Here in Ireland it’s only October, but this year we seem to be heading into winter even more rapidly than normal. As temperatures plummet, the wind speeds pick up, and the skies seem to belt down with relentless sheets of rain, it’s almost enough to make me hang up my hiking boots until next spring. However, having lived in Ireland for six years now, I’ve finally succumb to the saying that there’s no inappropriate weather for getting outdoors, only inappropriate attire. As such, here’s a definitive list of essential winter hiking gear to enable you to continue your passion of hitting the trails until the sun returns next year!
Insulated Rain Jacket
This should really go without saying, but it’s a good idea to have not only a rain jacket, but one which is at least insulated to some degree as well. The insulating ability will help you stay warm during rest stops if you’re still exposed to the elements outside. It should of course also perform well in terms of cutting out any wind chill. One quirky type of jacket I’ve used before possessed removable sleeves of all things. They weren’t completely removable though. What I mean is, you could open up a zippered section from the armpit to the elbow, allowing you to fully expose your arms to the air. Apparently this is a feature of many ski jackets, but I found it allowed me to keep moving with the jacket on, but with my arms out enough to keep my overall body temperature from rising too high while walking.
Those stretchy, elasticised neck warmers seem to be the in thing at the moment. The amount of them I’ve received for free from various charity runs, walks and cycles is phenomenal. And they weigh next to nothing so you can bring a few in your pocket and backpack in case it gets really cold out there. As you start and stop walking, you can easily pull them up and down to cover more or less of your neck, head and ears. The well made ones really do cut the wind out from your ears as well and can stretch right up into something resembling more of a balaclava, as such killing two or even three birds with one stone.
Waterproof Hiking Boots
Already I’m noticing that the ground here in Ireland just never seems to get a chance to dry out at the moment. Only on the windiest days with a bit of a break in the cloud cover does it actually lose some of its dampness. Otherwise the damp is incessant. As such, for tackling walks in nature in this part of the world during the late autumn, winter and early spring months, it is of course paramount that your footwear keeps your toes warm and dry. Although in the past I’ve gone on about the benefits of wearing trail runners at certain times and in certain locations, when the ground is this waterlogged you most certainly need something that rises up above the ankle. This is important not only for ankle protection, but also because it will protect your feet and socks from unexpected plunges into puddles and boggy terrain. I find that the bogs you cross in Ireland and Scotland can be firm and relatively dry one moment, and like a giant sponge the next, swallowing your foot whole as you plummet into it. It’s also a good idea to have Vibram soles or a similarly ‘grippy’ form of footwear for slippery rocks and tracks.
A small, lightweight, insulated tea and coffee mug is useful in many ways during winter hikes. I’m not suggesting you bring a giant thermos or flask by the way. Such a thing would take up too much space in your pack and weigh a tonne. What I’m talking about are those modern ones which contain a standard drink volume, but which are fully sealed at the top. This will keep tea, coffee, or even soup piping hot for later. Never underestimate the importance of taking in warm liquids when it comes to combating the cold – especially in emergency situations such as succumbing to hypothermia. What’s more, if you have an appropriate water bottle, such as a metal one which can take boiling water without degrading like plastic, this can also double up as a hot water bottle to keep you warm overnight or while stopped. Just make sure to put a pair of hiking socks over the outside of it first to avoid getting burnt!
Back in the Army we were always issued with these match sticks covered almost their entire length with a glossy red substance. When struck, these burn more slowly than ordinary matches as a flame travels down the length of the wooden stick. The flame, almost like that of a sparkler on the 4th of July, will continue to burn even in pretty strong wind and rain. It’s therefore an essential part of your winter hiking fit out in order to light your stove for tea breaks and for any emergency situations.
You know those little hand warming parcels? The ones you snap the middle of to get them going. Pack a few of those just in case, as they are absolutely brilliant for stuffing inside pockets or your jacket to keep you warm on a blustery winter day.
Crampons (for challenging hikes)
OK, perhaps crampons are a bit excessive for most walking trails in Scotland, England and Ireland, but for the serious winter hiker looking to deviate from the well-worn path somewhat, they are fairly crucial for ascending snow and ice-covered peaks. However, it’s still no harm for your more standard walking tracks to pack a smaller, lighter pair of those snow and ice traction cleats which resemble vehicular snow chains – just for your boots instead of your car.
This list could go on of course, but for now that’s a fairly straightforward summary of some important gear not to leave at home when heading out on a hike this winter. No excuses about the weather now, just get out there and take in that brisk, fresh air!
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