Hikers on the Trail in Baxter Woods. Photo: Bill Brooke

Gearing Up for Winter Day Hiking

Winter hiking is challenging and has inherent risks, so you’ll need to be well-prepared and self-sufficient to ensure your comfort and safety in the woods and mountains.THE LONG, COLD AND SNOWY MAINE WINTER AHEAD MIGHT HAVE YOU WANTING TO HOLE UP INDOORS  for the next few months, but what fun is that? A better plan is to get outside frequently on foot, on snowshoes or skis to enjoy some healthy exercise and beautiful scenery with friends and family. Winter hiking is challenging and has inherent risks, so you’ll need to be well prepared and self-sufficient. Here are some tips for comfort and safety in the winter woods and mountains.


Winter air is dry and since you’re usually working pretty hard, you’re going to lose a lot of water through respiration and perspiration, and this lost fluid must be replenished. In cold situations, your body tends toward emergency mode, redirecting blood from extremities into your all-important core. Frostbitten fingers and toes, or worse—hypothermia, can be the result.

The solution is to drink a lot of water and drink often, as much as three to four liters in a day. Drink before you’re thirsty. Fill your bottles with hot water before setting out, and use insulated parkas around them. Take along a Thermos of tea, cocoa or soup for a much-appreciated hot drink at lunch.


For strenuous winter hiking, your body needs plenty of fuel for optimum performance. Food is fuel, and one of the joys for many winter hikers is the need to consume a lot more calories than normal. Eat before you’re hungry, and eat often. Carry a good mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in your pockets and pack, like jerky, cheese sticks, nuts, dried fruit, candy and granola bars.

Snowshoeing on Beech Mtn. in Acadia National Park. Photo: Carey Kish

Snowshoeing on Beech Mtn. in Acadia. Photo: Carey Kish


Cold weather activities require dressing in layers so you can regulate your overall body temperature in response to changing environmental conditions and activity levels.

The base layer is worn right up against the skin. A good long sleeve top and long john bottom made of wool, polyester or a blend of the two will wick moisture away from your sweaty body and help keep you warm and dry. The initial mid or insulation layer consists of a fleece vest, sweater or jacket, worn on the move. At rest or in camp or if it’s really cold on the trail, add a main insulation layer, a down or synthetic fill jacket or parka. Finally, an outer shell layer of waterproof-breathable fabric keeps out the wind, snow and rain.

A ski hat and balaclava plus gloves or mittens and accompanying weatherproof shells help keep your upper extremities toasty. Spare gloves and hat and a second wicking shirt to change into are worthy extras.


Hikers on Burnt Mtn near Sugarloaf. Photo: Jeff Aceto

Hikers on Burnt Mtn near Sugarloaf. Photo: Jeff Aceto

Your feet are your transportation, so be sure to treat them well with a warm pair of Pac-style or other insulated boots with a good tread. Wear liner socks under heavy wool or synthetic socks. Knee-high gaiters will keep the snow out. Ice traction devices like Microspikes or Stabilicers are a must for slippery trails. If you plan to venture above treeline, you’ll want plastic mountaineering boots and crampons. Trekking poles with wide baskets aid with stability.
A quality pair of snowshoes will get you through the deep snow and require little more effort than regular walking, while backcountry Nordic skis require more skill but open up a whole new world of winter exploration.


For the winter trail, the “Twelve Essentials” should always be in your pack: map and compass, ski goggles/sunglasses, extra clothing, headlamp/spare batteries, first aid kit, knife/multitool, lighter/waterproof matches, extra food, extra water, emergency shelter (bivouac bag or heavy-duty garbage bag), cell phone, and toilet kit (toilet paper, baby wipes, hand sanitizer).

Check the weather forecast before you go and leave a trip itinerary with someone responsible (or at least put a note on the driver’s seat of your vehicle). Pack along a healthy measure of common sense and good judgment and use both liberally on the trail. Have fun, but always remember that getting to the summit is optional, while returning to the car is mandatory.

Snowshoeing Fields Pond. Photo: Carey Kish

Snowshoeing Fields Pond. Photo: Carey Kish


With 120 miles of trails and 57 miles of carriage roads, Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island is an awesome place for a snowy hike. The Park Loop Road is closed in winter, but numerous public roads offer good access.

There’s more to the Bethel Region than downhill skiing at Sunday River and Mt. Abram. Tackle the high peaks of Old Speck or the Baldpates from Route 26 in Grafton Notch, or scamper up the open ridgeline of nearby Rumford Whitecap.

The Kennebec Highlands in and around Rome are home to more than a half-dozen easy to moderate hikes, like those on French Mountain, Mt. Phillip, Round Top, Sanders Hill, The Mountain and McGaffey Mountain.


— Text: Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide, author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast, and writes a regular hiking column for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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