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Are you crazy? It’s FREEZING out there! Why you SHOULD hike in the winter.

February 16, 2015
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LaBarque Creek, at Young Conservation Area.

Let’s face it. Here in Missouri…a lot of us dread the coming of winter, and we count the days until it is gone. Winter in Missouri means the potential for ice on everything outside, bitter cold wind that hurts the face, and the threat of peril on the roads when the snow rolls through. It’s a general motivator to spend a few months just hunkered down inside to reconnect with whatever hobby we most likely set down about, oh…last April. Nobody likes to go out in the winter. We just do it because this is where we live so our choices are limited.

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The Big Creek valley, from hiking shelter #1 along the Mudlick Trail at Sam A. Baker State Park

And for people that like to spend time outside, like myself and all of you…it is a frustrating experience getting to know the true nature of “Cabin Fever”. Wait for an actually pleasant weekend day in February or March, and go drive through a nearby park. By 10 am you will see more cars in the parking lot than will likely be there on a summer day. People want to get out, but the cold shuts a lot of us in. I can’t blame anyone. It is uncomfortable out there. Given a breeze, even above freezing temperatures can be pretty awful, much less in the twenties. Stay inside! Don’t risk it! Spring will return soon!

Well I am here to tell you why you SHOULD get outside in the winter, and spend some time in nature.

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Pickle Creek Natural Area, near Farmington, MO.

No Bugs!

The biggest annoyance for me personally, when hiking in any other season, is the bugs. Now, I’m not referring to the occasional fly or wasp or spider or cloud of gnats or that weird-yet-intriguingly-green-thing that I think I saw a picture of once. I am talking about the four horsemen of the outdoor adventure apocalypse. Ticks. Chiggers. Mosquitoes. Horseflies. You know, the things that can instantly ruin a fun day at the river, stop short a rest on a log to catch your breath while hiking, or kill the desire to go off trail into the leaf litter to search for mushrooms or geocaches, take pictures from a better angle, and any number of reasons that inspire us to occasionally make our own path. Ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and horseflies…the bane of any warm weather outdoor excursion. Out in the woods during the winter? For the most part, these fun-ruining little jerks are put to bed for a long nap, so take advantage of it.

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Crane Lake, Mark Twain National Forest.

The Poison Ivy is scarce!

Now if you know me in person, and you have spent some time outside with me…you probably know that I am allergic to Poison Ivy. Having a lifelong love/hate relationship with it, my history and keen ability to sense its presence is downright anxiety inducing. It loves to get on me and cause me a fortnight of itchy terror, and I hate it. Well in the wintertime, though the vines are still wrapped around the trees and the branches still reach out into the air along the trail, with an invisible sheen of Urishiol waiting to ambush me…those big surfaced leaves that make great irritant applicators are dropped on the ground and under my crushing hiking boots, as I make my way through the forest. I wouldn’t go grabbing everything in the woods and rub it on my face, but the threat is diminished and the pathways are a little wider and more freewheeling for a guy with a mortal enemy such as Poison Ivy.

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Taconic Loop Trail, at Young Conservation Area.

You can see into the woods farther.

One of the things I like about hiking in the winter the most is that you can see through the forest so much farther than any other time of the year. Think about that trail you love that is along a valley and closed in by the broad leaves of the Paw-Paw trees in the late summer. In the winter it is opened wide to reveal it’s a gully at the base of massive hills, towering over you and offering an epic sense of the topography you are travelling through. Or that winding switchback on your favorite trail that climbs claustrophobically through the nettle and grasses growing out of the rocks in the warmer months. In winter it becomes a stairway that takes you up above a sprawling creek bottom that has a depth you wouldn’t normally see when it is shrouded by the growth that happens there; the leaves of vines laying on the frozen mud below instead of blocking the scenery. Or the opposing hillside so far beyond as you crest a ridge at the top of a climb, opened to view as the widened vista it truly is when the leaves from the young oaks have dropped for their winter nap. The look of the forest is something to be amazed at in any season, but it is best experienced by being there when it is opened up in the colder part of the year.

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Lower Rock Creek, Mark Twain National Forest.

Less hikers (nothing personal, everybody!).

I like to hike with people just as much as I like to hike with only the dog. They are both fun and enriching excursions, but I find that the solo hiking is more of an inner, personal adventure. The isolation with just my thoughts and feelings, travelling along with my (mostly) silent and loyal trail partner, offers moments of creativity and wonder that I might not be as focused on when I am in the company of more upright adventurers. It is something I enjoy doing from time to time, moving at whatever pace feels right, stopping when I want to take a sip of water or snap a picture, and just absorbing where I am at with the only sound being my footsteps and the noises that are alive within that area. Winter hiking, because of the increased challenging conditions, keeps a lot of people at home in the warmth and creates more opportunities for me to have the trail to myself. Just think of the most popular and scenic trail that you visit, and then imagine having it all to yourself.

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Young Conservation Area

Frozen mud.

Working construction, I have come to despise muddy job sites. The muck that you step down into, adding what seems to be at least ten pounds to the bottom and sides of one’s boots makes for a miserable Gabe, more than a lot of other conditions out there. I hate mud, and even when I am on a trail the distraction of the chaos it inspires with every weighted and slippery step is sometimes enough for even me to consider that maybe staying on the couch that morning would have been a better option. One of the best things about hiking when it has been below freezing all night is that the mud is now solid, and if I just stay aware of the pitfalls here and there, moving along a path is as smooth and energetic as it would be on a summer day during a dry spell.

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Frozen waterfall, Hickory Canyons Natural Area near Ste. Genevieve, MO.

Natural Ice Sculptures.

Something that I thought was one of the most pleasing things to look at, after we moved back to St. Louis from Florida when I was 13, was during the winter driving along an interstate spotting the giant icicles hanging off of the exposed rock faces where the road was cut through a hill. These massive collections of solid water, suspended there as we drove past, have a magical quality to them that always inspired a sparkle in my eye. Sure, people like the green, life filled beauty of the forest in the warmer months, but think about any trail that has a water feature that you enjoy seeing, and then consider how it might look if it were frozen. It is out there waiting for you, and you just need to put on a hat and gloves and go see it!

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Beulah Trail, Greensfelder Park in St. Louis County.

With all that said, there are dangerous factors to take into consideration when hiking in the winter. Weather conditions can deteriorate to life threatening levels, and accidents can happen on a trail that could leave you immobile or at least not able to make it home right away. You must go into it with the gear you would need to survive, were you forced to spend longer than a couple of hours in a subfreezing Missouri forest. Take a friend with you, be aware of the weather forecast, and make sure your day pack is along for the hike, filled with what you might need to turn a slip on the ice or a wrong turn in the path into a safe and relatively comfortable unplanned night in the woods.

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Young Conservation Area

Hiking in Missouri (and probably anywhere else) in the Winter can be one of the neatest experiences, and you get to see a side of nature that is usually ignored by more fair weather outdoors enthusiasts. Everyone prefers a warm day surrounded by green leaves and growth, but the woods while it is sleeping offers a ton of natural beauty too. Just go prepared, and see some of your favorite natural areas when they are put to bed for a few months. It allows you to come back with a view that few people get to actually see, so that when you are on that same trail six months later, you can have a fuller understanding of the cycles which these wonderful forests and waterways go through when we are usually home bundled up on our couches. No, you’re not crazy. You’re adventurous!

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One Comment
  1. I agree with you! Winter is my favorite time to go hiking and camping (depending on night-time temps). Without leaves on the trees, the views are outstanding. The best part is, you practically have the place to yourself!

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