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 101 – (congrats, you’re here!)
- Assessing Winter Conditions in the White Mountains
- Essential Safety Preparations for Winter Hiking
- Tricks for Hiking in Polar Opposites – Vortex and Thaw
- Winter Gear Roundup
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Winter weather and trail conditions
Winter hiking is a complex web of moving parts. This article’s scope will be limited to nuances of snow hiking in non-technical conditions; there will be no discussions of ice axes, ropes, overnights, glaciers, or avalanche preparedness.
To start, we should clarify what many hikers mean when they say “winter.” It can be in reference to very cold or snowy hiking conditions. But for peakbaggers who are striving away on a summit list (like the New Hampshire 48 4000 Footers), astronomical winter is the measure of when winter hiking officially starts and ends. Most years, the start of winter falls on Dec 21st (winter solstice) and ends on March 21st (spring equinox), though the dates can vary year to year and each year, solstice and equinox fall at a different time during the day.
I’ve been hiking in winter for years and yet I inevitably forget on my first winter hike to consider the additional time and effort winter miles take. I’m always taken aback by how long it can take and just how painful it can be to cover 10 miles of unbroken trail in 0F weather. I can’t just crank out 2-3 MPH for hours on end. In New England mountains with relatively fair winter weather, I’ve found I can safely assume:
- 2 MPH when moving on very packed trail
- 1.5 MPH on broken but not packed trail
- 1 MPH when breaking trail in <12” recent snowfall.
This pace can be further slowed down by deeper snow, snowdrifts, bony/rocky conditions, high winds, poor visibility, wayfinding/bushwhacking, removing or adding layers, changing traction and/or snowshoes, or stopping to eat or drink (since it’s much harder to do either while moving in winter).
At the same time, breaking trail with a team of experienced people can be much faster, with people taking turns breaking trail. And butt sledding back down packed trails, or ‘skiing’ downhill in softer snow, is a much faster way back to the parking lot that’s easier on the knees than downhill hiking in summer.
Obviously, your personal mileage will vary, but if you’re new to navigating winter conditions, I’d recommend conservative speed/distance estimates until you’ve learned your own pace in your local conditions.
Relatedly, expect and be prepared for night hiking in winter.
Even with an early start, many winter days can be ~8 hours long, which means longer hikes require night hiking. But some benefits of winter include that snow reflects light, making it easier to navigate by headlamp and that snow buries (most) rocks for smoother and less technical trails.
Temperature – Overall
For winter hiking, I prioritize hiking in as much daylight as possible, primarily because it’s much warmer. And know that the coldest part of most days will be right before dawn; once the day warms up (as much as it’s going to, anyway) it will remain warmer for the first few hours after sunset.
To each their own, but this knowledge can be especially useful when nighttime temperatures dive into the negatives. Many winter hikers primarily hike in the heat of the day (~10am-2pm), to restrict the temperature variability that can come with longer hikes overlapping with dawn, dusk, or fully dark.
If temps get too warm (above freezing), I may try to get done with my hike earlier in the day. The snow becomes wet, saturating my shoes and rotten snow becomes less stable, causing me to posthole on snow that might otherwise support my weight in colder conditions.
Temperature – Actual vs. Windchill
When hiking, another thing to consider is the actual temperature versus the windchill. While the actual temperature is fairly stable, windchill can vary throughout the day, based on the weather patterns, though it will always be windier at summits than at lower elevation.
When I pack my bag for winter hiking, I consider both actual and windchill – higher windchill means I need to prioritize windproof clothing, like a jacket shell and mitten shells, and cover all exposed skin, including my face and eyes. If the windchill is high primarily at the summit and the trail is below treeline, it can be easier to run out, tag the summit, and head back down to calmer conditions.
But if it’s a windy day or I’m planning on a more exposed route, I make sure to bring enough layers to be warm at the windchill temperature, as well as extra layers and gloves so I can be sure I’m never hiking with wet cloth exposed to the wind. Evaporation can chill very quickly, and hypothermia and frostbite can quickly become serious, particularly in winter conditions when quick travel often isn’t possible and SAR will be hampered in their response time.
Types of Snow
Over the course of the winter season, the snow conditions can vary a lot and they can make things easier or a lot harder.
- Unbroken Powder/Packed Powder: While freshly fallen powder can be a slog to break trail through, once it’s packed down with snowshoe tracks, it can provide a stable hiking surface. In optimal conditions, this is a joy to hike on and can be much easier than hiking during the summer (aside from the temperatures). All of the rocks disappear under the snow and there’s a smooth, firm, even trail to follow.
- Frozen Granular/Ice: However, if there’s been freeze-thaw conditions, the snow will melt and then refreeze. This can work to your advantage if the snow surface was left alone while it melted; this can provide a wonderful icy sidewalk (spikes will be necessary) that make it easy to move quickly. If people have neglected their snowshoes, there will be hundreds of post-holes in the slush-turned-ice cement. The degree of melt can also make a difference in the quality of the trail once it freezes again. If snow melted to the point there was pooled water, the trail will become a skating rink and you’ll need spikes or possibly crampons, particularly if the trail is steep, exposed, or traversing/sidehilling.
- Rotten Snow: In the spring or after a long thaw, there can be rotten snow, where the packed trail has been eroded by water running underneath and through it. Trails might have elevated monorails, where the packed snow melts slower than the surrounding unpacked snow. These monorails might be stable or unstable; if they’re stable, they can provide a good hiking surface to keep you above the slushy or muddy ground. But if they’re unstable and rotted, then they’ll need to be avoided if at all possible while also being mindful to not damage the trailbed. This is why organizations like the Green Mountain Club urge hikers to stay at lower elevations when hiking in the spring, to avoid causing irreparable damage to the trails and surrounding ecosystems. I’ve found myself on extended portions of rotted, unstable monorail in the mountains in April where I was post-holing up to my waist despite wearing snowshoes, landing with a splash as I fell into shin-deep running water each time. In these situations, snowshoes can help but the rotten snow will slow you down and soak you in freezing cold water. If the rotten snow is unavoidable and covers an extensive distance, it’s often best to just turn around and return another day.
Trails vs. Bushwhacking
Established trails will ALWAYS be faster in winter than off-trail travel.
In winter, even if the unbroken snow is deep on an established trail, it will always be deeper and less packed underneath if you leave the trail. Do not make the mistake of thinking that shorter distances are innately faster. Shorter distances in winter, if it’s untouched snow, will never take less time than turning around and going back the way you came. Do not leave the established trail unless you’re very confident in your wayfinding abilities, have the necessary gear to navigate and keep yourself safe (i.e., don’t fall off a cliff), and have extensive bushwhacking experience, including winter conditions in the region where you are hiking.
Folks have tried to bail off of frigid, wind-swept ridges by cutting down ravines in the White Mountains, become stuck in waist-deep snow, and required either helicopter rescue or extensive backcountry search and rescue efforts. If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t continue, turn around and follow your steps back.
Cairns look like rocks and rocks look like cairns, and trail markers are often obscured by snow. Navigation can be surprisingly difficult. And while the cold doesn’t technically drain your battery, it does mess with the chemical reactions, making electronics think they don’t have battery left. Very cold devices will shut themselves off; this can be a problem, especially if you’re using the GPS on your phone to navigate. Keeping your phone warm, with a backup battery pack to bump your phone back on can be lifesaving.
When and why should I wear snowshoes?
On winter trails, particularly those that are frequented by more people, one person’s choices can have a significant impact on the experiences of hundreds of other hikers. When there’s been fresh snowfall or when it’s freeze-thaw conditions with soft surfaces, hikers should wear snowshoes.
The general rule of thumb is that if your foot sinks more than 3 inches, you should probably be wearing snowshoes. This doesn’t apply early in the season when there’s only 3” of snow on the ground, but later in the season, the more you sink the larger the holes are for everyone hiking after you.
If you’re sinking 4-6 inches into existing snow, you need to switch to snowshoes, both for your own ease and out of respect to other hikers. In the end, snowshoes make for much faster travel over unconsolidated snow, and heel lifts make uphill climbs a breeze!
While snowshoes aren’t light and it can be annoying to carry snowshoes all day to not need them, I try to view it as strength training. And it’s not always obvious when you’ll need snowshoes from the parking lot – snow gets deeper at higher elevations and is less likely to melt during a thaw in the valley. If there’s any question about the snow conditions, it’s best to bring your snowshoes, both for yourself and others.
Have you hiked in the snow? What tips and tricks have you picked up along the way?
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Aubri (‘Data’) Drake (they/them) is a queer, transgender, and nonbinary writer, fastpacker, and ultrarunner. They’ve been published in a number of different mediums, including the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail Magazine and a nonbinary anthology published by Columbia University Press. Aubri has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, Tour du Mont Blanc, VT Long Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, New England Trail, Cohos Trail, and are 50% done with the Pacific Crest Trail.
They’ve also completed the Northeast 111 400 Footers, as well as the New England 67 4000 Footers and the New England Hundred Highest in winter. Aubri has run 50k, 50mi, and 75mi distances and are looking forward to their first 100-miler this year. Aubri is a member of the All In Trail Running Collective.