Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

Zealand Falls HutAs the coldest air of the winter settles in to New England, we’re preparing to make our winter trip to AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut. The weather forecast for the Bretton Woods area is for partly cloudy skies on Saturday with a high temperature of only 11 degrees! Overnight lows are forecast to be in the single digits and could fall below zero at the higher elevation of the hut.

As Scouts, we’re taught to Be Prepared, but it’s even more important to follow our motto when traveling in winter weather conditions! If we’re well prepared, even the coldest weather trips can be enjoyable … but if we’re not prepared, extreme cold weather can be downright dangerous.

Cold Weather Hazards

There are 3 main hazards on any winter trip

  • Frostbite
  • Hypothermia
  • Slips and Falls

Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissues freeze. The most commonly affected areas are the nose, ears, fingers and toes, but in extremely cold weather any exposed skin is at risk for frostbite. Left untreated for long enough and the skin and tissues can’t recover and may require amputation in the worst cases to prevent infection.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature begins to drop. If it drops low enough the person affected can lose consciousness or even die. Surprisingly, hypothermia is more prevalent in milder temperatures, particularly in wet weather, but winter presents its own challenges. With deeper cold, it will be much harder to warm a person, particularly if you can’t readily get to a hut, cabin or heated structure.

On the Trail #1Slips and falls can occur anytime, but are much more likely in winter conditions. Trails can be icy and slippery and a layer of fresh snow can mask hidden hazards. Winter conditions will also make it harder to evacuate someone with a sprain or broken bone that is unable to walk themselves back out of the wilderness.

In addition to the cold, winter weather can pose serious risks to any hiker. Snow, sleet, freezing rain and high winds often go with winter storms in the northeast. These all present significant hazards to an unprepared hiker. Before you start loading your gear, make sure you read and understand the local weather forecast for the time and area you will be hiking in. Remember that weather conditions are often more severe at the higher elevations in the mountains that they are for the general area or the town where the forecast was issued.

Be Prepared!

To prepare for your winter trip, carefully consider clothing and footwear choices.  Always remember that it’s easier to stay warm than to get warm!!

Make sure you have enough layers of clothing both for travel and for camping or resting. When you stop to rest, put on an extra layer before you start getting cold.  When you’re moving or working in camp, take off a layer as soon as you start feeling warm. When you’re hiking or otherwise exerting yourself, you can stay surprisingly warm – even on the coldest of winter days.

Cover up exposed skin in extreme cold weather. This means your face, nose, neck and ears as well as the other parts of your body.  A balaclava or neck gaiter, knit hat, a neoprene face mask and goggles can keep your head and neck from freezing.

Use the right pair of boots and gloves! Fingers and toes are often the first to feel the cold. Make sure you are wearing a good pair of insulated boots on your feet with warm, dry wool socks and maybe even a liner sock to wick moisture. A pair of heavy winter gloves or mittens that cinch around the wrist to keep out snow and wind is critical. In colder temperatures, wear a liner glove under your mittens so if you need to take of a mitten to work on something you don’t need to do it with your bare hands.

MSR Lightning SnowshoesMake sure you have traction for your feet. Snowshoes provide both flotation for travel in deep snow and traction devices on the bottom of the snowshoe for gripping on icy conditions. Be careful, though .. some snowshoes do not have adequate traction for hiking in more challenging terrain! Most snowshoes will at least have a cleat under the toe (that looks a bit like a claw).  Your snowshoe should at least have this toe cleat.  Some shoes, like the MSR Lightning pictured here, have serrated metal edges and traction bars for even more grip on icy terrain.

Micro SpikesIf the trails are packed or icy, you may just want micro-spikes. Micro Spikes can be attached to any boot or shoe and feature sturdy chains with metal “teeth” that wrap under the boot sole.  There are several brands on the market, but avoid Yak Trax or similar traction devices, which consist of coiled wire underneath the sole. These just don’t have enough traction for most winter hiking trails and are really suited more for walking on icy sidewalks.

In certain conditions (none of which you’re likely to encounter on a Troop trip!) you might even need crampons. boot_with_cramponThese special cleats are design for traveling or climbing in extremely icy terrain – usually above the tree line. They often require special boots and shouldn’t really be used without proper training.

While you might be prepared for the cold, don’t forget about gear and food you are carrying with you.

Water freezes when the temperature dips and this may mean the water in your Nalgene or CamelBack. While you may hike with a CamelBack in the warmer weather, the hose and bite valve on most water bladders will freeze quickly when temperatures drop. You can get special insulated sleeves for the hose and putting the bite valve inside your jacket may prevent it from freezing up, but on really cold days a wide-mouth Nalgene bottle may be your best bet. You can put your Nalgene in a sock or buy an insulated cover for your bottle to help keep it from freezing up. Hydration is really important in colder weather where you don’t feel warm or sweaty – the normal signals your body uses to help remind you to drink.

Electronics other battery powered devices don’t work so well in the cold.  Put electronics and spare batteries inside your jacket to keep them warm and functional.

Food is subject to freezing in your pack on the hike in to camp. Plan accordingly and try and avoid foods that may be spoiled by freezing.

If you plan on using a light-weight stove, you’ll be better off with a liquid-fuel stove. The butane canisters perform very poorly in colder weather and may not work at all when the temperatures are extremely cold. You may need to use melted ice or snow for water. You will need to melt a lot of snow (about 10 times more than the amount of water you need) to get enough water for cooking or drinking.  Just remember that this will take extra fuel and make sure you have enough for both melting snow and cooking.

Finally, check the weather 48-hours before you leave and again the day before. One last check in the morning before you walk out the door will give you the best indication of the weather you are likely to find on your trip.

The bottom line is that outdoor activities don’t have to stop just because the calendar says it’s Winter. Winter trips have their own rewards and as long as you are prepared for the conditions you’re likely to encounter, you can continue to enjoy camping and hiking all year round!

For extra reading, head on over to the AMC website and read up on Winter Camping: A Warm Winter’s Night and learn about protecting your head, neck and face with the short video Losing Steam: Four Essentials for Winter Hiking