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Why Taking a Winter Hike Is the Best Way to Enjoy the Trails

winter-hiking

Photo: everst/Shutterstock

If you're like most casual outdoor enthusiasts, you hang up your boots at the first sign of frost.

"Many people think that when the cold comes, hiking season is over, but that's definitely not the case," says Jeff Vincent, a backcountry guide with Scribner's Catskill Lodge in New York who has hiked the Appalachian Trail in one multiseason stretch.

"In the winter, trails are less crowded, and there are views that you'll never see during the summer." Imagine trekking through a giant snow globe with fields of white-dusted Douglas firs and silence so deep it warms your soul. It's like that.

You might be surprised to learn that winter hiking takes just slightly more planning than the warm-weather version. "Keep in mind that the days are much shorter in the winter," says Vincent. (Make time for these 6 workouts you can only do in the winter.)

"If you're doing a longer hike, it's a good idea to start as the sun is rising to give yourself plenty of time to finish before nightfall." And factor in the change to your usual terrain: "You may cover two miles an hour on a summer hike, but don't be surprised if that speed is cut in half—or more—in wintry conditions," he says. Always share your route and ETA with someone in civilization. (Here are more survival skills you'll need.) As for dressing the part, start with a sweat-wicking base layer, followed by one or two layers of wool or fleece insulation with a waterproof outer shell.

We've got all the body- and mood-boosting reasons why winter will be your new favorite trekking season.

1. Winter hikes scorch calories.

People who hiked in temperatures of 15 to 23 degrees burned 34 percent more calories than those who hiked in comfortable mid-50s weather, a study from the University at Albany in New York found. The reason? In part, it comes down to temperature—in cold weather, your body burns extra energy just to keep your internal furnace roaring. But the second factor is terrain. "Trudging through the snow adds extra resistance," says Vincent.

2. Plus, you'll build muscle.

In a study in the American Journal of Human Biology, researchers observed people during a three- to four-month outdoor training program in cold climates. Women increased their muscle mass, even while burning more calories than they consumed, unlike the male subjects. "The women were better able to manage the cold than men because they have more body fat and could use those fat stores to fuel the activity," says study author Cara Ocobock, Ph.D. That is, their bodies were less likely to break down muscle for fuel—allowing for the muscle gain as they lost six pounds of fat on average.

3. The fat-burning effect is lasting.

Spending time in cold weather spurs your body to produce brown fat, a type of soft tissue that's loaded with calorie-hungry mitochondria. So the more time you spend outside in winter, the more brown fat (thus, mitochondria) you'll develop. To prove it, researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked a small group of subjects to switch from sleeping in 75-degree temperatures to a nippy 68 degrees. Over the next month, they experienced a 42 percent increase in brown fat. Plus, in a second NIH study, researchers found that cooler temps increase your body's production of irisin, a hormone typically secreted during exercise to facilitate calorie burn.

4. Trails are at peak bliss.

Cold temperatures mean hiking trails are not only less peopled but also bug-free. (You should take a real winter vacation this year. Here's why.) And there may be no better way to bank some precious winter sunlight, which triggers your body's ability to produce mood-boosting vitamin D. "Snow actually reflects a tremendous amount of light," says Norman Rosenthal, M.D., the author of Winter Blues. In fact, he says, people who experience seasonal affective disorder (women are about three times more prone to it) often see an uptick in mood after snowfall. (Here's how to prevent and treat SAD.) "Plus, you may hear ice cracking and see hawks gliding on thermal currents," Dr. Rosenthal says. It's a prime opportunity to embrace all winter has to offer.

 

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