The Beauty and Benefits of Winter Hiking
Grab a hiking pole, strap on your boots and embrace the season
In Forest Park, the lushly wooded urban wilderness 10 minutes west of downtown Portland, Ore., winter’s chill is often marked by soft, steady rains that leave trails slick with mud.
On the leeward side of Lake Michigan, fierce winter winds whip up knee-high drifts of snow on the duneland trails of Southwest Michigan.
And in New York City, a wintry brew of ice, slush and snow collects on the sidewalks and the dirt paths in Central Park and Prospect Park, testing the footing of the most determined urban hikers.
Winter would seem to be the perfect time to hibernate. Hardly, say dedicated hikers who revel in the rewards of an invigorating winter hike. (As with any new exercise, be sure to check with your doctor before taking up hiking.)
Undaunted by the Cold
“In the winter, you’ll get closer and longer looks at wildlife and find lots of animal tracks to investigate,” says Pat Fisher, the 63-year-old president of Harbor Country Hikers, based in New Buffalo, Mich. Guided hikes range from a mile to 5 miles.
“I will never get enough of walking Lake Michigan’s lakefront with snow-covered dunes, ice-covered shrubs and grasses and wind-crafted sand sculptures — all a thing of beauty,” Fisher says.
But isn’t it brutally cold in Michigan in January, February and March?
“Don’t let the cold scare you off,” he says. “I’m the first to admit I don’t like being cold. Speaking from experience, if you get cold, you’re simply not dressed for it. I’ve hiked many times at wind chills of -20 degrees and have stopped long enough to remove layers of clothing during the hike.” See these tips on cold weather exercise.
Fisher doesn’t minimize the risks of hiking in winter when the darkness comes early. “There are slips and falls,” says Fisher, who uses a Nordic-style pole or a pair of Nordic poles to get a grip on icy surfaces.
“And there’s hypothermia, frostbite and even dehydration,” he says. “Know the weather forecast, even beyond the time you expect to get back. Trust your instincts. We all know how to tell weather by watching the sky. Don’t let it change for the worse on you.” Fisher advises winter hikers to travel with a partner or a group.
But the risks of winter hiking, he says, are far outweighed by the benefits. Medical experts point to boosted immune systems, improved mood and higher calorie burns than summertime hikes because of the increased resistance of trudging through the snow. A winter hike may be the perfect antidote to cabin fever.
Taking in an Urban Winterscape
Ryan Ver Berkmoes, 57, hikes year-round in New York City. Crowded, ice-crusted sidewalks and slushy paths through the parks are a small price to pay, he says, for the physical and mental health benefits he collects on wintry treks.
A longtime journalist and author of Walking Chicago, which he began writing when he lived there, Ver Berkmoes prefers the term “walking” to “hiking” when referring to a jaunt in America’s largest city.
“In the city, you do miss the opportunity to see your footprints in the dirt trails,” he says. “When I hear the word ‘hiking,’ I think of heading up and down muddy trails in hiking boots. The joy of hiking in the winter in the city is that I can put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes or, if necessary, a pair of snow-friendly boots, and I’m ready for a full day.”
It’s not unusual for him to log up to nine miles some days, regardless of the season, Ver Berkmoes says.
“I don’t have anything close to a set route,” he adds. From his home in Long Island City on the East River, he’ll incorporate bridges — especially the Queensborough and Brooklyn bridges — ferry rides and urban oases like Central and Prospect parks into his winter walks.
“Both parks have large wilderness areas, like the Ravine in the North Woods section of Central Park,” Ver Berkmoes says. “You get into that area and you are actually hiking because there are hills and dirt trails. For about 15 minutes, you could be in the Adirondacks before you re-emerge back into Manhattan. What the city might lack in natural beauty is the sheer variety of things to see.”
Hiking through the Rain
In Portland, Ore., Darcie Meihoff never misses a chance to strap on a pair of Gortex-lined trail runners and take to the trails of Forest Park.
“But be ready for mud and getting wet when you hike here in the winter,” she says. “What’s important out here is that you should always check trail conditions in the winter because we get so much rain and wind.” Trails get washed out or closed by falling trees.
Meihoff, who turns 50 this year, is a longtime director of the Forest Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with Portland Parks & Recreation to restore and protect the 5,200-acre urban forest. She leads group hikes there throughout the year.
She’s also active with the Mazamas, a Portland-based mountaineering club that offers more than 900 climbs and 350 hikes each year. A serious backcountry hiker, Meihoff says she's been impressed with the stamina and commitment of her fellow hikers in their 60s, 70s and 80s who effortlessly handle 10- to 12-mile hikes in the wilderness.
Winter hiking in Forest Park is Meihoff’s time to maintain her conditioning for her longer, more arduous summertime backpacking adventures with The Mazamas. But there’s nothing lightweight about hiking in Forest Park. Especially in the northern part of the park in winter, she says, “You can hike five, six or seven miles without seeing a soul. You’re in a real forest where you’re encountering conditions like overgrown trails and downed trees that you would in a more remote forest.”
Because Forest Park’s 80 miles of trails are often muddy and strewn with rocks and debris in the winter, Meihoff carries a hiking pole to maintain her balance. But the muck and the rain and the winter chill hardly matter. She’s relishing a quintessential Portland experience.
“You can’t appreciate a place like Portland without hiking,” she says. “You have to get out there are see some of the incredible beauty.”