The winter woods draw me in for refreshment, beauty and a workout that keeps me warm and fit while the rest of the world trudges inside to wait out the three months of cold.
The trees barely make a sound, and besides an occasional twig snapping or leaf crunching underfoot, the woods are practically silent. My breath takes in long, wispy puffs in the chilly air; the whistling breeze becomes more refreshing with every step I take. The trees form twisted, gnarled shapes with their giant brown limbs, some with the grace of a dancer, others with the rigidity of a soldier.
Wintertime hiking is filled with beauty. As the rest of the world trudges inside to wait out the three months of cold, the woods become a different presence. Noble. Patient. And I am drawn to the woods, despite the near-freezing temperatures maybe because of them. Whatever the allure, nothing can keep me indoors when the ground is frozen.
It doesnt take a crazy college student with outdoors experience to go winter hiking, either. Anyone can do it: young or old, in or out of shape. Hiking is a unique outdoor activity that demands neither training nor conditioning. You can take your family hiking, particularly in the relatively flat trails around Chesapeake Country. While the toasty fire awaits at home, you could be getting a great workout while enjoying the peace and beauty of a sleeping forest. Regular hiking for an hour can burn up more than 360 calories of holiday cheer. Who says winter is for hibernation?
Or you can scale hiking up or down for your own fitness plan. By consulting trail maps beforehand, you can plan a route that will fit your own abilities and desires. In addition to physical benefits, it can do wonders to tame life stressors and relieve tension. Finally, its one of the cheapest ways to spend your time; a small park entrance fee may be all you have to pay for a memorable wilderness experience.
Journey to the Cliffs
It was a crisp December afternoon when I went hiking in Chesapeake Country. It was going to be a new experience for me; I am used to traveling hours to hike the most popular, beautiful trails around the region, but never have I hiked in Southern Maryland. I bundled up in clothes fit for an Alaskan trek and filled my water bottles to the brim. My location was Calvert Cliffs State Park, alluring for its history and geology as well as location on the Bay.
Finding the park was quite easy. Many state parks are remote, but this one is right off Route 2/4, Calvert Countys main road. Mine was one of three cars in the lot, and the idea of having the woods nearly to myself was a thrill. Several trails lead to the cliffs, some on service roads and some winding along marshlands. I chose the marshy route, which was coincidentally the shortest, at nearly two miles each way.
As I began my journey to the cliffs, I noticed the lushness of the forest. Expecting to see dead leaves clinging to drab brown tree trunks, I was surprised at how much greenery filled my view. The rhododendrons, prickly trees and velvety moss made me wonder what season it really was. It was especially nice walking on the soft, sandy trail that padded my eager feet.
After a mile or so, the trail turned into a long, rickety boardwalk alongside a serene stretch of marshland. The woods were buzzing with sounds of rustling leaves and gurgling water, and I walked gingerly, trying to spot wildlife. In particular I looked for northern copperheads, the only venomous snake found in Southern Maryland, seen in late fall and early spring. Luckily, I only caught sight of several squirrels and birds.
Chesapeake Country may not have the most rugged terrain of the state, but there are plenty of places near and far to go hiking. From Calvert Cliffs State Park to the Appalachian Trail, Maryland has miles of beautiful trails for even the most skeptical hiker to explore.
On the Trail
Regional hiking clubs can help you find your way or a walking buddy. Thats why Jenny Ford joined the Chesapeake Hiking and Outdoor Society when cabin fever struck in February six years ago.
I was a single female, so I joined for safety reasons, she said. Nor does solo hiking allow her to be social and meet new people.
The people Ive met through the club over the years are really the nicest people Ive met in anything Ive ever done, she said, laughing about how Chesapeake Hiking and Outdoor Societys acronymic title, CHAOS, lends itself to the atmosphere of the trips.
Ford has always enjoyed hiking, even before she joined the group. She grew up camping and hiking with her parents and had been cross-country camping twice before the age of eight. After stopping for school, she started hiking again. One of her first and favorite places shes hiked around here is Prettyboy Reservoir in northern Baltimore County, where she fell in love with wintertime icicles and waterfalls.
To keep warm and energized on the trail, she recommends bringing lots of food, especially on those chilly winter days. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the most satisfying things on a hike, and something sweet, like candy bars or chocolate chip cookies, she said, noting that salty foods like nuts or pretzels also taste great on the trail.
One of the most important things to bring with you on a hike, however, is often unappreciated and overlooked: Thats water. It may be hard to bring that chilled beverage to your lips when your cold body is screaming for warmth, but denying yourself water is dangerous.
I used to not drink enough water on the trail, Ford said. I got the worst headaches.
Headaches are only one of the many signs of dehydration. Other symptoms include crankiness, sweat, dark urine, chapped lips and extreme thirst, according to the Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities Wilderness First Responder Handbook.
How much water is enough? On an active day, three liters of water is minimum for most people to drink, depending also on exertion, altitude and sweat. Thats 12.7 cups per person!
Winter hikers also need to be wary of hypothermia, a body chill so severe that your regular functioning is weakened. There are lots of ways to avoid hypothermia, but one of the best is also one of the hardest: staying as dry as possible.
Dress Warm and Dry
To learn how to dress for the cold and stay dry, I took a trip to the College Park REI, an equipment and clothing superstore for outdoorsy folks. Ethan White, a three-year REI employee, former park ranger and avid outdoorsman, explained how to choose the right clothes for winter hiking, from underwear to outerwear.
Forget cotton, he said. One of the worst things you can do as a winter hiker is to wear a cotton turtleneck on the trail.
Why not cotton? Isnt cotton supposed to be hearty and rugged?
Apparently, no matter how rugged they are, jeans and a sweatshirt wont cut it on the trail. Cotton absorbs and retains moisture, leaving sweat and rainwater clinging heavily to your chilly skin. A layering system using other common materials works better to keep warmth in and moisture and air out.
White suggested that I start with a polyester or silk base layer, the layer closest to the skin. These aquaphobic materials pass any moisture away to the next layer, keeping you warm and dry. Polypropalene and Capilene are two popular forms of this material, and their soft textures feel wonderful on the skin.
For those really cold days, a woolly layer can follow. Wool fluffs up when it comes in contact with water, but it is not windproof so does not act as a good outer layer. Over wool, wear the ever-popular fleece. REI has many different types of fleece jackets, each with its own advantages. Fleece is not wind or rain-proof, but it provides great insulation with the comfort youd feel being wrapped in a cozy blanket. Finally, layer on an outermost windproof layer to ensure that all your body warmth is trapped inside.
There are fewer options for pants. White recommended silk or polyester long underwear first, and zip-away pants for the second layer. He explained that instead of taking off layers during a hike, it is better to zip them open at the knees or ankles to retain some of the warmth. Besides, White said, lightweight leggings plus fleece pants might be too hot for the midday heat.
Now that weve kept warmth in, the wet question remains: How to keep water out? White suggested bringing a lightweight waterproof shell along in case of rain. Rainproof jackets may not breath well and are usually unnecessary in sunny weather. Bring them along in a pack anyway because changing weather particularly in mountainous regions like the Appalachians or watery regions like the Bay can be quick and unpredictable.
In the cold, its the little things that make a big difference. Dont forget your head when youre out in cold weather. You lose a majority of your body heat through your head, White said, so its very important to have a hat. Neck gaiters soft fleece that covers your neck are also good to wear or carry in a pack.
When you get chilled, warm blood circulates to the center of your body to protect vital organs. This system leaves your arms and hands with the cooler blood, making them more vulnerable to the cold and, consequently, frostbite. Wear gloves or mittens to protect your hands, especially wind- and water-resistant fleece material. If you can stand it, pick mittens over gloves because keeping your fingers together in one compartment creates an insulated pocket of warmth.
Nor should you forget your feet. Those tender tootsies must be treated with respect; otherwise they might not hold up in a long, wintry hike. To ensure your feets happiness on long excursions, make sure you wear worn-in hiking boots with thick, wool socks. New boots need a few weeks to become worn in, and the process can be painful. Dont have boots? Old sneakers will do, though they do not typically have the ankle support that boots provide.
No matter how old your boots or shoes are, it is common to get blisters, but treat them immediately to prevent discomfort and infection.
An early sign of a blister is a hot spot, a feeling of concentrated heat that increases in intensity as you try to ignore it. As an example, rub your hands together quickly; the burning you feel is akin to the sensation of a hot spot. They can strike up anywhere on your feet, particularly in places where your skin is thinnest: behind the heel or underneath a toe. Cover up hot spots as soon as you notice them. Band-Aids will work, but I carry moleskin, a sticky sheet of padding that you can cut and place directly on the skin. Moleskin, sold in most drugstores, has proved a lifesaver in many of my past hiking trips. No moleskin? You can be creative: I have even used duct tape. Cover those hot spots as soon as you feel them to prevent further rubbing; your feet will be much happier in the long run.
You dont need expensive equipment to go hiking, but you do need to keep warm and well shod. Invest your money on clothes, and youll be happy on the trail.
Back at the Cliffs
I neared the beach with growing anticipation. The salty air seemed to invite me to the cliffs. The trail finally opened up to the vast Bay water and a narrow strip of white sand. The view was unlike any Ive seen in our small state. The cliffs stood majestically over the water, exposing millions of years of life. Standing there, I found it hard to believe that this entire section of Maryland used to be underwater. I searched for shark teeth, fossils abundant in the sands of the beach, but to no avail. I should have taken fossil-finding lessons.
The walk back was snake-free, to my relief. One thing it was not, however, was trash-free. In particular, I noticed food wrappers frozen in a pond near the parking lot, which reminded me of the Maryland State Park Leave No Trace code.
Hikers, although not seemingly harming the environment, cause wilderness impact with every step they take. To minimize this effect, Maryland state park officials have adopted a set of rules for park visitors. To Leave No Trace, hikers should stick to the trail and never take anything from the woods but pictures and your trash. Maryland parks provide trash bags but no trash cans in case youve forgotten your own garbage sack.
My journey to the Calvert Cliffs left me revitalized and inspired to explore other trails in the region. Other parks in southern Maryland attract hikers for different reasons. Greenwell State Park, located on the Patuxent River, has over 10 miles of hiking and an abundance of wildlife. For a more difficult hike, St. Marys Park encircles a lake and has eight- to 11-mile hikes.
Like hiking through history? Point Lookout State Parks five miles of easy hikes surround the grounds of an old Civil War prison camp. Cedarville State Forest, in Brandywine offers shorter hikes on the brink of Zekiah Swamp, an ancient Piscataway Indian winter camping ground.
Farther drives give you a better workout in different scenery. The thousand-mile Appalachian Trail runs through Maryland near Frederick where you can find several day-hiking stretches. You might even meet a thru-hiker braving the entire trail. The Bald Cypress Nature Trail in the Pocomoke River State Forest on the lower Eastern Shore, the Northern Central Railroad Trail in Baltimore County and Wye Island in Talbot County on the middle Eastern Shore show you three other regions of our diverse state.
No matter where I go, hiking in the winter woods renews me. Whether its in the snow or over a frozen trail, the thrill of exercising in the chilly air has always left me feeling closer to nature. Try it this winter. Dust off the hiking boots, pull out the fleece, start stretching and go for a walk in the woods.
Finding Your Way or a Walking Buddy