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Cold Weather: How To Stay Safe When On the Trail

When you head out to hike in colder weather, like those crazy enough to choose to start the AT in January and February the coldest months in most of the US, you need to be aware of.

If the temperature outside is below freezing and there is any moisture present, like sweat, that moisture can quickly turn to ice or sap out body heat bringing on dangerous problems.

Today I wanted to discuss when is it too cold to hike, and what to change in your expectations.

For thru-hikers it is almost never too cold to hike, the concerns need to be in gear to maintain warmth and to understand the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite before they escalate.

While cold can be dangerous if you understand the issues and concerns you can mitigate most without ill effect. Sometimes the cold hikes can be the best and showcase nature as many never see it!

Trail through the woods with fresh snow

Why Everyone Should Try Cold Weather Hiking

Most will try to avoid the extremes as they can lead to worse problems and real life-threatening issues, but cold-weather hiking can be some of the most rewarding.

Hiking in the cold months has a certain allure to it. There are much fewer people on the trails and you can really get a sense of tranquility being one with nature.

The air is much crisper and when you can see your breath it creates an almost ethereal feeling like you are in another world.

Everything seems more extreme when the temperatures plunge, but that can be a good thing. You become more aware of your surroundings and every sound seems to carry further.

You are more alive when you are cold, and that can be a great feeling.

Is It Safe to Hike in the Cold?

As long as you gear up properly and take the necessary precautions, yes it is safe to hike in the cold. However, there are some things you need to be aware of before heading out.

First, when the temperature outside is below freezing and there is moisture present, like sweat, that moisture can quickly turn to ice or sap out body heat bringing on dangerous problems.

Second, you need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite so you can get to safety if necessary.

Third, make sure you have the proper gear to keep you warm, dry, and safe.

Is It Even Possible To Be Too Cold To Hike?

People thrive in exceedingly cold areas from Alaska to Siberia, we are able to do this due to our ability to think and prepare for the environment.

While it is possible to get too cold while hiking, it is more difficult than you might think. The main reason being when you are constantly moving your body produces heat which can help offset the colder temperatures.

Of course, if you are not dressed properly or do not have the proper gear, you can get too cold very quickly. This is why it is important to be prepared before heading out.

Need Gear Matched To Environment

If you expect freezing conditions then your gear needs to be able to support this type of weather. This means having a good sleeping bag, insulation, proper clothing, and rain gear.

Your gear needs to be able to keep you dry and warm even when it is wet outside. This can be a challenge, but there are many great options available depending on your budget.

Some People Get Cold Faster

While I tend to run hot my wife tends towards cold, so you need to know your body and you need to know when it is time to warm up and which layers you need to add to gain warmth quickly.

Many are warm even at very cold temperatures while hiking because of the constant blood flow but if you forget when you take a break to add your puffy jacket or warm fleece you may find yourself losing this stored heat very fast.

If you feel yourself getting cold it is time to take a break and warm up, this can be done by walking faster, doing some jumping jacks, or just sitting down and putting on an extra layer.

The key is to not let your body temperature drop too much as this can lead to serious problems.

There are two primary concerns or issues you can encounter when hiking in the cold, these are frostbite and hypothermia.

  • Frostbite is when your skin and tissue freeze and it can cause permanent damage.
  • Hypothermia is when your core body temperature drops too low and it can be deadly.

Both of these can be avoided by proper preparation, but they are still something you need to be aware of when hiking in colder weather.

Mischief On The Trails – Personal Frostbite Story

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btyhDcW9t8k

Frostbite

The ever-present danger to cold-weather hikers is frostbite and it can happen quickly when you are not paying attention.

Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue freeze, this can cause permanent damage and even lead to amputation in severe cases.

The extremities are most susceptible to frostbite, this includes your nose, ears, fingers, and toes.

Hypothermia

Hypermetermia is when your core body temperature drops too low and it can be deadly if not treated quickly.

Hypothermia can occur when you are cold and wet or when you are exposed to cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time.

Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, confusion, and drowsiness.

If you suspect someone has hypothermia, it is important to get them to a warm place and seek medical attention immediately.

How to Avoid Frostbite and Hypothermia

The best way to avoid both frostbite and hypothermia is to be prepared before heading out. This means having the proper gear and clothing to keep you warm and dry even when it is cold and wet outside.

You also need to know the signs and symptoms of both so you can get to safety and warm up if necessary.

Lastly, make sure you take breaks often to warm up and keep your body temperature from dropping too much.

What to Do If You Suspect Frostbite or Hypothermia

If you start to experience any of the signs or symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia then it is time to take action.

The first thing you need to do is get out of the cold and wind if possible. If you can’t get indoors then at least try to find some shelter from the elements.

Once you are out of the cold, remove any wet clothing and replace it with dry clothing if possible. If you can’t remove your clothing then at least try to cover any exposed skin.

Once you are dry and have removed any wet clothing, begin to slowly warm up your body. You can do this by sipping on a hot drink or by using a portable heater if you have one.

Do not use direct heat, such as a fireplace or stove, to warm up as this can cause further damage.

If you are unable to warm up or if your symptoms are getting worse then it is time to seek medical help.

Cold-Weather Hiking Tips for Beginners

Some solid tips to ensure your safety and enjoyment of cold-weather hiking include:

Wear Multiple Layers

Have a well-thought-out clothing layer system that allows for easy additions and removals as the temperature changes.

You should also have a windproof as well as a waterproof outer layer to protect you from the elements.

Monitor Weather Reports

Cold snaps can come on quick and with little notice, so when there is even a chance you need to hike in cold weather, pay close attention to the forecast.

Pack More Water and Calories

Cold causes shivers and more energy used in general to maintain body heat, this will end up with more calories needing to be consumed and more water used.

Be Prepared to Turn Back

There is no shame in turning back if the conditions are too cold or if you start to experience any of the signs or symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia.

It is better to be safe than sorry when hiking in cold weather.

Hiking when it is too cold can be dangerous and even deadly if you are not prepared. Frostbite and hypothermia are real dangers when hiking in cold weather and they can happen quickly if you are not careful.

Wearing the proper clothing, monitoring the weather, and being prepared to turn back are all important when hiking in cold weather. If you do suspect frostbite or hypothermia, take action immediately and get to a warm place.

Move Slowly and Take Measured Steps

When it’s cold outside you want to limit your sweat, so instead of trying to move hard and fast, take your time when hiking in cold weather.

This will help you avoid getting too sweaty and maintain a better core temperature.

Bring Hand Warmers

These are tiny little blisses when your fingers start to go numb from the cold. They just need to be cracked and they begin to provide warmth which can be a big help when hiking in cold weather.

Wear Your Buff

A buff can help you keep your face warm in cold weather and can also be used as a hat, neck gaiter, or scarf when necessary.

They are lightweight and take up very little space, making them an ideal piece of gear for hikes in cold weather.

Don’t Let Your Water Freeze

When you need a drink you don’t want a frozen and undrinkable water bottle.

There are a few ways to prevent your water from freezing, such as keeping it in an insulated water bottle or putting it in a sock and tucking it into your jacket.

You just need to think about it ahead of time so you can have a plan for when your water starts to freeze.

Final Thoughts on When Is It Too Cold To Hike

Hiking when it is cold outside can be dangerous if you are not prepared, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Wearing the proper clothing, monitoring the weather, and being prepared to turn back are all important when hiking in cold weather. If you do suspect frostbite or hypothermia, take action immediately and get to a warm place.

By following these tips you can enjoy hikes in cold weather while staying safe and avoiding potential dangers.

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