The Blog

Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Winter

Feb 27, 2013

Chris Gallaway is a writer and video producer based out of Asheville, North Carolina. This year he will attempt an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and he’ll share the journey through periodic online video and photo updates. Visit www.thelongstarttothejourney.com to follow Chris’s story and to learn more about the Appalachian Trail.

Vasque is a partner on this journey, providing Chris with shoes for the long walk ahead.

When to start:

I begin my first attempt at an Appalachian Trail thru-hike on February 12th. When I mention that date to thru-hikers with experience on the AT it tends to raise eyebrows. Mid-February is a good month before most people choose to start this journey, and it flirts with the heart of winter weather in the Southeast, which can turn severe, especially as you climb the 6,000 foot peaks in the Smoky Mountains. A winter hike has distinct advantages, though: more solitude and less risk of cramming into an over-packed shelter with 20+ other snoring, aromatic thru-hikers. Also, illogically, I feel like starting earlier will get me back to North Carolina sooner, to the days when my girlfriend will be able hike a few days at a time with me on the trail.

Smokies, first view

1.15.11, Shining Rock Snow, cross purposes

Most of all, winter presents some of my favorite conditions for hiking. It’s cool, the woods are bare and present long-range views, and if you’re lucky, which you usually are, you’ll get to see some beautiful weather: deep, drifting snow or an ice storm that clads the trees in a sheath of glistening crystal. Of course, these conditions are only enjoyable if you’re prepared with the equipment and knowledge to stay warm, dry, and comfortable.

4.04.11, Smokies, packed shelter

What to bring:

I have a genetic condition called Renaud’s phenomenon that causes the capillaries in my extremities to contract and stop circulating blood when exposed to severe cold. This makes me exceptionally good at the “cold hands game.” It also makes me good at contracting frostbite. 

4.05.11, Smokies, snowy morning

Even in a relatively mild winter such as this one has been, I have to be mindful about insulating my hands and feet. For that reason, among others, I’m thankful to be supported by Vasque on this journey and to be taking their Snow Junkie boot with me into the woods. The Snow Junkie with its GoreTex liner and added insulation will keep my toes dry and toasty in the winter cold, even if I find myself trudging through knee-deep snow on the flanks of Clingman’s Dome.

Navigating Shining Rock Wilderness

When the weather warms and I can afford to drop some gear weight, I will trade out the Snow Junkies for a light, breathable shoe: the trail-running Mindbender. For summer hiking it’s my philosophy to use a shoe that may let my feet get wet in the rain but that will dry quickly and feel light day after day. At 11.5 ounces, the Mindbender is very comfortable to hike in, but only if you can keep your pack weight manageable — it’s not recommended to carry a heavy load on a shoe without more ankle support.

Why to go:

People love to hike for so many reasons, and the motivations for tackling a thru-hike seem even more far-flung and disparate. For me, the woods are a place where I feel that my mind comes to rest and is restored. My imagination frequently works best when I’m trekking down single-track day after day and seeing the beauty of God’s forest around me. The thru-hike presents an opportunity to live a good, meaningful story and to share it with others. And so, on this hike I will be carrying a small (relatively) video production setup, and I’ll be documenting my experiences to share along the way. From my past experiences on the AT I know that it is a place rich in stories. Every hiker you meet has a unique and interesting history and reason for being there. And from what previous thru-hikers tell me (including my girlfriend), walking the entire Appalachian Trail in one trek is a life-changing experience.

At the moment, the thought of hiking every day for six to eight months is more daunting than appealing, but I continually draw my focus back to the immediate future, the days and weeks ahead, the journey of the first hundred miles which I can at least wrap my head around. It’s an exciting prospect. I’m eager to get out into the woods and to begin sharing this journey with others. I know it will be a project filled with challenges and sometimes with deep discouragement, but I trust the word of my friends who have done it before: that it is one of the best experiences you can have. And despite the recent balmy weather here in Asheville, I hope that I’ll see some snow along the way — just not too much.

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