Winter Hiking: 10 Important Pros and Cons
In a series of articles, we exposed some of the dangers associated with winter hiking; we also gave you some valuable tips for having more enjoyable winter hiking trips and, in our last post, we wrote about the role of the vapor barrier liners for cold weather protection.
It is winter, it is cold, wet, and windy outside and while many people would prefer to spend their spare time in their warm and cozy home, others who love being out in nature would rather grab a pair of trekking poles and head towards the nearest trail… So, this time we are going to discuss the pros and cons of hiking expeditions in winter conditions. By doing this, we’d like to give the undecided a real insight into the positive and negative sides of winter hiking so that they can decide for themselves if they’d like to give it a try.
Pros and cons of winter hiking
Trails are quieter
If you are looking for quiet trails without the buzz of conversation and laughter, winter hiking gives you exactly what you need. Mid-week trekking expeditions, in particular, guarantee that there are no crowds on the trail - something not typical at other times of the year. Without summer crowds when the best option often is to come to the trail early in the morning or late in the evening, the trail is all yours - you can explore the area at your own pace and enjoy your snowy excursion in solitude. Now, you can visit all the cool places you’ve always wanted to visit but had to avoid for years because of the huge crowds of tourists invading the area. Certainly, in addition to the advantages of quiet trails, there are also disadvantages and one of the main ones is that you must be experienced in backpacking, camping, navigation, and probably first aid if something goes wrong. Keep in mind that solo hiking is extremely dangerous and is not recommended unless you’re well prepared for all types of winter weather.
Easier to go off trail and explore
What are narrow and steep trails in summer often turn into snow-covered hills and valleys in winter, which allows you to go off trail and explore. Walking on steady packed snow is much more sparing for your feet in addition to the fact that it is way nicer and more enjoyable than summer walking in the vast wilderness. As the trails can be more forgiving in winter than summer, you can easily walk across snowy roads and frozen lakes without worrying about uneven, rough or difficult terrain. Moreover, you don’t need to worry about heat and humidity. Classic layering for shorter trips and warmer conditions and vapor barrier liners in harsh winter conditions and multi-day trips work well in most cases.
Safety is especially important because in case of an injury, you may have to rely solely on your own expertise. As a general rule dealing with problems and injuries during winter hiking expeditions is a result of careful planning, preparation, and training, in short, the ability to govern your actions accordingly.
Snowy winter landscapes, impressive mountain peaks, bizarre ice formations, beautiful frozen lakes and streams etc. are part of the reasons why winter hiking experience attracts many good hikers and novices alike. Winter hikes will reward you with incredible views of snow-covered mountains, idyllic landscapes, and beautiful sights. What’s best is that often fascinating panoramic views await you on your way either to a particular summit or at the summit itself. Additionally, sometimes you can find easy hikes with mind-blowing views without overly strenuous climbs. Even if the trek is somewhat tough, the reward is more than enough to offset the effort - solitude in a pristine section of wilderness.
Keep in mind that since nature and natural forces cannot be controlled or predicted with certainty, sometimes you can find some stunning views of unexpected locations. So, open your mind, enjoy your time in outdoor environments, and be prepared for the unexpected.
Another benefit of winter hiking is the different (and often more abundant) wildlife that you may be able to observe. Too many people on the trails and your chances to see wild animals are shrinking considerably. Actually, a winter hiking trip is a great opportunity to see all those animal tracks that normally get missed. Moreover, the chances of successful wildlife watching are higher on weekday evenings and very early mornings when roads and trails aren’t constantly filled with people so wild animals aren’t scared to show up. For viewing winter wildlife on the trail and taking some nice pictures, you can employ one of the following two strategies:
- Rely on lucky encounters with wildlife on the trail
- Find some good spots and wait until wild animals show up
In both cases, especially if there’s a lot of snow, take the necessary equipment corresponding to the particular trail conditions such as warm hiking boots providing stability and ankle support, snowshoes, microspikes, crampons etc. For more info about the necessary gear, you can see our tips on winter hiking.
Bugs buzzing in your ear? No! Winter hiking expeditions are preferred by many because during this time of the year buzzing, biting, and annoying insects such as flies, mosquitos as well as other bugs literally disappear and let hikers alone. There are some areas where mosquitos are insane and unless you are ready to suffer them, they can really ruin your hiking adventure in spring, summer, and autumn. So, eliminating pests of the equation can be a huge plus, especially for areas with insect diversity and abundance where even the locals don't hike during the year except for the winter.
Let’s begin with the obvious. Winter hiking is associated with cold weather for a reason. Too cold weather means that you need boots and clothing (including socks, gloves, mittens, and warm hats) suited to cold weather. You may want to adapt the layers of your hiking clothing for cold weather protection depending on:
- How cold it is supposed to be and how cold it actually is
The colder the weather, the more layers you are going to wear - up to four or five for very cold environments.
- The wind factor, heat loss, and cold stress
Take into account the presence or absence of wind and wind speed in order to minimize excessive cooling of the body. Don’t underestimate the combination of blistering cold temperatures and high wind speed because wind draws heat from exposed skin pretty quick. Thus, take an outer layer with low air permeability or, preferably wind-resistant outer shell.
- The influence of snow, rain, and moisture
Getting wet from the inside is no less dangerous than getting wet from the outside so keep this in mind, especially when the intensity of your exercise is higher than usual. Even the most “breathable” waterproof clothing could not deal with the sweat released during high levels of exertion. This will lead to moisture accumulation inside your clothing, which reduces its thermal insulation abilities.
The longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere (NH) happens between June 20 and June 22 (it’s also the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere (SH), while the shortest day falls between December 20 and December 22 (it coincides with the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere). And while the stretch of sunlight lasts for roughly 14-17 hours in the summer (in the NH), this number is around 7-10 hours in the winter (excluding the northernmost parts of the NH where daylight can be much shorter - it can actually go down to zero in Iceland, Greenland, some parts of northern Russia, Alaska, and northern Canada). So, you’ll have to hike by headlamp because daylight hours are limited in the winter. To make your walk safe and enjoyable, don’t ever go backpacking without a reliable source of light. Nowadays, LED headlamps and flashlights are durable, lightweight, and bright. In addition, their battery life is longer than it was before. Headlamps and torches both have advantages and disadvantages. For example, though headlamps are often heavier than torches, wearing a headlamp leaves your hands free for tasks like cooking and building a shelter, while flashlights are lighter but somewhat less convenient for backpacking.
Heavier pack weight
Cold weather protection requires more layers of clothing and more gear, in general. Moreover, adequate nutrition and hydration are essential for trekking in cold environments and especially for high altitude hiking. Always begin your day well hydrated for better overall physical performance and bring plenty of tea, hot chocolate, sports drinks, to stay properly hydrated throughout the hiking day. Have regular meals and eat well to make sure you properly nourish your body in order to have enough energy for hiking in the cold. High caloric intake will also help you recover faster from long and exhausting winter treks. Keep this in mind when planning your hiking trip.
Speed in alpine terrain in winter correlates strongly with the weather conditions and especially with the snow situation. The amount and type of snow as well as the temperatures, hiker traffic on the specific trail, winter gear and its proper use, and your physical preparation have to be taken into consideration when estimating the time you will need to finish the route. For example, you may have to be the one to “break trail”. It’s a not only time-consuming but also very exhausting activity that will slow down your progress by a considerable amount of time. Having an idea of how much to lower your time and distance expectations can be an important part of your preparation. Unfortunately, the best way to learn this is from personal experience. Anyway, when planning your winter hikes, take into consideration that: 1) walking in snow is harder; 2) there's an additional factor of caution in winter. Hence, be mentally prepared to hike at a lower speed than usual as this way you’ll be making far less progress than you are used to.
Water sources may be frozen
Another thing that you have to take into account when preparing your gear for a winter expedition in the wilderness is that winter conditions can limit the availability to a water source on the trail. Since water supply and having access to enough drinking water is among the most important things you want to know about a region, make sure that you do your homework while planning your winter hiking trip. Moreover, keep a stove and some fuel for melting snow in case that you don’t have direct access to drinking water or water sources are frozen. Then you can use one of the methods described in our post about water treatment in the outdoors.
Winter hiking has its pros and cons and being familiar with the most important ones will give you a real insight into what to expect on the trail. Besides the beauty of the white landscapes and panoramic views, there’s so much more you can enjoy about winter hiking. You can explore the area without the inconvenience of sharing it with swarms of tourists and occasional hikers. Moreover, walking in nature without the sound of annoying bugs buzzing around makes your winter trip much more enjoyable and relaxing. On the other side, winter expeditions have downsides too: heavier packs crammed with extra clothing, caloric foods, and water; navigating around dangerous areas and negotiating rough and slippery terrain; and less daylight are among them. Nevertheless, if you are well prepared for the challenges of hiking in winter conditions, you’ll have a better chance to enjoy your trip.