by Hugh Johnson
We have now descended into winter, the coldest and darkest time of year. However, with some preparation, this season can reap some of the most enjoyable and scenic hikes, without any bugs and often no mud nor crowds.
Nevertheless, there are significant risk factors involved with winter hiking. The first and in my opinion, the biggest hazard, is how quickly weather and hiking conditions can change with even a small altitude gain. You might start your hike in dry conditions with temperatures above freezing. As you climb even several hundred feet, the rocks might become covered in ice, heavy snow and or, you reach into a cloud, and the visibility can plummet. I would suggest you always carry a pair of ice crampons to slip onto your boots whenever you hike in the winter. You never know when you will encounter black ice. Ice can be found even with air temperatures well above freezing as surfaces might remain a lot colder.
You might start out with no wind, and reach past an inversion, and the wind can suddenly crank up, driving the wind chill down to a dangerous level.
It is very important to know the weather forecast. Checkout weather.gov/aly which is the link to the latest National Weather Service forecast. In addition to the actual forecast, it is very wise to read the Forecaster’s Discussion. This can be found under the Blue Headline labeled, Forecast. Click on it, and the first option will be the latest Forecaster’s Discussion prepared by the National Weather Service Meteorologists at Albany.
While thunderstorms are usually not a threat in winter, a sudden snow squall could wreak havoc, and these can be quite common. This time of year, a lot of weather systems are upper-level features. These usually do not have the moisture of a nor’easter and sometimes might bring little or no snow to the valley. However, as you hike higher in altitude, these upper level systems can pack a surprising punch, producing sudden whiteout conditions across the higher terrain or perhaps an ice storm.
Another winter hiking hazard is the shortness of daylight. Sunsets will be around 4:30 p.m. for the next month, and then only slowly become later. Civil twilight ends before 5:00 p.m. throughout December. By the end of civil twilight, you must have lights to help you navigate rock terrain and the like. Whenever you hike in the winter it is important to carry a reliable source of light, a good headlamp. You might get lost or lose track of the time. With a heavy overcast, darkness will engulf you faster, possibly even before sunset.
Unless the technology has dramatically changed since my iPhone 8s, phone batteries die quicker in the cold. I have had my battery go from fully charged to DOA in a matter of minutes. It is best to keep your phone insulated and to carry a charger. Your cell phone might be your only chance of a rescue should you turn your ankle or do worse.
Never tread on a frozen pond if you have any doubts about how thick the ice is. You might be able to reliable reports on how thick ice is in the local area, but when in doubt, do not venture out on a frozen water way.
The right type of clothes is also critical in winter. Cotton might be comfortable but will not whisk away sweat very fast. You are much better to go with a synthetic blend that will do that better. The problem, accumulated sweat will chill your body down and can lead to hypothermia. Of course, a good coat or parka is essential along with good mittens face coverings and warm footwear. Did you realize you lose most of your body heat through your face and feet?
It is also important to bring healthy snacks which help keep you warmer. Surprisingly, even on cold winter days, you can dehydrate. It is important to bring water or some other non alcoholic beverage. The beverage can be warm which would help keep your body temperature from falling any further.
Research has indicated that is good to get out in the winter, get some exposure to light. Getting out in the fresh air can keep Affected Seasonal Disorder (SAD) at bay. Even though the sun is too low for substantial Vitamin D3 it is still a good idea to continue to use sunscreen on those few areas that are exposed to the snow. Sun reflecting off snow can enhance a sunburn.
If you hike alone, always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. If there is a sign in/sign out sheet available you should record your name, time in and out as well as your planned destination.
All these concerns might seem annoying to do at times, but ANY one of these things could be the one thing that saves your life during a winter hike. The goal is to make your winter hike a pleasant experience, not one that you will regret.
Hugh Johnson is a retired meteorologist from the National Weather Service who wants to get the most out of the "Go years." His interests, besides the weather, include cycling, hiking, walking and yes a LITTLE running! He also enjoys writing and traveling.