need to plan and prepare a bit more than you would during warmer months, and pick up a few extra pieces of gear.
“Winter is a big magnifier,” said Jon Tierney, owner of Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School. “Something that’s no big deal in the summer can turn out to be a big problem, like if you twist your ankle and can’t move very quickly, then you can become cold — simple things like that.”
Tierney has been dedicated to wilderness education for three decades, running courses on topics such as wilderness medicine and avalanche hazard management. He’s a certified mountain guide by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, as well as certified at the highest international standard by the American Mountain Guides Association as a rock guide, alpine guide and ski mountaineering guide.
To people who are new to winter hiking and snowshoeing, Tierney suggests starting with short, easy walks and working your way up to more challenging trails.
“Bite it off in small chunks,” he said. “Start simple to begin with. The coastal areas will be more forgiving than inland areas like the Bigelows and things like that.”
Here are some additional tips that will help you have a fun and comfortable outdoor experience.
The right footwear is key
When preparing for a winter hike, start with your feet. In addition to wearing comfortable, warm boots, you may need to wear snowshoes or ice cleats, depending on the snow and ice conditions. Snowshoes will help you travel over deep snow, while ice cleats will give you traction on ice and packed snow, which will reduce your risk of falling.
Proper clothing is also important
When dressing for your winter adventure, avoid cotton at all costs. Instead, opt for clothing made of wool or synthetic materials. Also, dress in layers. That way if you feel hot, you can remove a layer and place it in your backpack.
Covering your head and hands is also key to staying warm. Select your hat and mittens or gloves carefully, making sure they’re warm enough for the conditions. Tierney said that unless you need gloves to perform some sort of task with your fingers, mittens are the best choice for winter in Maine because they tend to keep your fingers warmer than gloves. He also suggests wearing or packing a balaclava to shield your face in the event of extreme cold.
“And you want to keep snow off your hands and hat,” he said. “If you take them off, stick them inside your jacket to keep them dry.”
Don’t rely on heat packs
While chemical and battery-powered hand and foot warmers are a great item to have in your backpack, they should be viewed as an emergency item or a luxury, not a main source of heat. The clothing you wear should keep you warm in the conditions you’re facing.
“Hand warmers have time limitations,” Tierney said. “You need to plan as if those things don’t exist. They should be used when crap’s hitting the fan rather than a primary source of [cold] prevention. Don’t wear them out of the house with a lighter pair of gloves.”
Carry an emergency bivvy
In addition to other emergency gear such as first aid, pack an emergency bivvy, which will help keep you warm if you become injured or lost. Smaller than a 12-oz can of soda, this piece of gear is essentially an emergency sleeping bag.
“It’s a little bigger than a space blanket and much more effective because you can actually get in it,” Tierney said. “Ultimately temperature is going to be your enemy if you get in trouble, so have a way to stay warm. That’s the biggest thing.”
Give yourself plenty of time
When selecting a trail and deciding when to start your hike, always keep the wintery conditions and day length in mind. Snow and ice can make hiking much slower than it is in other seasons. In addition, days are much shorter in the winter than they are in the summer.
“I think one of the bigger mistakes people make is timing,” Tierney said. “The reality is, winter travel with snowshoes and skis is often slower than summer travel. So just allow yourself enough time to complete your itinerary and make good decisions.”
Know your route
While it’s always important to study a trail ahead of time and carry a trail map, it’s especially important in the winter, when trail markers are often covered with snow. In addition, Tierney suggests using a handheld GPS device that’s designed for cold weather to map your progress. That way, if you do lose the trail, you can easily find your way back.
Check trailhead access
Throughout Maine, many trailheads are reached by roads that are not plowed in the winter. In addition, many trailhead parking areas are not plowed. While researching your hike, you may be able to discover if access roads and parking areas are plowed by searching guidebooks and online resources, or talking to trail maintainers, landowners or town offices.
Still, you could be caught off guard by a road or parking area that’s supposed to be plowed and isn’t. For this reason, it’s always best to select a plan B hike that’s nearby.
Protect your eyes and skin
If traveling above the tree line or in an open area, it may be important to wear sunglasses or goggles, depending on the conditions. Being able to see properly is key for avoiding hazards. The glare produced by sunlight bouncing off the snow can be aggravating at best, and crippling at worst. Furthermore, cold wind can cause discomfort and push snow and ice crystals into your eyes.
In addition, winter hikers can easily develop sunburns, especially if they’re out in the open for long periods of time, so be sure to cover any exposed skin with sunscreen. Plus, you may want to pack lip balm to apply regularly throughout your trek. During the winter, lips can easily dry out and develop windburn and sunburn.
Be cautious on ice
Crashing through ice into cold water can be extremely dangerous, even if the body of water is just a shallow stream or brook. Exercise extra caution when crossing footbridges or traveling along the edge of waterways, lakes and ponds. And if you’re hiking with a canine companion, keep them on leash around these icy areas.
Don’t forget to drink and eat
Staying hydrated and fueled with calories is essential in the winter. It helps you maintain proper body temperature and stay energized and clear-headed. Therefore, pack plenty of water and snacks, keeping the cold temperatures in mind. For example, don’t pack foods that easily freeze solid, which will make them hard to eat.
“A lot of people make the mistake of using hydration packs in the winter, [and the water freezes in the tube],” Tierney said. “[It’s best to] pack water in wide-mouth bottles that you can easily open.”
Tierney also suggests flipping your water bottles upside down in your pack so any water that freezes will be on the bottom of your bottles, not the top. Just make sure to fasten the cap tightly so water doesn’t spill into your pack.
When you do stop for a snack or drink, keep the rest break short if you’re concerned about becoming cold. Your body temperature will drop when you stop moving. For this reason, some winter hikers choose to eat snacks on the go.
These are just a few tips for staying safe and comfortable while hiking in the winter. Much of what you learn will be through experience, so take it slow and start small so any mistakes you make won’t be a big deal. Consider hiking with family and friends for added safety, ensuring everyone is prepared before you hit the trail. And most importantly, have fun.