As summer comes to an end along the Wasatch Front, don’t let the colder temperatures and snow keep you indoors ... some of the best hiking is yet to come! Hiking in the crisp autumn air with the blazing colors of fall against a bright blue sky is a beautiful experience. As the season progresses, the quiet calm of new-fallen snow coupled with the sparkling of ice crystals on the ground turns the trails of the Wasatch Front into a winter wonderland!
The key to successful cold weather hiking is learning how to layer properly, keep extremities warm, stay hydrated and fueled, use microspikes/snowshoes in winter, hike on avalanche-safe and sunny trails, and keep certain essentials in your daypack.
Protecting against moisture and wind are your two biggest concerns in creating a good layering system. Evaporation of sweat cools you off rapidly, while wind convection pulls heat away from your body. The most important rule to remember when learning the layering system is to avoid cotton, at all costs. This means you ditch the T-shirt, sweatshirt and denims on a cold day in favor of synthetic materials. Cotton can be deadly, as it has no insulating properties when wet, and absorbs and holds moisture against your skin.
There are three basic layers that you will need to stay warm in any type of weather:
Base layer: This is the layer closest to your skin where you collect the most sweat -- the top can be short or long-sleeved and the bottom will go down to your ankles. Synthetic materials such as polypropylene (aka: Polypro) and Merino wool “wick” moisture away from your body where it can evaporate. Base layers are generally thin, lightweight and relatively inexpensive.
Insulating layer: The purpose of this loose-fitting mid-layer is to capture warmth through trapped air but not necessarily repel wind or rain. Wool, polar fleece and goose down are your best insulating materials. While wool and fleece will keep you warm when wet, goose down will not. However, goose down is better than synthetics at keeping you warm under normal conditions, and is very lightweight and compressible.
A “zip neck” or “full zip” layer allows you to zip down the front of your shirt so you can release heat without having to take the entire layer off. I like to carry a fleece layer and a goose down layer at all times in my pack, so that I have two insulating layers should the temperatures drop. Since you will want this layer dry, keep it in a waterproof (gallon-sized) ziploc bag in your pack.
Outer shell: This is your wind and water-resistant layer (and keeps your mid-layer dry), and can be insulating if it comes with a fleece/wool liner. Make sure you try it on with your mid-layer on, making sure it is not too tight.
Outer shells come in two types:
* Hard shell: These are water and windproof, have taped seams, a waterproof zipper, are a bit heavier and stiffer, and may or may not be breathable (Gore-Tex linings give more breathability).
* Soft shell: These are more flexible, lighter, breathable, water-resistant but may not be waterproof. Choose an outer shell that goes down below the waist and has a drawstring hood and waist to keep the cold air out.
Keeping your extremities warm
Head: A synthetic or wool cap will keep your head warm. Make sure it fits down low enough on your head to cover the ears. Balaclavas, “Buffs," earmuffs and headbands are nice to have on hand when a hat may be too much. If it rains or snows, you’ll want to keep your hat dry by covering it with the hood on your outer shell.
Feet: Warm feet make a happy hiker in winter. Choose a quality pair of hiking boots that are breathable (Gore-Tex lined -- because your feet sweat and that moisture needs to wick out of your boot and evaporate), insulated, waterproof, comfortable, have good tread (for hiking on snow) and allow your foot room to move when wearing thick wool socks. If your boots fit too tight, then there will be no layer of air to keep your feet warm. Foot warmers, small commercially produced packets of heat, are also go od to have on hand especially on frigid days.
Hands: In very cold temperatures, use insulated hand mitts (a mitten-like glove). I learned my lesson when I experienced freezing fingers while climbing Mt. Olympus in 19-degree temperatures. The advantage is that your fingers stay next to each other in the mitt, keeping them warmer. You can also slip a hand warmer into your mitt next to your fingers, which is not possible with a fingered glove.
In temperatures just above freezing, a synthetic glove liner (thin glove) or fingered glove, will keep your hands warm. You can purchase glove liners with a special surface on the fingers that allow you to operate your smartphone, camera or iPod while hiking without having to take off the glove.
Legs: Aside from keeping snow out of your boots, a pair of waterproof gaiters does a lot to close the gap around your ankles (between your boot and pants) in keeping cold air out.
Stay hydrated and fueled
It is a good idea to “pre-hydrate” an hour before hiking by drinking a full bottle of water -- especially in winter. Dehydration is common, especially in our dry Utah climate, and affects blood circulation which in turn affects your body’s temperature.
In order to stay warm, the body must also have calories, so keep it fueled by eating a small amount regularly, especially if you will be climbing trails with considerable vertical gain. Keeping food and liquids hot is easy with a stainless steel thermos, many of which are small enough to carry in your daypack to use on the trail -- on a cold day it will be worth the extra weight!
Trekking poles, microspikes and snowshoes
A good pair of lightweight (carbon fiber or aluminum) trekking poles is a must when hiking in snow. Having four points of contact with the ground at all times eliminates many slips and falls. Trekking poles that telescope and lock into place with hinge-clamps last longer than those that screw tight at the joints. Many brands of snowshoes will also come with a pair of poles when you purchase them. Make sure your poles have “baskets” -- the small circular discs that screw on to the bottom of each pole so that the pole does not “sink” into the snow with each step.
After my first winter of using snowshoes, I realized they weren’t necessary much of the time because most of the trails along the Wasatch Front were so popular that the snow was already packed down. That’s when I discovered “micro-spikes” or mini-crampons -- metal 3/8-inch spikes that attach to the bottom of your boot in just seconds. Spikes come in different sizes and allow you to hike effortlessly over snow and ice without slipping, making it almost easier than hiking on a rocky trail in summer. Kahtoola makes a high-quality microspike with a two-year warranty.
If you intend to hike off-trail, then pack in a high quality pair of snowshoes allowing you more freedom to explore, because the trail is only snow-packed as far as the previous hiker was willing to venture.
Hike in avalanche-safe zones and on sunny trails
When planning a hike in winter, it is wise to educate yourself about avalanche safety. You can take classes through the Wasatch Mountain Club, REI, and community education. Avoid hiking at the base of or on any slope that is 30 degrees or more in inclination as it will be prone to slides, slough-offs and avalanches.
Before heading out into the mountains be sure to check the Utah Avalanche Center’s website at http://utahavalanchecenter.org/. You can sign up to receive their e-mail notification advisory report each morning prior to your hike. If you are unfamiliar with the trails, check out the listing of safe trails on Snowshoe Utah’s website at: http://www.snowshoeutah.com/Table-of-Contents.html
When planning a hike, it is also good to choose trails that are in the sunshine, for added warmth and enjoyment on the trail. Last year we went hiking in zero degree weather on the Alpine Loop Road, but because it was in the sun, no one became cold. Since cold air tends to stay low, hiking in a canyon, ravine or gully will make for a colder hike.
Aside from snow-packed hiking trails, roads that are closed to traffic in winter are also open for winter sports enthusiasts to use, such as: the Alpine Loop Road, Nebo Loop Road, Mill Creek Canyon Road, and the ski service roads within each of the ski resorts up Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.
Since hiking in winter has some challenges, be aware that you will need sunscreen more so at this time of year than in summer, as the snow reflects more light onto your skin. Don’t forget to wear sunglasses, preferably those with a high UV rating to protect your eyes from sunburn. Snow blindness is not uncommon and only takes a few hours to develop if you are hiking without sunglasses.
Winter hiking essentials for your daypack
Some of the other essentials that you should carry in your pack in winter on every hike include: a map and compass (or GPS with extra batteries), matches and fire starter, hand and foot warmers, plenty of water, high-calorie snacks, an extra pair of wool socks and gloves, a space blanket, a whistle, a headlamp, a pocket knife and/or lightweight portable trail saw (yes, they make these) and a first aid kit.
Enjoy hiking year-round and don’t forget your camera!