Winter hiking a cool adventure

While we are between the big hunting and fishing seasons, the next few weeks will be perfect for day hikes and night hikes on the trails of Arkansas.

With three world-class trails, Arkansas is a major hiking destination. The Ozark Highlands Trail winds 218 miles through hills, hollows and valleys through the Ozark National Forest.

The Ouachita National Recreation Trail covers 192 miles through the Ouachita National Forest, from Pinnacle Mountain State Park near Little Rock to Talimena State Park in Oklahoma.

The Buffalo River Trail roughly parallels the Buffalo National River for approximately 36 miles from Boxley to Pruitt.

All of these trails offer spectacular scenery, solitude, and abundant contact with wildlife. In addition to the main trails, many smaller trails give you intimate insight into our state parks and national forest recreation areas. For example, an extensive network of trails at Blanchard Springs Recreation Area provides a great way to explore the National Forest in a remote section of Baxter County. We also really like the Caney Creek Trail, which runs through the Caney Creek Wilderness in Pike County.

Why winter?

There are many good reasons to hike in winter. Our trails are lightly used in high season, and even less so in winter. It’s possible to hike three days on any major trail and see no one else.

Also, the views from the highlands are spectacular due to the lack of foliage. Views hidden by leaves in summer are open in winter. Sure, the woods are bare and gray, but you don’t feel as cooped up during winter as you sometimes can in spring, summer, and fall. You can also see small streams, waterfalls, and rock formations that the foliage obscures during the warmer seasons.

Winter is also a pleasant time to hike as there are no chiggers, gnats or mosquitoes to bother you. You might encounter ticks on hot days, but not as many as you will encounter in the summer.

Winter is a surprisingly sultry time to be in the woods. It’s very quiet, but once your ears get used to the solitude, you’ll hear the subtle chirping of nuthatches and the high-pitched cries of tall woodpeckers. Absent the clamor of warm weather, your mind fills the void with moments of deep introspection and fleeting depth. It all makes sense at the time, but it has a way of evaporating when you return to civilization.

Your legs, initially spindly on the rough, rocky terrain, quickly mold to the trail. Your footsteps become light and sure as they instinctively seek and gain ground against rocks, divots and depressions.

You will see lots of white-tailed deer. If you are lucky you will also see wild turkeys. You probably won’t see any black bears this time of year, but rest assured they are close. You’ll find out at night if you don’t clean your dishes and leave food unsafe. A bear attacked my camp one night while hiking with my sons in the Caney Creek wilderness. It took me quite a while to get all my gear back.

What do you need

Any hike on an undeveloped trail requires sturdy, comfortable shoes. Hiking shoes should be light, with a not too hard sole. Good ankle support is very important for safety and comfort.

The hike is warm even in cold weather. Dress in light layers, with base layers that wick away moisture. I use Ibex Woolies, which trap heat but not moisture. Wear a jacket in a backpack to protect you from the cold at sunset or when resting.

Always check the weather forecast before setting out on a hike. Getting caught off guard in a winter downpour is miserable. If rain is possible, pack light rain gear in your backpack. Definitely pack rain gear for night hikes, rain or shine.

Pack plenty of water for day hikes. For night hikes, pack a microfilter or LifeStraw. This will allow you to filter drinking water from streams and springs. A LifeStraw lets you drink straight from a water source while filtering out giardia, cysts, and other nasty stuff that can make you really sick.

For night hikes, weight is a major concern. You want light clothing, light boots, and light shelter. I use a Hennessy hammock, which eliminates the need for a flat floor to sleep on. Thread the hammock between two trees and attach a waterproof rainfly. This will save you from wet ground and deter rain. The downside of a hammock is that cold air circulates through the bottom, and because you sag in the middle, it can be difficult to stay inside a sleeping bag.

Freeze-dried foods in sachets are very light, but they are also very tasty and easy to cook. All you need is boiling water. You can boil water over a campfire, but a small propane stove will allow you to enjoy hot food and drinks in humid weather.

My heaviest object is a gun. Some trail riders have very strong feelings about guns. If it makes you feel safer, wear it, but be aware that the presence of a firearm can make unarmed people vulnerable. Wear it for protection, not as a statement.

A remote trail is a difficult and potentially unforgiving environment for mistakes and missteps. Cellular signals are often not available. This is why it is always advisable to hike with a partner. It’s really nice to share the experience with a friend, but it can also be a lifesaver if you get immobilized or otherwise injured.

To avoid accidents, don’t take unnecessary risks, like trying to climb steep, jagged rocks to get a better view of something interesting or wading through a swollen stream. In 1993, New York State Supreme Court Justice James Boomer drowned while trying to ford a swollen Hurricane Creek while hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail. For this reason, the Ozark Highlands Trail has a high water route through the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area. Nature is very generous in handing out Darwin awards, so don’t nominate yourself for one.

Walk at a comfortable pace and give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination. There’s no better way to experience the Arkansas backcountry.