What you need to know to stay safe while hiking this winter

WLS logo
Thursday, December 24, 2015
A hiking trail sign is shown in a forest in the winter.

When the holidays drive us stir-crazy, some seek reprieve by turning to the great outdoors. But even if you're just going on a casual jaunt around a forest, experts say that failing to prepare for your winter hike could have consequences as serious as those staying outdoors overnight.

"People think they're going out for a casual hike," John Kelly, a management assistant at Acadia National Park in Maine, told ABC. "In the winter, even a causal hike can have the same risks. We don't really differentiate."

That's because winter weather carries dangers that casual summer hikers may not be familiar with, including more difficult trail conditions and health risks like frostbite. Even when the weather is unseasonably warm, hikers should still exercise caution because it gets dark earlier, explained Kelly.

Here are the tips and resources you need to make sure you stay safe on your winter hike.

Be prepared

A hiker looks out over a cut forest meadow in winter.

The first mistake people make when setting out on a winter hike is failing to plan ahead by not knowing what to expect, according to Bryan Johnson, an Outdoor School Coordinator and hiking guide for REI.

"Something I see a lot with people attending our winter classes is the belief that a person who is fit and hikes in the summertime can cover the same distances in winter conditions," Johnson said. "They will often leave their car with minimal equipment and the belief that a five mile hike that they have previously completed will take a similar amount of time."

One of the most important parts of planning ahead is to make sure someone knows where you are, just in case you get in a situation where you need help, Kelly told ABC. He recommends telling a friend where you're going or leaving a note by your car so park rangers know your whereabouts.

Dress properly

Layering is key for cold weather activities, but too little or too much clothing both pose problems, Johnson said.

"Maintaining body temperature and protecting your extremities with gloves, hat, and proper footwear are crucial for staying safe and enjoying your hike. Once you lose blood flow to your hands and feet, it is difficult to warm them back up in the field," Johnson said. "On the other hand, people often just think about staying warm and over layer before leaving the trailhead. This leads to overheating and sweating through your baselayers, which can rapidly chill you when you stop hiking."

REI created a video to explain strategies for understanding how to wear just the right amount of clothing:

And don't forget to add a crampon to give your hiking boots traction, Kelly said.

Set out early

In some parts of the country the sun can set as early as 4 p.m. on a winter afternoon. This carries the danger of getting lost or slipping and falling in the dark. Terrain that gets covered by shadows early in the day can become slick in cold, wet weather.

Trees cast shadows over a winter landscape.

"Even on a sunny day, there are going to be many shadows. That promotes ice formation," explained Kelly. "Starting out one in the afternoon, not a good idea."

Know your trail

"The importance of navigation on winter hikes is often overlooked by people who are used to hiking in the summer," Johnson said. "Winter trails often take different routes than in the summer and it can be difficult to see where to go in fresh snow."

A hiker uses a phone app to navigate a forest in the winter.

He recommends exploring Hikingproject.com to plan before you head out and downloading the eTrex Touch 25 app for GPS or the Gaia app for smartphones to help navigate after you get there.

When in doubt, play it safe

Watch your step for icy conditions, and if you encounter them, don't take your chances. Reaching your intended destination is not worth risking your safety.

"You might be on a 3-mile trail, but only one section might be hazardous," Kelly said. "Be willing to turn around. Don't be too committed to doing what you set out to do."

If you are planning a longer hiking trip or want to learn more about winter hiking safety, check out Acadia National Park and REI's websites for more resources.