A typical hiking season starts when weather improves, snow melts and the trails dry out. The window for this varies wildly by region, but here in Montana, ‘prime time’ is short. The first snow of the year can hit in September. From that moment on it is really a game of luck as to whether or not the trails will be clear.
But, hiking in the shoulder and off-season is not only possible, it also has many advantages — chief among them is fewer people on the trails and plenty of parking at trailheads. Hiking at a different time of year can be an incredible experience, and also there are also more variables to consider. Here is my advice for off-season and shoulder season hiking.
If I am going on an overnight trip in the off-season, I add 50% to my summer gear. This includes clothing and sleeping bag rating, and in-turn creates a 50% higher base weight. Winter hiking is not the time to set records, so a little more gear only aids in the experience.
Shoes, socks, traction, and a pack are all things to consider when packing for an outing. I swap out my socks and footwear for something warmer. Most of the time, I still avoid waterproof footwear because of the length of time it takes to dry out.
But, while hiking the Calendar Year Triple Crown in 2016 I used waterproof shoes during the coldest of the weather to give my toes just a little more insulation and warmth. I have also used two pairs of socks but this tends to make shoes a little tight, so it really has to be cold.
Microspikes in snow and ice are also essential. Traction makes it into my bag without exception. A good philosophy for winter hiking is “It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”
Cold drastically reduces battery efficiency and nighttime hours are longer. I pack a spare pair of batteries for my headlamp if I am pushing toward sunset and always ensure I start with a full battery on my phone. These two small but underrated checks before beginning a hike eliminate lots of possible stress.
Water freezes at 32 degrees. This may be the most universal piece of information learned in elementary school, but it doesn’t mean managing this fact is always basic.
For longer day hikes, I add an insulated water bottle in the place of my standard Smart Water Bottle. The double-walled containers are heavier but usually can stave off ice for the duration of a full day of hiking.
If the trip I am on is overnight, then I trade out my water filter for chemical treatment methods. While it isn’t my first choice, in Montana filters have a tendency to freeze in the single-digit highs of winter. On these cold backpacking trips, I also sleep with my water next to me in the tent to keep it warm enough to stay liquid.
In the summer, I take long runs in the mountains with only a water bottle and a bar in my pocket. In the winter, I add more. I can get by with a lightweight backpack, but keep a few essentials in it for every outing. I always bring gloves, a beanie, and a rain jacket. Here in Montana I also add a spare layer. Most of the time these clothes are never used, but even in a stiff wind it is nice to have a higher standard of “bare-minimum.” It not only adds a level of safety but also aids in the enjoyment of the outing.
From the start, I also always wear a long sleeve shirt because of the deception that the sun can have in the winter. The worst sunburn I have ever had occurred while I was hiking in the snow. So, I choose to cover up for not only warmth but also sun protection.
The weather is more variable in the fall, winter, and spring. It changes on a whim and can impact a hike quickly. Checking the weather before you leave isn’t good enough. Constant awareness of the conditions in the air and underfoot is a necessity.
In snowy terrain, risk tolerance and slope angle should be drastically lowered from summer hiking. Most avalanches are triggered on 35-45 degree slopes, but can slide at angles as low as 30 degrees, or even 25 degrees in extreme conditions. It’s best not to come anywhere near this type of terrain without avalanche education and a solid inclinometer to measure slope angles.
The best way to approach an off-season hike is with a healthy acceptance that plans may have to be altered. Summit fever is real but when there is any question, leaving the peak for another day is the appropriate action.
Jeff Garmire is a hiker, author, and writer who lives in Bozeman, MT. Since 2011 he has hiked 30,000 miles and set 15 trail records. He is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com and the author of the book Free Outside.