While winter hiking in the Adirondacks has the potential to be an incredible experience, it requires an extra level of preparation to ensure safety and comfort. Here are five tips that will help you plan for your next winter adventure.
In cold temperatures, your body works a lot harder to stay warm. Calories are burned at a higher rate to produce heat, so bring more food than you normally would in the summer. Although you may not feel as thirsty as you would on a hot summer day, dry winter air actually increases risk of dehydration. Drinking extra water will also help to prevent hypothermia and frostbite.
Summer gear will not suffice for the winter conditions in the Adirondacks: you will need insulated boots, goggles to prevent snow-blindness and windburn, traction, and many more layers to stay warm. It is always a good idea to bring extra hats, gloves, and socks, in case they get wet or lost.
Whether you are sitting for a lunch break or waiting hours for a rescue, a sleeping pad will provide insulation from snow on the ground. It is also a common practice to carry a lightweight sleeping bag as an extra safety precaution.
Daylight in the winter is limited, so it is important to plan your itinerary accordingly and bring extra batteries for your headlamp. As the sun disappears, so does the warmth. Temperatures at night can plunge drastically which increases risk of freezing, frostbite, and hypothermia. Hiking in the dark also makes it much harder to spot hazards along the trail.
Hydration bladders and water filters are not recommended for the winter, as they will likely freeze and crack. Instead, use chemical treatment or boiling to purify your water. If using a stove, make sure to bring extra fuel, as heating water and cooking will take more energy. To make sure that your water won’t freeze, boil it and keep the bottle in an insulated carrier or wool sock. Flipping the bottle upside down will prevent ice from accumulating at the mouthpiece and freezing the lid shut.
Excessive sweating in the cold can be dangerous, so managing your body temperature is crucial. Wet layers will not be able to dry in the cold and will decrease your body temperature. When you’re active, don’t be afraid to pause and de-layer if you start to sweat; your dry body will thank you later. Pack some extra non-cotton base layers to replace those that will inevitably get sweaty.
Moving through thick snow and ice requires proper footwear and flotation devices. Unpacked snow is easy to sink into, so use snowshoes or skis to stay on the surface and gaiters to keep snow out of your pants and boots. In the High Peaks Wilderness Area, snowshoes or skis are required when there are eight or more inches of snow. Steep icy slopes will require microspikes or crampons for traction. Depending on the area and its conditions, you may need to bring all of these items.
The winter season poses many dangers that don’t exist in other seasons, and rescues are much more complicated. If something doesn’t seem safe, then don’t risk it. Turning back in dangerous whiteout conditions shouldn’t be discouraging, in fact it is quite respectable. Be conscious of how you are feeling and know the signs of hypothermia or frostbite. Even before heading into the backcountry, research the conditions of the trails and the forecast. Unfortunately, no matter how prepared you are, misfortunes can happen that require an emergency plan. Leaving a copy of your itinerary with a friend and registering at the trailhead can inform someone of your location in case of an emergency.
As a general rule of thumb, bring more of everything: clothing, gear, food, water, and emergency supplies. Most importantly, your common sense and instincts could protect you from the worst, so make sure to bring those along too!
Take a course with the Adirondack Mountain Club and learn how to recreate in the winter responsibly. ADK’s Winter Mountaineering School and ADK’s Winter Survival 101 course are both great ways to get into winter hiking and learn how to do it safely.