Cold Weather Hiking

Fall Colors and Cooler Weather  . . . . . Perfect for Hiking . . . . .

Remember the Ten Essentials ? Refresh your memory HERE and then think about Fall and Winter hiking needs.

Cold Weather Hiking - Cumberland Trails Conference

Free climbing and mountain snowboarding are extreme sports. Hiking becomes an extreme sport when you are forced to stay on the trail overnight in temperatures you are not prepared for.

Easily the biggest killer of stranded hikers is hypothermia. Even if you are not lost, you may have to stay with an injured hiker while waiting for help. So open up your favorite day pack and look at what might be needed for the Winter.

Shelter !  More important than water.  Carry a light weight poncho, a couple large trash bags and a good quality emergency thermal blanket.

Two Person Thermal Blanket from Adventure Medical

Two Person Thermal Blanket from Adventure Medical

The one pictured here from Adventure Medical under the brand name SOL – Survive Outside Longer, is large enough for two people and weighs under 4 ounces. They also make thermal bivy sacks, tarps and a variety of emergency kits.

Use the trash bags for a ground cloth and wrap up in the thermal blanket. Ponchos are good for rain, snow, wind breaks and emergency shelter. Staying off the ground is half the battle against the cold. The cold ground will suck body heat away very quickly.

Plastic Grocery Bags!  Really? Slip them on between your shoes and socks before the socks get wet to preserve heat. Have extra for other hikers.

Socks ! While we are on that. Throw a pair of lightweight wool or poly /wool socks in the pack.

Fire ! Doesn’t take much of a drop in temperature to make a wait in the woods miserable. Add a little dampness and a fire becomes essential. There is an old saying: “Two is One and One is None.” Carry several ways to make fire. A standard disposal lighter to start. A fire striker is another lightweight item. Add a pack of gag birthday candles and your chances of starting and keeping a fire going are a little better.

Remember the candles that kept coming back on when you tried to blow them out . . . ?  Nice to have in a light rain and a breeze. Weigh next to nothing and can be found in stores that carry party supplies.

Add a folded up square foot of aluminum foil and you have a wind screen and a heat reflector.

In an emergency people panic. Even if they stop to breath and assess the situation, they forget some useful information.

Like, other things that burn and can help with fire starting. A common trick is to carry some petroleum jelly ( Vaseline™) soaked cotton balls in an old pill bottle. Other flammables include:  pocket lint, ChapStick ™, Fritos and Dorito™ chips, and duct tape. Wrap a couple winds of duct tape lightly around a stick for a make-shift torch.  Dollar bills burn nicely too. They’re in your wallet and probably dry. Couple dollars might save your life.

A Knife! I read a blog post where someone questioned the need for a knife on a day hike. “I’ve hiked for 15 years and never had to use a knife,” he wrote. And I’ve had fire insurance for thirty years and never had to use it (touch wood). Carry a pocket knife to cut kindling for the fire, cut Para Cord to tie up a poncho for shelter. Cut clothing for a sling or bandage.

A Whistle! OK, it’s in the Ten Essentials.  Whistles can be heard farther than shouting.

Folding Ear Muffs!  Look for these on sale only near the December Holidays. Put two in each of your packs. Buy a couple of gifts for hiking friends. Amazing how just keeping your ears warm helps.

Hand Warmers!  Best known brand is Hot Hands®. They come in different sizes, weigh very little and help preserve body heat.

Extra Clothing! Swap out the light wind breaker from summer hiking for something more substantial. Add a poly fleece vest too. Two pairs of medium weight gloves. Sometimes underrated; a wool scarf provides a extra measure of protection over the head, neck or face.

Food! To stay warm the body shivers and burns up energy just trying to maintain a stable core temperature. Eating is a good way to help your body. Only carry what you like to eat. High carb / high protein bars are popular. Snack packs of chicken salad with crackers weight about 3 ounces and pack 200 calories.  Jiff To Go™ single serving peanut butter weighs 1.5 ounces and has 250 calories!  In addition to lunch and regular snacks, carry another 800 to 1,000 calories. You might have to share with hikers not so prepared.

Water! Keep your water WARM ! Survival in the cold means trying to keep the core body temperature stable at 98.6. Drinking cold water or eating snow works against this requirement. Water bladders get cold and drinking tubes freeze.

Try rigging a couple of internal hooks to keep water bottles inside your jacket or vest. In the pack, slip the bottles into wool hiking socks.

Flashlight!  Get a decent quality headlamp and make sure it works before setting out. Days are short and hiking the last hour in the dark is an adventure but not real fun. Ask for one for your next birthday.  Switch to lithium batteries for the winter. alkaline batteries lose power faster in cold temps.

“No such thing as bad weather; just the wrong clothing.”


Life Member Mark Richie is a Certified Master Trail Builder with more than 1,500 hours on the Cumberland Trail and another 1,000 hours on other trails. He teaches trail building and survival skills and is Wilderness First Aid qualified.