Hit the trail

Winter hikers explain how to use nature for a meditative escape

“Winter hiking can actually transport you to an entirely new realm.”

Originally Published: 
Snow covered forest
Shane Reinert

Winter may be a time to hunker down, stay indoors, and catch up on books, shows, and movies, but for people who venture out and go hiking, the season offers a unique experience that isn’t found the rest of the year.

Shane Reinert, of Clermont County, Ohio, a documentary filmmaker who posts videos to YouTube, regularly hikes and doesn’t stop when the weather turns cold and snow is on the ground.

“It’s a total escape from everything,” he said. “You can go down the same trail a hundred times, but it’ll always be different. You may see different animals, a tree may have fallen, there are different colors, and the sound is different based on when you go. The air is a lot crisper in the winter. It’s like therapy. You can shut everything off and focus on everything around you.”

“Body and mind become more attuned with the rhythms and sights of the land.”

Mandi Reigh Elles

Previous research has shown the benefits of being out in nature. A 2012 study published in PLOS One found that individuals who spent four days in nature disconnected from electronic devices performed 50 percent better on a creativity test compared to those who haven’t. Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, a professor of family medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, said that a walk in the woods reduces stress and improves health. People shouldn’t let these benefits fall to the wayside just because it’s winter.

James Graham, CTO of AllTrails, a site for hiking guides and maps, said that “many people think that the hiking season ends once the temperatures drop. But in reality, as long as you properly prepare for the hike, conditions, and temperatures, winter hiking can actually transport you to an entirely new realm, making it that much more satisfying, enjoyable, and cathartic.”

“It's a total escape from everything.”

Anecdotally, fewer people go hiking during the winter months while there’s a slight bump in snowshoeing, which makes up seven percent of all hiking, according to Wesley Trimble, communications and creative director of the American Hiking Society. But those who are prepared will find the lack of other people on the trail will be to their benefit.

“There’s just something about the stillness of winter ecosystems that you don’t get other times of the year,” Trimble said. “A lot of animals are hibernating and there are fewer birds, so there’s a quietness that you don’t get other times of the year. Trails that people have done other times of years can be very different during the wintertime. It’s a chance to see something you haven’t before.”

“When you're out there, you get time to think.”

Liam O'Dea

Liam O’Dea, of Lake Orion, Mich., said winter hikes provide a chance to forget about your problems, even for just a moment. “When you’re out there, you get time to think, you hear wind through the trees, the birds, dogs walking by,” he said. “It’s just nice and calming.”

For Mandi Reigh Elles, of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, it’s a way to reconnect to the past.

“Winter is an opportunity to experience the natural changes in seasons,” she said. “Body and mind become more attuned with the rhythms and sights of the land. Winter is an ideal time for introspection. Our ancestors put a lot of work and time into preparing for the winter season to ensure survival. Hiking on the land reminds us we are connected to the land and those experiences.”

Ready to hit a hiking trail in the winter months? If you’re new to winter hikes, choose a relatively easy trail until you have more experience, and check to see if the trail is open.

Here are more tips to get started, from Graham and Trimble:

5. Know what to expect

“Understand and be prepared for everything to take longer if hiking in the snow,” Graham said. “An easy hike that may be listed as taking one hour in the summer could feel more challenging and take 1.5 hours or more depending on the conditions.”

Trimble added, “Conditions can quickly change on the trail. Having a headlight or lamp is especially important to have in the wintertime because it gets dark so early.”

4. Have the right gear

“If you’re hiking in a place with deep snow, it’s not enjoyable without snowshoes or cross-country skis,” Trimble said. “At a lot of popular trails a few days after a snowstorm, the snow may be packed, so having traction by wearing boots or spikes on your shoes is helpful. Also keep in mind, the trailhead may be dry and sunny, but once people get to shaded areas, trails can get icy and unsafe.”

3. Remember sunscreen

“Just because it isn’t the middle of summer doesn’t mean the Sun’s rays won’t get ya,” Graham said. “Especially if you are hiking at a higher altitude, the sunlight can be incredibly powerful, particularly when reflecting off of the white snow. Sunscreen is a must — and don’t forget the bottom tip of your nose.”

2. Wear layers

“When you get to the trailhead, you may feel cold, but once you hike and start to sweat, if you take a break, that sweat may chill your body very quickly,” Trimble said. “During winter, wear multiple layers so you can adjust your body temperature. I recommend people be a little cold when they start hiking.”

Graham added, “Avoid cotton. Opt for wool, which does a better job of wicking moisture and absorbing water. And no matter what you do, make sure you wear wool socks.”

1. Beware of freezing food and drinks

“Water has a chance to freeze, which doesn’t do you any good on the trail,” Trimble said. “A lot of people like to use hydration reservoirs, but the hoses are also susceptible to freezing. Use an insulated thermos or water bottle. Turning a water bottle upside down will cause the bottom to freeze as opposed to the top. For snacks, keep them close to your core so they stay relatively warm and therefore edible.”

“You can shut everything off and focus on everything around you.”

Shane Reinert

Here are the top trails to go for a winter hike, according to AllTrails:

1. China Cove Trail Loop, a 3.2-mile heavily trafficked loop trail located near Truckee, Calif.

2. Big Trees Trail, a 1.3-mile heavily trafficked loop trail located near Stony Creek Village, Calif.

3. Timber Creek Overlook Trail, a 1.1-mile heavily trafficked out-and-back trail located near New Harmony, Utah

4. East Fork Trail via Las Conchas Trailhead, a 3.2-mile heavily trafficked out-and-back trail located near Jemez Springs, N.N.

5. Lily Pad Lake Trail, a 3.3-mile heavily trafficked out-and-back trail located near Silverthorne, Colo.

6. Green Lake to Round Lake Trail is a 2.9-mile heavily trafficked loop trail located near Fayetteville, N.Y.

7. Cheesequake Green Trail is a 3.1-mile heavily trafficked loop trail located near Matawan, N.J.

8. Wonderland Trail, a 1.3-mile heavily trafficked out-and-back trail located near Bass Harbor, Maine

9. Red Rocks Park Loop Trail, a 2.7-mile heavily trafficked loop trail located near Burlington, Vt.

10. E.L. Ryerson Conservation Area Loop Trail, a 3-mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Lincolnshire, Ill.

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