Well prepared for a cold winter day’s outing, Carey Kish snowshoes across the open terrain at Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford. Carey Kish photo

Fat snowflakes are swirling wildly about outside my kitchen window as I write this, and the tall white pines in the yard are swaying to and fro in an alarming arc. The last of the nor’easter sweeping over the Down East coast may leave but a dusting here on Mount Desert Island, but up in the mountains the snow will accumulate in feet.

Given that meteorological winter kicked in on Dec. 1, and astronomical winter – Dec. 21 – is just around the corner, there’s simply no denying that the snowy season is upon us. It’s high time then to shift gears and plan accordingly when it comes to getting out on the trail in the cold weather months ahead.

Safe, comfortable travel in the winter woods takes careful thought. No more simply tossing a few things in your pack and striking off into the woods, at least until spring. After all, you want your time outside to be enjoyable, an epic adventure even, rather than a struggle for survival.

Proper preparation will add peace of mind, bolster your confidence, and help increase your all-important safety margin. Here are a few things to consider when gearing up for a winter’s day outdoors, a checklist of sorts that reads a lot like a beefier version of the “Ten Essentials.”

Dress in layers so you can adjust clothing to your activity level and changing temperatures during the day. Start with a wool or synthetic base, or wicking, layer. Long sleeves up top, long handles down bottom. Then add a fleece vest or jacket (or both if it’s really cold) and maybe fleece pants. The shell layer is next, a windproof, water-resistant jacket and pants, or perhaps a soft-shell jacket and pants.

A warm hat and gloves or mittens, plus a spare of each should go with you, plus a balaclava or neck gaiter. Liner gloves are handy for fiddling with gear without exposing your fingers. Sunglasses and/or ski goggles round out your necessary headgear.


On really cold days or when you’re stopping to rest or eat along the trail, that’s when you’ll pull on your insulating layer, a down or synthetic fill jacket or parka (a foam sit pad is useful for those rest breaks).

Wear good quality, sturdy boots. Hiking boots are fine for short excursions, but if you’re going to spend serious time outside in winter, well insulated boots meant for active use are a must. Knee-high gaiters will help keep the snow out. Pack along a spare pair of socks, and with that, a spare base top layer; you might really appreciate changing both after a long, sweaty climb.

Properly geared up for a snowy day on the trail, Dana Thurston of Raymond enjoys the Sanders Hill Trail in the Kennebec Highlands in Rome. Carey Kish photo

Wear appropriate foot gear (micro-spikes, hiking crampons, snowshoes) for the conditions and use trekking poles with winter baskets for stability in the snow. Toe and hand warmers make a difference on those extra frosty days.

Carry plenty of water in insulated water bottle covers and clip them to your pack straps for easy access. Start with hot water out of the tap in the morning and drink regularly throughout the day to maintain hydration. A thermos of steaming tea, cocoa, coffee or bouillon is a real bonus.

Carry and consume plenty of energy bars, salty snacks, lunch foods and such to keep your body fueled up. Stash some of it in your warm, inside pockets for quick access.

Winter days are short, so hedge your bet by carrying a headlamp and spare batteries.


Leave an itinerary with someone responsible and another under the front seat of your car. Check the hourly weather forecast before you go and keep an eye on the sky (and the time) during the day. Stay with your intended route, set a turnaround time and adhere to it.

Be self-reliant on the trail, stick together as a group, and frequently check to see that everyone is in good shape.

Pack the rest of the “Ten Essentials,” like a map and compass (and perhaps a GPS locator), first aid kit, lighter or other fire starter, knife or multitool, repair items and emergency shelter.

Remember the toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and a plastic bag to pack out the used TP. And don’t forget your cell phone for photos.

Stuff all this into a 30-40 liter pack and you’re good to go. Have fun!

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @Carey Kish

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