There is no quietude quite like what one experiences hiking in the winter. The air tastes refreshing, as though the hiker is constantly inhaling a mint. Pine boughs are weighted in snow, branches are coated in gleaming rime. Everything appears brighter. It stretches shadows across a frozen pond, or cascades down an ice-encrusted hill.
Paths are smoothed out, their roots and rocks blanketed by winter. The trees are bare, their trunks like pillars or staggered fence posts. The landscape has been transformed by snow, cold and ice. Within it, the hiker leaves tracks — like a rabbit or deer or coyote does — imprinting the trails, forging ahead in the hope of discovering something for which they were searching.
While there is nothing more invigorating than a blustery winter hike after a snowfall, even the most avid outdoor enthusiasts need some essential pieces of gear, a winter-survival pack of sorts, to ensure that they come out feeling restored and not broken. For this, turn to Rich Gottlieb, longtime proprietor of Rock and Snow, now retired. He’s someone who has spent most of his life rock-climbing, ice-climbing, biking, snowshoeing and hiking his way around the world, nowhere as deeply as in the Hudson Valley.
The most important thing, he said, is to know where you’re going. “Winter can be disorientating,” he said. “Get a map, print one out, go with someone who knows the area, or if you’re going by yourself, make sure you start out with shorter, easier hikes.”
Gottlieb suggested the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation trails just off Route 28 at Onteora Lake. There are approximately twelve miles of well-marked, single-track trails that can lead hikers (or some on fat bikes, as we witnessed) around Onteora Lake, through old quarries, past rocky shark fins of slate, and past Pickerel Pond and other wetland areas. While there are a few, short, steep climbs, there is not much elevation change, It’s a great starter hike for those anxious to get out into the woods this winter.
The main game-changer for winter hiking is having a pair of microspikes, yak-tracks or some other sort of crampons that help you grip snow and ice. They slip on easily over a pair of sneakers (for runners) or hiking boots. They provide enough traction that you begin to think you’re immortal on ice — which none of us are, but it does give you the feeling of having superhero power.
For those wanting a little more stability or grip, there are also trekking poles, many of them collapsible and easily attached or shoved into a backpack. These, Gottlieb explained, help to take weight off the knees as you scramble downhill while providing more steadiness. They also help work the upper body to a degree and keep your hands warm as they are gripping the poles and in motion.
Must-haves, in Gottlieb’s estimation are a form of microspikes. If the snow is too deep for those, then snowshoes. Second is a map. While we do rely heavily on smartphones and GPS or trail apps, they can run out of battery, particularly fast in the cold.
A headlamp is another important tool to have in your winter hiking arsenal as the sun can slip past the horizon faster than you think. That way, if you get lost, or miss a trail and are still trying to make it back to your car or starting point, a headlamp will help guide you back.
Matches in a waterproof bag are also a key component to Gottlieb’s winter pack. “Stuff happens,” he said, “and it’s good to have the ability to start a fire if you need too. I’ve certainly been in that position before.”
Water and calories are essential in any season if you’re out trekking, as are layers of clothing, but not, what Gottlieb calls “death by cotton.” Get yourself some wool, or go to an outdoors store and ask for some base layers and shells that both keep you warm, wick the sweat away and protect the body from harsh winds.
A good pair of warm socks, hat and gloves are also key. Gottlieb points to his lobster-claw-shaped gloves and explains that these give him the ability to rock scramble, hold onto his poles, and also keep the fingers mostly together to generate heat.
Yet another item he says he always takes with him when out adventuring in the winter is a light down jacket that he can shove into his pack. “It’s great for taking a break and making sure you stay warm, or if there’s an emergency, someone turns and ankle, or you miss the trail,” he said. “You have another layer if you’re not moving as fast as you were or it’s getting dark.”
The great thing about this list is that, for the most part, it’s very doable. Some sort of traction for your feet, warm clothes, a backpack, a map, water, some powerbars, matches and a headlamp. There are great map sets for the Catskills and the Shawangunks as well as for the Hudson Highlands that are put out by the New York, New Jersey Trail Conference, They can be purchased at Rock and Snow or by going to www.nynjtc.org
Hiking in the winter is really all about being prepared. If you have steady feet, a warm body, a map, a headlamp and some snacks, you should be good to go. When in doubt, start easy on rail-trails or well-travelled public parks.
Once you get your confidence and some experience, you may find that winter could be your favorite time to head off into the woods. The magic it holds is stunning. It’s like walking through a forest of diamonds, or stepping into a silence that is so deep and so piercing that it awakens all your senses at once. The snow and ice wrap around the woods like a giant shawl, allowing everything to settle into itself, to regain balance, and to be revitalized