A Guide's Guide to Winter Adventures in Appalachia
Updated: Apr 25
Even though we have evolved to more-or-less sleep through winter, you shouldn’t sleep on it as an excellent season to go hiking and camping. When winter hits in Appalachia, new views open up through leafless trees, evergreen forests become particularly poignant, and fresh snowfall turns our world into a magical wonderland. But, to be real, it’s not all snow angels and happy endings when the cold kicks in and you’re adventuring outside. Even in Appalachia’s relatively mild climate, frostbite and hypothermia are always lurking in the frozen shadows —waiting to steal your joy and quite possibly your life. Take these hard-earned pieces of advice from our guides with you on your next winter outing to better prepare yourself for a safe and enjoyable experience. And remember, if you’re not ready, or you’re not comfortable venturing out into the frozen unknown, you can always hire a guide — that’s quite literally what we’re here for!
What to Wear: Clothing is your first defense against the cold and with the right strategy you can win this cold war. There’s a lot to cover on the ins-and-outs of dressing for success in cold weather, so we crafted a frozen set of info-graphics for your own edification. Take a look below, save them for future reference and share these assets with your friends before you take them on a winter adventure! Here are a few of our biggest takeaways followed by the infographics...
Dress in Layers! Take a deeper dive into the science behind layering in our infographics below.
Stick with natural fibers like merino wool against the skin. They are naturally wicking and will retain heat while wet. If you have a sensitivity to natural fibers start with a thin synthetic next to skin.
Cotton, on the other hand, is a killer in the cold. It doesn’t wick moisture, rather it soaks you and can be extremely bad news— don’t bring it with you.
Protect your Neck. Utilize hooded layers and or buffs/balaclavas to insulate this often forgotten area.
Carry an extra pair of socks and Baselayers that always remain dry for emergencies and/or comfort at camp. Our Confidant and Consultant, Shannon Davis follows this rule: always pack three. One to wear today, one to wear tomorrow. And one sacred pair. Sacred socks are only for use in case of emergency. Or…. maxing and relaxing in your four season tent.
Don’t skimp on gloves. We like a light pair for when you’re moving fast, an all-purpose “work” glove that’s warm and durable, and a heavyweight glove or mitt for when it gets real.
Cold Weather Pack List: One thing is for sure, if you’re going to camp in the winter you’re going to need the right gear! Keeping up with all of those items can be tough, though, so we did the leg-work for you and created a set of infographics with a pack list for your cold weather camping adventures! Download and save these infographics for future reference and feel free to share them with your friends that you want to take on a winter camping trip! Here are a couple of highlights from the Pack List.
Utilize a Closed Cell Foam pad under your air mattress to add +2 R-Value to your setup. You can also sit or stand on that pad to insulate your feet and your butt from the cold cold ground.
You can utilize multiple sleeping bags if you don’t own (or feel like ponying up for) an expensive winter sleeping bag. Try nesting a summer and three-season bag you may already own instead. A sleeping bag liner can also add five to 10 degrees of comfort as well.
Always carry a form of traction devices and use them on packed snow and ice.
Insulated Boots are a game-changer in the extreme cold. Check out these insulated options from our friends at Obōz footwear for your next adventure.
Bring your Bear Canister where required as bears in the Southeast do not fully hibernate
Always carry sunglasses and sunscreen as the sun’s rays are seriously magnified by snow and ice. Sunglasses even provide some insulative value as well as wind-protection.
Carry a Journal or create a digital version which includes your pack list and notes about the items and approaches that work, and those that don’t. You can also utilize this journal for entertainment at camp.
Don’t be afraid to carry a few excess items like down booties, ambient lighting, eco-friendly hand warmers, an old school hand-crank radio, or a flask to pass around at camp! After all, it's all about having a good time!
Strategy & Approach
Take Breaks with a purpose — Have a plan. Walk for an hour then take a mandatory five minute maintenance break to drink, eat snacks and adjust layers. Have your snacks readily available (in extreme cold keep a few snacks inside your jacket to avoid freezing) and an extra layer—preferably a puffy—ready to put on as soon as you stop because it is much easier to stay warm than get warm. Keep that puffy in an easily accessible stuff pocket or exterior compartment on your pack to save time during breaks.
Manage Your Core Temperature — Cold weather adventures can be surprisingly enjoyable with the right blend of physical output and insulation. Sweat is a thief of joy and warmth in winter, though, so it must be avoided at all costs. If you tend to sweat, always come prepared with an extra base layer in your pack. When you reach your summit, or stopping point for the day, change out of your sweaty layer and into the dry. It will feel like hitting a reset button on life! Lay the wet base layer out to dry while you break—tying it to the outside of your pack while moving— and have it ready in case the second one wets thru on your return or descent. Even on the driest of days opt for outer layers which help block the wind and its convective cooling properties.
Stay Dry — take an approach and pace which keeps you warm but prevents you from sweating. When we get wet evaporative cooling robs our heat faster than the Grinch steals presents. Bring extra base layers, socks, hat and gloves so you can exchange these items if you get sweaty, or accidentally step through ice or become submerged in powdery snow! Speaking of deep snow, if you're going out in fluffy stuff that is above your ankles gaiters are a must. Many snow pants have built in cuffs to keep the snow out but even then you can add extra layer of protection and warmth by adding a removable gaiter.
Traction Devices — come prepared and always assume there will be ice! Don’t be a fool like most folks, including most guides, and try to skate the ice as far as you can before putting on your micro spikes (which are technically called "ice cleats"). Go ahead and take the time to sit down and put on your traction devices at the first sign of icy conditions because a little bit of rock and dry trail won’t hurt your spikes, but a fall leading to an injury will ruin your day!
Trekking Poles — Trekking poles prevent slips from becoming falls which is one of the most direct forms of risk mitigation on the trail. Snow Baskets on the end of your poles add stability in wintry conditions and metal tips will help bite into ice. Trekking poles can also be used to access snow/ice conditions when necessary and can also be utilized to create splints in emergency situations.
Water — The colder it gets, the more effort it takes to stay hydrated. In extreme cold most in-line filters become ineffective due to freezing, so options like boiling water to melt snow or carrying more water with you from the start are your best bets. Boiling water takes time and gas, so make sure you come prepared with a proper stove and an extra canister of the latter. Water bottles can freeze in extreme cold, so opt for insulated models or add an insulated parka to your Nalgene bottles. Don’t forget to store them upside down during long hikes or when staying overnight (after your 100% positive they are sealed) to prevent the tops from freezing.
Sun Protection — you are exposed to absorbent amounts of sunlight while on snow and ice. Although most of your body remains covered from the cold, vulnerable areas like your face and hands get pounded with reflected light. Sunburns inside nostrils, behind ears, and on the palms of hands are common occurrences on winter excursions. Your eyes are also exposed to higher amounts of light so make sure to bring a pair of UV protective sunglasses on your winter journeys. If you have a quality pair of ski/snowboard goggles those will work well, particularly in stormy conditions!
Warm Beverages and Hot Meals — There is no warmth like the one that radiates from within. Scandinavian folks have utilized this principle for generations to stave off arctic temperatures and you can adapt those principles for your Appalachian adventures. Prepare a thermos full of hot soup or your favorite warm beverage and consider it as part of your first aid kit! Prepare warm, hearty meals at camp or on lunch breaks and don’t skimp on fats, like butter, which will help you stay extra warm!
Vehicle Safety — If you get trapped at the trailhead due to unexpected road conditions or a dead battery and need to stay the night you need to be fully prepared. Have a solid safety kit which lives in your vehicle including: sleeping bag/s, extra layers, extra food and water. If you can not sleep inside of your vehicle also include a tent in that emergency kit. Always fill your tank up with gas before you leave and have appropriate tires and/or snow chains before considering going out in harsh conditions.
Alright folks, it's time to go on an adventure! Our hope in sharing this knowledge is to make sure you are much more prepared to take on your next winter hike or camp. This is by no means an exhaustive list—we’re always learning and always adapting. And keep in mind that when we started adventuring in the cold we had almost none of our suggested gear and were armed with nothing more than a little hillbilly gumption. Although we highly recommend being as prepared as possible, we encourage you all to get out in the cold and live and learn through your own adventures. Stay safe, stay warm and have fun out there!