IMG_0527Each of the four seasons has its arguments for being on the trail. Spring offers warming temperatures, wildflowers, the promise of life renewed; summer brings trips to the cool air and vistas of the high country; fall’s crisp air, blue skies and kaleidoscopic color make it the true siren season of hiking.

And winter?

Winter is a more complex beast, with its limited daylight, its cold, its threat of trouble should things not go according to plan.

Those are just three reasons why winter is prime time to be in the woods.

Take the daylight. It may be limited — today, we have a little more than 10 hours of sunshine; come late June we’ll have more than 14 and a half. Limited as it may be, the light now is the most intense of the year as Earth’s elliptical orbit brings the Northern Hemisphere closest to the light source. Hence, the vivid shadows cast by angular sunshine knifing through the trees. Winter landscape paintings are often portrayed in soft focus, yet on a sunny winter day the forest is never more crisp, more defined.

Another reason to explore the winter woods: so much more is revealed. Minus the dense foliage of the understory, the mystery of that distant rustle is known, ridgeline views unfold, the flow of the land more apparent.

The cold. Odd that so many complain of the cold, considering how our Piedmont trails are abandoned during the heat of summer. With summer, it’s hard to beat the heat: you can only strip down so far (save the first day of summer). But in winter, you can almost always layer to meet your needs. Unseasonably warm? A thin base layer should suffice. More seasonable temps in the upper 40s? Add a mid-weight fleece, maybe a wool hat. Downright cold? A shell and gloves added to the mix should keep you happy into the mid-20s (provided you stay on the move). And don’t forget heavier wool hiking socks. (Learn more about layering here.)

Disturbing to most hikers under the best of circumstances is when a hike goes awry: you take the wrong trail, you misjudge sunset, there’s an injury. These problems become magnified by the threat of winter’s cold. Yet they’re all mitigated by good planning:

  • You take the wrong trail. Not uncommon, especially if you’re hiking on the sometimes sparsely marked trails of our National Forests. But avoidable with these small precautions. First, never head out without a map, even on trail you know. Evasive action may be required: trails get rerouted, trails get blocked by downfall and swollen streams.
  • Pay attention. True, you’re on the trail to lose yourself, but in a metaphysical sense, not actually. Detach from your reverie long enough to note when a trail forks (pause and look for the blaze), when a trail seems to have disappeared (when your path suddenly becomes soft and crunchy), when it starts to do things a trail doesn’t typically do (head over a cliff).
  • Take a headlamp. Always, even if you’re setting out at 8 a.m. for a 6-mile hike. Anything can happen on a three-hour tour (a three-hour tour …).
  • There’s an injury. Fallen and can’t get up? Especially if you’re flying solo, it’s imperative that you leave your itinerary with someone back in civilization, including the time you expect to be back and where you plan to hike. If an hour passes and your contact hasn’t heard from you, they can call the number you’ve provided. A couple of uncomfortable hours is preferable to a night — or longer — in the cold.

A final argument for winter hiking: the quiet. It’s curious how quiet the winter woods can be considering that nature’s muffler — foliage — has all but disappeared. Little sounds become amplified: a distant squirrel puzzled over where he stashed that acorn last October, beech leaves responding to a gust of wind, the murmur of a small creek. You come to appreciate these sounds of the woods, thanks in part to the absence of the trail’s prevalent noisemakers in the three “prime” seasons:

Your fellow hikers, who have yet to be wooed by the winter woods.