Outdoor Recreation in Cold Weather


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Summer has ended. Now we’re in that weird “Indian Summer” season — most people call it fall — when the temperature is near 70 one day and in the 40s the next.

I’ll admit it; I prefer warm weather hiking to winter hiking. But there’s something magical about treading on a blanket of fresh powder before any other living thing. The shining white snow against our deep blue skies is a view that can’t be beat.

A good time outdoors in the winter requires a little more planning and preparation than it does warmer seasons. The sunsets are earlier, and the temperature-drop once the sun goes behind the mountains can be profound. Clothing that’s suitable in the middle of the day will likely be unsuitable by dinnertime, and footwear that serves you well on dry ground may not work well on snow and ice (or frozen dirt).

You’ve heard it before; layering is the way to go. You’ve heard it for good reason — it’s true.

Much like you would during warmer months, start with a base layer of moisture-wicking material. It may be long or short-sleeved and typically synthetic, meant to pull moisture away from the body — wool is also a good choice. A base layer is important year-round, but it’s doubly important in the winter because moisture trapped against your skin in cold weather can quickly lead to hypothermia. You WILL sweat, even in the coldest weather, so choosing a proper base layer is important.

Your next layer(s) should be insulating materials such as fleece, wool or synthetic, underneath a breathable, wind/water resistant top layer. This will allow moisture to evaporate while keeping warmth-robbing wind away from you. During the course of your outing you can add or remove layers as the weather and your exertion dictates.

Frozen toes are the worst. Uncomfortable and even painful, nothing ruins a winter outing like cold toes.

Your footwear should start with wool socks of the appropriate weight for the temperature, but in very cold weather you can layer with polypropylene sock liners too. If you don’t have waterproof/breathable/insulated footwear, this may be the time to look into getting some. Insulated hiking boots, as opposed to “snow” boots, provide extra warmth, while keeping the comfort and functionality of good hiking boots.

Snowshoes or cross-country skis are the way to go in soft, deep powder. Without them, “post-holing” in deep snow isn’t a lot of fun and you’ll just end up wet and cold.

Gloves should also be water- and wind-resistant, and gloves with conductive fingertips that allow you to use the touch screen on your phone or GPS work very well. They can usually be worn by themselves, or as liners under heavier gloves. Head cover is also a must, and can be wool, fleece or synthetic. Don’t forget to cover your ears, too.

And as always, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

Bring a map (learn how to read it), a flashlight, whistle, snacks, water, and a spare battery for your cell phone. A GPS receiver is handy, but like anything else you need to learn how to use it. (If you’re skiing, an avalanche beacon is highly recommended.) A personal locator beacon (PLB) can alert emergency responders from virtually anywhere, and works where cell phones don’t.

Lastly, check the weather forecast before you leave. Then check it again. Learn to watch the sky and anticipate rapid changes in the weather. Precipitation that may be uncomfortable in the summer can be downright life-threatening in the winter. There’s no shame in turning around if the weather is going to turn ugly.

Happy trails!

Bob Falcone is a firefighter, arson investigator, non-profit board president, college instructor, photographer, hiker and small business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for 23 years. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.

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