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Preparing for a Winter Hike

by Dr. Amber Hincks LAc

Mt. Hood had its first significant snowfall of the season this week and with a sunny weekend predicted, we could not resist an excursion to our beloved mountain neighbor.  It was spectacular and the weather was gorgeous.  On a Saturday, it was hard to believe we only crossed paths with 4 people, despite being on a stretch of trail that belonged to both the Timberline Trail (goes around Mt. Hood) and the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and leaves right from the majestic Timberline Lodge, just over an hour from Portland. Timberline Trail

Preparing for a Winter Hike requires some different planning and is a good time to revisit the 10 essentials.  This list refers to the things that you should have with you when entering the backcountry.  What is not on this list is a couple of necessary steps to take before you go. 

  1. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.  Make a plan for what to do if they don't hear from you. 
  2. Check the weather forecast and make sure that you are prepared for those conditions.  Also, be especially mindful that mountainous environments can have their own weather systems and can change more rapidly.  Bring extra layers.

There is some additional gear that you may want to have for winter hikes.  Some things are easy to overlook like sunglasses and sunscreen!  Here are some tips about stuff I have found helpful.

  • Snowshoes:  snowshoes are not my favorite, but they are essential when hiking in snow deeper than about 1 foot.  They keep you from sinking into the snow (post-holing), which can be funny the first couple of times, but you won't get very far.  Consider renting if you don't want to invest in a pair.  Make sure they fit you, especially if you have small feet.  Many are one-size-fits-all.
  • Crampons, microspikes or yaktraks:  essentially these are different types of attachments that you can get for the bottoms of your boots that increase their grip on ice.  You would use these in lieu of snowshoes when the snow is either not deep, or very firm and potentially icy.  Yaktraks are the most basic, light-weight option and will work in most conditions.  With more elevation (steeper) and really icy conditions micro-spikes or crampons are a safer bet.
  • Sunscreen and Sunglasses:  On a sunny day, while the sun is less powerful than in summer, the snow is reflective.  I sunburned my eyeballs on St. Helens.  Do not forget sunglasses!
  • Extra socks:  whether snow gets in your boots, you accidentally step into a stream, or you simply want a fresh pair at the end of the day, extra socks are always worth including.  Wool is generally best.
  • Gaiters:  To avoid the above snow entering your boots, gaiters are worth having unless your snow/rain pants are secure over your boots.  These wrap around your lower leg and generally loop under your boots so nothing can sneak its way inside.  

In general, don't expect to go as far as you would in the summer, especially if there is snow or ice on the trail.  That being said, winter can be a great time of year for mountaineering.  Snow can make it easier to cross a boulder field or a frozen stream.  Mountaineering requires a whole different level of preparation though, so let's stick with winter hiking for the sake of this post.  Here are a couple winter excursions that I would recommend.  

  1. Old Salmon River Trail:  I have mentioned this one before.  It's an absolute favorite, especially in winter.  It begins in Rhododendron and the trail has multiple entry points.  It follows along the Salmon River and most sections are fairly level, though if you continue on into the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness you will meet some elevation.  It is a mossy wonderland.  If you are interested in others like this, check out Falls Creek Falls Trail or Siouxon Creek - both in Southern Washington, or Silver Falls State Park (Oregon).Amber Hincks
  2. Mirror Lake or Trillium Lake:  Both of these lakes are located on the Southern side of Mt. Hood and provide breathtaking views of the mountain on a clear day.  Easily accessible from Hwy 26, these lakes are a relatively short hike (you can drive to Trillium when there is no snow), but offer some options to extend your visit.  When you get to Trillium, you can choose to hike or snowshoe around the lake.  Consider doing this under the light of the full moon.  From Mirror Lake, you can continue on to Tom, Dick and Harry, which will take you up above Ski Bowl Ski Resort.  You might even be able to take the chairlift down if it is operating.                                                                       Mirror Lake, Mt. Hood