Winter is just around the corner, which, for many, means retreating indoors. But with a little preparation and proper attire, the wintertime can be the most palatable of outdoor seasons.
The solitude is second to none. Many times, you will find New England’s most traveled trails and mountains void of humans entirely. And along with having the woods all to yourself, there’s the satisfaction of heading into the wilderness when most are hibernating.
In some cases, travel can be easier this time of year. As snow falls, compacts and hardens, the cracks and holes of New England’s famously rugged terrain start to fill in. With proper traction, this smoother ground can be covered with unexpected proficiency.
The wintertime also removes the thick veil of the deciduous canopy, opening up views and vantage points not available in other seasons. Trails previously traveled in warmer months can evolve into completely new experiences.
But to enjoy this hardened season, you’ll need to invest. Hypothermia is a real concern, and the focus should always be on safety. Fortunately, technology has afforded lightweight and reliable outfitting options to keep warm, dry and comfortable in cold temperatures.
The biggest consideration in staying warm is staying dry. Proper gear can provide protection from rain and melting snow, as well as manage internal temperatures and perspiration. This means layering efficiently and removing layers before your body overheats.
There is no one perfect outfit for every outing or occasion. Every body is unique and will require varying amounts of insulation to be comfortable in different situations. Keep note of what works and what doesn’t when adventuring in the wintertime. You may find that with the right gear, it does not take much to be comfortable out in the cold.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LAYERS
Layer is the most effective way of staying comfortable, even as the temperature outside changes.
While some layers will be form-fitting or snug, avoid any tight compression, which can slow or halt blood flow, creating cold spots and accelerating heat loss. Be mindful of this when fitting socks, shoes, gloves and base layers.
For the most control in adapting your outfit to whatever conditions the outing demands, you should have a base layer for moisture management, a mid layer for warmth and a shell over every part of your body to protect from weather and abrasions.
As winter is typically dry, most moisture comes from internal heat and perspiration, so many of the items mentioned are focused more on breathability and durability rather than waterproofing. Concerning external moisture, focus on areas coming into direct contact with water or melting snow, such as feet, knees, head, shoulders and arms.
Gearing up for winter requires some additional understanding of textiles and the science of certain materials.
Always avoid cotton, like jeans and cotton sweatshirts, when recreating in the wintertime. When wet, cotton accelerates evaporative cooling and provides little to no overall warmth for the user.
For base layers, the two best choices are wool and synthetics. Synthetics are cheaper, and although they tend to capture and hold odors more, they are extremely efficient at taking moisture and evaporating it back into the atmosphere. They are quick drying and come in a range of thicknesses and weaves that make them warm and versatile.
Wool is all-natural and carries a much higher price point, but does not hold odors and has a better warmth-to-weight ratio. Wool traps heat and moisture but is slower in the evaporation process, leaving it wet for longer.
For a winter jacket or insulating piece, down generally beats out synthetics for active endeavors because of its ability to breath and its unbeatable warmth-to-weight ratio. The lightest and most efficient insulator, down comes at a heftier price point, but generally has a longer lifespan.
Down’s singular downfall is moisture. When wet, it loses insulating abilities. Most down today is treated with a durable water repellant, which helps to negate these effects.
Synthetics are fantastic at trapping and holding heat, but often lead to overheating when exercising. Synthetic material also tends to have a shorter life than its competitors.
TREAT YOUR FEET
Extremities are the first to lose heat when the body starts to cool off. Feet and toes are especially susceptible to cold weather, and frostbite is a common injury that can be avoided. Here are a few tips for buying your winter boot.
For insulation, a rugged boot with at least 200 grams of synthetic insulation such as Thinsulate will keep your toes warm for the long haul. Fit hiking boots a little loose to account for swelling and to leave room for thicker winter socks.
Consider waterproof lining. Mid- to full-height boots are best for keeping snow out.
When choosing a winter sock, wool is king. A hollow-core fiber, wool is more effective at absorbing moisture and trapping warmth than synthetics are.
Look for mid-weight styles and save heavyweight socks for the campfire after hiking to avoid overheating and perspiration, leaving you more susceptible to frostbite. Use a lightweight liner to keep your feet drier longer.
A LEG UP
It is difficult to shed leg layers on a winter hike because it means taking off many other items in the process. To avoid changing on trail, figure out what works best in the pants department. Legs are fairly easy to keep warm when being active, especially with the right gear. Fill your drawer with base layers, a soft shell and a hard shell.
When it comes to base layers, it’s best to have a range of varying thickness to choose from, depending on the temperature that day. Wool and synthetics are good options, while fleece is best for extreme cold.
For out layers, classic insulated snow pants are nice for warmth, but they tend to overheat when active and are bulky and cumbersome. Other options include soft and hard shells.
Soft shells are thick and durable synthetic pants that provide good stretch for a wide range of motion and decent protection from moisture but are not waterproof. Hard shells provide a thin but durable waterproof shield from the elements. Although they will not stretch like soft shells, they are effective at cutting wind and trapping heat, making them more desirable when exposed to extreme elements.
Your core is the most important part of the body to keep warm. This is the furnace — the part that will heat the rest
of the body. Layering for your torso is a more relaxed process than legs because it is easier to add or shed layers along the way. A four-part system works perfectly.
Start with a form-fitting base layer — wool or synthetic — that is long enough to tuck into your pants. Quarter- or half-zip options allow you to vent heat and moisture before needing to stop and remove layers.
For the first insulating layer, choose fleece or a sweater, preferably with a hood. The next mid layer should be a synthetic or down jacket, but is only needed in extreme temperatures or when you stop and take a break. Keep this layer dry.
A common rain jacket will work as a hard shell, but a model made specifically for winter will add to its hardiness. This will repel weather and wind, protect your gentler insulating layer from abrasion and work to trap heat when needed.
It has been said that we lose half our body heat through the head. Fortunately this isn’t true, but heads still need the same protection as everything else. Extremities, like ears, have no muscle mass to keep them warm, so take care to cover and protect them to avoid frostbite. A simple winter cap does the trick. A separate liner cap can go under to help stay dry and free of sweat. Use your hooded jacket for extra warmth.
HAND IT OVER
The hands are one of the last extremities to warm up. If you are struggling with cold hands, then it’s time to get moving. Once the core warms up, so will your hands. In the meantime, keep them covered.
A light pair of liners is the first line of defense. A mid-weight glove or a heavyweight mitt on top keeps fingers toasty.
Keep a pair you aren’t wearing in an internal jacket pocket to keep them warmed up when the situation calls for them.
If you plan on using hand warmers, know that they can take upwards of 30 minutes to reach their maximum warmth. Predict when you may need them, then open and shake them up and put them into a pocket, so they will be warmed and ready to go when they are necessary.
To be extra prepared, consider the following items to add to your pack before you head out in the snow.
Gaiters cover the seam between boots and the end of pant legs. They are not a necessity, but they keep the snow out of your pants and boots. A balaclava provides extra protection for the nose and face in the coldest of conditions.
Microspikes attach to boots for bonus traction when hiking on icy surfaces.
Also, be aware that calories equal warmth, so eat plenty of food. It is easier to stay on top of your caloric consumption
than it is to make up for it. Remember when packing food that it will likely freeze or harden. Pick snacks that maintain malleability and won’t turn into teeth-breaking solids.
Always drink lots of water before, during and after outdoor activity. Pack water in insulated containers or, if that is not an option, place your water bottle in a heavy wool sock. It is best to fill your containers with hot water to extend their freeze time. Water always freezes from the top down, if you store your bottle or reservoir upside down you can ensure that even if freezing begins, you will still be able to access the unfrozen water.
Hopefully, with this newfound knowledge, you feel empowered to gear up and get after that snowy peak, freshly groomed trail or untouched wilderness. Your overall enjoyment and safety can easily be managed by making sure that you are properly outfitted.
Leave a travel plan behind or let someone know when to expect your return. Start small and work your way up; winter is here to stay and will provide months of exploration and fun.
SOME WINTER DESTINATIONS
Riverside Golf Course in Portland offers free access to groomed and maintained trails in the wintertime. It is open to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, ice skating and more. This is a great place to test out your gear, as you will never be far from the car. For more info: www.portlandmaine.gov/DocumentCenter/View/11527
Pineland Farms in New Gloucester offers access to 5,000 acres of land dedicated to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing for a small day fee. Here you will find plenty of well marked and cared for trails. For more info: www.pinelandfarms.org/recreation
Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway offers free access to 165 acres of trails perfect for snowshoeing and cross country skiers alike. For more info: wfltmaine.org/roberts-farm.html
Lincoln Woods off the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains is a great place to start a backcountry adventure. Users can easily link together miles of flatter trails perfect for exploring on snowshoes or cross-country skis. For more info: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recreation/wintersports/recarea/?recid=74409&actid=91
Explore Acadia National Park in the winter. If conditions allow, the carriage trails are groomed for cross country ski access during the winter months. For more info: friendsofacadia.org/cross-country-skiing-acadia