Winter Hiking 101
Many Omaha residents are surprised to learn you don’t need to go to Colorado or Wyoming to hike. Omaha is home to many great hiking locations! The Fontenelle Nature Association (FNA) operates two forest locations just minutes from downtown Omaha: Fontenelle Forest, in Bellevue, and Neale Woods, in North Omaha.
Each location offers great native ecosystems to explore, as well as many programs and classes.
Contrary to perception, hiking is not just a warm-weather activity. To help counter this notion, and to keep people healthy, active, and motivated during the winter months, the FNA will be offering a "Winter Hiking 101" class, Saturday, Jan. 30th at Neale Woods Nature Center.
Volunteer Naturalists Jody Galata and Sharon Draper will lead the class. Designed to educate people about the proper clothing, food, equipment, and approach needed for winter hiking, the class is also intended to help people overcome fears and trepidations about entering nature during winter.
Class co-leader Sharon Draper has been an outdoor enthusiast for over 30 years, but her love of hiking has really increased over the last six years. Draper took a wilderness survival class in the late 70s at Metropolitan Community College that was taught by the man who would eventually become her husband. Draper’s husband was a former military man, and he taught survival techniques military-style.
After the class, Draper worked with her husband on his new company, Wilderness Bound (no longer in business), which took clients on outdoor expeditions, helping to give her much of her hiking experience.
Draper now hikes every week with a small, informal group of outdoor enthusiasts. The idea for the winter hiking class came partly from seeing newcomers to the group who were not prepared to tackle the outdoors during cold, snowy months.
"People would try to hike in blue jeans and tennis shoes," said Draper. Hiking in improper gear, especially during winter conditions, will often leave hikers feeling uncomfortable and frustrated.
Draper has led night hikes for the FNA, and part of those classes involved direction on preparedness. The idea for the dedicated winter hiking evolved from there.
"Winter is my favorite season," said Draper. "There are no bugs, the trails are less crowded, and its easier to see wildlife." Clearly, hiking in winter doesn’t have to be a second-best option.
Leaf-bare trees make it easier to spot deer, squirrels, wild turkeys, bald eagles, and other animals. The snow-covered ground reveals tracks from wildlife, including field mice, deer, foxes, birds, and more.
The cold temperature and fear of something new may deter people from venturing outdoors in the winter.
"I think people today are in a comfort zone," said Draper. "We go from the heated house to the heated car to the heated office."
Proper dress can greatly eliminate any discomfort resulting from the weather, and often hikers will find they become so warm during the hike they shed many of their layers. The key to staying warm and dry is to have a good base layer, says Draper. Don’t wear anything made of cotton next to your skin. Cotton absorbs water and will absorb your sweat, causing you to be wet and cold. Instead choose a fabric that wicks, or keeps from absorbing moisture. A lightweight, Nylon polyester blend is a good fabric for your base layer.
The next secret to success and comfort is a good pair of water-resistant hiking boots. If you can invest in only one high-dollar piece of winter equipment, make it your boots, says Draper.
While there is a wide array of winter weather gear including many luxury and brand name items, the rest of your winter wardrobe doesn’t need to be expensive. A great choice in fabric for subsequent layers is wool, Draper says.
"That’s what they used back in olden times. And it can be found at used-clothing stores"
Participants in the Jan. 30th class will begin their session by receiving a briefing on the levels of layering and types of fabrics that will keep their warm and dry. Other noteworthy apparel includes well-insulated socks and hats, preferably wool, which wick water away. A warm fleece and gloves or mittens will also be important.
Surprisingly, one factor to consider when dressing for the cold is not to dress so warm that you may overheat. Since hiking through the snow provides an added level of resistance, hikers are receiving a good workout, which will increase their body temperature. Heavy winter coats often end up being carried as opposed to worn.
Snowshoes help to make the trek through snow easier and more fun. Neale Woods does permit the use of snowshoes (but not cross country skiing), and a few pairs will be available prior to the class for participants to test out.
As anyone who has spent time skiing or snowboarding can tell you, sunglasses are appreciated when snow is on the ground, as it intensifies the reflection of the sun. Lip balm will help you resist the urge to lick your lips, which would lead to chapping.
Participation in the class is free to members of the FNA ($35 for an individual or $50 for a household annually), or is open to non-members for the normal cost of admission ($5 per adult). The class will be open to hikers of all experience levels, ages 12 and older.
If you cannot make the class, but would like to experience winter hiking, there will be a free admission day on February 20th at Fontenelle Forest.
Three more reasons to consider winter hiking, says Draper:
- It’s good exercise,
- It beats cabin fever
- Coffee tastes better before a hike with friends!
More information on Fontenelle Forest can be found here.