Exploring chilly new vistas
Hiking is something Audra Matolka has long enjoyed, but until two years ago, she had never tried heading out on trails in the fall and winter months.
“I wanted to keep active and my friend convinced me to do it,” said Matolka, who, until recently, lived in Palmer. “It had never occurred to me to do that. At first I didn’t want to; I thought it sounded really scary, didn’t think it was safe.” Then, she said jokingly, “I went (hiking) when I realized my friends didn’t die.”
Matolka is one of an increasing number of people who are discovering they don’t have to curb their hiking habit after temperatures start sliding toward zero and below.
A desire to stay active — without necessarily toting along skis or snowshoes — is one reason this is happening, and outdoor gear that better meets the needs of cold-weather hikers is another.
• Shoe spikes that grip better and reliably stay on winter boots make it possible to safely hike steep, icy trails.
• Improvements in outdoor clothing and footwear keep hikers warmer and drier than in the past, so they can stay out on the trail longer in frigid conditions.
• Avalanche beacons, probes, shovels and a variety of global-positioning systems and satellite-locator beacon options improve safety for hikers who prefer mountainous or more remote terrain.
Hikers who venture out all year discover rewards more fulfilling than nestling indoors by a cozy fire. They can see and experience familiar trails and scenery in a new way, as well as maintain and even nudge up their level of fitness.
Matolka has hiked the rolling terrain, stairs and switchbacks of 900-foot Bodenburg Butte, east of Palmer, dozens of times. When snow fell, back in 2011, Matolka and her hiking companion tucked portable shovels in their packs to clear the stairs they needed to climb to reach the top.
“The first few times, doing the Butte was rough, but it got addicting,” Matolka said. “It’s a great workout. I had hiked Matanuska Peak (that) summer but think I could do that a lot faster now. I do think hiking the Butte in winter helped give me the stamina to be able to hike Pioneer Ridge trail—I did that (in August 2012).”
Matolka could manage the Butte’s steeper segments with the help of ropes another winter hiker had laced along the trail’s switchbacks. She also used ice grippers on her boots.
“If it’s icy and slippery, hiking in winter’s too miserable,” she said. “The first spikes I bought were cheap things that fell off; I’d find them in the snow. Then I went and bought Yaktrax with the Velcro that keeps them on. They worked fine. It would have been pretty difficult coming down without them.”
Ben Arians manages Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in Anchorage, which caters to the needs of outdoor-oriented athletes—primarily cross-country and backcountry skiers, ice and rock climbers, hikers and backpackers.
Arians said he hasn’t seen a noticeable upswing in the number of customers inquiring about winter hiking.
“People are just plain active,” he said. “They’re doing it but not thinking, ‘I’m doing winter hiking.’ They’re just going hiking in the winter.”
Arians said winter hiking is possible on any trail that’s packed and doesn’t require the use of snowshoes to stay afloat on snow.
“It depends on what the snowload has been,” he said. “It wouldn’t be something people gear up for other than getting a better pair of walking grippers like Kahtoolas and an insulated hiking boot.”
Julia Murakami, an Anchorage REI clothing and footwear specialist, has hiked in cold weather for years. She has seen an upswing in the number of customers inquiring about winter hiking, biking and camping.
“My family did a lot of winter hiking around town—at Prospect Heights, Flattop and Crow Creek—but now there’s a lot more people into it,” Murakami said. “Now you can hike in Eagle River and Denali if you know the right places to go. “Before, it just wasn’t as popular. I feel there wasn’t the right kind of gear, wasn’t as much knowledge. Mountaineers were the only people who did it.”
Murakami says people are now able to do things like winter tours and four-season backpacking because of the much more efficient clothing and footwear that’s available.
“There are winter hiking shoes and mountaineering shoes,” she said. “There’s also just a lot more progression in base layers, wicking layers. There’s always been down but now there’s synthetic down, with a different kind of waterproofing. All of these things are making it easier for people to stay dry and comfortable in the cold.”
Tents and sleeping bags are so light and compressible, Murakami said, that backpackers can “pack it down to almost nothing, take a 30-pound pack and stay out three or four days. It’s fun there’s so much stuff coming out, more stuff you can do when you’re outside in the wintertime, especially in Alaska where we have nine months of winter.”
Word of mouth is a key reason why more people are getting out to hike in winter, Murakami said.
“There’s a weird bridge in people’s mind teling them they can’t do it,” Murakami said. “They have the idea that hiking in cold is only for expeditionists or extreme mountaineers. I have no idea what discourages people. It’s just as serene, the air’s going to be just as clean, everything’s going to be just as pristine. You don’t need to have rock-solid fitness to be able to go outside. You can put on a pair of hiking boots and snowpants and go outside.”
Winter Hiking Safety Tips
If you want to go for a hike in cold weather, it will likely be easier and safer if you do the following:
• Tell a trusted friend or family member where you are going, with whom, and how long you expect to be hiking. Leave specifics about which trail you will be hiking and your car’s description and license-plate number. If you’re interested in longer forays into the backcountry, hike with a group of people, consider taking an avalanche-awareness class, check weather forecasts and bring a personal-locator beacon and avalanche-safety gear.
• Bring money for trailhead parking fees and a pen to fill out the fee envelope. Or, buy a parking pass from the governmental entity that oversees the area where you will be hiking.
• Wear layers of noncotton clothing. Sweat plus cotton equals a chilly or even hypothermic hike. Possibilities that work better include lightweight wool or polypropylene long underwear under snow pants; a long underwear top or two under a fleece jacket or vest; noncotton running pants and tops; lightweight down or polyester-insulated jacket; a shell to keep you protected from snow, sleet or rain; warm gloves and a warm hat. Experiment to figure out clothing combinations that work best for you in varying kinds of weather and varying intensities of exertion.
• Wear a backpack, daypack or fanny pack, depending on how long you plan to be out. Use it to carry water (or something to purify or filter water you find or melt from snow while hiking), fully charged camera, food and extra layers of dry clothing. Store in it clothing you might need to shed while hiking.
• Wear warm boots suitable for snowy conditions. Wool or polyester socks are best in cold conditions.
• Drink a couple of glasses of water before leaving for hiking and eat a banana or other light snack. A hike seems easier and much more pleasant if your body is hydrated and fueled for exercise. Bring water, Gatorade or a hot drink with you as well.
• Wear ice grippers on your boots, because the footing can get slippery when it’s steep, snowy or icy. Kahtoola Microspikes, Yaktrax and other ice-traction devices for the feet are available at places like REI, AMH, Mountain View Sports, Sportsman’s Warehouse and even Fred Meyer. It’s also possible to simply do what winter runners do for traction on ice: use a drill to put 3/8-inch No. 6 slotted-hex-head sheet metal screws into the rubber soles of your hiking shoes or boots.
• Consider bringing hiking poles, which provide extra stability while descending steep, slippery slopes or crossing icy flat-land areas.
• Wear or bring warm, waterproof gloves and hat. The gloves protect your hands from ropes, rock, wind and cold. A balaclava is nice to have, as well, because the weather might feel temperate in the first part of a hike but grow frigid when you encounter unbridled wind on a rise, ridge or peak.
• Wear or bring gaiters, to keep snow out of your boots.
• Bring a fully charged cell phone. Maybe you’ll only use it to photography your summit celebration and the serene winter scenery, but it’s great to have along in case you need help during the hike or just update a family member or friend about where you are and when you expect to be finished with the hike.
• Keep some kitchen-sized garbage bags or supermarket plastic grocery bags in your car, as well as an extra pair of shoes to change into after your hike. Dump wet, snowy or muddy hiking boots and sweaty socks into one of these bags and then slip your weary feet into fresh, dry socks and comfy clogs.
• Leash your dog. There are traps out there near trails, as well as moose and other wild creatures. A dog running at full speed might not realize he or she is going too fast to stop at the edge of a slippery dropoff.
• Bring a headlamp with functioning batteries and extra batteries. Hiking in cold weather, in Alaska, means you will likely get to the trail or leave the trail in dim or dark conditions in the morning or afternoon.
• Consider taking a cold-weather hiking-basics class—Murakami says REI offers these—to learn more about techniques and equipment that will enhance your experiences outdoors.
Tracy Kalytiak is acting editor at Alaska magazine, and an avid winter and summer hiker and runner.