Tree Arch, North Country Trail, Wampum, PA - off Tony Ditko Road
2018 - a bitter start this year, with most of the United States mired in single-digit temperatures with below zero wind chills. Snowfall has been heavy, reaching record totals in Erie, PA, and as far south as Tallahassee, FL. The Northeast corridor not only suffered from Winter Storm Grayson, which dumped one to two feet of snow and, with near-hurricane force winds, flooded portions of the coast, but they also face sub-zero temperatures immediately following - making clean up and recovery difficult, at best.
But there is good news on the horizon - temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast are expected to climb into the 40's, 50's, and yes - near 60 degrees - in the coming week. And we know what that means to everyone with cabin fever and new hiking boots for the holidays - cooperative weather to get out on the trail! Thawing of all that snow, however, can make for hazardous conditions on the trail, so here are some hints to help keep you safe when you hike during the January thaw:
1) The trail WILL refreeze. Daily temps above freezing, mixed with near-cloudless skies, can quickly melt the snow that covers the trail, but areas in heavy forest or with a lot of shade won't melt so quickly. In addition, nighttime temps during the thaws often fall below the freezing mark, so all the moisture created during the day tends to re-freeze overnight, making for an icy, slippery trail. Add a dusting of snow overnight, and the trail becomes treacherous - especially on sections where you need to ascend or descend. This is a good time of year to keep ice crampons (basically, ice picks for your feet) in your day bag, and use them anytime the trail looks iffy.
2) Bring water! You may think that just because the temperature is relatively low, you don't need to hydrate on the trail. This could be a fatal mistake! Water and hydration is important in the winter - whether the temperatures are in the 50's or in the -10's. Despite your best efforts, you will sweat while hiking; and the cold air temperatures and wind will factor into the amount of moisture whisked away from your body. Make sure to take water, and drink it! The lower the temperatures outside, the more water you will need; keep it packed close to your body so your body heat keeps it from freezing.
3) The tread on your boots can make all the difference. Since the trails will likely be wet, and, depending on what time of day you are hiking, may have frozen soil or muddy sections, you need to wear footwear that can handle all sorts of differing conditions. Insulated, waterproof boots - winter hikers or winter boots with heavier tread - will be necessary to get through the wet and frozen parts of the trail. If there are icy spots, especially on the ascents or descents, ice crampons that can be easily strapped to your boots (and slightly less easily removed) are a must to keep you safe. If your area received several feet of snow, it will take much longer for it to melt, especially in the heavily forested areas, so you may also need gators (waterproof "leg warmers" that go over the bottom of your pant leg and the top of your boot) to keep the melting snow out of your boots.
4) Wear layers and be prepared to take some off (or put some on!). The January thaw time of year has varying temperatures throughout the day. Even on a short, one to two hour hike, you may have temperatures that could range up to 20 degrees from the beginning to the end of your hike. Even if you start your hike at 50 degrees, it is very possible that the temperatures could drop into the 30's before you get back to your car. Dress appropriately, and be prepared to add or remove clothing as you go. Remember - your body temperature will increase as you get moving, but if you feel the temperatures changing drastically or the wind begins to increase, take measures to keep yourself safe.
5) Wear waterproof outer layers. During your hike, you may encounter moisture from above - and not necessarily snow or rain falling from the sky. The melting snow will weigh down the tree boughs and limbs, and it takes very little to loosen it and make it fall on your head (or your hiking buddy's head!). Additionally, sections of the trail where the sun is shining on the tree limbs will likely melt the snow into large, wet chunks that will rain down on you as you hike. Even if the temperatures are warmer, you may still want to wear a hood or hat, and keep your waterproof layer on.
We hope that this information is helpful to you, and encourages you to get outside and enjoy the thawing weather. Take your time, enjoy the scenery, and be safe!
BSITO (Be Safe In The Outdoors),