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Layer Up for Winter Adventures

by Diana Richards

Winter is coming, so you’re probably thinking that it’s time to leave the trails and hibernate on your couch. You can’t possibly enjoy hiking in the freezing cold, right? Wrong! 

I used to think the same way, but after I packed my bag right, peaceful and uncrowded winter became my favorite season to get out there. It took some time and experience to figure out what things I truly needed, but it turns out you don’t have to break the bank with crazy-expensive gear to enjoy beautiful wintry adventures. Here are the least expensive difference-makers that can change your whole experience, and some safety tips to consider along the way.

A piney view from the Balsam Lake Fire Tower. (Photo: Alicia Katsur)  

Stay Warm and Dry

When you’re cold, everything is a little more miserable. Staying warm and dry is a game-changer when it comes to enjoying a wonderful winter hike.

On top, layer up. You’re hot, then you’re cold throughout most winter hikes, so get used to adding and shedding layers. I suggest a base layer, mid-layer, and weatherproof layer. Your base layer should be non-cotton and moisture-wicking, such as merino wool. I usually have an insulated or puffy jacket for a mid-layer, and a thin waterproof jacket or “shell” for a top layer.

You don’t necessarily have to buy these at outdoor recreation stores — there are lots of sales and options at department stores and even secondhand options at places like Rock & Snow in New Paltz. Nearer the Finger Lakes, there’s also Old Goat Gear Exchange in Ithaca, or for the Adirondacks, the Cascade Welcome Center offers an outdoor gear exchange program. 

Start thin on bottom. Leggings and/or thin waterproof pants will keep you warm against the winter weather. On extra-cold days, I’ll throw an extra light layer under my pants with affordable thermals. Long johns or long underwear, as they’re often called, are offered by countless brands. They are light, inexpensive, and easy to move around in.

Consider layering clothes you already have to stay warm on a winter hike. [Photos: Diana Richards (top); Lee Ferris / Mount Saint Mary College (bottom)]

Keep your feet dry. Keep those feet toasty with merino wool socks and waterproof boots. If you don’t have waterproof pants, gaiters are a cheap, easy way to keep snow out of your boots. Surf outdoor outfitters for sales, and remember that budget stores like Kohl’s and T.J. Maxx carry some of the same lines of gear. 

Top off the extremities. Don’t forget to keep your head and hands toasty. I always pack a beanie, glove liners, and waterproof gloves. Some people struggle to keep their hands warm and prefer mittens to keep their fingers close together. I also always pack an extra set of gloves and a set of hand warmers in case I need to warm up my hands quickly.

Pack Smart

Snow, ice, and even the sun can cause dangers during a winter hike. Depending on the weather conditions, there are some things to consider tossing in your backpack (and others you might skip).

Traction helps you get a grip. Icy trails are everywhere during the winter, so it’s important to protect yourself from a fall. Microspikes, like those from Kahtoola or Hillsound, completely changed my confidence and comfort immediately on those icy trails. Yaktrax are an inexpensive alternative (although take care not to break them).  

(Photo: @mountainmama)

For snowshoes, try before you buy. The ideal snow depth for snowshoeing is six to 12 inches. Snowshoes tend to be a bit more of a pricey commitment, and not necessarily worth it if you’re going in lighter snow conditions or along trails that have already been packed down by other hikers. Consider renting snowshoes at an outdoor recreation store, or from the visitor centers at Sam’s Point or Fahnestock Winter Park, before you commit to anything. 

Hiking poles can help stabilize you when it’s slick. Then the pressure isn’t all on your footing. Grabbing a tree limb from the ground to use as a walking stick works, too.

A headlamp and extra batteries are wise just in case. The sun sets much earlier during winter, and some hikes may take longer than expected. Start out as early in the day as you can, and check the sunset time. In the Hudson Highlands and Catskills, mountains can create deep shadows and early darkness around you as well.

Sun is a winter hazard, too. Consider wearing sunscreen and sunglasses or goggles. The sun reflecting off the snow can be more hazardous than you think. Sunburn from the snow can even happen on an overcast day.

(Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr. / Scenic Hudson)

Hand warmers are optional. They can also come in handy to prevent your phone from dying.

Emergency blankets are a revelation. No, we’re not talking about lugging a big wool blanket. Foil blankets like they toss on marathon runners post-race are incredibly light, cheap, and potentially lifesaving. Not only can they save you from hypothermia, they can even be used to create an emergency shelter in some situations. 

Basic safety gear matters more than ever. Food and water, maps and compass for navigating, a first-aid kit, and an emergency whistle are also always worth packing — even more so in winter.

Know Before You Go

Winter temps can vary with elevation and wind. Be sure to check the weather of your particular hike before you go. For higher peaks I always check the weather on www.mountain-forecast, but mountain weather is also known for changing very quickly. Prepare for the unexpected. Daylight is shorter and ice can form fast, so keep in mind that getting down a mountain can prove to be more dangerous and time-consuming than the climb up.

(Photo: Alex Briñas)

Planning your hike before you go is even more important during winter. You should research your route before you go, let someone know your plan, and bring a map. You can buy maps at places like the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. You can also download a map on your phone for offline navigation on apps such as Avenza or Gaia, but remember that phone batteries may not last long in the cold temps. 

Winter trekking is one of the best ways to enjoy the peace and serenity of nature without the crowds. Gear up smart, and you’ll be one of the select and happy few out there.

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