10 items key for enjoying the outdoors during a Maine winter

I don’t come from a skiing family, or a snowmobiling family. After I grew out of building snow horses and sledding down hills, I pretty much stayed indoors all winter, as docile and grumpy as a hibernating bear.

Then, about five years ago, I was forced into the cold, snowy outdoors when I decided to start writing a year round hiking column for the BDN. (Clearly I hadn’t thought the whole thing through.) Ever since, I’ve been accumulating winter gear — some that has worked and some that hasn’t. And that gear has been crucial to helping me enjoy the outdoors during the winter.

Now, five years later, I like hiking in the winter just as much as I do in the spring and summer. (Nothing can beat fall.)

So for people struggling to get outdoors and actually enjoy the winter in Maine, here are a few pieces of gear that I rely on to keep me warm, comfortable and safe during winter hikes and other outdoor excursions. With holiday season fast approaching, some of these items would make for perfect gifts.

1.) A warm hat that completely covers your ears. Not all winter hats are created equally, my friend. When shopping for a hat, look for warm materials. I prefer a fleece-lined beanie that is nice and long so it covers my ears, such as this year’s L.L.Bean Chunky-Knit Pom Hat. And for very cold days, I wear a Mad Bomber hat lined with rabbit fur that buckles under my chin, covering my cheeks for added warmth.

2.) Ice cleats. Last winter wasn’t particularly snowy, but there was plenty of ice, so to stay on my feet in the woods (and sometimes on the street), I wore ice cleats. Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of ice cleats and learned that certain cleats are good for certain situations. I prefer the Maine-made STABILicers for easy trails and sidewalks, but they tend to pop off my shoes in deep snow or if I’m going over rough terrain. For most hikes, I opt for the more expensive and rugged Kahtoola MICROspikes, which fasten more securely over the top of my boot and have larger metal spikes. Snowshoes with metal teeth can also help you combat ice, as well as snow … which brings my to my next item on the list.

3.) Snowshoes. Typically, Maine is snowy in the winter, and snowshoes can make a huge difference on where and how far you can walk by allowing you to walk on top of the snow rather than post-holing through it to your knees. This piece of gear is expensive, but you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, there are cheap snowshoes out there, and I’ve seen people struggle with these less expensive shoes as their straps and bindings break in the middle of the wilderness. I suggest visiting a local outfitter or sports shop and checking out their inventory, then working with someone to get the right type and size snowshoe for you. You may even be able to rent them out first to make sure you like them. And don’t forget to also purchase or rent poles, which will help you maintain balance and are especially helpful on hills. For those who are interested, I have MSR Ascent snowshoes, which have a heel lift for uphill situations and rugged metal teeth for traction. I also have extra tails I can snap onto these snowshoes for added floatation in deep snow. I’ve also used my mother’s snowshoes made by Tubbs, a company that has a long history of making quality snowshoes.

4.) A face mask. Often it gets so cold in Maine that you need to cover your face. Imagine yourself out on a lake, ice fishing, with the wind wiping over the open space. For these situations, I have a Polar Buff, a fleece-lined neck warmer that you can pull up over your mouth and nose. Another option would be to purchase a full face mask. Do whatever you’re comfortable with.

5.) A headlamp with extra batteries. The day is short in the winter, so it’s extra important to carry a reliable light source with you when you’re out in the woods. Racing against the sun is stressful, so don’t do it. And don’t count on your batteries lasting long in the cold. Keep an extra pair of batteries on you, in an internal pocket of your coat. They may come in handy. I have more headlamps than I know what to do with, and my favorites are made by Petzl and Black Diamond.

6.) Mittens or gloves? Mittens are generally warmer than gloves, so if you don’t need to use your fingers separately for any period of time, go with mittens. When your fingers are together, they help keep each other warm. My favorite mittens are made by Mountain Hardwear, but it looks like that company is mostly offering gloves this year, and that probably has to do with public demand — people wanting gloves so they can more easily use their phones and other electronic devices. In fact, many outdoor companies are offering gloves that register on touch screen devices, such as The North Face’s Etip series.

7.) Chemical hand warmer and foot warmer packets. Used by Maine fisherman since the dawn of time, these inexpensive little packets can be a lifesaver. Just unwrap them, shake them up and stuff them in your mittens or boots. I’m not sure how the chemicals work, but all that matters to me is that they produce heat for hours. To me, there are few things more miserable than frozen fingers and toes. I always have hand warmers in my backpack during the winter, though I seldom need to use them. They just give me peace of mind. Right now, I have handwarmers made by HotHands, but there are many different companies that produce them. They make for an excellent stocking stuffer.

8.) Synthetic or wool layers. Good outdoor clothing can pricey, but it’s important. Clothing made out of certain synthetic fabrics or wool (rather than cotton) will keep you warm and dry by wicking moisture away from your body. And don’t be afraid of wool. Today’s merino wool and synthetic-wool blends are soft, not scratchy. Try it on if you don’t believe me. The best thing to do is start with a good base layer (or long underwear). I own Smartwool merino wool base layers, pants and tops, as well as Patagonia Capilene polyester base layers.

9.) An emergency kit. In addition to investing in a first aid kit, some of which are extremely compact and easy to carry, you will want to also consider survival supplies such as waterproof matches, a compass, athletic tape (which often doesn’t come in mini first aid kits but is very useful) and an emergency thermal blanket — also known as a space blanket. All of these items make for great stocking stuffers, or you could create a whole kit for a larger gift. An emergency kit is great to keep in your backpack, but it’s also wise to keep in your car during the Maine winter.

10.) A handheld GPS device. I dislike using gadgets on the trail, but I’ve come to realize that my Garmin eTrex 20 is invaluable during the winter months, when it’s more difficult for me to judge distance and the trails are often obscured by downed trees and snow. I’ve turned to my GPS for navigation more during the winter than any other month.

This is far from being a complete list. There’s a lot of additional gear you’ll need to enjoy the winter, including a warm, windproof jacket; snow pants that fit well; warm synthetic or wool socks; a good backpack with hip and chest straps; warm, roomy boots; and sunglasses. But I’ve limited myself to 10 because I really could go on and on about outdoor equipment and apparel.

If you have specific questions for me about outdoor adventuring in the winter in Maine, please feel free to email me at asarnacki@bangordailynews.com. I’d love to help you get out there and actually enjoy this beautiful time of year.


Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.