Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Winter hiking...do not go unprepared!

On the Appalachian Trail near Mt. Cammerer 
After having read the terribly sad article about the death of Kate Matrosova this week in the White Mountains, it made me thankful that the mountains in which I hike, the Great Smoky Mountains, are not quite so unforgiving. You can read that article HERE and you will probably wonder, as I do, why in the world she ventured forward in the face of numerous warnings and horrific weather forecasts. She paid the ultimate price for her mistakes and that is such a terrible shame.  Although the Smokies do not boast some of the worst weather in the world as does the Presidential Range, it is important to respect them and how quickly conditions can change if you venture into the mountains during the winter.

So how does one prepare for winter hiking in the mountains of the Southern Appalachian range? Firstly, if conditions are forecast to be extreme, I simply do not venture out! But by the same token, I do love a good hike in the snow if other conditions are favorable!  So what are some gear that I include in my winter pack or on my person? Here are some of my old faithful gear friends for winter hiking:

Katoohla Microspikes--I used to try to hike in the snow without these, but was always worried about falling and getting hurt which would interfere with this obsession with hiking that I currently have. These microspikes have solved that problem, that's for sure! They simply pull on over my Keen boots and I'm ready for pretty much anything the trail can throw at me.  At first I worried about using them on those days when some stretches of trail were covered in snow but other stretches which lay in the sun no longer had snow cover.  I don't worry about that anymore. These spikes are tough!

Mountain Hardwear Soft Shell Jacket--This is the most versatile jacket I have ever owned! I can wear this jacket from early fall through spring, and it has never failed to keep me warm and with rare exception, dry.  This jacket is warm, but not too warm, water resistant, and I bought it big enough to allow for adding layers, even down if necessary, underneath it depending on conditions.  The only time it did not keep me dry was one day when we hiked for hours in an absolute deluge and I didn't put a poncho over it.  It finally soaked up enough water to override the water resistance, but that was entirely my fault.  I was afraid I had ruined it, but no! I simply bought a water resistance treatment at the local outfitters, ran it through the wash cycle in my washing machine, and it is once again good as new! I think I've had this jacket now for going on four years.  The hood and high neck zipper feature allows you to zip up and tighten down the laces of the hood until only your eyes show and are exposed to the weather.

Thermolite Reactor Sleeping Bag Liner--I put this lightweight liner in my pack beginning in the fall when temperatures in the mountains can plummet at night just in case anyone in my group takes a spill and has to wait for help to arrive. I have a healthy respect for hypothermia and easily feel that the few ounces that this adds to my pack weight are more than worth it if anyone ever really ends up needing it. I certainly hope it is never needed, but if something happens it might make a huge difference.  I just put it in my pack and forget about it. I never even know it's there it takes up so little space.

Mountain Hardwear Phantasia Sleeping Bag--Once winter really sets in, even for day hikes, I add my sleeping bag to my pack for the same reasons I carry the sleeping bag liner in fall and spring.  It only weighs 1 lb 5 oz and might be the thing that saves someone's life in case of a true emergency. You just never know when someone in the group might fall and get hurt. Hypothermia can set in very quickly in the winter when you stop moving, especially if the hike you've been on is strenuous and therefore, you've been sweating underneath all your layers of clothing.  Even if you wear wicking fabrics, and I hope you do, coming to a stop on a really cold day can get you very cold, very quickly.  This is just one piece of insurance that I carry in case of an accident that makes it impossible to keep moving.

Another secret for winter hiking is to dress in layers--moisture wicking, insulating layers.  Many kinds are available, and you will need to search out the ones that feel the best to you.  My husband swears by the Icebreaker wool base layers, but I simply cannot wear them.  I have found an REI-brand base layer that works great for me. They are so soft and feel so good, I've tried sleeping in them at home, but they're just too warm! My top has a 1/4 zip feature at the neckline which enables me to unzip it on the trail if I need a little air. I do love that feature.  The thumbhole feature is great too, making it easy to put my gloves on without exposing my wrists to frigid temps.  Carrying extra layers in your pack including extra wool socks is also a good idea.  The little hand-warmer pouches are always in my pack too, although I've never had to use them.

However, the story of Kate Matrosova proves that gear isn't everything when considering winter hiking and neither is physical or even mental conditioning and/or keen determination.  She had ALL of that! Sometimes you just have to know that the mountains rule and realize that there are times they will not be conquered! Sometimes the best decision is just not to hike at all.

What are some items you won't hike without during cold weather?  I know some of you are much more adventurous than I, so what things are your "safety blankets" when planning your wintertime hikes?

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