Updated: Jan 22
Plan and pack for what could go wrong, not just what could go right.
Winter is a wonderful time to hit the trail for a day hike, and proper prep is key. There's always the possibility for the unexpected no matter how short or easy your planned route supposedly is.
You hit up a friend for a winter day hike.
You have your sights set on an afternoon trip to a fire tower, a short hike from the trailhead. It's unseasonably warm, and you're stoked about a relaxed December day in the mountains.
The trail is well within your wheelhouse. Your guidebook mentions a short section of rock scrambling near the top, nothing you and your friend haven't navigated before.
Plus, y'all always make it to your destination faster than the guidebook says, so you determine the hike there should take an hour tops and you'll be back at the car well before sunset.
You pack your bag with a light jacket, water and a Clif bar, your phone, and the guidebook. You tell your roommate when to expect you back.
The hike up goes smoothly, and just like you'd anticipated, it took you less than an hour. You decide to spend extra time at the top. It's a gorgeous, near cloudless evening, and the golden hour makes for some epic photos.
As the sun drops lower, you finally pull yourselves away. But on the hike back, your friend steps on a loose rock during the scramble and lets out a scream- she's messed up her knee... badly.
After you calm her down, she gets up to walk, but no dice. You try supporting her, but she can't put any weight on it whatsoever and needs frequent breaks. The sun is sinking fast, and it's getting cold.
- How much water did you bring? How many calories? You didn't expect to work this hard...
- Did you pack an external battery for your phone? It was only supposed to be a couple hours...
- Is that light jacket enough? It was 60 degrees F while you'd planned to be up there. Now it's approaching 40...
- It's really dark now that you're off the peak and back in the woods, but you didn't bring your headlamp. It was just gonna be a day hike...
OK. Let's step out of the horror story and say this hypothetical duo made it out safely. Phew.
But this type of scenario plays out in real life with scary frequency.
We think we know the terrain, or the difficulty, and we get over-confident. We've done this kind of thing a million times, and it always went well. Why should we lug around a couple extra pounds of supplies when we'll never use it?
The following day hiking essentials are well worth the couple extra pounds.
Even if you and your friend never have a misstep, someone else on the trail might, and you could be the first ones on the scene. Wouldn't it feel great to be able to assist in some small way- a snack or extra warmth until help arrives?
Even if all you can give them is your company and moral support for a couple hours (because you packed extra supplies for yourself), that comfort goes a long way in reducing their stress, which improves any situation's outlook.
Now that we fully grasp the significance of the first sentence of this post, let's dive in to the list of 10 winter hiking essentials to always keep in your pack:
Water - 2L minimum. Bring more than you would on a similar-length summer day hike; cold air holds less moisture. Bring even more if it's especially strenuous or in a higher-altitude environment.
Snacks - Calories come in so many lightweight, convenient forms now. To reduce packaging, make homemade granola bars and freeze them the night before so they harden up. I keep a few gels, chews, or glucose tabs in my first aid kit, too.
Warm layers - Some environments, like canyons, vary wildly in temperature (think 30+ degrees difference between the rim and bottom) depending on climate and elevation change. Plus, even if you don't get caught out past your intended trip window, weather and wind can change without warning.
Headlamp with extra batteries
External battery for your phone
Fire starter kit or backpacking stove and fuel
Emergency bivy / mylar thermal blankets
Navigation (separate from your phone) - like a good ol' map and compass. Take a class on basic navigation so you know how to use it. For particularly rugged / remote terrain, consider bringing a personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite phone.
Knife or multitool
First aid kit to include the basics like wound care, sun protection, bug spray, instant cold pack, and blister care. Get trained in wilderness first aid through Medic SOLO if you can. They're the oldest school of wilderness medicine, and my past instructors have emphasized inclusivity, like using a patient's proper pronouns. The org also denounces the racist practice of only teaching what certain ailments look like on light complexions. There are many other reasons to go with them over other schools, and no, I have no relationship to them / no one's paying me to say this.
bonus... a whistle - preferably one that still works when wet (like a Fox40 or any whistle without a ball inside)
Other considerations (location-specific):
ice axe and crampons
Your turn: Anything else you'd add to this list? Have a good campfire story about preparation, first aid, or survival? Comment it below.
Onward and inward,