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Read This Before Hiking This Winter!

One of our favorite customers recently purchased a new Sea to Summit sleeping bag from us that he had been eye-balling for months. The temperatures finally dropped and he couldn’t wait to use it. On the first cold night of the season, he called his hiking buddy, packed up all his gear, and headed out to tackle one of the more challenging trails in the region.  Huffing and puffing he arrived at camp and dropped his 40 lb. pack (he’s a notorious over-packer) and started to make camp.  Once he got to the bottom of his pack he quickly realized that there was no sleeping bag!  Luckily, he had packed enough layers to (as he describes) “keep him alive” through the 20 degree night.

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” -Neils Bohr 

We’re far too humble to proclaim ourselves as experts (read sarcasm), but we definitely obsess over outdoor gear and love to use it — and rest assured we make our fair share of mistakes… so, maybe we’re experts by Bohr’s definition. With winter hiking season upon us, we wanted to share a few guidelines that we adhere to before heading into the backcountry.  Most of this will sound rudimentary, but they’re worthwhile reminders:

The author enjoying a brisk day on Mt. LeConte. (Cornett)

Be slightly over-prepared.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the top of Mt. LeConte is going to feel like it did at the Whole Foods parking lot in Chattanooga.  Temperatures at the top of the Southern Appalachians are typically 15 degrees colder than the valleys (not including windchill), which makes it a good idea to be slightly over-prepared.  Make sure you are prepared for a variety of conditions pack an insulated outer jacket, a wind/rain shell, a down/synthetic mid layer, merino or synthetic base layers, gloves, balaclava/buff, and a warm hat.  Insulated pants and slippers are an added bonus if you plan to hunker down overnight. They are also an added bonus on a winter day hike in higher elevations — making for a nice, warm lunch break at the summit.

You’ll probably need something sharp.

You’re almost guaranteed to find ice on trails in higher elevations during winter. Have you ever tried to walk on an ice skating rink in your running shoes?  Now imagine tilting it up hill to a 30-45 degree angle with frozen rocks and roots underneath and try walking!  Not to mention, there are many trails in the Smokies with significant drops right off the trail.

Here are two examples of how ice forms on trails:

(1) The mountains get their first snow on a cold night in higher elevations.  The following morning, all the savvy cold weather hikers get motivated to test out their new cold-weather gear on popular trails.  Foot travel compacts the fresh snow to match the contour of smooth rocks and roots on the trail.  Snow begins to melt with the rise in temperature over the course of the day and typically re-freezes that night.  This cycle can continue for weeks after a snow if the temperatures are cold enough.

(2) A cold front moves in after a day of rain and freezes the trail into a solid sheet of ice.

Don’t be caught on an icy trail unprepared! Ice cleats and trekking poles will make ice-travel manageable and even enjoyable. Extendable poles are instrumental in maintaining balance on trails, especially when navigating icy terrain. You won’t need anything extreme such as crampons intended for vertical ice climbing or glacier travel, but Kahtoola Micro Spikes (our favorite) or Yaktrax are popular choices.

Long-time Rock/Creeker, Jen going for a run in the Smokies with her Yaktrax. (Eberhardt)

Leave the cotton in the car.

If you’re considering hiking up to Gregory Bald in your Led Zeppelin t-shirt and favorite blue jeans, do yourself a favor and leave them in the car.  Cotton clothing is totally appropriate for traveling to and from the trailhead, but you’ll likely regret choosing them as hiking clothing.  They’ll get soaked and stay soaked, which is just down right uncomfortable and could lead to hypothermia.  Selecting the proper layering system is somewhat subjective due to temperature, humidity, elevation, output, and body chemistry — and considering there are no temperature ratings on jackets or layers, it is invaluable to speak with a voice of experience on the topic.

Click HERE to see Dawson’s Smoky Mountain Hiking Kit (Winter Edition)

A few more considerations:

  • Feet: Waterproof boots are the most commonly selected footwear during winter months. You want to avoid getting your feet wet. Wool socks are still the standard selection for hiking footwear. Wool keeps you warm even when wet — cotton won’t.
  • Food: Remember, you burn more calories when it’s cold out, so make sure you take plenty of snacks.  Take a small stove and lightweight container to make something warm for lunch. A warm drink or meal makes a big difference on a cold day. Plus, it’s fun to use camp stoves!
  • Water: If you are going to be hiking past water sources, there is no need to carry excessive of water. Instead, carry a water filter and refill. Never drink unfiltered/untreated water! Dysyntery and giardia make for rude hiking partners.
  • Light: Invest in a reliable headlamp that never leaves your pack.  Think of this as a part of your first aid kit for day hiking in the event you’re out longer than you planned.  Keep in mind that it becomes dark faster when you are surrounded by mountains and trees — especially during winter.  Check your batteries!  
  • First Aid: Emergency blanket, fire starter, and other basics.  Check your kit periodically and make sure your meds aren’t expired.  It’s also a good practice to immediately replace anything you use when you get home.  Otherwise, you’re sure to need something that isn’t there on your next trip.
  • Communication: Leave a note with a family member, friend, or co-worker telling where you are going, which trails you will be hiking, which trail head you have parked at, who you are with, and when you expect to be back. Take your phone and either turn it off or put it on airplane mode to conserve battery life. Put your phone in a zip lock bag or a waterproof container. If you really want to get fancy, invest in a Spot.
  • Navigation: No matter how many times you have been on a trail, it’s a great idea to carry a map in case of emergency.

For more info and suggestions from the guys and girls who have learned by making all of these mistakes and more, visit any Rock/Creek location or call us at 423-266-8200 to chat with one of our local gear experts.

  • skiidahonorthsouth .

    Arrived and “started to break camp”? I’ve hiked enough of North America to be fairly confident the writer meant to write “Make Camp”. I did not set out to read this as the editorial police, but an error of this magnitude stands out and puts me on guard for other errors. It then becomes hard to take seriously any advise when it is entangled in writing such as this: ” Insulated pants and slippers are an added bonus if you plan to hunker
    down overnight. However, it is uncommon for some insulated pants to find
    their way into the pack on a winter day hike in higher elevations —
    making for a nice, warm lunch break at the summit.”

    Should be either: “it is common” “It is NOT uncommon”.

    Beside poor proofing, take a better look at the substance of your advise under “Communication”. “Leave a note” simply doesn’t cut it. Tell a friend, co-worker, and/or family member where you are going and when you expect to be back, AND how much of a delay indicates a serious emergency. Putting the information in note form is prudent and improves understanding. Without one or more persons briefed on your plans, someone has to first notice you are missing, and rely on chance and happenstance to find your note.

    • It appears our quotation on mistakes was an appropriate way to begin the article! Great point regarding communication; a note wouldn’t do any good if nobody saw it. Thank you for the other edits, too. We’ve made changes accordingly.

    • Corey

      While we’re at correcting things, you spelled advice wrong.

      • Flying Dutchman ’55


  • Dwayne Gresham

    Perhaps mention that staying on trail is a must, unless you are very good at land nav with a map and a compass.

  • wbtravis

    Microspikes are the best piece of gear or the worst piece of backcountry gear ever. It depends on who puts them on. In SoCal last winter, three people hiking on trails with Microspikes on died, a fourth had nothing on his feet. They have become state of the art mountaineering gear to many, not by words but by actions. They ascend bowls, drainages and ridges with poles and spikes.

    I have been going out in winter almost 20 years, I carry them but I also carry a pair of Black Diamond Sabertooths along with an axe. When there is exposure you need an axe, when the angle of ascend is high, even a trail you need crampons.

    Trailrunners are the worst. They go into the backcountry totally dependent on those of us who are prepared for a night out, if something goes wrong…and something can go wrong on a flat track. We had a hike die locally this year after a trip traveling just a few feet. Let’s say your friend Jen trips a few miles out and cannot move. Without clothing or a foam pad her risk of become a human popsicle heightens dramatically.

    • Your Friend Jen

      Jen was actually just out for a day hike, with a pack on that had many of the “just in case” emergency gear even just for a day hike, in the snow and ice. The yaktrax give you much more traction and I think she was probably rubbing in it to the not so prepared companion she was with by doing a little hike jog when they gave her the traction to do so. The yaktrax are useful when the trail gets icy, you can take them on and off as you please. They are dangerous in some situations but very helpful in others, common sense helps to determine that. I would recommend them for snowy hikes just incase you need them, they do not weigh enough to bring you down. They have saved me from busting it many times in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and during my hike across the snowy patches of the John Muir Trail in the backcountry of California. They got me ahead on the trail from others who were dangerously slipping around on icy patches. Jen is also an experienced backpacker and her full story wasn’t written in the article, neither was every piece of gear she’s carrying- her pack includes but is not limited to extra layers, an emergency blanket, as well as emergency food and a first aid kit. Thank you for your concern. This hike was also on a very well traveled trail right off of a main road, extra caution should definitely be taken if you are in the backcountry or less traveled areas especially during the very cold months of winter.

  • Rick S

    Interesting. About 98% of the time reading about the hiker’s gear on many sites, very seldom a portable radio is mentioned like a FRS or MURS radio used for emergency communication (or a ham radio HT if licensed.) These little radios can cover 20 miles or more in higher elevation. Cell phone coverage is spotty in the mountains so this would give you more of an advantage if needed. I like to hike in a very small group with friends and we take these radios with us just in case one may wander off or during an emergency. Most of these radios are inexpensive too. You can buy the FRS/MURS radios at any box store by breaking a $20.

  • aguywhohikes

    Never drink unfiltered water is a liiiitle bit overdone. “Sometimes if you’re somewhere overpopulated you should filter to be safe” doesn’t continue to overhype the supposed “need” to filter water that doesn’t need it. If you want to be particularly cautious, “some like to filter their water before drinking”, but lets not pretend that you always have to do so. That’s quite false, it’s actually very rare to need to.

    Also, one brand mention in the whole article, Sea to Summit… but no mention of the rating? That he had just purchased a 10 degree bag and was waiting to take it out would do us more good than the brand.

    • OldGypsy

      Giardia has little to do with population.