Snowshoers enjoying a bog in winter

Snowshoers enjoying a bog in winter

Winter is wonderful on the North Country Trail…if you’re prepared!

By Matthew Davis, Regional Trail Coordinator for MN/ND

[Originally appeared in the October-December issue of the North Star]

Winter can be an absolutely wonderful time to get outdoors and enjoy the North Country Trail.  My top 5 reasons for liking winter activities are:

1) there aren’t any bugs,

2) you can go places on foot that you can’t in the other seasons (e.g. out into large swamps),

3) without leaves, there are more great views,

4) you can find solitude more easily, and

5) did I mention there are no bugs!

In 2008, two NCTA volunteers and I spent the coldest day of our Minnesota winter out flagging new trail route in the Chippewa National Forest.  Temperatures during the day varied from -25 to -15 degrees but we stayed warm, dry, happy, and productive.  Last winter, I flagged a lot of trail for the Laurentian Lakes Chapter during January and February in similar conditions.

Obviously, you need to do some things differently than the other three seasons to make sure you have fun, and more importantly, to make sure that you come back with all your fingers, toes, and the tip of your nose.  Here are three basic concepts to get you on your way to enjoying outdoor activities in winter:

1)      Do your homework before heading out

2)      Be prepared: the right clothing, gear and equipment, and the right foods are critical

3)      Plan for the worst and know your limits

This page covers these concepts in detail and will cover places to enjoy some of the activities (e.g. snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, winter camping, etc.) you can enjoy on the NCT in winter.

Doing your homework

“Plan ahead and prepare” is the first Leave No Trace® principle for a reason!  By adhering to it, the other six LNT principles come naturally.  This is because you’ve already thought about minimizing your environmental and social impacts before leaving home.  Planning and preparation are even more critical for winter sports when the elements pose more of a danger to you and your fellow participants.  To be safe and enjoy your trip, think about the following before heading out:

  • Don’t go alone if at all possible.  If this is not possible, let someone whom you trust know exactly where you’re going and when you’ll return.
  • If possible, check on trail, ice & snow conditions before going out.
  • Map out access points along your route and sources of nearest help.

If you are new to hiking, the outdoors, or winter activities, you should plan some easy close-to-home trips first.  This will help you learn what you’re doing and allow you to make some mistakes in a more forgiving place.  Once you feel more comfortable and have the right gear, you can begin to explore more backcountry spots.

The right clothing

Everyone has heard the adage that layering is the proper way to dress for outdoor activities.  This is even more vital in the winter when sweaty clothes could mean increased danger from hypothermia.  When dressing for winter activities, it is important to consider what kind of activity you’re going to be participating in and the conditions you’ll encounter.  Obviously, you’ll sweat more cross-country skiing or breaking trail on snowshoes than just walking on a packed trail.

Layering for winter activities should included the following:

  • A base layer (long underwear) whose purpose is to wick moisture away from the skin.  Did you know that you could sweat anywhere from 2-4 quarts during a day spent skiing or snowshoeing? Synthetic fibers (polyester, polypropylene, etc.) and some natural fibers like wool and silk work best.  Never use cotton as it does NOT wick away moisture but instead absorbs it and holds it close to your skin, which helps conduct body heat away from the body.  For winter activities, just remember the simple phrase “cotton kills.” Light, medium, or expedition weights are available with most synthetic long underwear.  Light or medium weights are better for active outdoor pursuits with expedition being best for winter camping.
  • An insulating layer whose purpose is to retain your body heat while allowing moisture to pass through.  Pants should be non-constricting, either of wool or fleece.  Shirts could be a heavy synthetic material or a light fleece sweater while a down jacket could also suffice.  All should be easy to put on and take off.
  • An outer layer whose purpose is to prevent wind and precipitation from reaching the skin while also allowing moisture from your body to exit. Windproof/waterproof/breathable materials (e.g. Gore-Tex) are critical since your torso is most susceptible to cold.  Breathability is critically important…remember that 2-4 quarts of water you’ll sweat out in a day has to go somewhere! Better for it to escape than to “hang out” in your clothes – potentially chilling your body. Jackets should have drawstring sleeve openings and drawcord waists to keep snow out. Other useful features for a jacket include a full-length zipper, a hood, pit zips, and lots of pockets inside and out.  Pants should be easy to put on and take off over boots (e.g. a full length zipper or zipper to knee).
  • Waterproof gaitors are essential for keeping snow out of your boots so your feet stay dry.
  • A sock layering system includes synthetic wicking liner sock and outer wool, bulky synthetic, or wool-synthetic blends.  Some newer socks specify to not use liners, so check with the manufacturer.
  • Gloves could include polypro glove liners under wool mittens, waterproofed leather mitts, or insulated synthetic fabric mittens/glove combos.
  • Winter hats that cover your ears and are made out of wool, fleece, or an insulated fabric are essential since up to 40% of your body heat may be lost from an uncovered head.  Sun protection (e.g. a sun visor) may also be a desirable feature on a sunny day as the snow reflects the sun’s rays.  If the forecast is for low temperatures, consider a balaclava that covers your face and neck.
  • Proper footwear is a critical concern for winter activities because your shoes are always in contact with water when traveling on snow.  Winter shoes come in lightweight (e.g. trail running shoes or hiking boots), traditional mukluks, and pac boot designs and are very much a matter of preference.  How long you are going to be out there is a key consideration in choosing the right pair.  Lightweight shoes and your normal hiking boots work well if the snow is not deep (e.g. snowshoeing on a well-packed trail) and if the temperature is not too low.  If wearing trail shoes, it would be advisable to also wear a waterproof/breathable sock/bootie.  Mukluks and winter pac boots are better for longer trips and colder temperatures.  Mukluks are traditional native boots made from all-natural materials like moosehide and are much lighter than pac boots.  They can be treated with silicone to be “waterproof” but they keep your feet warm by encouraging constant blood flow throughout your feet.  Pac boots are insulated and waterproof, typically made from man-made materials, and are comfort rated to as low as -148 degrees.

Not only do you need to think about wearing all of this, but you also should have an extra set of layers in your pack to change into if you get wet, cold, or want something to change into when you’re finished with your activity.  Extra clothes should be packed into a waterproof stuff sack, large Ziploc bag, or a sealed garbage bag.

The right gear and equipment

You should already know from the discussion on clothing above that winter activities are by nature often bulky.  It is possible; however, to go ultralight in the winter…but you better be very experienced before trying it as you’re taking a large gamble.  Read about Andy Skurka’s 2007 “Ultralight in the Nation’s Icebox” hike on the NCT in Minnesota for a good example.

A backpack that is capable of carrying everything that you need and fits properly is essential.  Features to consider:

  • Is it hydration system compatible?
  • Are there easy to access pockets (for easily storing food, your jacket, etc)?
  • Is it made from waterproof material?
  • Can skis or snowshoes be strapped onto the pack?
  • Is it large enough to carry what you need in winter?

You should develop an emergency kit for winter activities that contains an emergency (or space) blanket (it reflects up to 80% of lost body heat), map and compass, water treatment items, headlamp, flagging tape, First Aid kit (for winter, add disposable heat packs, glucose solution, and electrolyte tabs to your kit), and a firestarter.  Other handy items to have along include waterproof/windproof matches, a multi-tool, duct tape, candle and a metal cup (for melting snow to get water), a plastic garbage bag (has many uses, including emergency clothes, ground sheet, pack cover, tarp, waterproof stuff bag; trash compactor bags work best), GPS unit, cell phone, extra batteries, sunscreen, and sunglasses.

Think through some worse case scenarios that could happen on your trip.  That might be falling through the ice, spraining your ankle, getting caught outside after dark, etc.  You should know how you’d address each issue and pack the right stuff to deal with the problems before actually encountering them.  If you’ve just fallen through the ice in winter, it’s too late to wish you’d packed extra clothes and garbage bags.

The right food

In general, you should plan to eat and drink before you start and nibble and drink often during the activity.  Good rules of thumb are to eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty.  Winter activities burn lots of calories – between 3000 and 4500 for a man and up to 2700 a day for a woman.

In winter, you should plan for lots of snacks in addition to meals.  Sugary foods (e.g. jelly and candy) provide instant energy while complex carbohydrates (crackers/breads, fruits/veggies) and fats (e.g. cheese, meats, nuts, chocolate) provide more long-term energy.  Proteins (e.g. meat/fish, beans, nuts, etc.) are great for body maintenance, which is important on multi-day or longer trips.  Your calorie breakdown should change to reflect the additional stress placed on your body during winter activities.  While carbohydrates typically make up to 70% of calories in a normal diet, drop them down to 45-55% for winter activities to increase the proportion of proteins and fats.  Proteins should be increased to 15-20% and fats should be 30-40% for winter activities.  Fats are good as they contain twice the energy as carbohydrates or proteins.  Don’t worry…you’ll burn it off.

While out on the trail, keep snack foods in a readily accessible space like a fanny pack or jacket pockets and keep water in a handy place and drink regularly.  Hydration systems (with insulated reservoir, tubes, and bite valve) are great for this.  Again, physical exertion in the winter will cause the body to loose up to 4 quarts of water a day. Water from the backcountry should be boiled, filtered, or chemically treated.  Don’t eat snow to get your water as it takes valuable energy to melt the snow, which reduces your core temperature and can lead to fatigue.  Another item to avoid is alcoholic beverages as they dehydrate and can provide a false sense of warmth.

For emergency purposes, it’s a good idea to carry an extra day’s worth of food (e.g. extra energy bars, nuts, dried fruits or jerky).

A little bit about the human race’s winter enemy…Hypothermia

Hypothermia is the #1 killer of outdoor recreationists!  By definition, it is abnormally low body temperature that leads to both mental and physical collapse.  It is caused by prolonged exposure to cold and is aggravated by wet, wind, and exhaustion (which is amplified by hunger and dehydration).

There are seven ways that the body loses heat.  We’ll discuss those and what you can do to prevent/minimize heat loss:

Method of heat loss What it means How to combat it
Radiation Heat loss through the skin Cover your body with clothing, including wearing a hat
Conduction Touching cold objects like snow, ice, metals Cover your body with clothing, including gloves
Convection Wind moving across the body takes away warm air from the body and clothing Wear windproof clothing and get out of the wind
Evaporation Fast, excessive sweat loss Wear wicking layers and avoid heavy perspiration
Respiration Breathing in cold air and exhaling warm air Cover your nose during cold temperatures and breathe out your mouth
Wind chill Amplification of conduction and convection Wear windproof clothing and get out of the wind
Water chill Wet clothing extracts heat 240 times faster than dry clothing Keep clothing dry by minimizing sweating and changing out of wet clothes ASAP

Decreasing core body temperature leads your body to constrict blood vessels in the outer extremities and initiate involuntarily movement (shivering) in an effort to generate more heat and keep its vital organs warm.  Shivering helps drain your body’s energy reserves so take action before you start shivering.    This could be as simple as adding another layer or drinking a warm liquid.

You should suspect a fellow participant is hypothermic if they become lethargic, lose dexterity in their hands, and/or their breathing becomes more shallow and rapid.  To treat someone who you think is experiencing mild hypothermia, the basic idea is to warm their core up gradually.  This can be done by covering them with a blanket, sleeping bag or clothing; through close body contact from a companion; and/or by drinking warm, sweet liquids.

If mild hypothermia is left untreated, the hypothermic victim will digress.  At this point they will shiver more violently, move and speak more clumsily, and become pale with bluish lips, ears, fingers and toes.  These are symptoms of moderate hypothermia.  Victims displaying these signs should be evacuated to receive trained medical attention immediately.  If left untreated at this point, the body’s shivering eventually stops; the victim becomes unable to speak or move easily; their pulse and breathing slow; they burrow into small spaces or under cover; and they often display irrational behavior (e.g. shed clothing because they are too warm).  The unfortunate next step is clinical death as vital organs begin to fail.


Winter is a great time to get outside and enjoy the North Country Trail…but to do so safely, you will need to plan ahead and prepare.

Useful resources:

  1. REI’s Ten Essentials webpage
  2. Wikipedia article on hypothermia
  3. Complete Winter Sports Safety Manual by Bern Kreissman.  Falcon Distribution; 1 edition (June 1997).
  4. AMC Guide to Winter Hiking & Camping by Lucas St. Clair and Yemaya Maurer (October 2008)
  5. The Winter feels good website
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