We just finished our weekend of Full Moon Twilight Trail snowshoeing and I came away from our experience with thoughts about the variety of winter conditions we dealt with this weekend. And, after snowshoeing for the last 8 years and helping countless people get snowshoes on for their trail experience, I have some tips for staying warm in our frigid Wisconsin winters. Snowshoeing is only fun if you stay warm.
Those Scandinavians love to say, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” and I live by this motto. I have invested in some really great gear for cold weather and it has made all the difference. Fleece lined thermal pants, a variety of vests, neck gaiters, and jackets that have a wind-proof shell. I have gotten great gear at Costco and I have also splurged on higher-end outfitters. Natural fibers like wool are great and they dry quicker under the right environment. Merino wool is wonderful because it is softer and it makes a great base layer. Cotton is not a good choice, as it helps accelerate hypothermia and in turn makes you body work harder than it needs to stay warm. You will enjoy your time outside so much more if you have some great clothing that protects you from the elements.
Footwear is important while snowshoeing. I prefer a boot that comes up the ankle. Don’t get boots that are too small or wear too many pairs of socks to constrict blood flow in your feet. Compression to the feet, especially in the toes will cause them to get cold very fast and issues arise shortly into the trip. But you don’t want your feet to slide around as well. I see a variety of boots when I help people put snowshoes on and some will have heavy snow boots that are very bulky. Remember, you will have the weight of that heavy boot and snowshoe while making tracks. It can be almost impossible to get the snowshoe bindings on over really bulky boots as well. Your feet are in constant motion during snowshoeing and they will be much warmer than when you sit passively on a snowmobile or hang out on the ice during ice fishing. You will also find your legs produce a lot of heat and they don’t need the layering that your upper body needs.
A solid water-proof, hiking boot that allows for an extra pair of socks may actually be better than a pair of heavy snowmobile boots. If you know you are going to be snowshoeing in really deep snow (more than 6-10 inches) you may want to consider boot gaiters that surround your footwear and come up around your pants. They are great when the snow is deep and wet.
It is far more difficult to warm back up after getting chilled so it’s important to start your excursion with good clothing, gear and good habits. Evaporation is when the sweat on our body cools. Insensible perspiration is the constant evaporation of water thru the skin the we can’t help and don’t notice because the fluid released is not enough to be detected as a moist on our skin. It evaporates quickly. It causes us to lose roughly 20% of our body heat. However, sensible perspiration-the sweating you see and feel is the bigger issue during snowshoeing. You can actually loose 85% of your body heat with sweating. Never snowshoe so hard that you are actually dripping sweat. When you sweat, the clothing next to your skin gets wet and makes you feel cold. When you are working hard, adjust your layers and wear moisture-wicking clothing with ventilation in your armpits and other areas you sweat. I love wearing thermal long sleeved shirts with a vest and then I layer my winter coat over the top. As I snowshoe and get warm, I will unzip my winter coat and allow some airflow and yet, I have the protection of the vest to keep my core area warm.
We lose about 10% of our heat thru respiration, as insensible losses. I always wear a neck gaiter that can come up over my chin/mouth area. This helps to retain heat by warming and humidifying the cold, dry air I am breathing before it reaches my airway. I have worn face masks on the coldest days but I usually find, if I need a face mask, it is likely just too cold outside for me. Those days when your snot freezes is too frigid for me to be enjoyable unless there is abundant sunshine and no wind.
Forced convection-wind blowing through your clothing-can cause you to loose another 15% of your body heat. It is important to have clothing that is insulating, waterproof and windproof. Trapped air is actually the best insulation and that is why layers and bulky materials like wool are the best insulators. They have tiny air pockets that keep warm air next to your skin. It is also a good idea to tuck the layers next to your skin tight into your clothing and have an outer wind/water proof shell.
I also look at weather apps and find the direction and velocity of the wind. In the Driftless area, we have so many hills and valleys, there is likely a sheltered area to go snowshoeing. Deep valleys can be protective and block the wind, making your trek more enjoyable. When the wind is blowing, I try to snowshoe in the direction of the wind in the beginning of my trek and then double-back into the wind once my body is all warmed up. And I am always ready with my neck gaiter, ear muffs and hats to protect my head/face in those circumstances. You can also snowshoe after dark when the wind dies down. It is easy to see where you are going on a night with a full moon.
If you think you will be stopping along the way, remember to bring a foam sitting pad as they impede heat transfer as you sit on cold items like the snow. Up to 5% of body warmth can be lost when you touch a colder object thru the process of conduction. When we do our Snowga classes, we will carry our foam/neoprene yoga mats on our backs and we will use them at the very end of our Snowga class when our bodies are all warmed up from snowshoeing. Laying down on the cold snow with the yoga mat feels quite good at the end of a great workout but we are cognizant to not stay there too long in case we catch a chill.
At least half of your warmth is forfeited to radiation, a process in which heat moves away from the body, usually from the head mostly but also from exposed skin, like wrists and ankles. Long sleeved shirts with the thumb holes allow you to bring the wrist area covering lower and then bring your gloves over the top. Wearing thermal leggings and then covering up with longer wool socks helps with the ankles. I always need ear muffs or an ear band. If my ears and hands are cold-I am literally done. I do struggle to find good ear muffs that fit well and yet allow me to hear. The struggle is real. It’s also hard to go a whole season without losing the ear muffs!
Hypothermia and frostbite are two weather-related conditions to be aware of. Both are caused by exposure to the cold. Hypothermia happens when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, dropping the body temperature to an unsafe level at which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired. Just dropping from 98.6 to 95 can constitute a serious emergency. Lengthy exposures will eventually use up your body’s stored energy, which also leads to lower body temperature. There are several things that can lead up to hypothermia such as cold temperatures, improper clothing, getting wet, exhaustion, dehydration, lack of food, and drinking alcohol. So, it’s important to have snack bars with you when you are out on a excursion. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not warm you up but, rather, has the opposite effect. It is preferable to drink a warm, sugared, non-alcoholic drink that is free of caffeine.
Prevention has a lot to do with your preparation and knowledge of hypothermia and the signs of an onset. Watch for the “umbles”-stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles which show changes in motor coordination and levels of consciousness and awareness. Shivering will become involuntary and the ability to do some activities will be limited, but the victim may still be able to walk. If you notice these symptoms in other’s, it is imperative to get them to a warm shelter, remove any wet clothing, and heat up the center of the person’s body with blankets, clothing, or skin-to-skin contact.
Frostnip is slightly less dangerous but it is a precursor to frostbite. Frostnip can be seen as a swelling, whitening, reddening and/or chapping of the affected areas. Sometimes frostnip isn’t as noticeable and left untreated in the field could advance. Frostnip is not only a current ache, but it could cause you to be more prone to cold weather discomforts and injuries in the future. I definitely think I have had frostnip a few times as the top/back of my hands quickly get cold and uncomfortable.
Early signs of frostbite include redness or pain but it can change to include a grayish-yellow coloring of the skin, numbness, and skin that feels too firm or looks waxy. Put the affected area next to your body. I have had times where my hands are so cold, I have put away my poles and brought my hands/arms inside of my jacket and crossed my arms, and put my hands in my armpits to warm them. Then I will tuck the poles under my arm and get back to shelter ASAP. You can also warm the affected area by putting it into lukewarm water but resist the urge to rub the area as that can cause more damage.
Big, bulky gloves and mittens are not always the best when using poles. I like to use the wrist straps on the poles and it is important that they are wrapped properly. So I will take the gloves off, place the wrist straps on correctly and then put my gloves back on. I honestly use a thinner pair of driving gloves most of the time when I am snowshoeing as I like the flexibility they offer. If it’s too cold for my hands, I will likely turn around and go home but that is pretty rare.
It is always important to know your trails, your surroundings and realize that there are fewer people out on the trails in the winter. Realize your cell phone may not have service in our Driftless area and your phone battery will lose it’s charge really quickly in cold weather. Download maps for off-line viewing or take a picture of the map so you always have access to the trail layouts. Especially when you are at Ash Creek Forest as there is over 350 acres of wilderness. It is best to go with a buddy as well. Enjoy our beautiful trails but be ready for the elements. And remember, snowshoeing is only fun if you stay warm.
I utilized many different resources to write this article. The Lake Placid Adirondacks USA website had many articles. 5280-The Denver Magazine, November 2021 issue had the Beginner’s Guide to Winter Camping article full of great tips. Wikipedia was consulted for various definitions. I have also gleaned much personal experience as an avid snowshoe enthusiast. Please feel free to comment and add your tips!