Experts recommend essential gear for winter hiking in the Adirondacks
By ZACH LAWRENCE
If you’re looking to explore Adirondack trails in the winter, it’s important to bring along essential gear for personal safety reasons.
Adirondack hiker Caroline Starace — a trail worker in Wyoming’s Tetons during summer — recalls a hike with some friends early in her winter hiking career. “We knew the conditions weren’t going to be great. We had hiked the mountain lots of times in the summer, but this day, everything was straight-up ice.”
One of her friends was wearing improper foot-traction, took a wrong step, and slid down a 15-foot embankment. Luckily, she was saved from falling farther by a downed tree and escaped with only a few bruises. “We were not prepared, and that’s what happens,” Starace says. “Knowing when to turn around is very important.”
Accidents in the backcountry happen more than one might think. In 2018, forest rangers conducted 346 search and rescues throughout New York state, in some cases because people weren’t prepared.
And during a survey at the Cascade Mountain Trailhead in the winter of 2018, forest rangers and volunteers found that out of 200 hikers, 40 percent did not have proper clothing or footwear.
“Mistakes you make in the summertime are inconvenient. In the wintertime, they become life threatening,” forest ranger Robbi Mecus says.
Mecus says having the right gear is not enough adding that “understanding how to use your gear takes practice and time on smaller hikes.”
Below is a list of essential gear recommended by experienced outdoors people.
Cell phones are not a reliable navigational tool in the backcountry, especially in winter. Service and GPS signal are spotty, and batteries die quickly in the cold. Carrying a map and compass and knowing how to use them is essential.
“There is no substitute for a waterproof map to guard against snowmelt and a compass,” says Tyler Socash, ADK Education Programs Coordinator and guide.
Even on marked trails, these items may prove necessary to finding your way. ADK volunteer trail crew leader Nora Sackett warns travelers to “be prepared to not be able to read signs because of snow.”
Recreationists should be reminded that emergency locator beacons, though lifesaving at times, do not make one invincible and do not warrant taking unnecessary risks. Senior advisor of Adirondack Hamlets-to-Huts and outdoor educator Jack Drury recalls a rescue involving a man canoeing on the Oswegatchie River years ago when he was caught in a snowstorm. “He hit the button on his beacon and was luckily able to be found and rescued.” A few weeks later, feeling confident in his beacon, the man returned to retrieve his canoe. Finding himself caught in another storm, he pressed the button again. “The rangers weren’t too happy to find the same guy in the same situation,” Drury says.
A properly equipped first-aid kit can help minimize the consequences of injuries in the backcountry and keep minor pains from becoming major problems. Bandages, medical tape, disinfectant, over-the-counter pain relief, and a blister treatment kit are a good start.
“A sprained ankle could be deadly because it could lead to hypothermia quickly,” says Joe Dadey, executive director for Adirondack Hamlets to Huts. Being prepared to stay warm if you end up having to stay put is key.
Socash advocates for “an extra pair of hand warmers and toe warmers in there for your winter exploits.”
Student guide for the St. Lawrence University Outdoor Program Jacqui Baker says winter adventurers should bring along a frostnip and frostbite care kit. These include sterile bandages, gauze, and something to gently warm the affected area.
ADK High Peaks Information Center manager Bobby Clark stresses that sun protection like sunscreen, sunglasses, and even snow goggles is necessary in the winter. Clark recalled a time when a friend of his was hiking above tree line without any eye protection, and “it got so cold that his eyelids froze shut.”
Speaking from her experience with winter rescues, Mecus stresses that it can take a long time for help to arrive if you are injured or lost on an exposed summit. “When you’re above treeline, you’re pretty much on your own.” Therefore, it is necessary to be able to help yourself if an emergency arises until you can be found. “Taking that basic first aid class could be actually kind of critical,” she said.
Keeping Things Warm and Dry
Keeping yourself and your gear warm and dry is one of the most important aspects of winter hiking.
Kim Covill, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, advocates for “multiple lighters and pairs of thin gloves in different coat pockets at all times to keep them dry and accessible.”
Covill suggests putting wet pairs of socks on your shoulders as “body heat can quickly dry out socks and things like that.”
Adirondack hiker Laurel Rosenthal, M.D. recommends bringing plastic bread bags to keep your socks and feet dry even in wet boots.
The ability to start a fire is key. Though many areas in the Adirondacks prohibit fires, “it’s not illegal if it’s going to save your life,” Clark says. Bring some working lighters, waterproof matches, and even a “cotton ball with petroleum jelly” as recommended by Manitta.
Even dayhikers who don’t plan on being out after dark should bring a headlamp or flashlight, says Drury.
Cell phone flashlights drain the phone battery, are not as bright as headlamps, and are not as reliable.
Remember to carry extra batteries that are compatible with the headlamp. Manitta recommends storing batteries in a warm place such as a coat pocket to ensure that they will work when you need them to.
Carry at least enough food to sustain you for one more day than you plan to be out. Even if your planned excursion should only take a few hours, carrying extra food is crucial in case something goes wrong.
St. Lawrence University Outdoor Program Assistant Director Devin Farkas recounts a cold-weather trip when one of his trip partners hadn’t been eating enough. Without enough calories for his body to burn, hypothermia was setting in. Before getting him in a bivy bag, they made sure he ate some food. “The lesson there is keep eating,” Farkas says.
Bringing foods that aren’t going to freeze is essential. “Everything will be in the freezer,” Farkas says.
Foods brought into the backcountry should be high in fat, protein, and calories since calories will be burned quicker in the cold. In response to a query posted to the Adirondack Backcountry Hikers Facebook Group, Melissa Tyrell recommends peanut M&Ms since they “don’t melt in the summer or freeze in the winter.” Chris Collins responded with fruitcake. “That stuff is amazing” he said. “Stays soft due to all that sugar, and so energy dense.” Dr. Rosenthal recommends a thermos of soup.
Staying hydrated in the winter is especially important. Mecus stresses that “everybody’s tendency when it’s cold is to not drink enough water.” She mentions that being dehydrated can bring on frostbite and hypothermia much quicker.
To keep the tops of non-insulated bottles from freezing shut, Farkas suggests putting them upside down in your pack. “For heaven’s sake, leave the Camelback at home,” Socash says. Water bladders and hoses will freeze too.
Bringing something hot to drink can make the trip a lot more enjoyable. Dr. Rosenthal says, “don’t hesitate to bring the thermos.”
Socash says a lightweight campstove is good to bring in case you need to melt snow for drinking.
Manitta suggests putting a sugary mix in your water to give your body more calories to burn.
When things need a quick repair to keep them functional until you can get out of the woods, carrying along some items to make that possible will make a big difference.
Corrine Converse responded to our Facebook query by suggesting items such as parachute cord, duct tape, and zip ties “in case of gear failures.” A multi-tool with a knife blade will also come in handy.
In the winter, conditions are especially variable which makes proper layering essential. For your torso and legs, this includes a sweat-wicking base layer, a fleece or down insulating mid-layer, and a water and wind resistant outer layer.
“It’s all about having more layers than you think you’ll need,” Baker says.
A strong recommendation from Mecus is to always have a change of base layers which includes an extra sports bra for women.
“A running vest under your outer layer gives you a place to store things you want kept warm,” Johns Stevens said in response to our Facebook query.
Sackett recalls a hike early in her winter hiking career. “We didn’t account for the winter sun setting earlier, and we started too late,” she says. “My hiking partner was wearing cotton, and my jacket wasn’t great. I was worried.”
The ADK Winter Mountaineering School Student Handbook emphasizes that “Cotton clothing is a huge NO!” Cotton gets wet and stays wet which will make you cold.
Take layers off and put them on as you go. Staying warm while not sweating too much is key. Mecus mentions that she sees “a lot of people starting their hike in the right layers, but all their layers.” She adds: “my goal is to always start out cold.”
Hats, gloves, and mittens with extras of each are necessary. For gloves, Mecus says she brings a lightweight breathable pair, a lightweight water-resistant pair, a heavy waterproof pair, and a heavy pair of mittens.
Starace recommends gaiters to go over the bottoms of pant legs and tops of boots. “As soon as you get snow in your boots, that’s just terrible.” She says, “then you’re cold, you’re wet, and you’re uncomfortable.” She also brings “an absurd amount of socks.”
Even on day trips, pack something to stay warm through the night if something goes wrong.
“My mentor always said to be prepared to survive the night,” Drury says.
Starace recommends keeping a space blanket on hand.
“Bring a shelter, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag,” says Socash. “Hopefully you won’t need them, but you’ll be glad you have these items should an accident befall you.”
When the snow depth is less than eight inches, you’ll need sturdy winter hiking boots and some additional traction like microspikes. Mecus warns that even microspikes may not cut it when travelling down slippery terrain. When hiking down the mountain especially, “you really need an aggressive crampon,” she says. Ice axes are recommended by the ADK Winter Mountaineering School.
Mecus says that “Seventy-five percent of the people I see are not wearing adequate footwear.” She says that your winter boots need to be well insulated, waterproof, and stiffer than warm-weather boots. Your feet may stay warm while moving in summer boots, but your feet will get cold in them if you have to stay put for a while.
When the snowpack reaches a depth of eight inches or more, the DEC requires wintertime trail-users to wear snowshoes or skis in the High Peaks Wilderness.
“When you’re wearing snowshoes or skis, you’ll keep the trails safe and usable for others,” Manitta says.
Even if there is no snow at the trailhead, there could be over eight inches farther along the trail. Baker recalls a hike that began with a snowless trailhead. A few miles along, “my dad was postholing up to his hips. It was terrible.” To prepare for this, check to see if trail conditions for your planned route are available, and always bring your extra traction along.
As always, stay off the alpine vegetation. High winds may keep snow from accumulating enough to bury some leaving them exposed and vulnerable to being stepped on.
Properly planning your trip and preparing for the worst can keep unexpected events from turning into disasters.
Drury stresses that it’s necessary to tell someone about your trip before heading out. “Where are you going, when should you be back, what should they do if you aren’t there.” He also advises hikers to give this person the DEC dispatch number which is 518-408-5850 outside the Adirondacks and 518-891-0235 within the park.
Whiteout conditions can set in rapidly and without warning. “The mountains aren’t going anywhere,” Clark said. If there is a chance that weather will make hiking dangerous, it is wise to come back another day. “Whether or not you’ve been up there before, it’s irrelevant if you can’t tell up from down.”
Know your ability level and that of those in your group. For those new to snowshoeing and skiing, getting acquainted with these on easier trails can make your winter excursions much more enjoyable.
Plan to use a larger day pack of 40-50L in the winter. “Everything’s going to be bulkier, everything’s going to be heavier” Manitta said.
Starace urges winter hikers to “prepare for anything and everything. Everything can go wrong. The best way to avoid disaster is to be prepared.”
With all this in mind, she says “winter hiking is an amazing experience. It’s something that everyone should be able to enjoy.”