12 Tips for a Successful Winter Hike

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North Park Village Nature Center

Winter hiking is the perfect antidote for a Saturday morning marathon of Netflix’s Nailed It. That’s what I discovered last Saturday as I managed, after several hours of finagling, to pull my 8-year-old son away from the amateur baking competition culinary-astrophe (just kidding; I actually like the show in small servings) to go for a hike in a snowstorm.

Yes, I also felt the pull of a warm comfortable house on a frigid day, but resisted the urge to spend another winter day indoors. So we headed to North Park Village Nature Center (5801 North Pulaski Road, Chicago, 60646, 312/744-5472)—46 acres of oak savannah, prairie, pond, and wetlands. This was Chicago’s first substantial snow in months, and it was exciting to be outdoors in the middle of a snowstorm.

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Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve

North Park Village Nature Center (NPVNC) is not Yellowstone, or even Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve (which I believe is the wildest place in Chicagoland), but it’s close to our home and a good starting point for winter hiking with a young (er) child. I’ve hiked solo at Cap Sauers in the winter, and it’s a truly wild experience in which you will probably not see another person, but observe tons of wildlife and enjoy the solitude.

When we arrived at NPVNC, we were pleased to find that its grounds were deserted. We hiked the trail toward North Park’s big hill. There were a surprising number of birds in the trees, and we heard ducks honking overhead but couldn’t spot them in the overcast sky. Snow coated the ground like a comfy blanket, and I thought of the mice, voles, toads, snakes, and other wildlife slumbering or slumming underfoot as my son occasionally tossed a snowball at my head. The woods were serene as the snow fell and occasionally blew sideways. We didn’t care because we were snugly wrapped in many layers of clothing.

At the top of the hill, we looked down at the boardwalk, which winds its way through beautiful wetlands that, in the summer, are populated by frogs, turtles, water beetles, and other creatures. We were pleased to discover that we were the first to walk the boardwalk and many of the trails that day. When you live in a metropolitan area of 6 million or so, it’s really cool to see no footprints in front of you as you walk.

We walked further and my son became obsessed with finding a big rock or stick to break the ice in the pond next to the wetlands. Kids and sticks, the eternal obsession! He also was fascinated to see orange and red fall leaves that had become frozen into the ice. I became obsessed with not falling again on the hilly incline that led down to the frozen water’s edge. One sudden fall straight backwards and a slide to the pond’s icy edge was enough for me. My son laughing at me was one laugh too many, but I probably looked pretty stupid as I flailed away before falling.

My son encountered his own challenges as we walked. He was bundled up so tightly in his snow pants and layers that when he fell, he couldn’t get back up in the deep snow. I was about 25 feet ahead of him, so engrossed in enjoying the snowfall, the bare trees, and novelty of being outside in nature that he had to yell for me to come back and pick him up. “Dad of the year,” that’s me.

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North Park Village Nature Center

As we walked, we began to encounter more people who had the same idea as us. Everyone was in a good mood. I had nice conversations with several parents and grandparents about the snow and the nature center. A couple who were deep in conversation in a foreign language passed us several times on the circuitous trails. Actually, the man was doing all the talking, and I couldn’t decide if he was fascinating or annoying the young woman. My vote: fascinating. More hellos were exchanged as we met other happy winter hikers. It was as if the snow helped us all to shake off our Chicago indifference and desire for anonymity. It was great to see people making memories that would probably stick with them longer than who won Nailed It.

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North Park Village Nature Center

My son and I walked further into the woods, and there they were—8 or 9 deer just hanging out in the woods by a fallen tree, some resting on the forest floor, others nibbling on grass or bark, and others just kind of zoning out and enjoying the snow. They were preternaturally calm as if the snow had hypnotized them.

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Seeing the deer was a perfect coda to a hike in a snowstorm, so we headed toward the nature center to warm up. We checked out the tables of animal bones, deer antlers, bird nests, and fossils in the center, then headed toward our car. We were surprised to spot a young buck in the front of the nature center. A wonderful surprise ending to our winter hike.

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North Park Village Nature Center

The snow is falling in Chicagoland this morning, and a lot more is headed our way during the next few weeks. I highly suggest that you get out and enjoy the white winter magic before it’s gone in a few months.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when you go winter hiking:

  1. Don’t overdo it on your first winter hike. Hiking in the snow is much more physically taxing than a summer jaunt through the woods. Remember, if you hike a mile in the snow, you’ll have a mile’s return (unless you’re hiking a circle trail).
  2. Whether you plan to hike for 15 minutes or a few hours, pack water, a lightweight emergency blanket, a lighter (to try to start a fire if you get stranded), small flashlight, basic first aid kit, whistle or other signaling device, and a fully-charged phone (and a charger, too). Many outdoor experts also suggest taking a compass and a GPS device. Although you may be familiar with your hiking area, everything looks different in the winter. You could become lost, fall and break your leg, or face other challenges. Getting lost is not a problem at North Park, but forest preserves (such as Cap Sauers), state parks (I suggest Matthiessen, Rock Cut, Apple River Canyon State Park, and Starved Rock state parks in Illinois, as well as Indiana Dunes State Park), national parks such as Indiana Dunes National Park, and other hiking destinations are much larger.
  3. Don’t put your water bottle in your backpack because it can freeze (if you’re out for a long time). Place it in an interior coat pocket, if possible.
  4. Keep batteries warm. Phone, flashlight, and other batteries can drain quickly in the cold and leave you in a tough spot should you need them. As a result, it’s a good idea to keep them in a pocket close to your body.
  5. Dress warmly, but in layers, because you’ll probably break a sweat if you hike for a while (or hike in hilly areas) and may need to take off a few outer layers as you go. Be sure to cover as much exposed skin as possible to avoid windburn and frostbite.
  6. Be careful of what’s under the snow: tree branches, rocks, and other objects that might make you trip, depending on the depth of the snow.
  7. Watch your footing. Bridges, boardwalks, rocky areas, and other spots can be very slippery in the snow.
  8. Avoid walking on icy lakes, ponds, and rivers—unless you’re sure that the water is completely frozen.
  9. Always tells someone that you’re going hiking, where you are traveling to, and what time you’ll be back.
  10. Bring sunscreen and sunglasses. This might be surprising to some people, but the ice and snow make perfect reflectors for the sun’s rays.
  11. Consider spicing up your hike by donning over-the-shoe traction devices or snowshoes. Click here for my article, “First-Time Snowshoer Tells All: 10 Tips for Success and My Son’s Thank You.”
  12. Have an “Act II” ready for after your hike—a visit to the indoor part of a nature center (North Park’s is small, but interesting), coffee shop, or other place that you can warm up and reward yourself from avoiding the potentially terminal medical diagnosis of IStayedInsideAndWatchedNailedItAllDay.
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Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
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Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve

Here are some winter-hiking resources to check out:

Hike the Preserves this Winter (Forest Preserve District of Cook County)

Winter in the Preserves: Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

Winter Recreation in the Lake County Forest Preserves

Snowshoeing: Forest Preserve District of Will County

Best Winter Hikes: The Morton Arboretum

Cold-Weather Hiking Tips

Hiking: Winter Conditions Gear Checklist

Your National Park Guide to Hiking in the Winter

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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