Winter Hiking Preparedness

It's no secret that winters in the Adirondacks can be very cold. But did you know that winter conditions often begin as early as October and can last until May? Or that the temperatures at the summit of mountains can be vastly different than the temperatures at the base? With proper planning and hiking gear, you can prevent finding yourself in life-threatening situations. Learn how to properly prepare for the changing elements below so that you can enjoy a safe winter hiking experience.

John Haywood

Winter in the Adirondacks is beautiful. Trees coated with freshly-fallen snow, bright white landscapes rolling into the distant mountains, and the chilly air that blushes the cheeks are all a part of what makes the Adirondacks a special place this time of year.

For many, winter is their preferred season. Whether it be the cool temperatures, the scenery, the thrill of winter hiking, or just the absence of black flies. For them, the best time of the year is winter.

Gothics Mountain in winter
Gothics Mountain in winter

Although winter officially begins in mid-December, the snow and ice usually arrive in October at higher elevations, and by November, the trails to the peaks will demand hikers to be fully prepared for the challenges posed by punishing and erratic weather.

As hikers set out to ascend the peaks and traverse the trails, their preparedness will dictate the outcome of their journey. Their lives will depend on their readiness to react to situations, expected or not. Proper clothing, footwear, traction devices, the ability to make a fire or shelter, navigation, light sources, etc. all must be addressed ahead of time and readdressed before beginning the hike.

How to Be Prepared for Winter Hiking

1. Stay Dry

Staying dry is key when hiking in cold weather. Never wear cotton or jeans as they will retain moisture and could potentially lead to hypothermia. Moisture-wicking materials such as wool, fleece, and synthetics will transport sweat away from the skin, rather than holding it there. These materials will also dry faster. Wool socks will keep your feet comfortable, warm, and dry.

2. Wear Layers & Pack Extras

Layering is important when hiking in the winter in order to meet a wide range of conditions and activities. Removing layers when you begin to sweat from physical activity is important as damp clothing will chill you when you stop moving. Having waterproof and windproof outer layers is important as the summits are often windy, and when combined with blowing snow, these conditions can cause hikers to become very cold very quickly.

There are three parts to layering; a base layer to wick moisture away from the skin, mid-layer to insulate from the cold, and soft or hard shell to offer protection from wind and precipitation. It is good practice to pack extra layers in your hiking pack so that in the event that you must stay where you are while waiting out blizzard conditions, you can change out of any wet clothing items and stay warm and dry.

3. Bring Proper Footwear & Traction Aids

Proper footwear and traction aids are critical pieces of equipment during any hiking excursion, but especially in the winter. Losing the ability to walk due to improper footwear, falls due to lack of traction, or exhaustion from having to post-hole through feet of snow will bring your hike to a fateful end.

In the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness, snowshoes are required by law when there is 8 or more inches of snow. Snowshoes have a larger "footprint" to spread weight out over more of an area to prevent post-holing which will not only ruin a trail but, causes hikers to expend more energy, and run the risk of injury from sudden falls. Snowshoes will also have teeth for traction.

woman hiking with snowshoes in winter
credit: Mandy Applin

Micro-spikes should always be worn when icy conditions exist. Micro-spikes slip over boots and have teeth for traction in slippery areas. If you are ever unsure about whether or not you need micro-spikes, bring them. They are light and don't take up much room. It's better to have them and not need them than the alternative.

In extreme cases, crampons may be necessary to ascend trails where the ice is very hard and the incline is steep. Crampons fit over boots like micro-spikes but, have larger teeth, including teeth on the toe for added bite and traction.

4. Pack a Map, Compass, &/or GPS Device

A snowy summit can also cause hikers to become disoriented and lose the trail, thus the importance of having a map and compass and knowing how to use them. A GPS is also good to have but, putting all your faith in an electronic device can be risky.

5. Inform Someone of Your Hiking Plans

Being prepared for the unexpected is critical when hiking in cold weather. Having to spend a night in the woods without shelter, a means of communication, or ability to create a fire for warmth can lead to life-threatening conditions like hypothermia and frostbite. Always let someone know your plans for hiking, including:

  • where you will be hiking
  • when you will be leaving
  • from what trailhead you'll be starting and ending (if there is more than one option)
  • when you anticipate returning

Letting someone know when you expect to be back is crucial as it can reduce precious minutes someone is stranded. If you do not have a personal locator beacon, be sure to have a cell phone if there is a chance of having a signal. Always keep batteries warm so they don't lose power in the cold.

6. Pack Extra of Everything

Bring more than is expected when it comes to essentials like food and water, extra clothing in case clothes become wet and cold, first aid supplies, especially for foot-related injuries, and light sources in case the batteries in one stop working.

7. Don't Hike Alone

One of the best ways to prevent life-threatening situations is to never hike alone during the winter. Having a hiking partner who can assess and react to a situation can save lives and prevent a catastrophe. An example would be a hiker falling into a spruce trap and not being able to get out.

group of hikers prepared for hiking during winter in the Adirondacks
group of hikers prepared for hiking during winter in the Adirondacks

8. Check the Weather Before Starting Your Hike

Checking the weather can keep you from getting caught in a storm that you were not expecting. Always keep in mind though, that the weather in the Adirondacks is subject to extreme change in an instant. While it could be sunny at the start, as you make your way, it could turn into white-out conditions. It's good to be prepared for anything. Also, understand that the temperatures that are typically forecasted are not for the summit of the mountain you may be hiking, which could have a much lower temperature due to its altitude. If the forecast is predicting harsh weather conditions on the ground, stay home and plan your hike for another time.

Adirondack hiking in the winter can be a wonderful experience if proper precautions are taken and preparation is done. Stay warm, layer up, pack extras, bring a friend, and avoid harsh weather and you're sure to have a great time.

man hiking up Algonquin in winter
credit: Manuel Palacios, www.zone3photo.com

Everything You Need For Safe Winter Hiking

  • Insulted winter hiking boots
  • Wool socks
  • Wool or synthetic base layers
  • Fleece mid-layer
  • Softshell or hardshell coat and pants
  • Wool or fleece hat that can also cover ears
  • Gloves with a pair of liners.
  • Ski goggles to protect eyes from becoming "snowblind"
  • Face mask to protect from wind and cold
  • Gaiters to keep snow out of boots
  • Micro-spikes and Crampons for traction on ice
  • Snowshoes
  • Trekking poles for added support
  • Flashlight and headlamp with extra batteries
  • First-aid kit
  • GPS, Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), cell phone
  • Map and Compass
  • Firestarter kit
  • Cold weather-rated tent or bivy
  • Knife
  • Zip Ties and duct tape for repairs
  • Extra food and water
  • Sunscreen

Loon Lake Mountain in winter
Loon Lake Mountain in winter
About the Author …
John Haywood
John Haywood is the Adirondack Ambassador for "Dig the Falls", a collective group of people who love the waterfalls of New York, educating the public about hiking safety, and are proud partners of the Leave No Trace initiative.
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