Winter is swiftly coming to Maine. For me and a lot of other outdoorsy Mainers, that means the shift to skiing and snowboarding. Sunday River and Sugarloaf opened for the season last weekend.

But, for those who don’t ski – and some that do – fall and winter are a chance to extend the outdoor hiking season.

Hiking during the winter feels like a totally different exercise than the rest of the year, with a solitude and silence that don’t exist during the warmer months. The flow of rivers slows to a trickle or stops completely, and many animals migrate to warmer climates or begin to hibernate. The buzz of insects, a constant annoyance during the summer, dies completely. And, while some hardy souls enjoy hiking during the winter, the trails empty almost completely.

The snow also casts the world in a completely different light, painting the woods as an almost alien landscape. In “The Maine Woods,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of how snow covered the “inequalities” of the ground, softening and smoothing the land before your eyes. The days are shorter, and the sun lower in the sky, further metamorphosing the terrain.

The cold also makes winter hiking a more dangerous adventure, with nature seeming to act in opposition to visitors instead of in concert. Baxter State Park’s winter camping handbook lists a number of tragedies that have befallen hikers, including lost footing, avalanche, snowmobile collision and becoming lost or stranded in whiteout snowstorms.

All of this isn’t meant to discourage winter hiking, but to encourage those embarking on it to take due caution and prepare. As ever, other hikers with experience are a great starting point for tackling the outdoors safely. A number of Maine outfitters offer guided winter tours – for example, Maine Sport Outfitters hosts guided tours in Baxter State Park, and Maine Path and Paddle Guides offers weekend treks in the Sebago Lakes Region. There are also great books that provide a good basic knowledge of winter trekking, including the “AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping” by Maine’s own Lucas St. Clair and Yemaya Maurer, and Mike Zawaski’s beginner-friendly “Snow Travel.”

As you’re casting about for hiking destinations, it’s worth remembering that not every fair-weather hike in Maine is as navigable in the winter. Access is the most important piece to consider. Trailheads that sit within closed parks or on logging roads are often inaccessible by car, meaning it might take a long hike to even get to the start of your “real” hike. This can be alleviated a bit by snow machines, but take care to investigate if you’re headed on to land where they’re allowed.

It is also important to consider how well a trail is marked. On less-popular routes, it’s possible you’ll be breaking trail in fresh snow, and without clear blazes it can be impossible to know if you’re still on your trail. This also disqualifies some trails which are on open rock or above treeline – the blazes marked on the ground will be impossible to spot under snow and ice.

Finally, on top of cold weather gear (multiple layers, handwarmers, gaiters, and the like), your feet will need extra tools to navigate the snow. Frankly, your hiking boots won’t cut it. For wide-open, even terrain, cross-country skis are a great way to move. On windy wooded trails and inclines, you’ll want snowshoes. On steeper terrain and icy rocks, microspikes add some traction.

Presuming this preamble hasn’t yet scared you off hiking once the snow flies, some popular spots around the state are good starting points. Acadia’s Carriage Roads, crossing 45 miles on Mount Desert Island, provide a snow-dusted view of Acadia’s splendor, and Cadillac Mountain can be ascended by either hiking trail or on foot up the auto road. At Camden Hills State Park, you can view a frosty Camden harbor after ascending the Megunticook trail, and descend the Slope Trail – a former ski trail that was maintained by volunteers through the 1950s. A busier local favorite of mine is Pineland Farms, where snowshoe and cross country ski trails weave through bucolic farmland.

For those looking to combine their love of skiing and hiking, many of the area’s resorts have established policies for skinning or snowshoeing during the ski season. This may come with a few more rules than exploring other Maine trails (as well as a ticket price), but it’s an exciting new way to view familiar terrain and to “earn your turns.”

While my energy will shift largely to skiing during the next few months, I’ve resolved to spend more time exploring other terrain in the Maine wilderness. While it takes some serious planning and a bit more energy than summer hiking, the rewards are more than worth it.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his brother, Jake Christie. Josh can be contacted at:

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