March 05, 2021

Make the most of your winter hike

Ready to get back on the trails once the cold snap lifts for some fresh air and excellent winter hiking in Iowa State Parks? Our park staff offers these tips to help you make the most of your snowy trek:

Plan ahead

“I always stress the importance of pre-visit scouting and research,” Andy Bartlett, park manager at Ledges State Park near Ames and Boone, said.

Start with looking over the park’s webpage - you can find a list and interactive map at iowadnr.gov/StateParks - where you can find lists of park amenities, trail maps and other important know-before-you-go info. Then, pick up the phone.

“The best way to plan any winter adventure is to call the park office directly,” Bartlett said. “Park staff are always full of helpful tips on trail access, points of view, or even tips on unique winter features of their park.”

If you call and there’s not an immediate answer, no worries. Staff are likely out working in the park and will return your call as soon as they’re back in the park office, so be sure to leave a message.

Bring your water

It may not be balmy, but you still need to stay hydrated and fed while exercising outdoors in winter. Drink plenty of water before leaving home, and then be sure to bring a reusable water bottle, sports drink, or some warm tea or coffee in an insulated tumbler. Pack some snacks in a backpack, also helpful for carrying out any trash.

Keep in mind that the cold weather does close modern restroom facilities, so you’ll need to go before you leave or use one of the vault toilets in the park (locations are available on park maps).

Make an impression

Hiking trails are generally not cleared off by park staff, so make sure your footwear is up to the task.

“With the amount of snow we’ve had this year, heavily-used trails can get packed down and become very slick,” Andy Place, park ranger at Pine Lake State Park near Eldora and Iowa Falls, said. “Some kind of traction aid is important, and a walking stick or trekking poles will help hikers keep their balance on slick trails as well.”

Dress the part

“Research your route and know how long your route should take,” Chase Burtness, park ranger at George Wyth Memorial State Park near Cedar Falls and Waterloo, said. “You don’t want to get stuck in the elements for an extended period of time with inadequate attire.”

Winter treks are all about layers to help you stay warm and dry. Start with a warm long-john style base layer, then add an insulating middle layer and top it off with a waterproof and wind-proof shell. Look for wool socks to pair with well-fitting boots that have proper traction and are water resistant or waterproof. Keep your skin covered and protected from frostbite with warm and waterproof mittens or gloves, a neck gaiter or face mask and top it off with a warm stocking cap to keep body heat from escaping. Hand and foot warmers can be a game-changer, too.

Leave a message

It’s always best to hike with a buddy, and it’s easy to distance yourself safely from friends while hiking. Still, it’s always wise to let someone at home know where you’re going — be sure you have the proper name of the park, as local names and close proximities can sometimes make things confusing — and when you plan on returning.

Be aware of other trail users

Trails in Iowa State Parks can have a variety of uses beyond hiking, from “fat” bikes designed for the snow, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or horse riding. Some trails are groomed specifically for one activity, like cross-country skiing, so check trail maps before your visit and look for signs pointing out designated uses on a trail. Be sure to keep eyes and ears open for other trail users.

Get home safely

With frigid Midwestern temperatures, there’s always a chance that your car may not want to start when the hike is over.

“Make sure you have a good battery in your vehicle,” Rylan Retallick, park ranger for Yellow River State Forest, said.

Before you leave the vehicle for the trail, check that all lights are off and doors closed when you park to avoid draining the battery during your hike.

Share the experience

Once you’re home and warming up under a cozy blanket, be sure to post the highlights of your hike with the hashtag #IowaStateParks.