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Cold-Weather Hiking and Backpacking Safety Tips

Hitting the woods or mountains this winter is a fine way to ward off cabin fever. Cold-weather hiking and backpacking eliminates some of the hassles of summer trips like mosquitoes and muggy tents. But it brings other considerations to the forefront, like keeping warm. These tips cover the basics for safely satisfying your winter wanderlust.

Get an early start

Whether you’re embarking from home, a cabin or a campsite, be sure to start your trip as early as possible if you have a long hike, according to Snowshoe Magazine. Traversing snowy or icy terrain takes longer, and winter days are shorter. You’re better off starting out pre-dawn, knowing that the day will get lighter as you progress. Finishing in the dark is risky, especially if you get delayed.

Avoid hypothermia

Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can replace it, and your core temperature becomes dangerously low, OSHA explains. Your best defense against hypothermia is knowing what layers to wear and how to manage them throughout your adventure. For your core, you should opt for three layers: a base layer, an insulating layer and a waterproof shell.

You can always adjust if you get warm, and you should. Moisture is not your friend in cold weather, so shed top layers before you’re sweating. Avoid anything made of cotton, which will trap perspiration against your body. Look for wicking fabrics instead. Cover up with your shell in rain, sleet or snow, even if you’re not feeling chilled. Don’t forget options for your head and hands, too. Change into a dry base layer as soon as you reach camp. Backpacker magazine recommends stuffing damp gear into the bottom of your sleeping bag so that your body heat warms it by morning to wear again.

Stay hydrated

You’ll naturally reach for fluids during a hot and humid summer hike, but you may need to remind yourself to keep sipping when you’re stomping through the snow. Cold air is often dry air, and it may speed up the dehydration process without you’re realizing it, according to the American Hiking Society. If you’re dehydrated, your blood volume drops, increasing your risk of hypothermia. A smart course of action is to carry a warm beverage in an insulated container. A soup broth is a good option to boost electrolytes. Avoid caffeinated drinks, which act as a diuretic. Keep water in an insulated container, too, to prevent freezing.

Eat often

Snack frequently on your journey to rev energy. Pack items you can nosh while moving, and keep them easily accessible. A summer hike might be a great time for lounging lunchtime at a beautiful overlook, but stopping for any length during a winter trek, except at camp, could bring on a chill.

Start out simple

If you’re new to winter hiking, try a short day trip of just a few miles on your first time out to get a feel for your unique needs. You can build on your adventures and work your way up to an overnight once you’ve done your research and tried your gear.