Winter Hiking

Snow and ice tend to slow down hiking in the winter months, but only just a little. Hiking tends to morph into other silent sports such as winter walking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. So what do you need to know and what gear should you have in order to enjoy “hiking” in the winter?

Winter Walking
The simplest way to get going in the winter is to slap on your outdoor gear including warm boots, grab a walking pole and put a set winter chains on your boots. Okay, maybe not chains exactly, but the principal is the same. Ice grippers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the key should be comfort, ease of use and functionality, that is, keeps you from slipping.

Pros – fast and easy way to get walking in the winter.
Cons – grips work on ice but don’t help in deep snow. Post-holing will slow you down and tire you out.

One spring we planned a ski trip into a backcountry cabin, but the forecast was for rain. I don’t mind skiing in warm weather, but the thought of skiing sludge had me shaking in my boots. My daughter suggested snowshoeing. We’d walk our way in – perfect!

Webbed-foot hiking in Elk Lakes Provincial Park, B.C.

The new breed of snowshoes are perfect for novices. They are lightweight and easy to use. Don’t rush out and buy a pair though – rent them. This gives you the time to find a pair that really works for you. Wooden snowshoes are rare these days, most are made with aluminum and plastic. Shapes are designed specifically for type of use, e.g. general recreation, running, mountaineering. You’re best bet is to be a generalist at first. Now add a set of hiking poles and outdoor clothing – inner wicking layer, warm layer, water/windproof outer layer, toque, mitts, gaiters and comfortable winter boots – and you’re set.

With a small set of snowshoes, the only thing you need to keep in mind is to widen your stance. Walking slightly, and I mean ever so slightly, bow-legged will get you going without tripping needlessly. It won’t take long for this to become routine.

Pros – easy way to travel across tracked or untracked snow.
Cons – you still have to work going downhill!

Cross Country Skiing
Ultimately the fastest, most efficient way to get into the backcountry is to strap on a set of skis and get gliding. The first consideration is what kind of gear you’re going to need. Cross country skiing includes such diverse styles as skate skiing and telemarking – but that’s another post. For now, let’s focus on classic, nordic-style, cross-country skiing. You’ll need cross-country boots, skis and poles. As with snowshoes, don’t buy until you’ve rented several different times. Try out different brands and models to make sure you’ve found a set that best matches your needs.

Unlike slapping on a pair of ice grippers or snowshoes, you’ll need to prepare your skis for the snow conditions by waxing. This can be avoided by renting/buying “waxless” skis, but know that you’ll give up speed for convenience if you go this route. Waxes come in colours coded to snow temperature – from cold blue to warm red. Match the colour to the temp, smooth it out with a cork and you’re ready to hit the trails.

Because you can travel long distances faster, always carry a backpack with extra clothing, food, drink, a first aid kit and an emergency repair kit – duct tape wrapped around a ski pole always comes in handy in a pinch.

Pros – most efficient travel for long distances.
Cons – takes a little more gear, knowledge and skill.

Whichever winter hiking option you choose, enjoy the adventure.

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