It’s not uncommon to hear that it’s never too cold for hiking, but there has got to be more to the story. What about the average person? Can the average person hike in freezing temperatures? Learn more here!
For the average person not experienced in cold weather hiking, it’s not safe to hike below 40 degrees. Hiking below 40 degrees requires specialized knowledge of wilderness survival, including an understanding of how to stay warm and how to avoid hypothermia and frostbite.
Because of the colder temperatures and the potential for rain, snow, and other precipitation, hiking at under 40 degrees can be dangerous. Without the right knowledge, it can be all too easy to end up with hypothermia or frostbite. The risk of getting lost can also become more of an issue.
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Frostbite and hypothermia are extremely real. My cousin got lost with his date another friend hiking in cold (around 30 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures several years back. My cousin’s toes were blackened with frostbite and we thought he would have to lose a toe. He was extremely fortunate to keep it. But I learned my lesson that day.
Read on and you’ll learn just what it takes to hike at 40 degrees and below.
Is There Such A Thing As Being Too Cold To Hike?
Hiking in nice weather is amazing. You don’t have to worry too much about the weather and you’re free to enjoy the natural space around you. Overall, it’s easy to have a great time when the weather is cooperating.
A smaller percentage of hikers enjoy hiking in just about any weather. Some like the challenge of moving through the environment even if it’s rainy, windy, or even snowy outside.
The line where it’s too cold to hike is the line where it’s not fun anymore, where you’re miserable, and when you’re in danger because you don’t have the right knowledge and preparation.
What if you’ve never hiked in colder weather before? How do you know if you’ll enjoy it or not?
It’s an excellent question to think about. Ultimately, it’s personal preference. Some people really just hate the cold and they don’t want to learn how to dress appropriately. If you’re one of these people, then chances are you won’t enjoy hiking in the cold.
On top of that, cold weather can easily become uncomfortable or even dangerous, so it’s worth knowing what different temperatures could mean for you while hiking.
Putting In The Time To Learn How to Hike In the Cold
If you are up for the challenge, then you need to do some studying and research. You will benefit from knowing exactly how to prepare for different temperatures. Hiking in 60 or 70-degree weather is immensely different from trying to hike at 32-degrees or below. However, with the right gear and preparations, hiking at even below 0 degrees is completely possible.
Not everyone really wants to invest the effort into learning how to survive during a cold hike. It’s not something you should just go and do when a bunch of friends just ask you if you want to go, you must be prepared and that takes some time, research, and even money to invest in clothing that will protect you.
Upon researching the opinions of several experienced hikers on popular hiking forums, I discovered that the cutoff for most hikers is at around 40 degrees where the average person taps out and doesn’t enjoy the experience.
Below 40 degrees, hikers have a lot more to learn and prepare for. If you’re interested in learning about what it takes to stay safe and comfortable while camping in colder temperatures, keep reading!
What About Camping?
Hiking in cold temperatures is one thing, but what about camping in cold temperatures? Is there such a thing as too cold for camping? Learn more in our article on the subject here.
How Common Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a lot more common than we think. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the effects of hypothermia can start to develop when your body reaches below 95 degrees. That means hypothermia can set in when your body is only about 4 degrees cooler than normal.
The vast majority of the time, the hypothermia people experience is very mild. Consequently, all you typically need to do is warm up for a while to get your body back to a normal temperature. Essentially, there are many cases when light hypothermia can occur, but it’s not difficult to treat.
Serious cases of hypothermia can be much rarer. In most cases, a person would have to become lost or injured in a cold area for there to be enough time for serious hypothermia to develop. On a yearly basis, just over a thousand people in the US are killed by the condition (CDC). For example, in 2019, 1115 died of hypothermia or cold weather-related causes.
In fact, of the number of people who died due to the natural environment in 2019, over 50% of people died of hypothermia and other cold-weather exposure-related issues.
What you should take away from this is that it’s not hard for hypothermia to get started, but it won’t be a problem if you catch it early and get warmed up. This is why preparation is necessary if you’re going to be hiking in cold temperatures.
What To Wear For 40 Degree Hiking?
While hiking in 40-degree weather, you should at least have long pants and a long-sleeve shirt or warm jacket. If you’re going to be outside all day then a long-sleeve base layer (like thermals), a warm mid-layer (like a fleece or sweater), and then a waterproof outer layer (like a rain jacket), will keep you warm and give you the flexibility to adjust layers as needed.
I personally like to wear long wool socks even in these milder temperatures.
Although 40 degrees may not be extremely cold, it’s not a good idea to try hiking in shorts and a tank top. You will need a warm jacket and long pants at the very least. Adding a sweat-wicking base layer to that is also a great idea. That way, you can keep your temperature regulated.
Many hikers recommend staying away from cotton in these situations. Cotton can often be a great idea for exercising, but cotton absorbs and retains sweat. If you’re going out for a short run or something like that, cotton can work well because it’s breathable. Additionally, you’ll be able to change out of it as soon as you get back home.
If you’re normally a fan of cotton and want to learn more about how it functions as a base layer, take a look at our article on the topic here.
However, hiking often takes longer than a quick run. Building up a sweat while wearing cotton can result in the cotton soaking holding onto all your sweat. Now you have the cold air, and then you have your cold sweat right up against your skin. This phenomenon causes evaporative cooling.
Have you ever noticed how cold it is when you get out of the shower without drying off even if it’s warm inside your house? This is because the moisture on your body immediately begins evaporating off your skin and that phase change takes the heat right off of your body. That’s evaporative cooling.
Hiking in cotton clothing that sticks to you body makes you more susceptible to hypothermia. That’s why sweat-wicking materials are so important.
The footwear you choose can also make or break the experience, but it has a lot less to do with the temperature you’re hiking in. Naturally, you’ll want to wear socks and running shoes at a bare minimum in dry conditions. If you’re hiking through shallow snow, then you need to at least have wool socks and shoes that are bit heftier like hiking shoes. (see more about hiking shoes in our article, here)
Finally, remember to wear sunscreen. Especially if there’s snow outside, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to get a sunburn.
What To Wear For 32 Degree Hiking (And Below)?
If you’re going hiking below 40 degrees, and especially at 32 degrees or below, you’re going to need quite a bit more preparation. Not only is it colder outside, but there may also be rain, ice, slush, or even snow. All of this precipitation can really increase your chances of coming down with hypothermia.
To begin with, you will need to make sure you’re dressed very warmly. You’ll need a warm, sweat-wicking base layer, an insulating middle layer, and an impermeable outer layer that will keep your warmth in and protect you from the elements. Even if it’s just a windy day, you can end up feeling colder than you would otherwise.
As an example of a good layering system:
- Wool or Polyester Base Layer: Wool is a good base layer option as it absorbs moisture and wicks it away but doesn’t keep the moisture against your skin. Polyester also works well.
- Fleece Jacket Mid-Layer: Fleece has excellent moisture wicking capabilities, is very breathable, and makes for great insulation. (Read more about fleece here at our article to see if it’s as good as they say)
- Rain or Snow Jacket Outer Layer: The key to this layer is that it can be removed if it’s too hot. The outer shell is responsible for keeping out outside moisture. It unfortunately also will do a great job at keeping in moisture, but often outer shells have venting capabilities to control the moisture, somewhat.
If you’re hiking in deep snow or if you’ll be outside sitting or standing around for a long period of time (several hours) then you need to upgrade to insulated hiking boots.
If you’re going on a longer hike, you’ll also need to bring along some extra clothes. The outfit you go out in might soak through if you’re hiking in an area that is particularly wet. To keep yourself safe, you will need to be able to change into warmer clothes as needed. More clothing will add to the weight you have to carry, but it may also save your life.
One key rule worth remembering in freezing temperatures is that any bit of skin left open to the air is at risk for frostbite. Because of that, you’ll want to cover everything you possibly can. Wear thick, wool socks, warm gloves, waterproof footwear, a solid winter hat, and even durable eyewear to protect your eyes from the wind and cold.
If you haven’t had the unpleasant eye-watering experience of cold wind in the face for hours, you aren’t missing much.
In addition to warm clothing, there are also a few accessories you’re going to need. If you’re going out in extremely cold weather, hand warmers can be a huge benefit. You can tuck some into your gloves and even your shoes to keep your extremities comfortable. Don’t forget that the sun sets quite a bit earlier in the colder months, so a flashlight or headlamp can also be a handy tool to bring on a hike.
What About Camping?
For those who are planning to camp at 32 degrees or below, even more preparation is going to be needed. However, you can absolutely enjoy it once you’ve prepared well. Check out our article here to learn more about camping in below-freezing temperatures.