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Winter Guide: The zen of cold

Winter hiking can be a bit challenging but the benefits are overwhelming. From an economical exercise to increased creativity to depression relief, walking in the wilderness can be a panacea for all. As Thoreau wrote, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.”

So plan on taking some walks in the woods this winter. With New Mexico landscapes, winter hikes can be transformative experiences. Hikers can choose from a variety of paths: the rugged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, historic jaunts into the past in Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Bandelier National Monument, or exploring unique, alien landscapes with volcanic features like in El Malpais National Monument. Those are just a few of the treks that await the winter hiker.

Many prefer the joys of winter hiking because the trails are quieter and the colder temperatures can be invigorating. The winter scenery is a plus and adds to the experience.

Scott Renbarger, of Outspire, a professional hiking and guide service, agrees and says, “The winter light is very beautiful. In New Mexico, you can take advantage of the relatively fine weather year-round. Compared to other places, the winter is often particularly dry and sunny. Even in winter, there’s a lot of variation in the types of hikes you can take, from mild temperatures and easier terrain in lower elevations to snowshoeing in the mountains with more adventurous hikes.”

Plan ahead

At first, the idea of winter hiking may seem daunting, but with preparation, it can be enjoyable. Good preparation for a winter hike starts before leaving the house. Often a nutritious start to the day for the hiker is overlooked. It’s critical for hikers to have a hearty breakfast because the cold weather can deplete a person’s reserves quicker than usual and leave them susceptible to the elements.

It’s also important to check with an outfitter or local weather source to have an idea of the conditions and any weather risks that you might encounter. Renbarger advises that the “number one tip is to always let someone know where you are and about when you will return.”

Renbarger, who owns Outspire and has lived in Santa Fe for 19 years, has been giving guided tours for four years and has a background in the geological sciences. Another important tip he offers is to bring more clothing than you think you need. He recommends bringing light rain gear as well as an extra layer of clothing.

“In New Mexico, the two biggest threats to hikers are lightning and hypothermia,” he explains. “Since you don’t have to worry about lightning in the winter, you should protect against hypothermia. If you have an accident, you’re probably going to have to be out in the elements after dark, and then that extra layer will come in handy.”

This tip is echoed by many hiking experts. The key is to dress in layers with a base layer of a wool, silk or synthetic fabric. This first layer should be a material that wicks away moisture like Merino wool. The second layer should be something warm like fleece, sweater or another wool piece. The final layer should be a wind and waterproof shell since the weather can change quite suddenly.

It’s important to do the layering because hikers can carry some pieces in their backpack while going uphill and exerting themselves more. On the way down, hikers can add layers as needed. Many people wear wind pants that can be unzipped and gaiters over boots to keep out wind and moisture. Of course, don’t forget other essentials like a hat, gloves, sunglasses and neck gaiters.

Other hiking essentials are sunscreen, first aid items and water. Renbarger recommends bringing plenty of water since while it feels cool, hikers are still losing moisture and need to replenish. He points out that the water is also important as people deal with the higher altitude.

Where to go

After gathering hiking essentials, the hiker will want to plan which hiking trails to traverse. With the abundance of books and materials on hiking available online, it can be hard deciding where to go first.

A basic site like the New Mexico Tourism site,, or the Journal’s travel site,, can help a person get their bearings. Since New Mexico has a large number of public hiking trails and several of the Native American reservations and pueblos allow hiking on their lands, a hiking destination list in New Mexico could easily include over 100 locations.

Further, great sites by avid hiking enthusiasts offer more personalized information and photographs to guide your adventures.

Outspire, a professional guide service, takes a family on a snowshoe hike near Santa Fe.

Outspire, a professional guide service, takes a family on a snowshoe hike near Santa Fe.

Renbarger says that many people enjoy the Canyons of the Rio Grande. Another area he suggests is the Bandelier back country as “it features plateaus that in the winter are usually bright and sunny.”

Another popular hike is White Rock Canyon. With hikes near the Rio Grande, there will be less snow in the winter.

For those interested in a bit more excitement, snowshoeing in Aspen Valley and Big Tesuque are ideal spots.

Another popular hike is Picacho Peak because it is a challenging and enjoyable winter hike.

This hike, part of the Dale Ball Trails, provides views of the Jemez, Sandia and Ortiz mountains.

The highest point is 8,577 feet and depending on the conditions, you may see the mountains of Southern Colorado.

In the Land of Enchantment, there truly are a lot of choices to be made when it comes to hiking.

There are also a lot of positive benefits. As John Muir said, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”

This winter, let Nature heal and cheer you.