Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Inside The Moments - Winter Hiking: Solo Hiking In Winter

My foray into the world of winter hiking, and specifically solo hiking in winter, started at the end of 2011. In early 2012, I did some tough solo winter hikes, and then in 2012-2013, 44 of the 48 White Mountain 4000-footers solo during my single winter season quest.  I have done 70% of my winter hikes solo, and about 40% of all hikes solo. My lists tell me I'm 8 peaks shy of two solo rounds all-season, and at the same time not much further beyond that to two solo rounds in winter.  To me, that's a fairly good chunk of solo hiking experience in the White Mountains.  Through that, I like to think I've learned a thing or two, and those who know me, know how much time and effort goes into my planning for each and every hike.  I enjoy the personal challenge, and the real-life test that solo hiking is.  I only make myself better with each new challenge. (Cover photo: Mt. Bigelow, Avery Peak, 12/28/13)

One of the biggest things about solo hiking is knowing your personal limits, and most importantly when it comes to the weather.  Knowing what you have for equipment and packing the right gear for the weather, for YOU, is important.  I know what its like to do a Presidential Traverse in 10 degree temperature, with a minus -20 wind chill, clear skies, and some blowing snow for twelve hours - not that those are ideal hiking conditions, but I've done it, and it was an awesome day, but most certainly not easy.  I hiked about 30 miles in 0 degree temperature for almost 14 hours on a hike last January - again no problems as long as I was moving, my gear worked as it should have, and I had more layers to use, if needed.  Winter is cold to begin with, so wind makes it brutally cold.  When the wind lingers and is constant, it is ever more taxing on the body, even on a clear day.  I've hiked through really blustery winds and snow in the woods, such as on Carrigain, where the snow whips easily on Signal Ridge, or in the middle of the night on the lower part of the Dicey's Mill Trail on Passaconaway, and also above tree-line on Lafayette, Washington, and Adams in some mild blowing snow.  So with respect to the temperatures, wind, and precipitation, the more you hike, you'll learn what your physical limits are by slowly experiencing all of the challenges of winter hiking.  There are so many different weather scenarios that can play out in winter.
Solo Presidential Traverse (10 degrees, -20 wind chill, blowing snow)
A 30 mile day over 5 summits in 0 degree weather
I can somewhat attribute my comfort with solo winter hiking to the fact that in 2011, when I set out to do the 4000-footers in a year, my first 9 4000 footers were done in winter, having never done any winter hiking or snowshoeing before.  I think back, my first solo winter hike was one of the most intense ever, and its one of the reasons Mt. Lafayette is my favorite.  The snow was so deep, walking around the top of Walker Ravine as I neared tree line was pretty sketchy.  The wind howled and swirled the snow around.  After passing the hut, barely visible, the rest of the way above treeline to the summit was a battle with the strong winds at my back with blowing snow.  At the summit I could see better, and after hitting Lincoln, things got better rapidly, and it was sunny by the time I got down.  A month earlier to that, me and my brother had started our one year quests for the 48 by going to the Osceola's for our first time ever using snow shoes.  It took 12 hours, and the wind chill for the day near the summits was around -20 degrees.  Surely, experiencing some of these winter challenges early on has helped give me the confidence to head out there and enjoy the peaks in winter on my own when I want.
My first summit of Mt. Lafayette, solo in winter to boot
Now, for each of the bold titles below, I'm going to share some thoughts as they relate to my solo hiking, and this will include some of the things I think about and do to make myself as comfortable and prepared as I can be.  Of course, if you hit the trails in winter too, I'm sure you'll find some common habits, and things that groups do too.  The idea behind this post is to write about what works for me when I'm out there by myself in winter, and why I like it.  Whether you hike solo or with a group in winter, I'm sure you can learn something new here.

Eating, Food, & Drinking Water
During the winter, I like to make some food items easily accessible in my pack.  I carry a food bag, but I like to stash a few things in my outer pockets so that I don't have to go into my main compartment every time I need a snack.  Pants pockets or front jacket pockets seem to work the best.  Be careful with hand warmers on chocolate, of course.  This obviously does not pertain strictly to solo hiking, but you have to think your food out, and make it accessible and ready, because in the midst of an intense solo winter hike, you have to continually eat otherwise its easy to push it off if you have to take 5 minutes to go digging in your pack.  This is a big deal because in winter its easy to notice that you need to eat, so at the onset of that feeling, a candy bar in the pocket keeps me in motion on a 20+ mile solo winter day.  If I can, I'll eat it as I go too.

Winter hiking can be strenuous, and when you go for long hikes in the winter, one thing that I pay close to attention to is how I feel physically and relate it to what I've ate and drank. Is your ankle or knee starting to get sore? Tummy rumbling? Headache? These are signs that you need to either eat or drink water or both.  Its important to recognize these signs and to think through what you might need to do to resolve whatever discomfort it is.  It is very easy to forget to drink enough water when winter hiking, so these symptoms come up fairly often, which is why sometimes a handful of calories and a bit of water will make it seem like you have a major rejuvenation of energy, and maybe that ache or pain will subside after its been re-fed some nutrients.

Some of my favorite trail foods that work well in winter (do not freeze) are Nutter Butters, Vienna fingers, other cookie types, and Slim Jim and cheese combos.  I still carry chocolate like Reese's fast break bars because they are very filling, but they need to be kept warmer compared to cookies and stuff.  When planning to head out solo, you can't count on others having back-up water supplies, so its important to never forget to make sure that your water supply won't freeze, or that a back-up plan is in place if it does.  During an early December Pemi Loop attempt, I found myself between Garfield and Lafayette in the middle of the night, solo, without having means to melt my water, which was frozen (I had made a wrong turn).  This meant I had no water for a good chunk of hours, and I was able to finally use my body to warm some drinkable water in the wee hours, when I made it down to Route 3.  Don't let your water freeze, and don't forget to always make it part of your gear planning in winter.  Again, another thing learned from experience...

Clothing, Layers, & Hypothermia
Hypothermia is pretty scary.  I hate being cold in general, so the thought of having a serious situation with that in the mountains is not pleasant.  When solo, I tend to always hike faster than I do in any group, and that keeps me pretty warm with the right clothing on for the conditions in winter.  There have been some times I've noticed myself mumble, have trouble buckling a strap, or even trying to jump a log while winter hiking. Winter hiking requires more exertion than all-season hiking, and in much colder temperatures.  These two things together create a risk factor for hypothermia, and the mumbles and fumbles are the first signs of it.  Those of us who are aggressive winter hikers, I'm sure experience this every now and then.  I've learned enough now to know that means I need to stop, drink some water, and check my layer situation to make sure my body is warm enough, or do what is necessary to shake that temporary weakness.

Figuring out a good layering system is important.  I don't have many different sets of hiking clothing when it comes to clothing for winter hiking, but I know how it all works, what conditions they work well in, and I tend to never short myself on a layer.  More often than not, if its a brutally frigid day, I'll carry an extra top and bottom fleece layer, even when it might be considered overkill.

Solo Hiking Above Treeline in Winter
Solo Bonds hike to finish the 48 in winter; March 10, 2013
I've done a fair share of above treeline hikes solo in the winter, but I've also been quite lucky when it comes to the weather for those experiences.  I certainly can identify more above treeline hikes where the weather was good as opposed to bad, but that doesn't mean anything for the next hike.  Despite my crazy hike plans and ideas, I can't really pinpoint any times that I ventured above treeline when I shouldn't have, other than that early December Pemi Loop attempt, getting turned around off Lafayette in the middle of the night.

Being above treeline is, by far, the riskiest part of solo hiking in the winter.  My thought is familiarity is the best asset to have.  When you have hiked the same peaks, same exposed sections in the other months and seasons, its makes it much more comfortable to be there in winter.  In my first round the 48 4000-footers, only 9 were done in winter and 4 of those were solo. Besides Lafayette and Lincoln in February 2011, I hiked all of the above treeline hikes at least once before in another season and/or with someone else before doing them solo, and in some cases, before doing them solo in winter.

Route Finding When Hiking Solo in Winter 
Route finding also goes right back to being familiar with the trails.  Although I've gotten into some solo bushwhacks this winter, I generally stay on the marked trails.  In winter, though, sometimes the blazes are buried completely.  Sometimes the rime or wet snow builds up on the tree trunks from wind blowing in a certain direction, masking any sign of trail blazes.  Above treeline, the rock blazes are always covered.  One thing I've done many times, including on Killington this January, was I'd clear the snow from blazes that were hidden.  I would very often look backwards to see where the blazes were, and I'd uncover them with by wiping them off with my glove so I would see them on my way down.

On out-and-back hikes, I sometimes make a little bit of extra foot steps in the snow on the trail, which may help me recognize an important spot or junction on the return leg of the trips.  This works when there is blowing, drifting, or accumulating snow that may cover your tracks.

Solo Hike Planning
Whenever I go out solo, I always leave my hike plans with my brother and parents.  At minimum, this includes my starting and ending trail head, my estimated hike duration, and what my peak plans are.  Often, I will even identify things that I may be thinking about that could cause some sort of challenge for me.  For most of my solo hikes over the last couple of years, I've used a SPOT GPS Messenger.  I enjoy using the tracking feature for my blog, but mostly importantly, its a great thing to keep the family posted on my whereabouts in addition to leaving them the information separately.  The SPOT allows a check-in message, a general help message, and a custom message (all 3 of which can be custom, really), and then of course, there is the S.O.S. button which goes directly to SPOT and local authorities.  For the general help message, I usually make it state the following: "I have experienced a delay or injury, but no need to call authorities. I will call you ASAP." I've never needed to use this one, but in the event of a real problem that would cause significant worry to my family, I would hit this button, and it would let them know I'm having some trouble, and that its not enough to warrant calling authorities for a search.  I really hope that I never have to use anything but check-ins and custom messages.

While hiking all of VT and Maine's peaks solo this winter, I've been fortunate to have pretty good cell phone reception that allowed me to keep in regular contact with family (and Facebook too!).  I know some may view this differently, but being able to give my immediate family the piece of mind that my solo winter hike is going well or just having them there to let them know a winter hike is giving me a tough battle, has made me feel more comfortable in seeking out my winter goals, and taking them on solo.

Cannon Mt., my 48th solo 4000-footer on January 5, 2013
In the end, solo hiking in winter all comes down to you, your preparedness, your mentality, your focus, and your determination.  I find that when I start my hike, I'm locked into the goal, focused on every inch of the way, and on high alert to anything in my surroundings.  Hiking in groups makes this much harder to do. When I'm hiking solo, I find the time to think out scenarios in my head that could happen.  For example in Maine, once I saw moose evidence I was on high alert, making noise as I move quickly through the woods.  In areas where I've screwed up before, I slow down and focus strongly on that particular section to make sure it doesn't happen again.  Even when groups get together for hikes, we are all responsible for our own being and safety when out in the woods.  Aside from all of the caution and the many who may think solo hiking is a bad decision, I wouldn't trade any of my solo winter hiking experiences for anything.  In the coming weeks, I hope to get a solo winter hike of Mt. Cabot in to complete a round of the 48 solo in winter.  Before winter is out, I hope to reach the summit of North Brother in Maine to finish the New England 4000-footers in winter, and at the same time it would be a completion of all the New England 4000-footers solo in winter.
Solo winter ascent of Katahdin, Baxter Peak, January 18, 2014
I know this is a ton of blabbing, and I'm sure I've left out some important safety points, but I hope that you enjoyed reading this and can take away some helpful tips for yourself solo or not from my experiences.  If anyone has any questions or comments about solo hiking, my solo hikes, or anything I've written, feel free to leave a comment below or message me directly.

I label all of my solo hikes on the blog, so if you want to read about any or all of my solo adventures, you can find the label on the right side of my page or click HERE.  Make sure you to check out my other Inside The Moments Stories, and stay tuned for more Winter Inside The Moments, with upcoming posts about sledding the 4000-footers and planning the 4000-footers in a single winter season.  Stay safe, everyone! and Happy Trails!


  1. great article! very well done. i hike solo a fair amount in winter, too, and get given a lot of grief about it. but i still do it, because i love it!

    1. Hey Cynthia, Thanks for taking the time to read this. I'm sure you can relate. I didn't really get into how beautiful and serene it is sometimes, such as hiking in the middle of the night when the snow sparkles from your headlamp, or reaching a summit when you know there is no one for miles. Maybe I'll see you out there when I get back to the Whites for the rest of the winter.

  2. How often do you do overnight winter solo trips?

    1. I've slept out at Rocky Branch on Isolation solo in early December once, stayed at Garfield Ridge shelter in winter myself (but with others there), and my recent solo trek into Baxter for 3 nights amount to only 5 winter solo nights out, and all with some sort of shelter. That's not a lot winter overnight experience, but I've done a lot of night hiking, lots of early starts, and odd ball hours. It would be nice to be able to do overnights more often, as I'd be out there right now, but I only get weekends, holidays and vacations to get out there. Thanks for reading and chiming in!

    2. I forgot to mention that I've car camped at least a dozen times to take on solo winter hikes back-to-back or one after the other, but I don't get to plan a lot of camping overnights.

  3. I know what you mean, sometimes it's best in Winter to go solo! No distractions from other people with you. It's important to be very aware of your surroundings in the Winter since the snow may cover landmarks and trail markers. I find myself making extra footprints in Winter too, to make the trail more apparent for my return!

    1. Thanks for reading, Nedd! In the winter, when I do my long solo hikes, I find myself always thinking about the next obstacle or the next thing I'm going to need to put focus on. So yes, being by myself allows no distractions when it comes to that. I enjoy the company of others very much the same, but there is a trade-off because of the aggressive winter hiking goals I seek.

  4. The common misconception about winter hiking is that it will always be something good and smooth. I like how this article kept it real and gives a realistic expectation about winter and mountain backpacking because that’s how it really works out there. In addition to this, I found a really informative article about winter backpacking basics and I highly recommend you guys to read it too:

  5. Hey man, Great Article. thinking about doing some winter solo hiking my self, any chance you still remember what you pack for your day hikes? a lot of people said bring Sleeping Bag and Pad. incase of emergency. so feel like it would slow you way down doing the winter.