Hiking is a great way to stay in shape and enjoy the outdoors year-round — even in winter. While falling temperatures can present some challenges, fitness and safety professionals on Fort Leonard Wood said you can enjoy cold-weather hikes safely by taking a few, simple precautions.
“Don’t be intimidated to start walking or hiking in the winter. This is the perfect time to lace up your shoes, get outside, move your body and breathe,” said Rose Chapman, an avid hiker, runner and certified personal trainer who has been an instructor at Davidson Fitness Center since 2018.
According to Chapman, hiking has all the cardiovascular health benefits of walking plus the added benefit of spending time in nature.
“Spending time outdoors has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, increase vitamin D levels, strengthen the immune system and help you sleep better,” she said. “Hiking on uneven surfaces also strengthens the stabilizing muscles in the feet and ankles, improves balance, proprioception and core strength.”
Fort Leonard Wood residents and other Department-of-Defense ID-card holders with access to the installation have a variety of hiking options on post, including the following list of trails compiled and rated by Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation:
— The Engineer Fitness Running Trail is a 2.2-mile loop, beginning at Morelli Heights. This trail is rated easy.
— Miller Cave and Trail is located off FLW N Road and is rated difficult and primitive. Hikers must register with the Fort Leonard Wood iSportsman system at https://ftleonardwood.isportsman.net to check in and out of the Miller Cave Recreation Area before using the trail.
— Sandstone Spring Trail is located behind the Rolling Health School and is rated easy to moderate.
— Stone Mill Spring and Trail is located near the Piney Valley Golf Course and is rated easy.
Chapman advised those who want to start hiking in colder weather to dress warmly, start slowly and stay close to home in the beginning.
“The colder the temperature, the longer it will take your muscles to warm up, so starting slowly and gradually increasing pace will set you up for success,” Chapman said.
Dress for the weather
During colder weather, it’s important to dress in layers when conducting nearly any outdoor activity, including hiking. Chapman recommended starting with a base layer made of a moisture-wicking fabric.
“It’s important not to wear cotton in the cold weather, as it traps perspiration against the skin and can cause hypothermia,” she said. “Wear gloves and a hat or headband that covers your ears, particularly if it’s windy. As you move and get warmer, you may need to take off gloves or outer layers, so be prepared to carry them in a pocket or tie your shirt around your waist.”
Donald Busbice Jr., U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood Safety Office director, said proper footwear is also important for hikers’ comfort and safety.
“Always wear comfortable shoes and clothes when hiking. To avoid blisters, wear two pairs of socks,” he said.
Chapman added the right footwear is especially important when hiking in areas with frozen precipitation on the ground. “Packed snow and ice are very slippery, so avoid those patches and wear shoes with decent tread,” she said.
Whether hiking in winter or any time of year, it’s a good time to put common-sense safety measures into practice, according to Busbice
“Everyone is reminded to practice situational awareness when planning to use the trails,” he said.
Hikers are encouraged to keep the following safety tips in mind:
— Always tell someone your intended destination and how long you expect to be gone when hiking. “If you become lost, stay put and let the search party find you,” Busbice said.
— Hike when it’s light. “There are no lights along the trails, so it’s not recommended to be out there after dark,” Busbice said.
— Watch for wildlife, including snakes and ticks, which, although more abundant in spring, summer and fall, can still be present during the coldest months. Busbice urged hikers to avoid interacting with snakes, avoid high grass, wear insect repellent on pant legs and check for ticks. He also advised anyone outdoors to avoid baby animals. “Baby animals have a mom, and she may not take kindly to your interacting with the young ones,” he said.
— Plan for the weather by checking weather reports, and have apps that provide weather warnings installed on your cell phone. “(Weather) can change quickly and present a plethora of issues to hikers,” Busbice said.
— Carry essential items in case of emergencies, as outlined in the “Hiking essentials” list above. “These are essential items that every hiker should carry on their person,” Busbice said.
Chapman added that hikers should remember to take plenty of water.
“Remember to hydrate,” she said. “You might not feel the need to drink as strongly in cold weather, but you still need to take in water, especially as you increase mileage.”
For more information about hiking safety, visit the Ozark Trail Association web page, https://ozarktrail.com/safety-and-guidelines.
(Editor’s note: Kirstan Carpenter, FMWR fitness coordinator, contributed to this story.)