Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Winter Thru-hike Problem

Spend any time on the internet or hanging around Triple Crowner types, and inevitably the topic of winter thru-hikes will arise. There are dozens of long-distance trails out there, but most are best hiked in the spring, summer, and fall. There are relatively few true "winter" thru-hikes. Sure, you can get away with starting some trails at the end of February of the beginning of March (even if that's often a bad idea), but that's not really what we're talking about here. Rather, we're referring to treks that are doable - and even pleasant - in the dead of winter, e.g. January. In this post, we'll review some candidates routes, and then discuss some special considerations for winter thru-hiking.

The Desert Winter Thru Hike holds tremenous potential.

Rejected Candidates

When I was a college freshman, I headed down to Great Smoky Mountain National Park over spring break with a few friends for our first-ever backpacking trip. Spring break in the south! It'll be warm and pleasant, right? Wrong.  We trudged through multiple feet of snow, slid off the road once, and even got a good old-fashioned case of hypothermia. I was cold and miserable most of the time. To put it charitably, the trip was a flop.

Photo: Jake Vriesema

To this day, I see people making the same mistake. Northerners like me seem to underestimate the effects of elevation. Just because a trail is in the "south" doesn't mean it's warm and pleasant in the depths of winter. The following trails, despite being located in southerly climes, are largely at high elevation, and would be unpleasant at best in the depths of winter:

  • Arizona Trail
  • Sky Islands Traverse
  • Grand Enchantment Trail
  • Hayduke Trail

Is it possible to do these trails in winter? Yes, and some of them have been done already. But by that standard, the Pacific Crest Trail has been done in the winter, and I certainly don't think anyone would call the PCT a "winter thru-hike". Hikers attempting any of these trails in the winter will be doing them explicitly out-of-season, and will face many challenges not present during the prime hiking season. 

It should be noted that most of these routes do have sections that dip down into the low elevations. The stretch of the Arizona Trail north of Oracle comes to mind as an obvious instance. Certain sections would be perfectly doable in the winter, however I wouldn't advise attempting a thru-hike of the whole thing unless you're prepared for a whole lot of unpleasantness and truly four-season conditions.

Marginal Candidates

A few years ago, hiker extraordinaire Cam "Swami" Honan walked Arkansas's Ouachita Trail in January/February. He evidently enjoyed it, and wrote a very positive review of the trail. Since that time, I've seen countless online acolytes refer to the OT as a "winter thru hike". And while it's certainly possible to hike the OT in the winter (even if you're not a top-notch adventurer like Swami), there's some context that's missing.

Swami did the OT as part of his stunning "12 Long Walks" project, in which he hiked many of North America's foremost hiking trails in one year-round, 18-month push. Of course, that meant finding trails to do in the winter. Among them was the OT. He hiked the OT not because it was at its very best in the winter, but because it was possible, pleasant, and lined up well with his schedule. 

Put another way, if your goal was to hike the Ouachita Trail at its best, and there were no other considerations, you probably wouldn't hike it in January. The OT and its brethren are perfectly suitable for winter thru-hiking, but frankly, are best enjoyed at a different time of year. Off the top of my head, there are several such trails:

  • Ouachita Trail (223 mi)
  • Ozark Highlands Trail (164 mi)
  • Palmetto Trail (~500 mi, unfinished)
  • Pinhoti Trail (335 mi)
  • Benton MacKaye Trail (287 mi)

It's possible to hike all of these trails in the winter. Temperatures may be cool (or even downright cold at night), but it warms up during the day. Snow and ice may be a factor, but snowpack doesn't hang around all winter and continue to accumulate.

But it's hard to argue that any of these trails are at their best during the winter. Hiking a trail through the  leafless hardwoods can be a little monochromatic in the winter. Sure the views are marginally better, but those dead and brown trees don't exactly inspire a soaring feeling of wonder as you hike through the woods. And though they're well south of the Mason-Dixon line, each of these trails (especially at higher elevations) can see snow/frost/cold temperatures. On the Ozark Highlands Trail (early March 2018), I had nights in the single digits, and four consecutive days where the mercury didn't even reach the freezing mark. 

This isn't to dissuade anyone from doing these trails in the dead of winter. Even imperfect time spent outside is better than rotting on the couch. But there are other, possibly better, candidates out there.

Doable. Not ideal.

Prime Candidates:

As far as I'm concerned, there are really only two US long-distance routes that are at their best during the depths of winter (December-February) - the Florida Trail and the Desert Winter Thru Hike. We'll discuss each of them in turn:

Florida Trail

For many years, the Florida Trail has been the default choice for long-distance hikers looking to stretch their legs in the winter. Let's start with some fast facts:

  • 1,100 miles long
  • Federally-designated National Scenic Trail
  • Southern terminus: Big Cypress National Preserve
  • Northern terminus: Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • 70% trail, 30% (mostly paved) roads
  • No appreciable elevation gain/loss
  • Numerous towns/resupply points. Resupply is a breeze, at least if you're okay eating out of nothing but Dollars General for 500 miles.

The FT often carries a bum rap among thru-hiker types. They scoff at the completely flat elevation profile, lack of pristine wilderness, or abundant road miles. They're often scared off by the pounding that feet take on the FT, the swamps/wet conditions, and the bugs. All of those are fair criticisms. 

But here's what they're missing: The forests on the FT are incredible. Far from being boring green tunnels like they often are on other trails, the FT's forests are varied. They're dense, often with interlocking branches above. The palm and oak hammocks are something to behold. And while the swamps are certainly soggy, they're among the most unique and interesting parts of the trail. FT volunteers have worked tirelessly to bridge the deepest water with some truly spectacular bridges. The FT passes through varied ecosystems, from the Everglades in the south to pine forests in the middle to a white sand beach in the north. Along the way, you walk along idyllic rivers, one of which (the Aucilla) randomly dives into a series of karst sinkholes and soon thereafter disappears entirely. How cool is that!

The only realistic hiking season for the FT is the dead of winter. The rest of the year can be ruled out due to oppressive heat, hideous bugs, and high water left over from tropical storms. While you'll probably have a few chilly nights in the panhandle and a few sweltering nights in the south, overall, temperatures are fairly pleasant and mild. The swamps would require a dinghy in the summer; in the winter, they're passable on foot.

The FT can be hiked in either direction (northbound or southbound) during the winter months (Dec-Mar). Most hikers start in south after celebrating Christmas/New Years with their families, working their way north as the weather warms. Hikers generally finish in late February or March.

Desert Winter Thru-Hike

As its name implies, the Desert Winter Thru Hike is designed to be walked during the dead of winter. It stays generally in low-elevation terrain of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. The fast facts:

  • ~750 miles long
  • Unofficial "route" created by Brett "Blisterfree" Tucker (of Grand Enchantment Trail fame)
  • Eastern terminus: Saguaro National Park
  • Western terminus: Joshua Tree National Park
  • 50% dirt roads, 40% cross-country, 10% trail
  • Modest elevation gain/loss
  • Tough resupply situation. By necessity, most towns have walk-in/walk-out access. With few exceptions though, they're tiny hamlets with few services.

Most of the "dirt road" miles are like this. Zero traffic, just double-wide trail.

We need to be very clear about one thing up-front: the Desert WTH is a route, not a trail. There's no dedicated trail tread (indeed, in this hardscrabble country, trails are a rarity). There's a ton of cross-country on this route, though most of it follows natural handrails like canyons or ridges. This route definitely falls into the "experts only" category.

Compounding the challenge, the Desert WTH is still in its adolesence. Though Blisterfree is fastidious about gathering beta, the reality is that the Desert WTH is still only a couple years old, is not yet finalized, and to date has seen zero completions. 

All that said, the Desert WTH is, in my opinion, most beautiful, wild, and rewarding trail mentioned in this article. To date, I've only done the eastern (Arizona) half, and am more than a little stoked to walk the California portion at some point in the future. Unlike wetter climes, the deserts look just as beautiful in the winter as they do in the summer, and the sunsets are often picture-perfect. For hikers with tens of thousands of trail miles to their names, I think the WTH will quickly become a preferred option in coming years.

Shorter Candidates

Beyond the FT and Desert WTH, there are a few shorter trails that are in-season in the dead of winter. Whether these trails qualify as "thru-hikes" is an arcane debate that I don't care to indulge, but these are all trails that can be done on either zero or one resupply. Hiking time would be anywhere from 4-12 days.

San Diego Trans-County Trail

For its length, the SDTCT is a surprisingly diverse trail. Some fast facts:

  • ~160miles long
  • Official county trail, but with many gaps that have been filled in by unofficial connections over the years
  • Eastern terminus: Salton Sea (below sea level!)
  • Western terminus: Torrey Pines State Park, Pacific Ocean
  • 65% trail, 20% dirt roads, 15% pavement
  • Significant private property/access concerns
  • Easy resupply situation
  • Most folks will want to cache water for a couple of long dry stretches.  

Normally dry wash, flowing after the winter rain nourishes this Mediterranean climate. Bring a rain jacket.

The SDTCT begins in a rugged, waterless desert next to the stinking Salton Sea. It crosses badlands, low mountain ranges, a significant river canyon, several neighborhoods of suburban San Diego, an urban greenway corridor, and splashes its way to an end in the Pacific Ocean. It's incredibly diverse; in just 150 miles, it contains both a 40-mile waterless stretch and a Costco. The eastern half is pretty remote; the western half is built up enough that finding a campsite can be a challenge. Even though the entirety of the trail isn't remote, unbroken wilderness, I still really enjoyed it.

Private property is a concern, and unfortunately there will be several times along the SDTCT where you'll feel distinctly unwelcome, even if what you're doing isn't strictly speaking illegal. I'd encourage anyone who seeks to undertake the journey to be respectful, stealthy, and understand the private property issues prior to undertaking.

Burbling brook in the foreground, high-voltage lines in the background. Hiking in the urban/rural interface is certainly unique.

Lone Star Hiking Trail 

I haven't done the Lone Star Trail and have no first-hand experience with the area. Some fast facts:

  •  96 miles long
  • Designated as a National Recreation Trail
  • Has a legit, active trail organization
  • Located in the Sam Houston State Forest, north of Houston.

On the other hand, reader Sisu has hiked the LSTH and offers her thoughts. She appreciated the warm Texas midwinter weather, the modest length and difficulty, and the easy navigation. There was no dangerous wildlife to contend with, aside from a few ticks.

On the other side of the ledger? She found the trail conditions to be a wet, "juicy mess". the scenery to be pretty lackluster, and the water quality to be surprisingly poor. Aggressive dogs on roadwalks and a tough camping situation rounded out the challenges on this route. In summary? 

Bottom line, if someone asked me about my honest opinion about the LSHT, I'd respond with: Don't waste your time. You can do better.

Like with any trail, opinions vary. I hate to say it, but hiking a midwinter trail in North America does often imply lowering your standards a little bit*. No one is going to confuse the Lone Star Hiking Trail for the John Muir Trail, or the Florida Trail for a Greater Yellowstone Loop. But that's okay. 

*In my opinion, the Desert Winter Thru Hike is the exception to this rule, but I'm admittedly a huge fanboy of that route so you should probably take this with a grain of salt.

Photo courtesy of Sisu

Big Bend 100

I've only done a few miles of the Big Bend 100 (where it overlaps with the Outer Mountain Loop in Big Bend National Park), but think the route has a lot of potential. Some fast facts:

  • 100 miles long 
  • 50% trail, 30% dirt road, 20% off-trail
  • Unofficial "route"
  • Western Terminus: Casa Piedra Trailhead, Big Bend Ranch State Park
  • Eastern Terminus: Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park
  • Split roughly evenly between national park and state park land.
  • Tough logistics/transportation between termini

This one's another expert-level trail. I haven't done the "hard" (i.e. off-trail) parts, as the 2019 government shutdown scuttled my plans, but would expect it to be on par with the Hayduke for navigational and water difficulty. The route's "official" website has been taken down recently for unknown reasons, so do your homework if you want to attempt this trail. Reading between the lines, I suspect there's some significant red tape associated with hiking this trail, with the National Park's permit system being of particular concern.

Considerations for winter hiking

Even for hiking trails that are at their best during the winter, things are still a little bit different in the winter vis-à-vis three-season hiking. 

Short Daylight

In early January, the sun is only up in Miami for 10.5 hours. For points more northerly (e.g. the rest of the country), there's even less daylight. This has two implications.

First, expect to scale back your daily mileage. During three-season conditions, I typically do about 25 miles/day on the major western trails, and most of those trails are far more physically demanding than either the Florida Trail or Desert Winter Thru Hike. Despite that, I found that my daily mileage on both the FT and Desert WTH was only around 20 miles/day. I constantly found myself running out of daylight. I could certainly do bigger miles, but it would involve night hiking. I advise anyone looking to thru-hike in the winter to scale back their mileage expectations relative to the long days of summer.

Second, find ways to pass the long nights. Even while hiking, I can't sleep for 13 hours, night after night. I generally find myself falling into an exhausted sleep soon after dark, waking up for an hour or two in the middle of the night, and then falling back asleep til morning. Apparently this sleep pattern was common in the long winter nights of pre-industrial Europe. I recommend bringing a deck of cards, a book, or some other form of entertainment. I also use the nighttime interregnum to do a significant fraction of my daily eating. I'm awake anyway, so why not? It allows me to make better use of my limited daylight to hike and see stuff, rather than taking an hour lunch.

Sunrise and sunset seem to consume half the daylight hours during the winter

Less Human Presence

Particularly for trails in the "Marginal Candidates" bucket, I find that trails are much quieter during the winter. Most casual outdoors-types who live in warm climates aren't particularly enthused about going out in cold weather (at least by their standards). On my Ouachita and Ozark Highlands Trails hikes, I met a grand total of 4 people over 400 miles. Had I hiked in the dead of winter instead of during the winter/spring transition, I probably met even fewer.

With shoulder-season hiking comes certain challenges though. Campgrounds and seasonal businesses may be closed. Water faucets at campgrounds and visitors centers may be shut off. If you're planning to hike a Marginal Candidate durin the winter, make sure you do your research beforehand!

Reduced Physical Fitness

A friend of mine refers to this as the "Winter Manatee, Summer Dolphin" phenomenon, and I don't think it's limited to long-distance hikers. Understandably, most people simply aren't as active in the winter as they are in the summer.

Hikers are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon, though. Many of them will have completed a long-distance hike in September or October, and will have adjusted their expectations over the course of that hike. They now see 25-30 mile days as the new normal, and may not fully appreciate just how tough a 25 is for someone "coming off the couch". After a couple months of reduced physical activity and still eating 3,000 calories/day, trying to do big miles during the dead of winter may be a rude awakening indeed. 

All in all then, even experienced thru-hikers would do well to ease themselves into the hiking life and allow their bodies to acclimate to the rigors of on-trail life.

Worth It?

There's no way around it - long-distance hiking options are limited during the North American winter. Nevertheless, a winter thru-hike can be delightful. I think that the Desert Winter Thru Hike in particular has a ton of potential as a delightful midwinter journey for very experienced route hikers. But even if you're not up for something that long or difficult, the shorter candidates, or a section of the Florida Trail may be just what you need to ward off the winter manatee. And let's not pretend there's not a certain delight in enjoying the warm sunshine while our friends and family in colder states are complaining about yet another foot of snow!


  1. Awesome article! The Brett Tucker route appealed to me the moment I read about it.

    re: Big Bend 100

    SCuttlebut has it that the NPS respectfully requested that the creators removed the website to limit impact to this fragile ecosystem. Other than Chisos Basin and parts of the Big Bend SP, the Big BEnd 100 goes through sparsely visite areas.

    You can find tyhe track if your GoogleFu works well.

    Having just returned from areas where the BB100 goes through via day hiking/camping and backpacking, it is low use overall where the NPS has concerns. THe mesa in Big Bend NP where we backpacked recently is a place the backcountry ranger herself has yet to visit! (she's still new to the park to be fair)

  2. Fun read. I think the marginal trails fufill the "winter" part of winter thru hike. For some of us, that's the goal but I get that other folks who would like more of a typical thru hike in the winter.

    I will say the Official OHT guide includes the winter as prime-thru-hike time and the lack of leaves as a benefit because it's not just one long, green tunnel.

    The benefit of the marginal trails for winter thru hikes is the lack of avalanche prone terrain and conditions. Avalanche conditions become big trip deciders here in Colorado very quickly.

    1. Fair point. I'd say that only a minority of people actively seek out cold-and-snow winter conditions, but if that's what they're going for, it opens up a lot more possibilities.