Winter hiking


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  • Bob Falcone
Colorado Springs is full of hardy, enjoy-the-outdoors-regardless-of-the-weather types of people; we'll all keep hiking, running, cycling, in sun, snow, ice, wind or whatever foul weather gets thrown at us. We're kind of like the mail carriers of outdoor recreation. So, here's a short reminder of how to be properly (and safely) prepared and equipped for winter recreation.

Dress and equip properly

Layering your clothing is the key. Your base layer should be some type of moisture wicking material. Typically, synthetic materials are used in moisture wicking clothing, but wool also works well. DO NOT USE COTTON — you'll sweat, even in the coldest weather, and moisture trapped against your body can lead to hypothermia.

The next layer(s) should be insulating materials such as fleece, wool or synthetic, underneath a breathable, wind/water resistant top layer. This allows 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.

Don’t forget your gloves. Most of the time, a pair of thin gloves (think Thinsulate) is really all that’s needed. Make sure they’re water resistant or waterproof. Or, even better, find some gloves that allow you to use touch screens while wearing them to make it easier to use your cellphone or camera without freezing your finger tips. Lightweight gloves also make a great inner layer for when it’s really cold and you need to wear heavier gloves.

Your head needs to be covered as much as anything else. Your ears are particularly susceptible to cold and frostbite, so wear something that covers them — earmuffs, headbands, or simply a hat pulled down over your ears will keep you comfortable.

Don't forget sunscreen. Yes,  you do need it here, even in the winter. That bright sun reflecting off of that bright, white snow can give you a sunburn. 

Your footwear should be layered, too —There are few things as bad as frozen toes! Start with wool socks of the appropriate weight for the temperature, but in very cold weather you can layer with polypropylene sock liners. And, 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. Don’t forget some kind of traction aids for your boots, such as YakTrax, MICROspikes, or ICEtrekkers. They don’t help in fresh snow, but are a necessity on ice. Once the snow is deep enough that you’re “post-holing” — around eight inches-deep or so — then it’s time for snowshoes or cross-country skis.

Speaking of snowshoes, it’s important to get the right size based on the weight of the user. But, when looking for snowshoes, you need to factor your weight when wearing your typical winter clothing and equipment — weight from winter boots and hydration packs can really add-up. When in doubt, or on the borderline between two sizes, pick the larger size. If you’re not sure if snowshoeing is for you, try renting before you buy. And don't forget your hiking poles, a necessity when using snowshoes. Make sure to use the larger snow baskets on the tips of the poles to keep them from sinking too far into the snow.

Let's talk about safety

While every season brings its own weather hazards, winter can be especially dangerous. Shorter daylight hours, storms that can bring rapid temperature drops, winds that can make even moderate weather very dangerous with frigid windchill temperatures, driven snow that can cause whiteouts and disorient hikers all combine to make winter particularly dangerous. However, it’s not hard to keep yourself safe when recreating outdoors in the winter. Many of these things you can do to keep safe apply year-round.

Tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back. Give that person your car’s information, including license plate number. And don't go alone and don't get in over your head — know when to call it quits and turn around. Search and rescue experts say a group of five works best, since if one person is injured, two can stay with them and two others can go for help.

If you get lost, stay put: If you’ve done everything right, someone will really be looking for you. A stationary target is easier to find than a moving target so shelter in place. Search and rescue experts say that it can take up to 72 hours for you to be rescued, be prepared.

Make sure you have maps for the area you’re hiking in, and a compass, and that you know how to read the map and use it in conjunction with a compass. I carry a GPS receiver and use it on every hike I go on, but like anything else, you need to know how to use it and its limitations. Don’t rely on your cell phone in an emergency, since you may very well be in an area without service. And it's substitute for a map or GPS, since most cell phones have very limited battery life. Speaking of, carry spare batteries for your GPS and cell phone, or carry an external battery that plugs into your devices.  

I highly recommend a personal locator beacon that you can activate when you are rendered immobile or are hopelessly lost. These beacons send a signal to Search and Rescue Satellites giving rescue teams your location. They’re proven to save lives when no other means of communications are available. If you’re in an avalanche prone area, use an avalanche beacon — it’s not the same thing as a personal location beacon, and the two are not interchangeable. Be sure to also carry a flashlight and whistle to use as a signal for help.

Bring food and water. If you can’t bring both, make water your priority — you can survive longer without food than you can without water. If you run out of water, take advantage of the snow but don't eat it. Snow is cold and eating it will lower your core temperature. Instead, let it melt and then drink it.

Pre-existing medical conditions can turn a pleasant outing into a difficult situation in a flash. Diabetics need to take calorie intake vs. exercise into consideration, make adjustments to food intake, etc. Bring any essential medications in case you’re stranded for an extended period of time.

Happy [snowy] Trails!

Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 23 years. He is the president of the Friends of Cheyenne Canon and a member of the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), or visit his website ( E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob:


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