Friday, February 27, 2015

What to Wear for Winter Day Hikes in Wisconsin

Winter day hikes allow us to enjoy beauty and solitude. Quiet stillness, snow on the pines, and pristine blankets of snow surround us. There is no slogging through mud, there are no ticks or mosquitoes! But it's cold if we don't dress warm enough for conditions. If we overdress, our sweat will lead to extreme cold when we stop hiking.

Everyone has a different level of comfort when it comes to dressing for winter hiking. With layers, we can layer up and peel down to adjust to conditions and prevent sweat from building up too quickly. What do I wear?

When the temperature is above 10°F (-12.2°C) and in the absence of piercing winds, I wear polyester long underwear with Polartec® fleece pants and jacket, fleece gloves, and a hat. I carry nylon rain gear as a wind shield and waterproof barrier should the weather require it. I also wear a lightweight blaze orange vest during hunting season or when the hike requires time on country roads. Although this ensemble is comfortable for hiking, it is not appropriate for camping or sedentary activities. I do also carry an emergency blanket and other emergency supplies I hope never to need to use.

Long underwear, fleece jacket, pants and gloves, gaiters, trail runners, and blaze orange.

Below 10°F (-12.2°C) or when the winds are piercing, I wear my L.L. Bean waterproof parka with polyester long underwear, Polartec® fleece pants, and insulated mittens with a waterproof shell. I only wear the parka when I must, and when I start sweating I open the zipper to vent the parka and/or slow down. I do not recommend hiking in blizzards, and I do not recommend hiking when it's cold enough for frostbite with the windchill.


For footwear I mate gaiters with waterproof Salomon XA Comp 7 Trail Runners and a pair of Thorlo® or SmartWool® hiking socks. On winter hikes I also use Kahtoola Microspikes when hard-packed ice and snow is present. The microspikes stretch over my hiking shoes. For deep snow, snowshoes would be recommended. We haven't had more than 5 inches (12.7 cm) of snow on the ground at one time so far this winter (2014-2015). I've done fine with just waterproof trail running shoes, gaiters, and trekking poles.

Gaiters with waterproof trail runners.

Kahtoola Microspikes

Since we're talking cold weather, here are a few other things I do. When it's cold, my camera battery no longer works well. Keeping the camera inside my jacket keeps it dry and warm enough to perform. I do not keep it in an airtight bag or in a sweaty pocket, or condensation will form on the lenses. When it's cold enough for the tube on my camel back to freeze up I tuck it into my jacket to keep it warm. To preserve the battery in my phone (needed for running my GPS app) I keep it warm by storing it in my pants pocket.

I wear clothing that can be easily vented to allow the moisture from sweat to escape while keeping me warm. Double zippers that open from both the top and bottom as well as arm pit zips are excellent for this. Cotton is not appropriate for winter hiking. Once it becomes wet with sweat it becomes cold and stays cold.

Fleece gloves aren't warm enough when it's too cold. When it's bitterly cold a good warm pair of mittens is more effective. If it's cold enough with the windchill for frostbite to set in, or the weather forecast is dicey, my rule is no hiking. If you Google "frostbite temperature scale images" you will find many handy charts showing temperature/windchill versus the amount of time it takes for frostbite to occur.

Trudging through the snow requires extra effort. I consider this when planning hiking distances and times. I also find trekking poles are a great help with trudging through snow and hiking winter hills.

As always, I take appropriate safety measures. I always let someone know my plans, dress warm enough for conditions, and carry emergency provisions. I do not recommend hiking during dangerous weather conditions or when the windchill presents a frostbite risk. I recommend testing out your hiking ensemble in safe settings in which you can quickly return to your home or car should your clothing prove unsuitable for conditions.

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