Hiking in Winter: A Guide for Australian Adventurers

The days might be getting shorter, but don’t rush to pack away your hiking boots! Winter offers a whole new way to experience the outdoors. Imagine crisp, clear days invigorating your lungs as you navigate snow-covered trails adorned with frosted gum trees. Trade the summer crowds for a secluded winter wonderland and embark on a spectacular winter hike with friends.

Australia’s stunning landscapes are a joy to explore year-round, but winter hiking presents unique challenges. The beauty of the season can be deceptive, and unprepared hikers can find themselves in serious danger. As an article in The Conversation highlights, “Being unprepared for Australia’s harsh terrain can be deadly“. Treacherous weather conditions and a lack of preparation can lead to accidents and even fatalities.

This guide, packed with valuable tips and insights, will help you prepare for a winter hike that’s both safe and truly rewarding. Explore the beauty of Australia’s winter landscapes with greater confidence and discover the hidden magic of the colder months.

Hiking in Winter
Winter hiking in Australia offers stunning scenery like this mountain view at Mount Buller

Planning is Key

Before you hit the trail, take some time to plan your winter adventure:

  • Choose your trail wisely: Not all regions in Australia experience the same winter conditions. Tasmania and the Australian Alps are hotspots for snow, while other areas might have lower temperatures and occasional frosts. Research trails that are well-maintained in winter and suited to the expected conditions. Consider factors like elevation gain, accessibility, and potential hazards like avalanches or black ice. Land manager websites and local hiking clubs are great resources for finding winter-friendly trails.
  • Shorter daylight hours: Winter days are shorter, presenting a smaller window for exploration. Plan your hike to maximise daylight hours. Start early to avoid being caught out after dark and be realistic about the distance you can comfortably cover in the limited light. Download offline maps on your phone as a backup for navigation, but be aware that phone batteries drain faster in cold weather.
  • Reliable navigation: While GPS devices are helpful tools, they can malfunction, lose charge, or lose signal in remote areas. Familiarity with a map and compass is an essential skill for winter navigation. Snow can obscure landmarks, making it easy to lose your way. Invest in a good quality map of your chosen trail and practice using it before your hike. Download offline maps on your phone as a backup but be prepared for battery drain in cold weather.
  • Personal locator beacon: For added security, carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A PLB is a critical safety device that allows you to send a distress signal directly to search and rescue satellites, regardless of phone reception.
  • Communication is vital: Mobile phone service can be unreliable in certain regions, especially in mountainous areas. Consider buying or renting a satellite communicator, which allows you to send SOS alerts and two-way text messages. This can be a lifesaver in case of emergencies.
  • Tell someone your plans: Always inform a trusted contact about your hiking plans. Share your detailed itinerary, including the trail name, estimated return time, and the people you’ll be hiking with. This crucial step allows for faster response times in case of an emergency. You can use my online trip intentions form for this.
  • Pack for emergencies: Pack a repair kit for minor gear malfunctions, a headlamp with extra batteries, and a comprehensive first-aid kit. Always plan for contingencies and unexpected situations.
Layering Up for Winter Comfort
Three layers with a Buff for Neck Warmth

Layering Up for Winter Comfort

The key to staying warm and comfortable on a winter hike lies in mastering the art of layering. Think of it as building your own personal thermal armor to shield yourself from the elements. Here’s a breakdown of the essential layers:

  • Base Layer (wicking layer): This innermost layer is the foundation of your warmth system. Opt for merino wool or synthetic fabrics like polyester that wick moisture away from your skin. Dry skin is essential for staying warm, so avoid cotton here as it traps moisture and chills you down quickly. Consider a slightly looser fit for better breathability, especially during exertion.
  • Mid Layer (insulating layer): This layer traps your precious body heat to keep you warm. Popular choices include fleece jackets, down jackets, or synthetic insulated jackets. The thickness and warmth level will depend on the expected temperature range. Here’s a pro tip: layering a lighter fleece over a midweight base layer allows for more adjustability throughout your hike. As you exert yourself, you can unzip or remove layers to avoid overheating and sweating.
  • Outer Layer (shell layer): The final layer acts as your shield against the elements. Look for a waterproof, breathable shell jacket with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish. This will protect you from wind, snow, and rain. Windproof qualities are equally important, as wind can significantly increase the wind chill factor and accelerate heat loss. Consider features like pit zips on your shell, which allow for additional ventilation when needed.

Don’t forget about your extremities! Invest in a good pair of warm, moisture-wicking socks made from wool or a wool blend. Similarly, pack a warm hat and gloves to prevent heat loss from your head and hands. Consider touchscreen compatible options for gloves if you need to use your phone or GPS device.

Winter Gear Essentials
Hiking up Mount Bogong in Victoria’s High Country.

Winter Gear Essentials

Winter hiking requires some specialised gear compared to summer hikes:

  • Warm hat and gloves: A significant amount of body heat escapes through your head and hands. Pack a warm hat, a beanie for extra warmth during breaks, and a good pair of winter gloves. Consider touchscreen compatible options for using your phone or GPS device without exposing your fingers to the cold.
  • Sun protection: Snow reflects UV rays intensely, so don’t underestimate the power of the winter sun. Pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and lip balm to prevent sunburn and protect your eyes.
  • Winter socks: Ditch the cotton socks and embrace wool socks. Wool keeps your feet warm even when wet and choose a thickness appropriate for your hiking boots.
  • Insulated hiking boots: For snowy terrain, invest in a good pair of insulated winter hiking boots with good traction. Look for features like a waterproof membrane and aggressive treads for maximum grip on snow and ice.
  • Gaiters: These lightweight fabric shields prevent snow from getting into your boots, keeping your feet warm and dry. They also provide an extra layer of protection against scratches from bushes or sharp rocks hidden beneath the snow.
  • Hiking poles: Hiking poles are a valuable tool for winter hiking. They provide extra stability on slippery terrain and uneven surfaces. Additionally, you can use them to probe the snowpack to check for hidden rocks, streams, or soft spots.
  • Snowshoes (optional): For trails with deep snow, snowshoes will make your hike significantly easier and more enjoyable. They distribute your weight over a larger surface area, preventing you from sinking into the snow with every step.
  • Microspikes or crampons: Icy trails can be treacherous. Microspikes or crampons provide extra traction on packed snow and ice, reducing the risk of slips and falls. Choose the right tool based on the expected conditions. Microspikes are sufficient for light ice, while crampons offer more aggressive traction for steeper icy terrain.
  • Ice axe (optional): An ice axe can be a valuable tool for self-arrest in case of a slip on steep snow or ice. However, it’s important to know how to use an ice axe properly before heading out on your hike. If you are not comfortable using an ice axe, it’s best to stick to trails with minimal risk of steep snow or ice.
  • The 10 Essentials: Always consider packing the 10 essentials of hiking, regardless of the season. This list includes a map and compass, navigation tools, emergency shelter, insulation (like a bivy sack), headlamp with extra batteries, sun protection, first-aid kit, fire starter, repair kit, and extra food and water.

A few years ago, Julie (my wife) and I embarked on a winter ascent of Victoria’s highest peak. We packed what we thought was the necessary gear for the conditions. However, as we ascended the trail, the seemingly harmless fresh powder snow transformed into a challenging obstacle. With every step, we sank waist-deep, making the going incredibly slow and sapping our energy. The frustration mounted as we noticed clear snowshoe prints alongside our path – a stark reminder of essential gear we’d not really considered.

For us, this experience was a valuable reminder: thorough preparation is key to a safe and enjoyable winter hike. Don’t underestimate the importance of having the right gear, especially when venturing into challenging conditions.

Winter Overnight Hiking
Our Big Sky Chinook 4-Season Tent

Winter Overnight Hiking: An Unforgettable Adventure

Winter overnight hikes offer a unique and transformative experience. Imagine yourself nestled in a cozy tent under a blanket of stars, surrounded by the pristine beauty of a winter wonderland. The crisp air and serene silence create a magical atmosphere unlike anything you’ll find during summer hikes.

However, venturing out for an overnight winter adventure requires even more meticulous planning and preparation compared to day hikes. Here’s a breakdown of some essential gear considerations for a safe and comfortable winter overnight hike:

Shelter:

  • Tent: Upgrade to a four-season tent specifically designed for winter conditions. Look for features like a strong, wind-resistant frame, a waterproof fly with good snow shedding capabilities, and ventilation options to prevent condensation buildup inside.
  • Sleeping bag or quilt: Select a sleeping bag or quilt with a temperature rating that’s significantly lower than the anticipated nighttime temperatures. Consider a down sleeping bag for its exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio, but remember that down loses some insulating ability when wet. If down isn’t ideal for the expected conditions, a high-quality synthetic sleeping bag is a good alternative.
  • Sleeping pad: Invest in a high-quality insulated sleeping pad with a high R-value. This R-value indicates the pad’s thermal resistance, ensuring proper insulation from the cold ground.

Cooking Gear:

  • Backpacking Stove: A reliable backpacking stove with winter fuel canisters is essential. Winter fuel canisters are formulated to perform well in cold temperatures, unlike standard canisters that may struggle to ignite.
  • Cooking Supplies: Pack lightweight, compact cookware and utensils suitable for winter use. Opt for pre-packaged meals that are easy to prepare and high in calories to fuel your body throughout the hike.

Other Overnight Essentials:

  • Headlamp: Extra batteries are even more crucial for overnight adventures, as daylight hours are shorter in winter. Consider a headlamp with a red light setting that preserves night vision during nighttime navigation.
  • Emergency Shelter: Include an emergency bivvy sack in your backpack. This lightweight, heat-reflective emergency shelter can provide vital protection in case of unforeseen circumstances.

Before heading out on your overnight hike, practice setting up your tent and using your winter gear in similar conditions. This familiarisation process can help identify any potential issues and ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience on your actual adventure.

Remember, minimising your impact on the environment is crucial, especially during winter when ecosystems are more fragile. Regardless of when you hike, always follow “Leave No Trace” principles to protect the natural beauty you came to explore.

Winter Hiking Safety Tips
Traversing Icy Slopes using Crampons and Ice Axe.

Winter Hiking Safety Tips

Winter hiking presents unique challenges, so prioritising your safety is really important. Here’s some things to keep in mind:

  • Plan for Changing Weather: Weather conditions in winter can be unpredictable. Be prepared for harsher conditions than what the forecast predicts. Pack extra layers of clothing and rain gear in case you encounter unexpected snow or freezing temperatures.
  • Know Your Limits: Be honest about your experience level and choose a trail that is appropriate for your skillset. Don’t attempt challenging hikes in winter if you’re a beginner. If you’re in a group, base the plan on the least experienced/able person.
  • Turnaround Time is Crucial: Set a firm turnaround time for your hike and stick to it religiously. This ensures you have ample time to descend before nightfall or worsening weather conditions.
  • Always Tell Someone your Plan: where you’re headed, your estimated return time, who you’ll be with.
  • Know How to Use your Gear: Make sure you are comfortable using any technical winter hiking gear you bring.
  • Stay Hydrated: Dehydration is a risk even in cold weather. Sip water regularly throughout your hike, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Consider using an insulated hydration bladder to prevent your water from freezing.
  • Be Aware of Hypothermia: Hypothermia is a dangerous condition that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Recognise the signs of hypothermia, which include shivering, fatigue, confusion, and slurred speech. If you suspect hypothermia, seek shelter and medical attention immediately.

You don’t have to stay indoors as the weather gets colder. By being prepared and planning thoroughly, you can ensure your winter hike in Australia is a safe, enjoyable, and truly rewarding experience. The beauty of winter landscapes, from snow-capped peaks to frosted gum trees, is worth exploring. But remember, adventure should never come at the expense of safety. So, embrace the crisp air and invigorating wilderness, and get ready to discover a whole new perspective on Australia: the hidden beauty of winter hiking. Get ready for an unforgettable adventure.

3 thoughts on “Hiking in Winter: A Guide for Australian Adventurers”

  1. Love hiking in winter. Feels so quiet and peaceful on the trail. I also find it slows down my hikes, not because it’s physically more challenging, but it takes more time to appreciate the intricate beauty of the landscape.

  2. I snowshoed for the first time last winter and loved it. My question is what to wear on your legs? I wore my normal hiking pants with rain pants over the top but is there a better option? I’d like to get out there more this winter.

    • Gee Young a few of my mates are right into winter hiking and they wear gaiters that you put your entire foot inside. I’m not that hardcore so just wear snow pants with my normal gaiters over the top.

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