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Tricks for Hiking in Polar Opposites – Vortex and Thaw

This is a five-part series on winter hiking by Aubri Drake. Aubri has winter hiked the New Hampshire 48 4000 Footers, the New England 67 4000 Footers, the New England Hundred Highest, and many of the Adirondack 46ers, most often solo. They’ve hiked in temperatures as cold as -20F actual/-50 windchill, broken trail alone through 2+ feet of freshly fallen snow, bumped into a moose in a snowstorm, waded through waist-deep snow, and still have all of their toes and fingers. Simply put, Aubri has spent more time winter hiking than many of us have spent at the gym:

Winter hiking is a complex web of moving parts. This article’s scope will be limited to discussing day hikes in non-technical conditions; there will be no discussions of ice axes, ropes, overnights, glaciers, or avalanche preparedness.

Winter temperatures vary widely, but up in the mountains, it is invariably colder. Winter hiking temperatures often fall in the 20s and 30s, providing a cold but not jarring environment. But when the temperatures either rise above freezing (thaw) or plummet towards zero, there are some temperature-specific tricks I’ve picked up over time.

With time and experience, I’ve become comfortable heading out into -20F for a long isolated hike or 35F rain for a bushwhack. Hopefully, some of these tips and tricks are helpful to you on your next winter hike!

This article aims to highlight the difference in hiking experiences in polar vortex vs. freeze-thaw conditions.

Polar vortex conditions are extremely cold due to a low pressure weather system. Photo cred: Aubri Drake

Polar vortex conditions

Cold AF, with actual temperatures in the teens, zeros, and below zero. Let’s discuss ways to handle the icepocalypse.

Clothing in a Polar Vortex

  • Layer layer layer. I typically start off wearing multiple base layers (leggings under pants, 2+ shirts, glove liners, etc) in temps this cold. Any wardrobe changes must be quick, efficient, and typically involve adding clothing on top of everything else. It’s better to be a little too warm than a lot too cold. Unfortunately, this is pretty individual. A rule of thumb is that you should be a little cold when you start, but definitely shouldn’t be substantially cold or chilled. If you start with too much that’s okay; just make sure you can easily remove layers and put them in your pack.   
  • Moisture management is a key piece of cold weather hiking. If you’re too warm and sweat through your clothes, evaporation will lead to rapid cooling and being chilled. This is exacerbated by temps dropping or winds blowing. It’s always a game of balance – enough layers to stay warm with good blood circulation but not so many layers that you’re actively sweating. I’m a sweaty person, so I’ve learned that if I sweat through my clothes and find myself chilly, I can throw a fleece and/or a shell on top. The additional insulation turns my wet wool and synthetic clothes into a warm wet layer that isn’t actively evaporating against my skin.  
  • Wear mitten shell gloves over a liner glove. Mitten shells are great at breaking the wind and protecting your fabric or softshell gloves or mittens from soaking up snow and rain. I typically wear a midweight wool glove with mitten shells over the top. 
  • Pack multiple pairs of gloves (or glove liners) for ascents. Climbing makes people warmer and more likely to be sweating or getting wet from snow as they break trail. Having extra pairs of dry gloves is a key to keeping your fingers dry and dexterous. I once had to open my backpack with my teeth in -20 windchill because my hands were too cold to function anymore. Have them easily accessible. My handy solution is to hang a set of heavier mittens/gloves on a carabiner to my chest strap, so I can add or remove the extra layer of warmth for my hands instantly.
  • Face coverings are key in colder temperatures, helping to warm the cold air before it enters your lungs. This can decrease the distress some lungs experience in cold temperatures. And it also protects all that exposed face skin, giving it a layer of cloth to ward off frostbite and windburn. Depending on the conditions, I’ll put skin protectant on my cheekbones, under my eyes, and along my nose (either Aquaphor or sunscreen), since that’s the skin that is most exposed.
Prepare to be very, very cold! Photo cred: Aubri Drake

Hydration in a Polar Vortex

  • You need to hydrate. Winter is tricky. It’s so cold, it doesn’t initially make sense that you’d need a fair bit of water. There’s no hot sun on exposed skin to dry you out, or soupy humidity to make you hemorrhage water through your pores. But cold air is very dry, and every breath in the cold takes water from your body. And while we feel cold, we’re still sweating under all our layers. Proper layers and venting heat can help, but losing water is inevitable. I’ve felt as desperately thirsty surrounded by 3′ of snow as I have in the desert. 
  • Use wide-mouth bottles (like the classic Nalgene) because they take longer to freeze closed. They also have thick enough walls to tolerate hot/boiling water. Starting with boiling water means it will take longer for the water to turn to slush and then solid ice. Insulation sleeves can help extend the window of time before they freeze, though they won’t keep water fully liquid for long in very cold temps.
  • Carry your bottles upside-down. This trick will prevent ice that forms on the top of water, so you can keep ice from freezing the bottles closed.
  • Electrolytes (particularly with higher salt content) in water slow the freezing process. I personally start with boiling water and Gatorade in all my Nalgenes and put one in an insulation sleeve and leave the other out to cool for easier drinking on my first climb of the day.
  • Hot water (or hot Gatorade – surprisingly delicious) in a Thermos can be invaluable on longer hikes. If you hike long enough in cold enough weather, water in bottles will freeze solid, even in insulation sleeves. Bringing along a Thermos can be a little extra weight, but it’s totally worth it to have near-boiling liquid to easily defrost frozen bottles and turn ice into cold water once again. 
  • Leave beverages (and snacks) in your car; they’ll stay warmer longer in the insulated space and future-you will be very thankful. I’ve found extra speed in my legs towards the end of long, hard winter hikes because I knew I had water in the car waiting for me!
  • Water filters will freeze if there is any residual water in them and be inoperable at low temperatures, and most filters are considered broken and shouldn’t be used after freezing as it can destroy the filter filaments. If you need a water filter with you, you’ll need to keep it warm and unfrozen at all times.
  • Carry water instead of relying on natural sources. Finding running water can also be a substantial problem, often requiring an ax to break through ice to obtain it. This is a wet and potentially treacherous process which for the majority of hikers is not worth the effort or risk. Instead, it’s better to simply carry more water, even if it’s heavy. 
  • Dehydration affects blood pressure and circulation, which means dehydration increases the risk of frostbite. This can be mitigated by bringing and drinking enough water.
  • Some stoves or fuel preparations won’t function in low temps; so if that’s a priority for your trip, you’ll need to look into the temperature range your stove and fuel can handle. In general, this isn’t a concern for day hikers.

Food in a polar vortex

  • Beware of freezing food. The food you bring in very cold conditions looks different than simply cold weather. You need to pack food that won’t be inedible if frozen and is quick to eat without removing gloves or slowing down for long. I’ve had good luck with gels (though glove fuzzies aren’t very tasty and the gel can get gloves sticky if you’re not careful), hot Gatorade, Honey Stinger cracker bars, and letting Skittles soften and dissolve in my mouth. Oils and bars often freeze at a relatively fast rate.
  • Trail mix is your friend. For folks who like trail mix, an easy way to eat it in winter can be to fill a wide-mouth bottle with trail mix and hang it from your pack where you can easily grab it. For a quick snack, you can open the bottle with gloved hands, quickly throw some trail mix into your mouth, reclip the bottle, and keep hiking.
The frequent temperature swings above/below freezing leaves a considerable impact on conditions like snow quality and water levels. Photo cred: Aubri Drake

Freeze-thaw conditions

Where the temperatures are above freezing long enough for everything to start melting. Warmer doesn’t always mean better, let’s jump into it.


  • Shells are your friend. Waterproof jacket shells and mitten shells are invaluable, locking in the warmth while also blocking the slushy, wet snow from seeping into your midweight and base layers.
  • Prepare for sweat. It’ll be very easy to get thoroughly soaked and chilled. Bring lots of extra gloves, prioritizing gloves with waterproofing. And if you have a long drive home, be nice to future-you – leave dry clothes to change into after your hike.  
  • Snowshoes are even more necessary in above-freezing conditions than in colder weather – they will help keep you on top of the soft snow and will spread your weight more evenly across unstable surfaces. This can help make questionable snowbridges and water crossings safer. Hiking without snowshoes can also destroy a trail. Large post-holes that can break people’s ankles and catch snowshoes, particularly if a hard freeze is coming. Read more here
  • Water crossings become more hazardous. In your trip planning, if there’s been a substantial thaw lasting a few days, carefully note all water crossings on your route and assume they’ll be running very high – similar to springtime levels. Hopping rocks disappear underwater and crossings can involve wading. It’s best to avoid water crossings after a multi-day mid-winter thaw, as all the melted snow travels down the mountain ravines. Even usually mild crossings can become icy torrents, potentially destabilizing or destroying established snowbridges.
  • Waterproof knee-high socks can be invaluable in these conditions. The height of the sock will keep water out, and the socks themselves are very warm, so if you accidentally dunk your feet, these socks can make it a mild inconvenience rather than a very uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation. Additionally, a plastic bread bag can create a waterproof barrier if you’re in a pinch.
  • Snowshoes and traction can become magnets for slush and wet snow, accumulating on the spikes to create ankle-twisting ice balls and on snowshoe beds weighing them down. If you know you’ll be encountering freeze-thaw conditions, before leaving, take your dry snowshoes and traction and spray them with silicone spray (or Pam cooking spray if you don’t have silicone spray). This will make them hydrophilic and keep them from accumulating ice and snow.
In freeze-thaw cycles, you may notice the snow line retreat. Photo cred: Aubri Drake

Hydration and food in Freeze-Thaw conditions

Less extreme temperatures place less of a strain on hydration and nutrition considerations. Use the above tips in the polar vortex section to help plan around water and food.

Would you prefer to hike in polar vortex conditions or in freeze-thaw conditions?

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