By JOE BARATY
We’re rolling out of the Thanksgiving weekend into the first full week of December. Our fickle Virginia weather patterns appear to be finding some semblance of normalcy in the long-range forecast with much cooler daytime highs and below freezing nighttime lows. That “snow” word is even showing up late next week.
To risk making this an argumentative essay, I’m just going to come right out and say it: This is the best hiking weather of the year. If you disagree with me, send me your rebuttal, and I’ll print it here for you. But there is no way you will ever convince me otherwise.
What makes winter trailblazing so great? It’s serenely still, quiet and peaceful, unlike any other season. The leaves are all gone and the views are simply stunning. A little bit of snow cover is the icing on the cake. You will never see so many fresh clean animal tracks anywhere else.
My dear friend John Hollandsworth was the one responsible for my addiction to winter hiking. He was the epitome of a trail addict. He wanted to go out every weekend, no matter the weather, no matter the season.
Let’s just say John was a bit of an adventurous daredevil — no, I’ll take that back. He was just plain nuts. If he overheard someone talking about a dangerous adventure somewhere, he would not rest till he tried it.
John’s hiking choices may have been audacious, but they were never reckless. He was a smart and resourceful outdoorsman, and taught me much about being properly prepared and geared for any trail in any weather.
Sometimes he taught me the hard way, at my expense. Like the time he took me on a winter hike up in Nelson County just above Piney River. The Priest Wilderness area is what they call it with high elevation and rocky terrain.
I was a novice winter hiker, but I dressed for the occasion with lots of layers. I felt prepared. Where we parked it was sunny, maybe 40 degrees, no wind at all and actually quite comfortable. I took off my outer layer coat and threw it in the back seat of the car. To which John replied, “You may want to keep that with you.”
“Nah ... It’s not that cold at all.” John just smiled sheepishly and said, “Oooo-K.”
Tip No. 1 regarding winter hiking: on high elevation hikes in the winter there can be as much as a 20-degree difference from one face of the mountain to the other side.
You guessed it; that sunny, 40-degree pleasantry on the eastern face turned into a shaded, cold, breezy, 20-degree deep chill on the western face. I thought I was going to die. And John smiled the whole time.
Here I am attempting to convince you how wonderful winter hiking is, and I start with a story about almost dying on the trail. The truth is, if you’re careless or ill-prepared, you can endanger yourself on the trail in any season.
Tip No. 2: dress in layers. But let me throw in one caveat to that — don’t buy cheap gear. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me they will never spend $50 for one simple, base-layer undershirt. To which I reply, the most important layer you wear is the one that is against your skin. Anyone who owns any polyester underwear and spends time out in the cold will attest to this. It is indeed worth it.
Tip No. 3: avoid sweating as much as possible. Fastest way to hypothermia is getting really wet when it is really cold. Being wise with your layers will help here, but you also want to slow your normal hiking pace down. Especially when you come upon any tough elevation changes. Go easy and sweat less.
Tip No. 4: stay light. Any hiker understands the importance of avoiding excess weight. This does not change when you go out in the winter months. Bulky cloths and gear not only weigh you down, but makes you sweat, too (see the third tip).
And lastly, tip No. 5: choose your destination wisely. This won’t matter as much if there is no snow cover, but if there is, it could be critical. If you have any snow cover at all, do your best to avoid trails with severe elevation changes. Trekking poles are great and highly recommended for winter hiking, but they are worthless on rocky climbs that are iced over. Be smart.
Of course, please do not ever hike alone. It is important to have a partner with you on winter hikes so that there is someone to take that picture of you falling on your butt because you didn’t listen to tip No. 5.
Now go get wild — safely, well-prepared. And remember I would love to hear from you trailblazers out there. Drop me a line and share your adventures anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.