How Cold is Too Cold to Hike?

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January 2021 had some spectacularly cold weather in the Catskills, with wind chills dipping close to -40°F / -40°C at summits. Too cold to hike?

I have friends who braved these extremes on the mountains (sensibly in small groups and on easy, trailed peaks). Personally, I looked at the forecast and noped-out — more than once!

How windy is too windy to hike? That’s easier to say. There are specific wind speeds above which I won’t hike. Wind forecasts above 30mph get me to rethink my plans.

How cold is too cold? That’s multifactorial.

 Warning! In winter, on a mountain, the risk of danger is hugely increased and the stakes are way higher. A lack of preparation or knowledge, or a missing piece of gear, could mean death in a very short time.

How Cold is Too Cold to Hike?

Each person has to asses the risks for themselves. Broadly, there are six things to consider:

  1. Weather
  2. Comfort
  3. Safety
  4. Frostbite
  5. Hypothermia
  6. Gear

Weather

To get a sense of how cold it might get, consult a website like mountain-forecast.com to see what factors will be in play during your hike.

You need to think about how the temperature at the summit + wind speeds at the summit = wind chill at the summit.

Consider also any storm potential — and any precipitation of any kind: rain, hail or snow.

Bear in mind that all forecasts are based on mathematical models. Actual conditions may be considerably worse. Plan on conditions being worse. Mountain weather can change rapidly.

In March 2010, two hikers climbed Blackhead Mountain in the Catskills and were overwhelmed by a sudden snowstorm. One lived. One died.

Comfort

This is the most personal factor. There are people who never hike in winter; they so hate the cold. However, with the right winter hiking gear, it’s possible to hike in comfort through most of the winter, even if you choose to avoid the very coldest days.

A much smaller number of people seem to have both the gear and the will to head out on even the bleakest of days. I will brave a certain amount of discomfort, but I definitely have a cut-off for when I sense it might be more than I’d enjoy.

Safety

Consider the remoteness of your planned hike, whether it’s a trailed route or a bushwhack, how steep it is, how difficult the terrain is — not just for yourself and your fellow hikers, but for any Search And Rescue (SAR) team members who may be called to your aid.

The risks you face are never just yours alone. They extend to your family and friends, and anyone who comes into contact with you.

Consider in this COVID-era, that you do not want to end up in a hospital wing for reasons that are, essentially, elective.

Too Cold to Hike? Naw.
Hikers on Mill Brook Ridge

Frostbite

Frostbite is when cold damages your skin or outer tissues. Basically, your skin and flesh can freeze just like a steak in your freezer. You don’t want this! It’s painful and severe tissue damage is irreversible. You can lose fingers and toes, the end of your nose…

One of the problems with cold weather is that your feet and hands and face may become numb, and you can lose your sense of pain. This is why skin color is so important to track. At first, I notice my skin can turn a little pink. But I’ve seen the back of my hands turn yellow — an early (reversible) sign of frostbite.

Frostbite can be early, intermediate or advanced.

In the earliest stages of frostbite, skin turns pale yellow or white. It may itch or sting, and you might get a pins-and-needles sensation.

After this, as you progress to the intermediate level, skin can become hard and waxy looking. Very not good.

Frostbite can happen quickly. At -10°F, it will develop on exposed skin in just a few minutes. Wind is a frostbite multiplier. Cover all exposed skin and stay dry.

You should monitor your skin regularly. Keep watch on your hands and face during any breaks, and keep moving. I find it takes 10-15 minutes hiking to warm back up after too-long a rest break.

Hypothermia

Strictly speaking, it’s possible to slip into hypothermia in August. Any time your body is unable to thermoregulate enough heat, you’ll start to feel the effects of hypothermia which are, roughly: progressing from shivering (a good thing) to no longer shivering (a bad thing), slow/shallow breathing, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, loss of coordination — any one of which, on any hike, at any time, signals serious trouble.

Hikers rightly fear water next to their skin, be it rain, melted snow, or even just sweat. Moisture is a hypothermia multiplier. Stay dry, stay warm.

Winter Hiking Gear

“There’s no such thing as bad weather — only bad gear!” That’s what the Scandinavians say.

The right gear will certainly open up the spectacular world of winter hiking to you. But even quality gear can only reduce risks, never eliminate them. On a mountain, any incapacitation or injury is potentially deadly.

Here are some articles to get you started on gear for winter hikes…

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