Cover image: Ambassador Shawn Forry hikes through California's high alpine near Tahoe. All images: Shawn Forry
Winter can often be the forgotten season for exploration. As we settle into the crisp fall foliage, awaiting the first snowflakes of the season, too often we find ourselves stowing our trusty hiking boots until spring. Skewed by thoughts of chattering teeth, numb toes and histories of the Donner Party, our minds prioritize warmer environs.
And yet, the “4th season” brims with new perspective, new skill sets and a newfound joy within familiar territory.
Having the trails to yourself is just one perk of hiking in winter.
As my seasonal calendar had shifted towards having more wintertime flexibility I’ve noticed an equal shift in my perception and appreciation of all things Winter. Trails void of crowds and mosquitoes, the quiet hush under tree canopy of accumulating snowflakes, and the visual evidence of bounding wildlife prints peppered across the snow spring to mind. Consequently, the incentive of post hike fireside chatter complete with hot drinks and fleece hoodies makes the effort and outing all the more rewarding.
Tracks are more visible in the snow.
Below are my personal best practices to set you off on the right foot for winter hiking:
Location, Location, Location
Winter does not universally mean snow and cold temps! Keep elevation and latitude in mind when feeling the itch for your next winter hike. Retreating to the lower foothill as well as the lower 48, one can find an abundance of snow free trails to explore.
If you’re game for snowbound travel, try to stick with more familiar local trails for the first few outings. You’ll not only appreciate seeing a new seasonal spin on a known area, the familiarity helps to expedite competency in your new environ by focusing on skills that are new, like staying warm and dry.
Regardless of the location, plan mileage accordingly, keeping in mind the shorter daylight hours.
Dress the Part
Real warmth comes through movement so leave the hand warmers at home. Overdressing leads to feeling cold and clammy, as sweat is the number one rookie mistake in winter travel.
Finding the balance is the key.
Anticipate the warmth of movement and layer clothing accordingly. The torso area takes a surprisingly little amount of clothing to stay comfortable while moving; likely only a thin wool baselayer, micro-fleece and an ultralight wind jacket. Keep hands gloved and ears and the neck covered allowing excess heat to escape through the head, as needed. A warm puffy in the pack keeps the chill off during breaks. Don’t forget to check the forecast for any chance of precipitation! Otherwise, leave the rain jacket at home.
Feet are warmest when dry and unrestricted. Tight layers of socks stuffed in stiff boots are a surefire way towards icy feet. Consider oversizing shoes by ½ size to allow a warmer sock without inhibiting toe wiggle. A waterproof boot help retain dryness, and ziplock bags over feet inside the shoe create makeshift vapor barrier liners. Use gaiters to further seal out snow from getting inside the shoe. The BDry Sawtooth (low of mid) is a great combination of winter warmth, traction and dryness.
Get the Grip
Depending on trail conditions, ensure adequate traction is key in efficiency and safety. Simple microspikes or YakTrax are a convenient and versatile way to prevent slips on ice. For deeper conditions consider the addition of snowshoes to keep you floating rather than wallowing in the snow.
Eating Fast, Drink Warm
Futzing with wrappers and extravagant meals can wreak havoc with gloved hands and bring a chill on quick during breaks. Change up the trail menu to follow suit. Keep calorie intake simple and frequent to keep the internal furnace burning. Similarly, warm liquids are more inviting for consumption.
Store your drink in a thermos, water cozy or wrapped in an isolative jacket inside your pack to prevent freezing. If your water has already frozen before you drank it, you’re already dehydrated!
Having completed the Triple Crown of hiking (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail) by age 25, Shawn Forry has continued to refine the limitations of ultralight travel, having logged more than 25,000mi of wilderness experience. A supporter of OBOZ since 2010, he also holds the unsupported speed record of the Colorado Trail, covering the 465mi in just over 10 days. In collaboration with Justin Lichter, Forry has pioneered routes across the world including the spine of the Himalaya and Southern Alps of New Zealand. Together in 2014/15 they became the first individuals to traverse the 2650mi Pacific Crest Trail during winter, a trip the New York Times dubbed "the most daring expedition since Lewis and Clark," and lending to an induction to the California Outdoors Hall of Fame. Forry is the Program Director for Outward Bound California having spent over a decade inspiring youth in the pursuit of leadership and character development. Based in the Tahoe region, he enjoys Nordic and alpine skiing, alpine climbing, cycling and the occasional crossword. Read further at shawnforry.com.