A picture of a man overlooking a mountain, cindy laquidaraThe benefits of hiking are well-documented: it’s good for one’s mental and physical health, it improves balance, burns calories and keeps weight off, and increases strength, among other things. As a result, the number of people in the United States, which explore the great outdoors through hiking and backpacking, has increased year over year between 2008 and 2015, according this very recent data from Statista. In the spring of this year alone, the number of reported hikers throughout the country was around 38 million: more than 10 percent of the population, and I’m not sure if that includes the number of people who come from other countries to experience the beauty of America’s incomparable terrain.

Nevertheless, as the data show, the most popular times for doing so are in the spring and fall, when the weather is mild and therefore facilitates the process, which can be strenuous albeit rewarding. Summer is also a time during which people choose to hike. Yet, many consider the winter to be off-season, either lying dormant or opting for other forms of exploration and exercise until the warmer months return. However, cold weather and precipitation alone shouldn’t stop individuals from hiking from December to March. Though more difficult, winter hiking can be just as or possibly more rewarding.

Of course, hiking in the winter calls for more preparation than usual. One needs to ensure that he or she is properly dressed, equipped with necessary tools, and physically prepared for the journey. Snowshoeing, as it called among experts, is a way to keep those hiking muscles active and to explore more comprehensively, since most trails are practically deserted at that time. Here are some things every individual needs to know to make certain that her experience is safe and enjoyable.

Layer Clothing

Cold weather doesn’t affect everyone the same way in terms of preference, but physiologically, freezing temperatures can be detrimental to the body. Hence, it’s extremely important to stay warm and this can be accomplished by layering. Beyond simply putting on whatever clothes you have lying around, purchase clothes that will protect your body and regulate both warmth and perspiration; staying dry is just as important as warmth, to keep the body from going into shock and catching chills. To be sure, wear long underwear, winter socks and proper snow boots.

Don’t Go It Alone

Go with a group. Hiking is unpredictable–that is one of its joys. At the same time, however, it could be dangerous, especially with winter elements. Bring a friend or a few along for the journey, to help you navigate and take off some of the pressure of leading the trail. You each could take turns exploring, and the experience with others is usually better than going it alone in most any instance. Make sure your friends are up for the journey and experienced in hiking as well. Otherwise, you could spend most of your time explaining, tending to, or comforting your friends, which wouldn’t be problematic in any other instance, but save that for a less challenging setting.

Have The Right Equipment

Unlike backpacking in the spring, hiking in the winter calls for than a water bottle and a few snacks or toiletry items. There’s a lot one needs to bring along, including, wands, snow shovels, and beacons. In the event of, say, an avalanche or fall, a digital beacon allows hikers to track the location of a buried person and are significantly more convenient than the use of grids. These are not the case for all winter hikes, but for those in which an avalanche is likely, one should be prepared.

Educate Yourself

Which brings us to this last point. Research everything about the journey. What the weather will be likely, where you are going, how to deal with potential dangers, how long it should take, etc. Hikers are typically more adventurous than most people by nature (no pun intended), however, smart hiking calls for preparation and critical thinking to guarantee safety. If you’re considering a winter hike, learn all you can and start small. Even if you’re an experienced hiker, find a trail that would be most beneficial for your group, to help you get acquainted with the difference. Most importantly, enjoy!