Do you like to hike in the mountains in the winter with your dogs? Here is something to keep in mind in regards to when Grizzly Bears go into hibernation. More importantly when the Large Male Grizzly bears go into hibernation. A friend of ours works for Parks Canada and was telling us that many of the large Male Grizzlys do not go into hibernation until mid-January and often come out of hibernation around mid-March. So it is a good idea to continue carrying bear spray with you all the way throughout the winter just in case.
Don’t forget about the cougars either. They are active all the way throughout the winter. You may want to be very careful about where your dogs are when you are hiking. When we go hiking our dogs are in an off-leash heel on my right hand side a half step behind. This keeps them good and safe. If your dogs are running all over the place they can make an easy target for cougars.
Not to try to scare you too badly but I did have a client tell me about her good friend who was out for a hike with her dog and this dog was 80 pounds. The dog was on-leash walking 5 feet in front of her when a cougar came and took her dog. That was the end of the dog but luckily for her the dog saved her life by sacrificing his.
It is best to always hike in groups of 2 or larger. Keep an ear out for branches breaking and keep an eye out for tracks as well as watch the trees as cougars will often be in a tree watching their prey.
Heavily used trails are generally much safer.
Make sure you are prepared to spend the night out there if something goes wrong. Your most important task will be staying warm so you do not become hypothermic. Having a way to start a fire can be one of the most important things to bring along with you. They even make knife kits that come with a fire starter. Getting a pill bottle and then soaking some cotton balls in vaseline makes for an excellent fire starter source. We did a 4 day canoe trip this past summer and we camped in places that were a long ways away from any people. The cotton balls in vaseline worked awesome for starting a fire.
This is what I consider to be a few essential items for hiking in the winter:
- Bear Spray (not expired, check your expiry date)
- Fire Starter – Many places sell Bear Grylls or Survivor Man Knives that have fire starters attached to the knives. The knives also work well for preparing firewood
- Food – I like to keep a few extra granola bars or fruit bars on me. Some people do well without food for a while but I get headaches and don’t feel well so I like to have food at all times
- Extra Socks – If your feet get wet you will want warm socks.
- Plastic Bags – If your feet get wet and your boots are wet a new pair of socks and plastic bags overtop will keep your feet warm when you put them back in your boots.
- Toque and Neck Warmer – You lose a lot of heat through your head and neck. Keeping these warm will help keep the rest of you warm.
- Proper Winter Attire - Dress in layers
There are other things you can bring along but those are definitely essentials. I always bring water but in the winter it is not extremely essential. You can always eat snow (it is better if you warm it to liquid and then drink it – it will lower your core temperature if you eat snow). If you are using a camel back type system you will want to get an insulator for your hose. When you are done drinking blow on the hose to put the water back in your pack where it can stay warm. Otherwise the water can easily freeze in your hose and then it can be a real pain to get it to flow again and give you water.
Your dog may require a jacket to stay warm or winter booties to keep their feet warm. Since many dogs sleep in the house not many will have their coats “prime” to be good for winter. Working dogs are required to sleep outside so their coats prime and they are ready to work in the winter. Some dogs that were built for winter with big thick coats will do much better than a dog with very little hair (these dogs often require winter coats). Every dog seems to have a comfortable working temperature and it is best to get to know your dog’s comfortable working temperature. Some are good for -25C with no problem, others may get cold at -10C. Chihuahuas can look like they are freezing to death when it is +15C (I don’t see many Chihuahuas hiking in the winter). Pain threshold also plays a role in how cold it can be for your dog. You have to be careful with this as some dogs should not be in that temperature even though they look fine. Our Husky Coyote cross was found in the winter and he had a massive coat and was fine at any temperature. He did not want to sleep inside at the Humane Society. Now that he lives in the house he wusses out at -10C (If he is running he may be good to -15C). Our German Shepherd is completely fine all the way up to -20C. Any colder than that and she would need to stay quite active to keep warm. She is so driven to play fetch that she would want to stay out long past when she should so we have to be careful with this.
I would like to end off with a couple of stories about how quickly things can go bad if you are not prepared.
First is from a friend of mine who I would consider is tough as nails. He was riding into a hunting camp by horseback and was helping some people who were inexperienced cross a river. He ended up getting wet up to his armpits. Camp was about an hour away. He thought he could make it if he ran and luckily he had a very loyal horse with him. If he would have ridden his horse he would have frozen. So he ran until the next river crossing, got on the horse, crossed the river, got off and started running. Luckily the horse followed right behind him when he was running. He got to camp and there wasn’t a soul around and the fire had been out all day with not a single ember left. So he through some wood on and poured some gasoline on the fire and threw a few matches and then stripped naked and stood shaking in front of the fire. He said he almost didn’t make it. Now if you knew this guy like I do you would understand the sentence “I almost didn’t make it” means that any mortal human would have died of hypothermia long before reaching the camp. He said he should have started a fire on the river bank and got dried off and warmed up but he thought he could make it since the camp was only an hour away. It took him a day and a half to warm back up again. To top all this off the temperature outside was -35C. Like I said, Tough as Nails.
The second story is about friends of ours that went out cross-country skiing in a group of four. One was fairly new to cross-country skiing and the other 3 were quite experienced. Two of them decided to go up ahead and get camp started up before dark since they were only 2 miles away. The inexperienced girl put her foot through the ice and got both feet wet. Now this wouldn’t seem like too bad of an issue but in the winter this is the start of an extremely bad situation. With her boots being frozen the buckles didn’t want to do up and the skiis did not work properly. She started walking but started getting cold (hypothermia was setting in). The girl wanted to stay back but her friend made her keep going. The inexperienced girl was on hands and knees and she stayed on the other girls skiis while they went one step at a time. They made it to camp and noticed that the inexperienced girl had severe frost bite on her legs. They had to radio for a helicopter rescue. Luckily they had long-range radios as cellphones do not work out there. Even the girl who was helping got frost bite on her feet and wasn’t able to walk without crutches for weeks.
The moral of these stories is “Do not get wet in the winter”. If you do make sure you can get dry and warm in a hurry. Sweat can be an issue as well. You do not want to sweat while hiking. A rough guideline tip is to be a little bit cold when you start hiking. You should need to be jumping up and down and around to stay warm. Once you start hiking you will warm up to a comfortable temperature and even still you will want to make sure you don’t start sweating. We went on a trip to Peru to hike the Inca Trail during September. The weather was warm in the day but quite chilly in the morning (around 5-10C). We hiked with people from all over the world who were very nice. Most were from much warmer climates. It was quite funny watching the spectacle every morning. The people from warmer areas would be putting on winter jackets and hats, mitts and pants and anything else they could to stay warm. I told them, “you are dressing too warm”. They said they were freezing and that I was crazy for being in shorts and a t-shirt. I had to move around a bit to stay warm at first but as soon as we started hiking I was very comfortable. 10 minutes in to the hike everyone that was dressed warm was sweating like crazy. They stopped to take off all their gear and repack it into their backpacks and then continue on. This wasn’t as big of an issue because we were in a warm climate. However if they were hiking in the winter they could be putting themselves at risk by dressing too warm.
The winter is one of the best times to go hiking. The scenery is absolutely beautiful. With that all said, make sure you have profound respect for Mother Nature. I see people hiking without any backpacks or gear of any sort in the winter all the time. If something goes wrong they are solely relying on people like my wife and I who can get them warm and back home safely. Hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Finally as one of the most important things to do prior to going for a hike is: Always tell someone (who is accountable) where you are going, which hike you are going on and what time you expect to be back by and tell them you will call them when you are back home safely.
Delta and I playing outside in a blizzard.