January 18, 2022

Tips for hiking in a winter wonderland

Editor’s Note: Brad Viles is an avid hiker and volunteer trail maintainer on the Pleasant Pond Mountain section of the Appalachian Trail. He is filling in this week for Jeff Strout who is on vacation.

I can’t wait for snow. Not a dusting. Not a trace. Not even a good foot (even though that would be enough to ski on Acadia’s carriage paths in snowy years).

No, I need 2 to 3 feet in the back country. Enough so that when I’m hucking boulders on my favorite mountain in Maine’s western hills, I can have a nice soft L.Z. (That’s landing zone for nonhuckers. Oh yeah, and hucking means jumping from boulders on snowshoes or skis.)

While I’ve been waiting for that snow to pile up, I’ve been getting ready. Since last month I’ve been doing the little things, such as checking my gear for repairs and doing what needed to be done. Since I use most of the same equipment in summer that I use in winter, it’s pretty much up to task. And then I had to find all my hats and fleece and wool.

Most people I know don’t understand why I go out during winter at all. They think it’s cold and dark and difficult. They ask me if that’s true, and I give them the standard answer: “Yeah, but there’s no bugs and no crowds.” But really, it’s a lot more than that.

Far enough into the back country, away from the noisy roads, the silence is, as they say, deafening — unless the wind is blowing even the slightest bit. Then, the trees squeak. And clack. And snap, crackle and yes, even pop. In the otherworld of softwood stands, the wind is blocked by thickets of fir and spruce boughs holding bushels of snow.

Why do I hike in winter? For this peace and quiet and beauty — and because there are three to four months without crowds.

But there probably won’t be enough snow until next month. In the meantime, I’ve been packing all those extra clothes I found last month, even though I haven’t needed to wear them. Then, when I have to pack it later, I’ll be conditioned.

When snow does come, my favorite trails will appear entirely different. The treadway where people have hiked all summer will be underneath all that snow, so in some places the route won’t be as obvious. I’ve been hiking some of the trails I plan to take this winter so that I can make mental notes of critical trail junctions and turn-back points or alternate routes.

On my most recent journey, I practiced my layering skills. On a recent day on Acadia’s Beech Mountain, the air temperature was almost 40 degrees, so I left the trailhead wearing polypropylene long underwear under a pair of summer hiking shorts. I wore a long-sleeved poly top under a fleece vest on my upper body.

When I started the hike, I was chilly for about 10 minutes until I had worked up enough body heat to be comfortable, not too warm. No sweat means less chill. With the mountain as protection on that clear early-December day, the wind didn’t affect my skin temperature. When I neared the top, however, a slight breeze soon had me chilled, so I swapped the vest for long-sleeved fleece and a hat.

Since it was lunchtime by then, out came the food. I usually pack two lunches on a longer winter day hike, one to eat about 11 a.m., and another about 2 p.m. In the cold you need an additional 1,000 to 2,000 calories per day to keep warm. I carried both lunches so I would be conditioned for the extra weight, but ate only one.

In the lee of a rock outcrop, I made my favorite trail lunch — peanut butter and a cinnamon-raisin bagel. As I was eating that and enjoying the view, the water reached a boil on the stove for a packet of instant soup.

After I had stowed the mess from lunch, out came the dessert — fruit-by-the-yard, processed fruit string that appealed to my sense of simplicity and function. Packable, no peels, light and ready to eat. If only chicken Alfredo and a side of veggies were made this way, I thought.

While wondering about the packing advantages of fruit-by-the-mile food, I noticed the sun was beginning to lie low. It was only 2:30 p.m., but there was still plenty of time to hike back to the truck and start thinking about the next trip. If there’s no snow in the valleys next week, maybe I’ll head to the Piscataquis mountains. While I’m there I’ll look for stream crossings on the Appalachian Trail that need to be frozen to cross next month.

Sometimes when I hike to prepare for a winter hike, I try to remember places where ice might form on the slopes of the mountain. Shady, steep slopes or anywhere water runs across rock are likely spots for ice. If I find ice in the early season, I look for a place nearby where I’ll be able to sit down and put on my crampons.

It won’t be that long, really, until I’m doing that rock hucking thing off some mountain somewhere in those western hills, or skiing the valleys of the Piscataquis. Meanwhile, I’m looking at weather patterns to predict a good snowfall. Not the wet stuff that freezes and forms a thin, breakthrough crust, but a snow that’s 2 feet deep and soft enough for a good L.Z.

Winter day hike tips

Know where the trailhead is in winter. In Maine’s back country your favorite trail in summer may be miles away from the spot where the plow stops clearing in winter. Usually that’s just before a locked gate. If you go now, you should be able to tell where that is.

Pick your weather and pay attention to the weather forecast. Try to plan for a good day. Maine’s weather can quickly turn ugly any time of year. In winter, a day hike can become truly dangerous in the sudden whiteout conditions accompanying snow squalls.

Build experience. Don’t travel to new places in winter. Go first in summer and learn the trail by heart. Even then, it all looks different with bare trees and white on the ground.

Don’t go alone. If you can’t find a partner, don’t go. The consequences of even the slightest poor judgment can be grave.

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