Since the beginning of the pandemic, hiking has been one of the few activities that weren’t put on halt or altered dramatically. The 272 miles of the Long Trail and 166 miles of side trails saw increased use this year, up by about 35 percent. For some people, time spent on the trails was one of the few “normal” things they could continue to do. For many, time spent outdoors increased as a way to escape the harsh realities of life by enjoying what Vermont has to offer.
During these times, the Green Mountain Club has worked to maintain the trails and educate hikers. This year especially, respecting the health and safety of those we share the trail with was front and center in our minds along with respecting the environment we hike in.
As the snow begins to fall but cases stay on the rise, continuing to utilize our outdoor spaces is critical this winter. Over the past 6 weeks, we’ve offered winter hiking tips on our social media channels to reinforce safe practices. Additionally, our Introduction to Winter Hiking and Leave No Trace in the Winter virtual events drew hundreds of viewers, a testament to the fact that people are eager to learn. Recordings of those workshops can be found here.
While the following tips use examples from Vermont, they can be applied to winter hiking anywhere, with that understanding that certain areas may require additional planning and procedure. Per the governor’s order, visitors to the state are subject to quarantine guidelines, which includes entry to the state for outdoor recreation.
Reading the Weather
In most circumstances, higher elevations mean cooler temperatures, usually dropping around 5 degrees every 1,000 feet of elevation gained. So, while the temperature might be comfortable in the valley, mountain weather will likely be colder, especially as you venture into alpine ecosystems with less cover from the wind. Summit forecasts can be found on websites including Mountain Forecast and the National Weather Service’s Enhanced Mountain Point Forecast.
Fun fact: On clear and calm days, high-pressure systems can actually result in colder temperatures in valleys as cooler air slides down mountain slopes.
Proper clothing is essential to keeping warm, dry, and happy on the trails. It’s always best to pack for colder conditions than you expect in case the weather deteriorates.
Up top, it’s essential to have a wicking base layer that is capable of drying, a fleece or wool mid-layer, a down or synthetic insulating layer, and a waterproof outer layer to protect from wind and precipitation. It’s always nice to bring extra layers, especially those closest to your body that will absorb sweat.
Pant choice is more flexible but still important. Sometimes, wool or synthetic leggings under hiking pants can suffice. Colder temperatures and deeper snow call for waterproof or water-resistant pants.
Carrying at least 2 pairs of wool socks is crucial to keep your feet dry. No cotton! A winter hat and pairs of both lightweight and heavier waterproof gloves will also make a big difference in the places that lose heat and dexterity the quickest.
In the non-winter months, it’s possible (though not recommended) to hike in casual shoes such as sneakers. In the winter, however, footwear becomes much more important.
Wool or synthetic socks will keep your feet warm and carrying a second pair can prevent disaster if the first gets wet. Waterproof, ankle-high boots will keep moisture out and provide added stability. In extreme cold conditions, it’s nice to have insulated boots meant specifically for winter trips.
On packed snow and ice, microspikes can make the difference between a safe hike with traction and an unsafe hike prone to slips and falls. Snowshoes are the best option in deep snow but carrying a pair of microspikes might be a good idea if venturing towards exposed terrain where the snow may be blown away. Finally, gaiters are a lightweight option to prevent snow from getting into boots.
Proper packing is key to ensure you have what you need in an accessible location. Some general tips include placing lesser-used items such as an emergency shelter towards the bottom of your pack and keeping extra layers up top for easier access.
While you do sweat less in the winter, staying hydrated is still essential, carrying at least 2 liters is recommended for a day hike. When hiking in below-freezing temperatures, using a wide-mouth bottle and/or a bottle parka can prevent freezing. Your body burns plenty of calories in the winter to stay warm, so packing calorie-dense food that won’t freeze is a good idea.
Side pockets can be utilized for items that you know will be used, like a pair of gloves or microspikes. This reduces the time you’ll be sifting through your bag while trying to stay warm.
As the days become shorter, carrying a headlight with extra batteries is a smart move – even if you don’t plan to be out in the dark. Carrying a first-aid kit with items from moleskin to a lightweight bivy can help prevent disaster in worst-case scenarios.
With all these items and more, a pack around the size of 35-45 liters is recommended for winter trips. This is just a basic idea of what to carry, as unique hikes require different preparation.
Trail Choice and Getting to the Trailhead
Given Vermont’s unpredictable weather and road conditions, it’s crucial to choose a trail that is accessible and within the limits of your hiking ability.
When choosing a trail, balancing your pace and ability with terrain and weather is key. Hiking in the snow is simply a slower process, so a trail that you may be comfortable on in other seasons can still prevent a challenge. Combined with less daylight, getting an early start is important in the winter and is why carrying a headlight is a good idea.
Some popular summer trailheads don’t have parking in the winter and require extra time to reach, such as in Smugglers’ Notch on VT 108. Road conditions near trailheads can differ greatly from state roads and highways. For example, the popular Burrows trailhead near Camel’s Hump sits a thousand feet higher than the nearby town, Huntington Center. Some trails have alternate winter parking lots, adding distance to the hike.
Many roadside parking areas are not usable in winter due to snowbanks. If you cannot park fully outside the travel lane, please use an alternative parking area or choose a different trailhead. Cars parked partially in the road pose risks to other drivers and can block snowplows.
Some parking areas may be marked with signs such as “No Parking: Snowplow Turnaround” or “No Winter Parking.” Please respect these signs and help us maintain cooperative relationships with our neighbors and transportation agency partners. Road closures, roadwork, and incidents can be found on newengland511.
Stashing a bag of sand, a shovel, and extra food, water, and layers in your vehicle will help in the event of an emergency.
Preventing and treating medical concerns
We choose to engage in cold-weather activities because it’s enjoyable and Vermont weather requires us to do so for multiple months. Therefore, it’s crucial to know what to do in the event of a cold-weather emergency.
In the winter, hypothermia and frostbite are two main concerns. However, injuries that would be more managable during other seasons can still occur and lead to an onset of these two.
Hypothermia is the lowering of the body’s core temperature, where only a few degrees can make a big difference. Frostbite is the localized freezing of tissue. In both cases, prevention is the key to avoid undesirable situations. Ample clothing, food, and water keep the body warm, and staying dry is of utmost importance.
In the event of an emergency, it is good to know how to act. The onset of hypothermia is usually marked by shivering, decreased motor skills, and lack of proper decision making. Catching hypothermia in this phase is critical to prevent further harm. The patient, whether it’s yourself or a fellow hiker, should get dry and stay dry. This is where extra layers come in handy. Additionally, sweet fluids and calorie-dense foods should be consumed. For someone who can’t continue moving, an insulating layer should be placed between the ground and body. This can be in the form of something like a lightweight bivy or sleeping pad.
When extremities become cold to the point of lost feeling and function, the area should be dried and re-warmed to prevent frostbite. This is usually the most effective by skin-to-skin contact, but a pair of hand or feet warmers can also do the trick. Never rub the frostbitten area to try to warm it up. Instead, place it against the warm surface or hold it between warm hands.
Since proper hike preparation can’t always prevent these emergencies, understanding how to respond is critical. Taking a course such as Wilderness First Aid will offer more information and hands-on practice.
Throughout my time as an intern at the Green Mountain Club, I’ve seen firsthand the effort to promote, maintain, and conserve the Long Trail and its side trails. It is also clear how large an impact donors have in realizing this mission, both through monetary donations and volunteer work in the field.
While it has been difficult this year to unite efforts in-person, the club’s staff has been working diligently both at home and in the field when appropriate, such as the field staff that educated an increased number of hikers.
While we wait for life to trend back towards normalcy, we can still enjoy time in the mountains if we take the extra precautions mentioned above. And those of us who can’t make the trip to Vermont right now can rest easy knowing the mountains aren’t going anywhere!
More winter hiking resources:
This post was written by Matt Heller, GMC’s Media Intern. Matt is a senior in the media studies program at St. Michael’s College, minoring in environmental studies.