If there’s one thing you can count on in Colorado, it’s that we don’t let weather stop us from engaging in outdoor recreation. As the temperatures drop, the daylight hours are still short and the snow falls, we might trade out our hiking poles for ski poles, our hiking boots for snowshoes, and our bikes for, well, winter weather-equipped bikes.
However, outdoor recreation in the winter is more than just throwing on a winter coat and hoping for the best, so first let’s go over how to prep for winter recreation.
DRESS AND EQUIP PROPERLY
Layering your clothing is the key. Your base layer should be some type of moisture-wicking material. Typically, synthetic materials are used in moisture-wicking clothing, but wool also works well. DO NOT USE COTTON — you’ll sweat, even in the coldest weather, and cotton traps moisture against your body that can lead to hypothermia.
The next layer(s) should be insulating materials such as fleece, wool or synthetic, underneath a breathable, wind/water-resistant top layer. During the course of your outing you can add or remove layers as the weather and your exertion dictates.
Don’t forget your gloves. Unless it’s really cold, a pair of thin gloves (Thinsulate) is usually sufficient. Make sure they’re water-resistant or waterproof. Gloves that allow you to use touch screens make it easier to use your cellphone or camera without freezing your fingertips. Lightweight gloves also make a great inner layer for when it’s really cold and you need heavier gloves.
Your head needs to be covered as much as anything else. Your ears are particularly susceptible to cold and frostbite, so wearing earmuffs, headbands or simply a hat pulled down over your ears will keep you comfortable.
Your footwear should be layered, too — there are few things as bad as frozen toes! Start with wool socks, but in very cold weather you can layer with polypropylene sock liners. And, if you don’t have waterproof/breathable/insulated footwear, this may be the time to consider getting some.
Insulated hiking boots, as opposed to “snow” boots, provide extra warmth while keeping the comfort and functionality of good hiking boots. And don’t forget traction aids for your boots. They don’t help in fresh snow but are a necessity on ice. Once the snow is deep enough — around 8 inches deep or so — then it’s time for snowshoes or cross-country skis.
Speaking of snowshoes, it’s important to get the right size based on the weight of the user, and you need to factor in your weight when wearing your typical winter clothing and equipment — weight from winter boots and hydration packs can really add up. When in doubt, or if you’re on the borderline between two sizes, pick the larger size. If you’re not sure if snowshoeing is for you, try renting before you buy.
While every season brings its own weather hazards, winter can be especially dangerous. Shorter daylight hours, storms that can bring rapid temperature drops, winds that can make even moderate weather very dangerous with frigid windchill temperatures, driven snow that can cause whiteouts and disorient hikers all combine to make winter particularly dangerous. However, it’s not hard to keep yourself safe when outdoors in the winter. Many of these things you can do to keep safe apply year-round.
Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Give that person your car’s information, including license plate number. Don’t go alone and don’t get in over your head — know when to call it quits and turn around.
If you get lost, stay put. If you’ve done everything right, someone will be looking for you. A stationary target is easier to find than a moving target, so shelter in place. Search and Rescue experts say that it can take up to 72 hours for you to be rescued.
Make sure you have maps for the area you’re hiking in, and a compass, and that you know how to read the map and use it in conjunction with a compass. If you carry a GPS receiver you need to know how to use it and understand its limitations. Don’t rely on your cell phone in an emergency, as it’s a poor substitute for a map or GPS. And since most cell phones have very limited battery life, carry an external battery that plugs into your phone.
Bring food and water. If you can’t bring both, make water your priority — you can survive longer without food than you can without water. If you run out of water, you can use snow, but let it melt before drinking it. Ingesting cold snow will lower your body temperature.
Pre-existing medical conditions can turn a pleasant outing into a difficult situation. Bring along any essential, time-dependent medications, in case you’re stranded for an extended period of time.
I recommend a personal locator beacon that you can activate when you are rendered immobile or are lost. These beacons send a signal to Search and Rescue satellites, giving rescue teams your location, and they are proven to save lives. If you’re in an avalanche-prone area, use an avalanche beacon, but understand that it’s not the same as a personal location beacon. Be sure to also carry a flashlight and whistle to use as a signal for help.
Speaking of avalanches, if you’re going to be in the mountain back-country, check on the avalanche conditions before you go at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) website, avalanche.state.co.us.
WHERE TO GO
Until it snows — if it snows — all these trails can be done much as you do them any other time of the year… you’ll just have to bundle up a bit. Otherwise, these are some good places to go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in the Pikes Peak region.
Gold Camp Road, starting at the Powell parking lot/trailhead in North Cheyenne Cañon Park. It gets a lot of traffic and gets a lot of sun, so you’ll want to do this one right after it snows, before it gets too packed down, especially between the parking lot and the popular Seven Bridges Trail. Gold Camp Road beyond the Seven Bridges Trail gets less use and is wide enough that you can find some nice, unpacked snow for snowshoeing even after it’s been trod on a bit. Taking the road to where it goes above tunnel #3 and back not only gives you nice views down the canyon, it’s also a fairly easy trek for first-time snowshoers or cross-country skiers.
The Sundance and Talon Trails, in Cheyenne Mountain State Park, are easy trails for first-timers, too. They do get a lot of sun and traffic, so you will want to get there as soon as possible after it snows.
Almost any trail in Mueller State Park is prime for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. In fact, the park has a machine to groom the trails for cross-country skiing. The helpful folks at the visitor’s center can tell you which trails are best on the day you go, and you can return the favor by stopping by on your way out and giving them a report on the trails you used. Side note: If you see that a trail has been groomed for skiing, please don’t walk or snowshoe on it.
A little farther west, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is an oft-overlooked destination for winter recreation. The best trails there are the lesser-used Shootin’ Star and Twin Rocks trails, on the monument’s east side.