Winter Hiking in the White Mountains is a challenging but rewarding endeavor. There are many factors that differentiate it from summertime hiking, and many important considerations to make. While the mountains in winter are often tranquil and peaceful, hiking them is riskier than in warm weather. Here are some tips for a safe and successful winter hike.
Please note: we caution against lengthy winter hikes to high summits unless you are experienced and fully prepared. This is by no means a comprehensive list of advice or an endorsement to hike in the White Mountain in the winter.
Warm Up for the Winter
While hiking in the winter you’ll encounter many variables that you won’t see in the warmer seasons. Conditions can change greatly over the course of the day, the day itself is shorter, and the trail is often harder to follow if it has not been packed in by other hikers yet. For this reason it’s a good idea to go on a number of short, relatively easy hikes in varying weather conditions to test out your gear, improve your fitness level, and increase your situational awareness. Some great hikes to put some winter miles under your belt are Mt Willard (3.2 miles), Boulder Loop Trail (2.8 miles), and Peaked Mountain (3.5 miles).
Check the Weather
It is critically important to check the weather SEVERAL TIMES before heading out for the day. Check it the night before your trip as well as the morning of the hike, as it can often change quickly. This is especially critical if you plan to hike a mountain high in elevation, such as Mt Washington or any of the other Presidentials. The weather can be drastically different in the Valley and on the peaks, and there are many tales of hikers underestimating that difference and finding themselves in serious trouble. Check the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast for the best information on expected conditions.
Before heading out for the day, sit down with a trail map and carefully plan your route. Decide on a plan in advance and hold yourself to that plan; build in several checkpoints and exit routes if you’re behind schedule. if you’re a half mile from the summit but running late, it’s wiser to turn around and hike another day than to keep pushing. Better to spend the night next to a cozy fire at your vacation rental home than waiting for a rescue crew in the cold forest! Ensure that you have enough water for several hours longer than you plan to be out, and make sure it is in an insulated container – otherwise it may freeze. Bring two headlamps – the days are short in the winter, and you may find yourself in the dark on your descent. Batteries drain more quickly in cold weather, so having a backup headlamp will make sure you don’t run out of light.
Pack for Diverse Conditions
Often times, the trail conditions will vary quite a bit over the course of the hike. The snow can be warm and slushy at the trailhead, then icy and crusty towards the top. For this reason, it is always wise to bring snowshoes, crampons, and microspikes along for a winter hike, even if you don’t anticipate needing them. Snowshoes give you balance on warm, slushy snow, and they prevent you from punching through (post-holing). Microspikes and crampons give you traction on ice or crusty snow. A pair of hiking poles is always wise to take along as well. It tends to be much slipperier in the winter. The more traction the better!
The key to safe hiking in the winter is layers. You will want several layers which you can take on or off over the course of the day as the temperature changes and your body warms up from activity. You will want a gore-tex or wicking base layer, topped by a fleece middle layer, with a shell or heavy wind-breaking jacket. Wear sturdy gloves, wool socks, and consider long underwear underneath a pair of waterproof snowpants. Gaiters help to keep the snow out of your boots, and a wool or fleece hat is critical as well. A pair of goggle is also advised, as the wind can kick up snow. Avoid anything made of cotton; it will absorb your sweat and get very cold over the course of your hike.
Hike with a Pro
There are several outfitters and guide companies who will take you and your group on a guided trip. These guides are professionals who have extensive hiking experience and understand the risks and rewards of these particular mountains innately. They will make sure you have the proper gear and will make the hard decisions for you; you can simply hike and rely on their expertise. Suggested guide companies are Northeast Mountaineering, International Mountain Guides, and Synnott Mountain Guides.
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