For lack of a better pun, it’s safe to say that Boulder’s winters tend to be bi-polar affairs. Because Boulder sits at a relatively low elevation at 5,400 ft., it’s not unusual to get 50 degree days in January -- though there are a few weeks every year where the temps drop below zero for days on end. The few snowstorms that come through the city each year are a treat, but normal winter weather offers clear, cool days that are amenable to hiking. Here are a few things worth knowing before hitting the trails.
1 - Microspikes and Hiking Poles Are Great Ideas
Boulder’s daily highs in January in February average around 40 degrees while daily lows settle in around 20 degrees -- ideal for melt and freeze cycles. Add to that an active community that creates enough traffic to compact snow on the trails and you have the perfect formula for hard, icy terrain, especially in shady sections on the mountain. Microspikes fit over most shoes and provide enough bite to maintain traction (crampons would be overkill). Likewise, hiking poles are especially good for slick descents, even on modest mountain hikes like Mount Sanitas (which has a notoriously slippery northeast facing trail).
2 - Layering is Everything
Boulder’s trails start at around 5,500 ft. and climb as high as 8,500 ft. -- and that 3,000 foot vertical difference often brings quite a change in the weather. Temps can be 20 degrees cooler over 8,000 ft. and persistent winter winds add to the chill. It’s important not to overdress on lower trails and get too hot -- the higher you go, the colder that sweat is going to make you. Baselayers and light jackets are good for lower elevations, but it’s a good idea to bring along a few warmer layers if you’re headed up (the one layer people seem to forget are warm gloves).
3 - Wild Animals Are Still Active
Boulder’s big boys -- mountain lions, black bears and coyotes -- remain active throughout the winter. With less human traffic in their territories, encounters tend to be a little more common in the cold months. The bear population never goes into true hibernation, rather they experience a state of torpor, which is like light hibernation. The upshot being bears tend to stay in their dens in cold weather but may wake up on warmer days. Bear bells are a good idea (for you and your dogs) to alert wildlife you are coming.
4 - Snowshoeing is a Rare Treat
As great as Boulder would be for snowshoeing, there is rarely enough snow to be worth gearing up. However, in the case of heavy snow, many of Boulder’s local trails are a blast to snowshoe. Boulder Valley Ranch, Marshall Mesa, the Mesa Trail and Dowdy Draw are all fun to explore when there’s enough powder to warrant snowshoes. Walker Ranch, which sits above the city of Boulder at roughly 7,500 ft. is especially fun on a snowy day.
5 - Gear Up Your Dogs, Too
The major problem for dogs will be keeping their paws free of ice and snow. Dog booties are a nice option -- if your pup will tolerate them. Consider using paw wax to help prevent ice balls from building up. Most dogs will be ok with the colder air but if you have a short-haired dog (or an older trail veteran), a light jacket will help keep them cozy. Make sure to bring water and snacks for them, since many of the go-to water sources may be frozen. Collar bells are a good idea to alert wildlife and keep your dogs from chasing the locals.
6 - You Can Still Get Sunburn
It’s easy to forget to use sunblock on cold days (especially when you leave your bottle of sunblock in the freezing car, brrr!). But even on overcast days, the sun is still contributing plenty of UV rays to planet Earth. When there’s snow on the ground, that UV power is radiated upwards. Sunblock and sunglasses are important year-round accessories in Colorado and winter is no different. The higher you go, the more intense the sun will be, so be prepared.