Advice From Experienced Winter Hikers

We asked Ridge Line readers to share lessons learned about hiking and backpacking during Vermont’s winter months. We got more ideas, recommendations, warnings and thoughtful suggestions than we have room to print – so here’s a summary of the most frequently mentioned tips.

  • Leave cotton clothing and blue jeans at home. Cotton provides almost no protection from wind, and when it gets wet you might as well be wandering around out there naked.
  • Don’t count on your good old summer hiking boots. Get insulated boots designed for winter hiking.
  • Remember the Three W’s. Wear a layer like polypro that will Wick moisture away from your skin. Wear a Warming layer like wool or fleece. Wear or carry a layer that will protect you against Wet. It’s nearly impossible to stay warm if you’re wet. A waterproof shell could literally save your life if it starts raining, sleeting or snowing. You should also carry an extra warm layer to put on as soon as you stop for a rest, especially if you get sweaty.
  • Whenever you hike in the winter, think about the awful possibility of getting stranded on the trail overnight. Make sure your pack has extra clothes, including hats and gloves.
  • It gets dark early in the cold months. Bring a sturdy flashlight or – even better – a headlamp.
  • Winter hikers need plenty of food and water to maintain energy and avoid hypothermia and frostbite. Carry lots of high-calorie snacks like gorp, chocolate, cheese and peanut butter. (For winter campers, a handful of gorp at 2:00 AM is like stoking the fire and putting on an extra blanket.)
  • A thermos of hot bouillon or hot Tang will warm your insides on a below zero day. Drinking cool liquids tends to lower your body temperature.
  • Wrap your water bottle or thermos in a wool sock before putting it in your pack. This will keep the contents hot a bit longer.
  • If you’re using a hydration pack, blow into the tubing after drinking. Otherwise, the water might freeze even with insulation around it. Also, keep the mouthpiece inside your jacket in very cold temperatures.
  • Prevent hypothermia by staying hydrated, well fed, and dry. The “umbles” are a warning! Be concerned if you start mumbling, fumbling and stumbling. More severe symptoms include vision problems, forgetfulness, confusion or fainting.
  • Prevent frostbite by protecting your skin from wind and wet and avoiding clothes that cut off circulation, especially to hands or feet. Remember that people who have been frostbitten before are much more likely to suffer a repeat injury

We heard from Burlington Section Member Frank Gibney, who said he’s “one of those 30+ year members that lurks, but does still get out”. Over the years, he’s guided hundreds of folks to places where they’ve been challenged by high altitude and cold weather. He recently took several Burlingtonians to hike Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Frank has found that people who are experienced hikers often seem to have the biggest hang-ups with regard to being willing to stop and take care of potentially dangerous situations. Just assuming that they’re OK isn’t always a good idea. Frank recommends looking folks in the eye and asking, “Can you feel your toes and fingers?” If there’s any hesitation at all, it’s time to stop and deal with the situation right then and there. He hopes that this kind of pro-active behavior will prevent frostbite incidents.

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