It’s winter here in Maine and that means it’s pretty cold out there. As I write this at 9:15 pm on Wednesday evening the temperature outside is 3 degrees F. Not unusual for this time of year.At the top of the fire tower on the summit of Old Speck. About six years ago.
I love this time of year! Hiking, snow shoeing, winter camping, ice climbing, skating, sledding with the kids, it’s all part of the winter experience for me.
The first time I took Mrs Jarhead on a winter mountain expedition it was -22 F. when we left the bed and breakfast in Western Maine. B&B? I was going to hike partway up the mountain and camp, but the missus had no interest in that. Regardless, we got up early and hiked to the top of the mountain and it was gorgeous. It’s one of those hikes that stands out in my memory.
But here’s the thing – I didn’t know that mountain at all at the time. It was a complete unknown to me, so I carried a pack with rope, sleeping bag, food, water, etc that weighed in at around 37 pounds. We were also on snow shoes, which made the climb a little more difficult, but not as hard as if we didn’t have them. So I carried a heavy pack and wound up not using 85% of the gear in it, which is fine. At least I was ready in case something went wrong.
Take a minute and check out this story about a young woman who tried climbing Cadillac Mountain early on new years morning. Here’s a brief synopsis if you don’t want to read the story: 19 year old girl from Florida and a couple of friends decided to climb Cadillac. She’s wearing skinny jeans, a Barbie jacket and Ugg boots. Starts to freeze. Boy Scouts come along and give her hot chocolate and tell her to get off the mountain. They leave and come back a half hour later and find her curled up on a rock. Girl finally gets airlifted off the mountain.
First of all, if it wasn’t for the Boy Scout pack leader that came along she would have been frozen stiff up there. So where did she go wrong? Her mistakes are legion. Here are a few:
- She went with inexperienced hiking companions. They don’t say that in this in the article, but it’s obvious.
- She was woefully under dressed for the environment.
- She didn’t listen to good advice.
- She had no idea of what she was getting into. If the wind is blowing 10 MPH on the ground it’s likely blowing 30 or 40 MPH at the top. Always expect the temperature is going to be at least 20 degrees cooler at the top and I usually estimate it at 50 or 60 degrees cooler in the winter. I’ve never been surprised or disappointed that way.
- It stated she was wet from the knees down pointing to the fact that she wasn’t wearing gaiters. No surprise as I doubt they went with her skinny jeans. Or maybe they didn’t fit properly over the furry Uggs boots.
- No experience in cold weather and she decides to hike to the top of a mountain in Maine in early morning hours.
- Didn’t know how to build a fire or have the proper gear to do so.
Honestly, she’s incredibly lucky there were many other people up there to help her out or they would have been bringing a frozen body down that mountain. I hope she didn’t get any kind of frost bite either.
Ok, here are some of Jarhead’s rules for winter hiking and camping.Backpack on the summit of Old Speck.
1. Cotton kills. If it’s cold outside and there’s a chance you’re going to get wet don’t wear cotton. Actually, don’t wear cotton in cold weather at all. I hope that’s clear.
2. Dress in layers. Capilene under garments, polypro and/or wool in the middle layers, and some kind of Gortex or other weather proof exterior. If you’re serious about cold weather camping and hiking don’t skimp on your gear. It’s your ass out there and you want to keep it warm and dry. Trust me.
3. Don’t wear tight gloves. Your gloves should be a little loose so that there’s a small layer of air to help keep your hands warm. I bought a $75 pair of mountaineering gloves for ice climbing that are just a smidgen too tight. When it gets cold out my hands get cold. They’re useless to me.
Another thought about gloves: if you’re working in semi-cold weather, say 10 to 30 degrees, chances are good you’ll be taking your gloves off and putting them back on fairly often. Make sure you knock the snow off your hands before you put them back in your gloves or they’ll get wet. At very cold temps you probably won’t be taking your gloves or will have thick mitten with a light layer under them for working.
4. Boots. These are absolutely critical. When I went through cold weather training we used the big “Mickey Mouse” boots and they were ok. Not great, but ok. There are many kinds of boots out there and I find that pac boots do a good job. Do a Google search and check out the varieties they have out there.
My all time favorite winter boots are plastic climbing boots. These are special mountaineering boots designed to be worn with crampons for ice climbing, but I wear them for just about any winter outdoor activity these days. The downside is that they are horribly expensive even when they’re on sale. If I remember correctly I paid over $400 for my Scarpas at an end of season sale online. I got them in late spring and wasn’t able to try them on until the next winter and I was worried that I was going to hate them. But when I finally got a chance to try them out… magic!Me in my plastic boots just before the climb. About six years ago.
I’ve hung off a an ice cliff in sub-zero temps and my feet were toasty warm. If you have the money and the need I’d definitely recommend a pair of these boots. I’ll write a post about these soon.
5. Don’t sweat. Oh, you’re going to sweat, but try and minimize it as much as possible by layering properly, wearing good clothing (no cotton!) and removing layers as needed during physical exertion. Also, I always like to have a dry undershirt in my pack that I’ll change into immediately when I’m at my destination if the temperature is above zero degrees. If it’s colder than that you probably haven’t been sweating very hard anyway.
6. Always carry a pack with vital gear. I don’t care if it’s heavy or not… if you don’t know the area and haven’t been able to talk to anybody about what to expect, too much gear is better than not enough. You can die fast in the winter.
7. Wear a hat. As you all know you lose a significant amount of heat through your head. When I’m hiking I usually stick my hat under my pack strap and then put it back on as soon as I stop. If you’re standing around a hat and maybe a hood are good to keep you warm.
8. Know how to make shelter in the snow or carry a shelter with you if you’re hiking in unknown territory. Hiking after a snowstorm is very different than hiking during the summer. The trail can be very hard to see and it’s easy to wander off and get lost.
9. Know where you are. Always have a map and compass, a bailout azimuth, and good idea of where you are. A GPS doesn’t hurt either, but I still haven’t learned to trust one of them as much as I do my trusty old map and compass.
10. Don’t bite off more than you chew and dont’ be afraid to turn back. I’ve done this many times. It doesn’t make you a sissy, it means you’re smart. Evaluate the conditions, your teams capabilities or your own if you’re traveling by yourself, and if things don’t line up the way you want them to turn back. I’ve done this before and it might make some people mad, but mad is better than dead any day.
I’ve been hiking in cold weather since I was about twelve or thirteen years. Mostly by myself because I couldn’t get many people to go out with me, so I learned a lot about being self sufficient out there.
Have any cold weather advice? I’ve only touched on the basics here, so feel free to throw some comments out there about cold weather hiking.
Sound off below!