Ten Tips for Hiking in the Winter

Winter Scene in the Smokies

A wintertime scene in the Smoky Mountains. Photo by Shane Dunnaway.

While the majority of hikers in the Smoky Mountains prefer to hit the trails in the warmth of spring or summer or the coolness of fall, there are a select few who brave the cold and unpredictable conditions of winter each year in search of a good hike. 

While winter hiking does provide a change of pace, it also presents its own unique set of challenges.  Those who choose to trade more traditional hiking seasons for winter treks should be aware of some basic precautions and preparations.

  1. Let a responsible person know your route and return time.  Let them know to contact the park at (856) 436-1230 if you do not return within a reasonable amount of time.
  2. Always hike with another person.  Keep your hiking party together and say on officially maintained trails.  Always keep children in your sight when hiking; do not allow them to get ahead of you or fall behind.
  3. Carry a current park trail map and know how to read it.
  4. Carry a flashlight or headlamp, even on a day hike.  If you have trouble on the trail, darkness may fall before you can finish your hike.
  5. Take adequate water - a minimum of two quarts per person per day.  All water obtained from the backcountry should be treated either by filtering or boiling.
  6. Carry a small first-aid kit.
  7. Check the current weather forecast and be prepared for quickly-changing conditions.
  8. Wear boots or shoes that provide good ankle support.
  9. Avoid hypothermia (the dangerous lowering of body temperature) by keeping dry.  Avoid cotton clothing.  Dress in layers than can be easily removed or added as you heat up or cool down.  Always carry a wind-resistant jacket and rain gear, even on sunny days.
  10. Don't attempt to cross rain-swollen streams; they will recede rapidly after precipitation stops, and the wait may save your life.  When crossing any stream more than ankle-deep, unbuckle the waist strap of your pack, wear shoes, and use a staff to steady yourself.

In winter, most trails at high elevation will be covered with ice.  Crampons or other traction devices for your boots should be used.  Other significant hazards you may have to contend with include stream and river crossings, precipitous cliffs and ledges, unstable sedimentary rock, dangerous wildlife, and every-changing weather, including snowstorms and lightning.

Safety depends on good judgment, adequate preparation, and constant attention.  Backcountry hikers should be in good physical condition and be able to survive on their own.  Proper equipment and the knowledge of how to use it are essential for a safe trip. 

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