Tips for winter hiking in South Africa

Tips for winter hiking in South Africa

  • 16 May 2019
  • |
  • Henko Roukema

When it comes to the mountains First Ascent ambassador and mountaineer, Henko Roukema is able to provide sound advice from his years of experience exploring both local and international mountain ranges. In this blog article, he shares with us his top tips to winter hiking and gear to assist you with braving the cold weather.

First Ascent - Winter Hiking

Winter is a fascinating time of year, full of endless opportunities for outdoor adventures and new experiences, who says you have to break the bank to experience something different. Planning and preparation are fundamental for successful winter activities, so be wise when you are out making chilly winter memories. Respect the nature that you are playing in - ALWAYS.

We might not live in the arctic but people have suffered from severe hypothermia in the mountains in “sunny” South Africa. Who doesn’t love sleeping out under the peaceful, starry, night sky, staring at the star constellations? The possibilities are endless; you can camp nearly anywhere you wish, even in the winter. That’s right, camping isn’t just for summer outings! If you feel that you are not experienced enough to venture out alone, join the Mountain club of South Africa on an outing with likeminded folks to gain more experience.

Planning and Preparation

Winter camping, unlike summer, takes a little extra precautionary planning for obvious reasons; the daylight hours are shortened and temperatures and terrain have the potential to be more dangerous. If there is snow it’s a whole new game. Below are a few factors to keep in mind while planning and preparing for your winter camping and hiking adventure.

Do your research

Familiarize yourself with the area that you will be hiking and camping, as well as the route, which you will be taking. Is it accessible for members of the public and can you get a valid permit. Unfortunately in South Africa most people will believe you’re crazy to go camping during the winter in snowy conditions, which can cause a bit of red tape. While doing research on the area which you are planning to explore, you should also check what rescue options there are in the area. Will there be signal? Is it easily accessible by emergency crew? Always remember to have mountain rescue’s number saved in your phone.

Mountain rescue contact details:

KZN – 031 307 7744
Western Cape – 021 948 9900
Gauteng – 074 125 1385 / 074 163 3952

Mountain weather can be very unpredictable, so do your best to set yourself up for the best chance of success. Be efficient when you are doing your research and pre-trip planning and ensure you share your plans with friends or family, so your location and itinerary are known.

I prefer using YR weather forecast or alternatively one can use Mountain Forecast for weather predictions.

First Ascent - Winter Hiking

Let’s talk gear!

It is going to be ice cold, but with the right gear, you will be able to enjoy the whole experience!

Footwear

You are going to be on your feet for almost the whole day in order to reach your magnificent campsite. To maintain positive and get the most out of your adventure, you want to make sure you have warm, dry, comfortable feet and adequate footwear. Wet, sweaty feet can lead to cold feet, which in turn can lead to bigger problems, such as the rest of your body cooling down and the potential for hypothermia. For snow conditions, a pair of waterproof boots is essential, also think of the terrain when covered by snow one can’t always see what lies beneath the white blanket, a boot that offers more support is fantastic for any surprises which you may encounter.

Sock selection is important; don’t wear socks that are too tight, or socks that are too thick for your boot. One wants to ensure that there is enough space for air to circulate. I find that a thin sock is great to absorb any moisture, with a nice and warm merino wool sock for warmth, making a winning combination, to ensure happy warm feet. Make sure to test your footwear and socks before leaving home to avoid ill-fitting surprises. Also, always take a warm extra pair of dry socks for the night in your comfy sleeping bag.

Layer for more heat!

Layering is vital - keeping yourself warm and dry is crucial and can be the difference between an unreal winter hiking adventure and a near death experience.

The golden rule of keeping warm during outdoor winter activities, is to dress in layers, always keeping a couple spare dry layers available in your pack, for when the sun goes down and the temperature plummets.

Baselayers
First Ascent Derma-tec Long Johns and Top

Often people neglect this vital layer, baselayers are a moisture-wicking layer and known to regulate your core temperature. Avoid cotton fabrics that retain moisture and take a long time to dry. The most effective baselayers are made of synthetic or merino wool fabrics. By picking a moisture-wicking and quick-drying garment, your body temperature will remain regulated, keeping you comfortable and warm for the duration of your adventure.

Mid-layer
First Ascent Transit Down Hoodie

This is your insulating layer, designed to retain your body heat. There are numerous options to choose from, but the most popular options are a fleece or down jacket. Down jackets can be packed quite small and are convenient for their size and insulating abilities.

First Ascent - Winter Hiking

Waterproof-Breathable Shell
First Ascent Hurricane Jacket

This is your shield against the elements; ensure this layer is waterproof but also breathable. If you do not have an adequate outer shell, your whole layering system will fail. Without this layer, moisture is able to reach the skins surface, cooling your body temperature down or moisture generated by your body, cannot be wicked away, causing the same effect.

First Ascent - Winter Hiking

Awareness of your surroundings

With winter, hiking comes a mix of weather and potential dangers. Find yourself a strategically picked little piece of shelter from the elements that will keep you safe. Look at your camping location; is it sheltered or barren? Be smart. Even if it is an unreal spot with panoramic views of the frozen landscapes, always consider possible dangers around you. Always try to plan for the wind when setting up your tent, ensure that the door faces away from the wind and use natural wind barriers such as a boulder or rocky outcrop to your advantage.

First Ascent - Winter Hiking

4-Season Sleeping Bag and Mattress
First Ascent Ice Breaker Sleeping Bag and Ultralight Hiking Mattress

A warm cozy night is a deal breaker for any winter adventure. Insulated sleeping mattresses, work great to prevent the cold from spoiling your night, especially if your tent is pitched directly on the snow. If you feel you’re still cold try using a combination of a closed cell foam mattress and a self-inflating air mattress.

A warm sleeping bag is a must. I have been using the Ice Breaker for the past 8 years now, even in temperatures as low as -20 degrees. It has a cord that you can pull tight to reduce the size of the opening by your face to create a warm and cozy cocoon that prevents the heat from escaping. If it is really cold there is a chance that your bag might get wet from condensation inside the tent, try and dry your bag out before sleeping in it again. If you still feel cold one can always use a sleeping bag liner for some extra warmth.

4-Season Tent
First Ascent Helio 2-person 4-season Tent

Your tent is your home, your cave; your sanctuary. Four season tents are made with strong, solid materials and features like extra guy-lines to withstand the harsh, winter climates, keeping you dry and safe. Tents are streamlined to provide the best protection, for when then weather turns and the wind picks up.

Remember while in the snow your normal tent pegs might not work if the snow is too deep, in such cases its best to use rocks to hold down the guy-lines. One can even adjust the loops on the flysheet by using extra cord, in order for you to secure the flysheet with rocks, without damaging the flysheet.

First Ascent - Winter Hiking

Extremities

First Ascent Peruvian Beanie and Mogul Ski II Glove

As soon as I feel cold the first item of clothing I will put on is a warm layer for my head. A warm beanie goes a long way to make life pleasant in the cold climate. Gloves are also just as important, one can lose all feeling in your hands if the weather is extremely cold, as the body keeps all the warm blood close to your core. This can be very challenging, if you are trying to pitch a tent.

My go to winter/snow adventure hike - Matroosberg

The Hiking Trail starts at 1250m above sea level and takes you up to the Matroosberg Peak at 2249m. It is a clear trail that has been used by the Ski Club since 1929. The trail can be done in 8 to 10 hours up and down. You do not have to go up the mountain, there is a fair amount of other trails (lower down) that will take you pass some amazing rock formations and hopefully some snow. A few times every year there is snow all the way down to the parking area, which can be reached by any car. Always phone in advance as it is private property and the farmer has the final say when it comes to safety. It can get quite crowded but the property is big enough to escape the crowds and 4x4’s. If you are doing an overnight hike, you’re guaranteed to have the place all to yourself!

Fore more information or to make a booking visit: https://matroosberg.com/

First Ascent - Winter Hiking