How to Tackle a Long-Distance Hike in Winter

With some insider tips, your long-distance hike in winter doesn't have to be a sufferfest.
With some insider tips, your long-distance hike in winter doesn't have to be a sufferfest. Mitya Er
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Hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, which begins on Georgia’s Springer Mountain and runs all the way north to Mount Katahdin in Maine, is certainly a hardcore adventure. But making it through the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine—generally considered the wildest, most remote section—earns another level of bragging rights. Signs posted by the Maine Appalachian Trail Coalition at either end of the trail sum it up nicely:

“There are no places to obtain supplies or get help until Abol Bridge 100 miles north,” reads the sign at the southern end of the wilderness area. “Do not attempt this section unless you have a minimum of 10 days supplies and are fully equipped. This is the longest wilderness section of the entire A.T. and its difficulty should not be underestimated. Good hiking!”

That last bit—cheerful, and perhaps a slight understatement— is classic Mainer. They’re a tough breed, and Brian Threlkeld is no exception.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Threlkeld now lives in Portland, Maine—by way of Anchorage, where he earned a degree in outdoor studies at Alaska Pacific University. In other words, he’s used to cold temperatures. But Threlkeld isn’t just a burly outdoorsman. He’s also a colorectal cancer survivor, and he knows a few things about staying positive when the going gets tough.

The 100-Mile Wilderness is challenging during the snow-free months, and there’s no such thing as easy travel during a Maine winter. Still, Threlkeld and two friends took it on in February 2018. “There are things I inherently love about winter travel,” he explains. “There are fewer people, it’s quieter, and there are no bugs.”

“Fewer people” is an understatement, too. Despite extensive research, Threlkeld didn’t hear of anyone else traversing the 100-Mile Wilderness during the winter. Since he’s been back, he’s learned that one person did it more than a decade ago, but that’s it. In other words, he knew it was going to be a challenge.

“It was also just to see if I could do it,” he admits.

Thinking of tackling your own winter trip in the 100-Mile Wilderness—or maybe taking a trial run somewhere slightly less burly? Whenever you decide to go, Threlkeld has a few insider tips to help make sure your long-distance hike in winter is an adventure that’s memorable for all the right reasons.

Start Cold

There’s an old saying about this: “Be bold; start cold.” It sounds counterintuitive—why would you voluntarily let yourself get cold?

“Newcomers to winter travel typically leave the parking lot with too many layers on,” Threlkeld says. If you’re wearing a ton of clothing, you’ll work up a sweat much faster, causing your clothes to get—and likely stay—damp. Staying dry is essential to retaining your body heat, since when your body is wet, the cold air saps warmth quickly. Instead, know that you’re going to warm up quickly once you start moving.

Threlkeld suggests bringing two warm puffy jackets for your trek: one goes in your pack, and the other lives in the car. Keep the second jacket on right up until you’re ready to start hiking, then toss it in your vehicle right before you take off.

Keep Your Essentials Accessible

Threlkeld recommends keeping your insulating and wind/rain-proof layers in an accessible spot in your backpack. That way, when you stop moving to eat or drink, you can quickly throw on an extra layer and keep as much heat as possible in.

You’ll also want to have plenty of water and snacks easily accessible. When you’re super cold and hungry or thirsty, the last thing you want to do is dig through your pack for a snack or partially frozen water bottle (Threlkeld also uses an insulated water bottle holder—he calls it a “parka”; it’s just a cylindrical piece of insulation to keep his water from freezing). If it’s not easy to reach, you might skip a snack or water break altogether, and that’s the last thing your body needs in cold temperatures.

Stoke the Fire

Threlkeld equates his winter camping diet to stoking a campfire: When you need it to burn a long time, you don’t just add kindling or little sticks, you add a big log. In his metaphor, the logs are high-fat foods—the kind that release energy slowly over time.

“On this trip, I supplemented every meal with bacon, cheese, or … bacon,” he laughs. “Maybe some butter. Those are definitely the slow burners.”

Threlkeld estimates he and his companions took in about 3,000 to 3,500 calories each day of their nine-day, hundred-mile trek.

Stay Warm at Night

Experienced campers know that two is definitely better than one when it comes to sleeping pads, which makes it much easier to retain body head on frozen ground. There are lots of sleep systems for cold weather, but Threlkeld keeps it simple with two closed cell foam pads.

“You want to reduce the number of things that can break in cold weather,” he says. “I mean, if you get a hole in your fancy air mattress sleeping pad, you’re kind of hosed.”

On especially frigid nights—thankfully, Threlkeld didn’t get many on this particular trip; the temperatures were much warmer than he and his teammates expected—even extra insulation from the ground might not be enough. In that case, consider filling a water bottle with hot water right before bed. Having that to cozy up with in your sleeping bag can make a huge difference in keeping your warm, body especially if you keep it at your feet.

But “be sure to screw the lid on all the way,” Threlkeld chuckles.

Little Extras Go a Long Way

A hot drink on a cold day out is a simple pleasure, whether it’s something as universally awesome as hot chocolate in a Thermos or your own personal favorite. Threlkeld loves hot miso soup, which he makes as soon as he gets to camp and digs into as he’s getting settled for the night. It’s nice and salty, which also helps replace some electrolytes you’ve lost throughout the day.

Although it’s important to stay hydrated, Threlkeld also points out that he tries to avoid drinking a ton of liquid right before bed. It requires more energy to digest it, and no one likes to rouse yourself from a toasty sleeping bag in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Still, for super-cold trips, Threlkeld brings along a designated bottle for just such a purpose—just make sure you don’t get it mixed up with your water bottle, he says. (Editor’s note: Man, you guys have it easy.)

“I’m all about not suffering if I don’t have to,” says Threlkeld, who—given his propensity for winter camping—probably has a higher threshold for suffering than most. With thoughtful planning and a few creature comforts, though, your next winter outdoor adventure, whether it’s in Maine or elsewhere, can be the very opposite of a sufferfest.

Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.

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