Now that it has finally started to snow this winter in Northern New Mexico, it’s time to think about how to hike safely and comfortably in slicker and much colder conditions. With a bit of preparation and know how, hikers who still get outside in winter can enjoy the unique beauty of snowy forests, frozen rivers and high deserts on trails that are more lightly traveled this time of year.

Prepare

As you plan a hike, check the weather forecast for the day, looking particularly for snow and high winds. Pick a day that looks relatively calm and sunny when possible, but always come prepared for a sudden change of weather.

The mid-December snow squall downed trees in some areas, so use caution. Conditions can vary dramatically, even between trails that are close to each other. For example, Italianos Canyon accessed from the Taos Ski Valley Road (NM 150) had relatively few downed trees on a recent visit, but nearby Yerba was heavily impacted, especially at the beginning of the trail. Both Italianos and Yerba have multiple stream crossings which can be icy, so come prepared with traction devices. Hikers report that there are numerous downed trees near the start of the Williams Lake Trail at Taos Ski Valley.

In addition to checking the weather forecast, ask local outfitters or call the offices of the Carson National Forest to find out about current conditions. For trails with more sun and less snow, explore the lower elevation hikes near the Rio Grande. These hikes are generally on Bureau of Land Management lands.

Regardless of where you hike, be sure to eat a hearty breakfast with plenty of protein and carbohydrates, as winter hiking takes lots of energy. 

Winter gear

Local outfitter, Mudd N Flood on Bent Street has a variety of traction devices. Co-owner Chris Pieper says “Microspikes have the most traction on ice; they are most like crampons and will be rock-solid going up trails like Yerba and Italianos. The diamond grip version is the most versatile and good for walking around town. The EXOspikes have good traction for running.” He said warm wool socks are also in stock in his shop.

Taos Mountain Outfitters on Taos Plaza also has a good selection of traction devices, in addition to hiking poles, some that come with snow baskets to keep the poles from sinking too deep.

Another type of traction option being seen on the trails this year is a boot with built-in spikes, like those made by Salomon.

Warmth and light

It can be cold, and the sun goes down earlier this time of year, so consider carrying a headlamp, along with a thermos of hot chocolate and hand warmers. Matches are important in case you need to start a fire.

For longer hikes, a portable firepit like the new BioLite can also provide warmth while taking a break from walking. It also works for cooking and provides a smokeless fire. These stoves are available at Mudd ‘n Flood, along with a backpacking stove that runs on wood. BioLite is a company that does social justice and environmental work in Africa. 

Getting lost and other emergencies

Even familiar trails can look different in the snow. They may be less packed down and harder to follow the farther up you go. Be sure to follow good hiking safety guidelines, such as:

Reviewing a map of the hike before you go

Carrying a map and/or GPS device with you

Staying on the trail, to the extent possible

If you are hiking in a group, stay together, and 

If you get lost, stay in place and try to get out a text to let someone know where you are or create a new voicemail with the current time, date and your approximate location

Be sure to tell someone where you are going, when you are expected back, and what they should do if you aren’t back at the expected time. In case of emergency, call 911. Thanks to Taos Search and Rescue for the safety tips. See more at sar-taos.org

Recovery

After all of the preparation and the pleasure of a winter hike in the high country, nothing is more welcome than a cup of something hot and some biscochitos or a big bowl of green chile near a roaring fire. You can eat hearty and enjoy the feeling of having gotten some healthy exercise in the New Mexico sunshine and fresh air.

*Second infobox (in addition to one below)

Trail report

Italianos Canyon Trail  (CNF 59 - mile marker 12 NM 150)

Start at: 8,666 feet

End at: 9,210 feet at the aspen grove about a mile up the trail

On a recent visit, there were 2-3 inches on top of some existing snow for a total depth of between 4-6 inches. The trail was well-packed, especially in the initial section. We’ve had more snow since then, so come prepared and be careful when parking at the pull-outs along NM-150, as the snow is starting to accumulate in the parking areas.

With more snow, it is easier to cross the stream because there is less exposed ice. There were only a few trees downed by the recent windstorm. The trail is generally lightly-traveled during this time of year. Located in a canyon, the trail only has sun in some sections and between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. 

Yerba Canyon Trail  (CNF 61 - mile marker 10 NM 150)

Start at: 8,196 feet

End at: 8,666 feet—just under a mile at crossing 9

Also located off NM-150, Yerba Canyon had dramatically more trees down at the start of the trail. It was possible to navigate around the trees, but some of the stream crossings are more challenging due to downed pine trees. There were a couple of inches of snow on a recent visit but some of the stream crossings still had icy sections. This trail is also in a canyon, so has only short times of sun around mid-day.

Resources

For more information on trail conditions, call the Carson National Forest at 575-758-6200 or the  Bureau of Land Management Office at 575-758-8851. Taos Search and Rescue is dispatched through the New Mexico State Police, by calling 911. Taos Search and Rescue is a volunteer organization supported by community donations. To find out more and support their work, visit sar-taos.org

As snowpack continues to accumulate, check current conditions at the Taos Avalanche Center website: taosavalanchecenter.org.

Winter hiking checklist

Clothing

  • Base layer in silk or synthetic material to wick away moisture
  • Warm layer in fleece or lined pants 
  • Windproof and waterproof coat or shell
  • Gaiters or water-resistant pants
  • Hat or headband and gloves
  • Scarf or neck gaiter
  • Wool socks
  • Waterproof boots

Gear

  • Traction device, like microspikes or Yaktrax
  • Hiking poles to help maintain balance
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen
To carry in your backpack
  • Water and high-energy snacks
  • Hot beverage
  • Basic first aid kit plus matches, flashlight or headlamp, and knife
  • Map or GPS 
  • Small emergency blanket

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