A s soon as I step into the woods, the rest of the world fades away. The phone is turned to airplane mode and tucked deep inside a warm pocket. The snowy trees muffle the sound of traffic from nearby Route 302.
The hikers I noticed starting up the trail as I parked the car a few minutes earlier have disappeared, leaving only their snowshoe tracks along the packed trail.
A few inches of fluff covers the early winter snow that’s been building up over the last couple of weeks. Some of this was heavy, sticking to branches and bending trees. In a few spots along the way, I have to bend, too, ducking under the snow-laden evergreens arched over the trail.
Occasionally a chickadee calls from somewhere in the forest. My boots, with microspikes attached, crunch through the top layer of snow. At various points along the trail, a brook babbles beneath a new layer of ice, the sound deeper and lower, somehow, than during the spring and summer.
I’m hiking Mount Willard in Crawford Notch, but the winter wonderland scene is reminiscent of other winter hikes, where cold sunlight filters through bare branches to cast dark shadows across a white landscape, snowshoe hare and red squirrel and dainty fox tracks lace the snow, and the quiet envelops me.
Why hike in winter
There are plenty of reasons to embrace hiking in the colder months — among them the fact that there are no biting insects buzzing around, and the heat and humidity of summer are gone. A completely unscientific poll of other hikers I know yielded three top reasons for hitting the trail in winter: solitude, smoother trekking, and fantastic views.
“Winter hiking in the Whites is as close to Paradise as I can imagine for an experienced and well-prepared hiker,” said Rusty Talbot, a four-season outdoor enthusiast and owner of North Country Climbing Center in Lisbon. “When it isn’t windy, it’s silent. As much as I love to hear summer sounds of crickets and other wild things, real silence is truly a wonderful experience.”
Adding to the solitude aspect is the fact that there are far fewer hikers on even the most popular trails in the winter. I’ve rarely seen more than a scant handful of other hikers during my winter outings, even when exploring the most popular spots.
There are, however, usually just enough winter enthusiasts that the trails — at least for more well-known hikes — are tracked out. Snow does a great job of smoothing out the landscape, and if a few hikers have gone the way you’re headed before you hit the trail, it becomes easy trekking compared to summertime, as all those roots and boulders hikers must scramble over and around during the warmer seasons are covered up, creating a more uniform walking surface.
And while winter offers what may seem a stark landscape, the views from hiking trails — and their eventual destination, whether waterfall or mountain summit — expand during this season. With no foliage on the trees, the panorama is wider, even from lower elevations. Ice clings to rock faces. And if you’re lucky enough to be above treeline or at an overlook below on a blue-bird winter day, the mountain vista is unbeatable.
What to bring
While winter hiking certainly has advantages over warmer weather treks, it also presents different challenges. Winter hikers need to be mindful of the shorter days and plan outings accordingly. Dressing properly for a winter hike is also essential, as is packing the proper items for the adventure.
“Layering in synthetic, non-cotton layers is super important,” said Sara Delucia, program manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center. “Always bring extra clothing.”
Even for short winter hikes, I toss an extra hat, extra mittens, extra socks, extra fleece layers, and a down coat into the pack. It doesn’t take long to warm up when you’re headed UP the trail, but I layer up during breaks and for the downhill hike. I also keep a couple packets of hand and toe warmers in my winter pack.
Delucia said hikers should always have the “10 Essentials” of hiking (visit www.hikesafe.com for more on these, and other hiking safety tips), including a headlamp with extra batteries — cold weather can shorten battery life. While waterproof hiking boots are generally fine for moderate winter hiking, Delucia recommends gaiters to keep snow out and feet dry. Winter hikers will also have to strap spikes or snowshoes onto those boots. Beyond packing plenty of food and water, she also recommends a Thermos of something hot.
“Hot drinks go a long way in the middle of a cold hike,” she said.
As with any hike, checking the weather and trail conditions before setting out is key. The AMC lists trail conditions on its website, www.outdoors.org. The Mount Washington Observatory’s higher-summit forecast is also a good source: www.mountwashington.org. Hikers may also check in with AMC’s Pinkham Notch visitor center or the Highland Center for trail and weather specifics.
While conditions can change quickly in the mountains in any season, the changes can be especially brutal in winter — as evidenced by last week’s rain, which turned packed trails to slush and set rivers to raging. Firmer trail conditions have returned, but being prepared is essential.
Where to go
For hikers unfamiliar with trekking during the winter, it’s a good idea to start with something short, familiar, and below treeline. Some favorites in this category include Mount Willard in Crawford Notch and Lonesome Lake in Franconia Notch. Both afford easy access, trails sheltered from wind, and stellar views on a clear day. Lonesome also has an AMC hut near the lake, where hikers can pop in to buy a hot drink or just get out of the elements.
To check out some mellow winter hiking options, sign up for the Jan. 1 First Day Hikes offered annually by New Hampshire State Parks. This year’s First Day Hikes include outings at Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion State Historic Site, Silver Lake State Park, Milan Hill State Park, Pisgah State Park, and Bear Brook State Park. More info at www.nhstateparks.org/news-events/first-day-hike.
My unscientific poll of winter hikers revealed more technical favorites: Mount Moriah and Whiteface Mountain, both 4,000-footers, and the Franconia Range, which includes multiple 4,000-footers depending which route you follow.
“Franconia Ridge is a great hike, but can be really challenging in bad conditions,” said Talbot, noting a recent rescue of an experienced hiker stranded near the summit in quickly changing weather conditions. “It’s remarkable how above-treeline hikes that are easy in good visibility can become really challenging when the weather rolls in.”
For winter trekkers interested in either getting started or taking their hiking to the next level, the AMC has two workshops scheduled for later this month.
Outdoor Winter Skills 101 at Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch is aimed at introducing three-season hikers to winter outings. Participants will learn how to prepare for winter hikes, what to bring, and what to wear, along with route planning and basic map and compass skills. The workshop is Jan. 25-27.
That same weekend, more seasoned hikers may like to join the Winter 4,000-footer Weekend at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch. AMC guides will share their knowledge on trail conditions and winter terrain, hiking safety, a recommended gear list, and Leave No Trace principles. The weekend includes attempts to summit at least one 4,000-foot peak both Saturday and Sunday.
For information on both workshops, visit www.outdoors.org.