I've been reading some threads about winter hiking recently and decided that there is some value sharing my mistake based knowledge. I've hiked a lot of 4000 foot peaks year round and with time comes some things to share.
Winter Conditions vary widely. At 400-1000 feet you can have green grass and at 3000-6000 you can easily have 1-2 feet of snow (that's here in the northeast not a good reference for out west). Conditions don't have to be below zero to be wet and difficult. One great example is when it gets into the 40's and 50's after a snow. There is always a wet shower coming off the trees. So not only do you have to be aware of wind speeds and temperatures but also snow conditions and the exposure or orientation of where you are hiking.
What are some useful weather tools? The National Weather Service in Burlington Vermont and Gray Maine offer forecasts that are oriented towards location and elervation. I've started using Mountain Forecast as a check of all ADK high peaks and I look at the WPTZ weather radar to see where storms will be tracking through by checking there 24 hour loop.
So first let's discuss footwear and traction. I would recommend insulated hiking boots. Last year I tried my first pair of insulated hiking boots after years of using the non insulated versions year round. What a difference. I tried and like a version from Keen but there are a lot of great boots out there. I carry toe warmers just in case my feet start to go cold. Often snow conditions will also involve mud and water. The best boots with Gore-Tex will only hold out the water so long. Carry a couple of shopping bags for expedient boot liners.
There is almost always ice and slick spots in the trail. Many people use micro spikes they are a great tool but have some limitations in that they do not bite into hard ice at an angle and they get worn out fairly quickly. You also have to watch out for mud sucking them off (which I found out last weekend). The next step up are light weight crampons or Hillsounds. Since I've been hiking in the Adirondacks a couple of years now I carry Kahtoola crampons most winter days, I find the ice to be harder to get around or through then in the White Mountains. There are times for full blown crampons in the Northeast but usually the lesser alternatives are quite adequate. The next subject is snowshoes. You have to have an aggressive claw for climbing in the situations we've just mentioned. Snowshoes take tremendous abuse because of going back and forth from snow to rock. I used MSR Denali's for years. I got a pair of MSR Lightning snowshoes late last year and will never go back the traction is much more positive. It is harder to slide with them but I'm fine with that.
Head wear can sometimes be a challenge. I like a wool cap most days to keep my ears and declining follicles warm. Wool is just such a great fabric in the cold. If it is really cold I use a face mask. In fact I carry a polypropylene balaclava year round after getting blown around entering Franconia ridge one time and having to go down. In fact in the winter I carry two as they tend to freeze up with sweat and cold. Many people also carry goggles for cold conditions but I have yet to have a pair work when you really need them.
Gloves and Mittens are the bane of my existence. I've frozen my hands so many times I have to be really careful. I use a polypropylene glove as a first layer and they make a great anti-contact glove. Depending how cold, I then either use a wool glove liner over the top or a heavy double weight mitten or my Gore-tex Mitten Shells. I've found in wet cold conditions that you have to keep changing layers and try to find a good combination. The light liner gloves really help to be able to take off your heavier outer layers and touch a metal bottle or dig into your pack. I also carry hand warmers for emergencies.
I've tried a lot of Parka's but have ended up using a light weight nylon Marmot Jacket for my outer layer. They dry quickly and by outer wear standards are relatively inexpensive. I like an old product that we used to carry (chilltech) for my base-layer and an Ibex wool shirt on top of that. I usually carry an extra changes (as they soak through) depending on the day and number of miles. Many people experiment with pace and layers that do not get wet but my feeling is that I don't want to have to alter my pace to make the outer wear work.
For trousers I have a water proof pant but I prefer a Lowe Alpine hiking pant that is wool and synthetic base. I'm hot enough that I rarely go with long johns.
Days are short in the Winter. You have to have some sort of a light. I like and use the the Apex model of headlamp daily during time change to time change while dog walking, but the batteries were killing me. So I opted for the rechargeable version the cord can get in the way but once fully charged you have weeks of light. Headlamps should be comfortable on your head and I like a bendable angle so that I can aim the beam. More light unfortunately sucks more juice from batteries. I like the fact that there is a low light setting on my lights that conserves energy but still give great light.
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