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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.