Winter weather in Alabama is finicky. In one week, it can go from cold and damp to warm and springlike, and then turn bitter cold with a chance of snow. These drastic changes can make it difficult for you to plan outdoor activities, especially climbing or bouldering, where favorable weather conditions are preferable. Climbing in the rain and cold can be dangerous, unlike trail running or mountain biking, where a little weather can enhance the experience.
If you have a proper plan, there are advantages to climbing during an Alabama winter. You’ll avoid the oppressive heat and humidity of summer, and when the winter sun does emerge, you can sun yourself like a lizard on warm sandstone. Plus, there’s a good chance you’ll share the crag with fewer people than you would during spring or fall. Like all winter activities, there are tricks that experts use to keep them bouldering and climbing year-round. Here are a few that will help you make the most of climbing during an Alabama winter.
1. Seek the Sun
Even though the sun isn’t as intense in the winter, a few rays will make a major difference. Traversing a cold, hand-numbing surface isn’t friendly to your fingers, so you’ll have a more enjoyable time climbing on rock that has been warmed by the sun. Alabama’s most popular climbing spots, including Horse Pens 40, Little River Canyon, and Jamestown, have southern exposure, giving you ample winter climbing opportunities. For full beta on each site, check out Mountainproject.com, which offers detailed descriptions of climbing routes throughout the country plus sun angles to help you plan your day of climbing.
2. Don’t Cause Damage
It rains quite a bit during an Alabama winter, which can hinder the days you can climb. If you go bouldering after it rains, it’s important to take note of the rock surface. Aside from just being slippery, bouldering on wet rock can damage the stone, especially on certain types of sandstone. Even wet rock below the surface can break off, ruining problems. When you consider that most of Alabama’s climbing and bouldering areas are comprised of sandstone, it’s wise to delay your outing until things have had a chance to dry.
3. Properly Warm-Up
You don’t want to start your climb with cold muscles. While warming up isn’t always exciting, it’s essential to get ready for a strenuous activity like climbing, especially in the cold of winter. Use dynamic movements to get your blood flowing and avoid static stretching until you’ve finished climbing. Start by walking briskly or jogging for about 10 minutes. Next, get your muscles loose with some simple arm and upper body rotations, along with a few squats or lunges. Everyone requires a different level of pre-climb warm-up, so it’s a good idea to try a few different routines to see what works best for you.
Once you start, keep your initial climbs nice and easy, slowly progressing in difficulty. Flash pump is a common problem but can be avoided or mitigated with proper training. Also, give your body enough rest in between climbs to recover.
4. Dress for the Weather
As with all winter activities, your clothing will play a key role in determining whether you’re comfortable or miserable while climbing. With climbing and bouldering, proper clothing is critical since you’re highly exposed to the elements. On cold days, you should wear an insulated jacket, preferably one with a hood to block the wind. For more warmth, wear some sort of insulated beanie or hat.
As you’re making your way to the crag or boulder field, wear gloves to keep your hands warm, and keep in mind that you can buy durable insulated gloves for belaying and rappelling. Your body temperature will fluctuate as you’re working hard on a climb and then standing still to belay, so dress in layers. You’ll avoid getting overly hot and sweaty or uncomfortably cold if you regulate your warmth by adding and shedding layers.
5. Heat up Your Chalk
Since bouldering isn’t conducive to wearing gloves, you need an alternative way to warm your hands. While they won’t protect your hands on the coldest days, hand warmers can help if you put a couple in your chalk bag a few minutes before start climbing. This will prevent your fingers from becoming, which will make a big difference on chilly days.
6. Have Hot Beverages On Hand
Here is where that trusty thermos will be put to good use. Pick your favorite warm beverage to help keep your temperature elevated on those chilly Alabama winter climbs. Fill up your thermos with tea, hot chocolate, or your favorite soup to keep you warm and energized. Even hot water will work. Take it easy on the caffeine, because it can constrict the flow of blood to your hands and feet. Drink tea with ginger as an alternative, since ginger promotes blood circulation to the extremities.
7. Keep Pushing Calories
It’s important to carry food and snacks to the climbing area during winter because your body needs plenty of fuel to maintain your core temperature. Also, make sure that you bring food that you’ll have no problem eating cold. Your day of climbing could get cut short if you have nothing to scarf down except a rock-hard food bar or a snack that tastes terrible unless it’s warm.
8. Climb Indoors During Nasty Weather
When the weather is too cold and nasty, take advantage of indoor climbing gyms, such as Birmingham’s High Point Climbing and Fitness, First Avenue Rocks, and Birmingham Boulders. Even when weather outside is frightful, you can still get together with climbing partners to build your strength and work on technique.
Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.