Walking in Winter Woods: Seeking New Lows

WORDS and IMAGES Jim Warnock

When large swaths of the country are closing for hiking due to deep snows, the Ozarks of Arkansas are just hitting their prime! I’ve met many hikers from other parts of the country who are envious of our winters. I also meet many locals who avoid winter hiking, some only going outside in temperatures between sixty-five and seventy-two degrees.

When asked my favorite seasons for hiking, I always answer winter, followed by fall and spring. If we limit our hiking to comfortable temperatures, we’re missing great days in the Ozarks. I want to challenge you to expand this seven-degree comfort-range and see what happens. Among other benefits, we avoid ticks and annoying warm-weather critters while increasing our activity level during the season of larger meals when extra pounds want to stick to our waists.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve already identified yourself as someone outside the norm because you’re a hiker, or becoming one, and you want to experience more outdoors during the winter months.

Venture out on a frozen morning, and you might see frost flowers. Their endless variations entice me to spend a few extra minutes gathering these little icy souvenirs for my wife with my camera. I was excited to find one heart-shaped frost flower on my thru-hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail. A couple of years later, I came across my second heart frost flower on the Ouachita Trail.

What To Know Before You Go
As temperatures drop, we need to dress in layers. Layering comes naturally for our northern friends and is a commonsense approach to keeping warm. As our body warms and cools during exercise, we can add or take away layers. I stuff extra layers in a small daypack and pull them out when I take a break or stop to visit with other hikers.

Wear a base layer against your skin. I like silk-weight long tops, and bottoms made from synthetics or wool blends. Avoid cotton since it’s slow to dry and pulls heat from your body. Follow the base layer with a shirt, then an insulating layer like a sweater or down jacket and top it off with a shell to block the wind. Gloves, a hat, and wool blend socks (not cotton) round out the wardrobe.

Pack water and snacks. Even when you’re not sweating, you need water. Staying hydrated helps your body function and stay warm. Snacking as you walk also helps warm the body and gives an energy boost.

What About Our Canine Hiking Buddies
Dogs need to acclimate to the cold and hiking surfaces just like humans. Their paws hold up well if they’re used to being outside. Be sure they are well-fed and have access to water.

Seeking New Lows
To gain confidence and see what’s possible, try “seeking new lows” in temperature. Experiment with your clothing and preparations as temperatures creep lower. If you’ve underestimated your layers, you can easily bale out and try again after making adjustments in your clothing.

Practicing at lower temperatures led me to the frozen waterfall shown at the beginning of this article. I had never experienced hiking through snow in four degrees, so last winter, I strapped on my hiking shoes, put on my layers, and walked from my home to the Lake Alma Trail. The result was a wonderful hike, an uncrowded trail, and a new low temperature for my dog and me in the future.

Where To Go
By now, you might be wondering where to hike in the winter. I like cold weather day hikes close to home because it’s easy to get warmed up afterward. The Lake Alma Trail is a favorite, especially when followed with a meal or coffee in a local restaurant. Who knows? Maybe Hiker-dog and I will meet you on the trail one of these cold winter days. If so, I’d enjoy taking a photo of you in front of our frozen McWater Falls or another beautiful winter scene.

Jim Warnock is the author of Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, a guidebook that covers day hiking trails in the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri and includes the Lake Alma Trail. He has thru-hiked the 180-mile Ozark Highlands Trail and 223-mile Ouachita Trail in Arkansas as well as the 210-mile John Muir Trail in California. Follow his, and Hiker-dog’s, adventures at OzarkMountainHiker.com.



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