How cold is too cold to hike?

I am challenging my former ideas about this topic. I used to refuse to jog outside when it was 20°F or colder. That’s 20 above zero. Pretty wimpy for a Minnesotan. In Celsius it’s -7° which seems a bit more reasonable to stay indoors, but if I stick to that threshold for walking I’d need to put away my hiking boots for most of the winter. When jogging I tend to breathe through my mouth and all that frozen air was hard on my throat. When walking I can breathe through my nose and I can cover my face to protect from frostbite. The trick is to find a face covering that be warm enough without turning to ice from the condensation of warm air exiting the nose. I never found one that worked for jogging because it either iced up or didn’t allow enough air to flow. Another issue is my glasses. Bringing the scarf up over my nose causes my glasses to fog. Going without glasses means I have to fish them out of my bag if I need to look at my phone or draw. I could wear ski goggles, but that seems like overkill for just a walk along a trail. For a long hike on a mountain trail I would definitely use the goggles. For my daily walks I have settled on a wool cowl and hat that I knit myself. The cowl is a cylinder that goes around my neck and covers the lower half of my face. I alternate between having it cover my nose and letting it sit loosely near my nose to allow the glasses to un-fog. It still blocks the wind when it is loose. When the temp is near 0°F (-18°C) I add a fleece headband for an extra layer on my ears.

Recently I walked 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in Bemidji, Minnesota in -11°F (-24°C). I wrote about it in a previous post. It would have been fine if I had more layers. That is the key. Layers.

In preparation for writing this post, I learned that -40°F = -40°C. It did not occur to me that the two scales would meet but it makes sense when you think about it. That temp is crazy cold. I have experienced it a few times in my life, but never for more than a few minutes. I remember bundling up as a child to go outside and barely able to move because of all the layers of clothing. I have a memory of my father saying, “Remember this. This is what 40 below feels like.” and then we went right back in. Exposed skin can freeze in a few minutes at that temp so dealing with it must be taken seriously. Thinking you are tough enough to endure it can be deadly.

Lake and trees and a chain link fence in winter
This is Grass Lake. My turn-around point. I was starting to worry about running out of daylight.

This week the forecast for my area has some -40 windchills. That might be too cold to hike. At least for me and my current gear it is too cold to hike.

I am going to put my threshold at -20°F (-29°C). I should get a chance this week to test that out. I read somewhere that if you never experience cold, you loose your ability to adjust to it. That is believable to me. I have noticed that some people have a harder time dealing with extremes of temperature than others. Some have medical conditions that complicate this issue, but some just have not had a chance to get used to it. Next summer I will get a chance to test the opposite extreme, I’m sure.

What will I wear on my cold weather hike to protect from the elements? I’ll start with a base layer that is made of a thin breathable material that wicks the moisture away from my body. NOT COTTON. When cotton gets wet with sweat, it robs your body of its heat. The first pair of socks are wool and go over the ankle of the base layer leggings. Wool will keep you warm even if it gets wet. Next is a long sleeve athletic top, jeans, and second pair of thick socks. Trap air in layers. Another warm top, windbreaker pants, waterproof hiking boots, lined windbreaker winter coat with hood. Wool cowl, an extra fleece scarf just in case the cowl gets icy, two pairs of mittens, fleece headband over the ears, wool hat, and ski goggles. Yeah, I think ski goggles if it is 20 below and I am going for more than 20 minutes. The skin near my eyes will need protection.

Next is the question of “WHY?” Why not just stay inside that day? Go to a mall and walk laps? Because I am all about being outside. Have you ever stood on a frozen lake? Have you ever been lost in thought listening to the crunch of snow under your feet? Ever notice how that crunch sounds different when it is really cold? All the sounds are different. Ever feel the comfort of warm socks hugging your feet inside really good boots while at the same time your cheeks feel the sting of a slight breeze? Ever feel your nostril hairs stick together when you breathe in that wonderful crisp air? Didn’t think so. If you had then you would know why I must go outside.

freeway, lake, chain link fence in winter
I walked 7 miles the day of this photo. It was about 5 degrees above zero (Farenheit).

2 responses to “How cold is too cold to hike?”

  1. You are the poster child of Minnesotan’s who are proud of their endurance and being able to overcme adversity.


    1. I’ll take that compliment, thanks!


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