Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
Hiking in winter can be a pure joy. The trails are uncrowded and quiet. The lack of leaves on the trees makes distant views possible from atop even very low hills. Mosquitoes and blackflies are just a distant memory. Animal tracks just beg to be followed.
Still, with the ice, snow, and cold temperatures the season brings in New Hampshire, hiking with kids (or without) requires a little extra preparation and attention to detail. Ready to blaze a trail? For a fun and safe time in the great outdoors, here are some tips for what to bring and how to plan a kid-friendly winter hike.
Choosing a trail
If you and your family enjoy summer walks in the woods at places like Beaver Brook in Hollis or the Massabesic Audubon Center in Auburn, these are still excellent destinations for winter hikes, and may be good places to start with because you are already familiar with the trail routes. Just keep in mind that the winter landscape is different – what was a gentle downward sloping trail in summer may seem more like a slick icy luge run in winter.
If you are heading someplace new, look for shorter hikes through relatively flat terrain. Loop hikes – where your hike begins and ends at one starting point – may be better than out-and-back hikes because, in case of emergency, you’re never that far from your central starting point.
As for distance, a hike that is two miles or less in length is typically a good distance to shoot for when hiking with kids, though more advanced hikers might be able to handle longer routes. In general, if someone becomes injured or ill or overly chilled, or if unexpected harsh weather breaks, you won't want to be more than an hour's walk to help and shelter. A good rule of thumb: the younger your kids, the shorter the hike.
What to wear
Because small bodies tend to lose heat rapidly, children may be more susceptible to hypothermia than grownups. The best way to lower risk for heat loss is to dress in layers: a wicking synthetic for the base (underwear) layer; a wool or synthetic fleece middle (pants and torso) layer; and a breathable, wind- and water-repellent outer shell. For greater ease when nature calls, skip the one-piece snowsuits in favor of a winter jacket and snow pants. Top off each outfit with a warm wool or synthetic fleece hat, mittens — not gloves — for hands, wool or wicking synthetic socks, and winter boots. On especially cold or windy days, add a face mask, or a scarf wrapped bridge-of-nose-high to protect against frost-bite.
Get the forecast
How much snow has fallen lately? Has there been a thaw and then a refreeze, creating icy conditions? What about the weather forecast on the day you plan to hike? If rain or wet snow is a possibility, strongly consider calling off the trip because even the best gear probably won't keep its wearer entirely dry. Wet combined with cold spells real danger, even in November. If you're on the trail in chilly weather and rain clouds gather, or if a steady drizzle starts, turn around.
Stay the course
In November, leaves tend to clog the trails of even the most manicured of hiking areas, making it difficult and confusing in some spots to tell whether you are still on the trail. When the snow arrives, it can be even more disorienting, especially if you are the first party to break trail. This is why learning to look for trail signs and hiking blazes is more important than ever. At the trailhead, check for a blaze – a splash of color usually painted at eye level on a tree lining the trail to your right. As you walk, look for the same color blazes at regular intervals. When you come to a trail intersection, look for a trail sign or blaze to keep you on course. For added insurance against getting lost, carry a map and compass and know how to use them.
Snowshoes or no snowshoes
Yes, snowshoes come in handy on backcountry treks, plus snowshoeing can be a fun activity all on its own. But depending on your destination and the conditions, winter hiking is entirely possible without them. Snowshoes work best in places with deep powdery snow, but on popular trails, lots of winter hiking activity means the snow cover is usually packed into a pretty solid mass. Sunny trails without tree cover may also be surprisingly free of deep snow, even when the surrounding woods are still completely covered; windswept areas near the coastline also tend not hold much snow. For potentially icy conditions, consider wearing crampons, a spiky traction device slipped on over boots.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Do you have a fully charged cell phone – and have you checked to see if you have a signal in the area where you will hike? Did you leave word where you will be hiking? Do you have an emergency kit with such necessities as extra socks for all, first aid supplies, a working flashlight, matches or a lighter, plenty of warm beverages, and lots of high-energy snacks?
Easy to pack fluids include a thermos of hot apple cider, hot cocoa, or herbal tea. Just plain old water is important to bring along, too. When preparing snacks, aim for foods that high in carbohydrates and protein, and not too difficult to munch on the move or hold with mittens on. Any combination of GORP usually works out fine. GORP – good old raisins and peanuts – can be a mixture of raisins, peanuts or other seeds or nuts, M&Ms or chocolate chips, shredded coconut, etc.
Keep it fun
Who can find a deer track? A raccoon print? Or evidence that a moose wandered by? Build a campfire (if permitted) and make s’mores, build a snowman, or stop in a snowy field for a game of snow tag to make forest time fun. To get kids excited about exploring the woods, read books like Over and Under the Snow, by Kate Messner, before you go. This gentle tale about the many winter creatures leading busy lives under the snow will have kids thinking differently about what’s beneath their feet as they walk.
One last piece of advice? Don't let anybody eat snow. Aside from the probability that it contains contaminants, snow sucks away a tremendous amount of body heat to convert from solid to liquid. It is not an acceptable substitute for drinking water. Sorry, kids!
Jacqueline Tourville is a freelance writer (and hiker) from Nashua. She often writes travel and vacation stories for PNH.