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Hiking The Season Less Traveled

Back when I was young and foolish, I decided to camp at the Grand Tetons so I could photograph the snow-capped peaks as the first rays of daylight turned them a frosty pink.

It was still early June, and I shivered through the night in my summer-weight sleeping bag. I woke the next morning with ice caking my beard from the moisture of my breath. The guy in the next tent measured 14 degrees on his thermometer.

The foolish part wasn’t necessarily being out in that cold, but not being prepared for it. That’s because winter is one of the best times to take a hike, whether it’s the mountains of Wyoming or Kentucky.

Winter hiking has several advantages. There are no bugs. You’ll have the trails to yourself. You’ll be able to see more of the terrain now that the leaves are off the trees. During a warm day in February, you can even hike in blue jeans and a T-shirt—the most common hiking attire.

However, I don’t recommend wearing cotton in winter. It holds moisture and can leave you shivering once the sun dips below the ridges. You’re far better off wearing synthetic materials that don’t retain liquid.

Staying dry is key to avoiding hypothermia even if it doesn’t seem that cold. Carrying an extra pair of wool socks is always a good idea in case your feet get wet slogging through mud holes. Your daypack or backpack should include a knit cap, light gloves, and two lighters sealed in a plastic sandwich bag for emergency fires, even if you’re only walking a couple miles.

Being prepared is a good idea when you’re hiking in unfamiliar areas. Lightly used trails are sometimes hard to follow because there are no summer weeds for people to crunch down. I like to bring along some munchies—bagels, peanuts, raisins, and such—because it’s so pleasant to sit on a cliff or mountaintop, eat a snack, and absorb the great outdoors.

I prefer higher altitudes in winter so I can see more terrain under the forest. Hiking the most popular trails of Red River Gorge is much more pleasant this time of year. Ditto for the Pinnacles of Berea Forest, White Rocks at Cumberland Gap, or Rockcastle River’s Bee Rock overlook.

You don’t have to be foolish to hike in winter—just young at heart.


Many state parks offer outstanding hikes and a hot shower at the end of the day. Winter rates at most state parks are a bargain. Visit on the Internet for more information on trails and lodging.

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