As we are at the peak of winter, wanderers everywhere have been curiously chasing the most difficult of adventures – one of them being a trip to high altitude Himalayan hamlets during winter. After being asked several questions by curious and excited travellers, I decided to answer them all (almost) in the most comprehensive way possible. If you still have further questions, comment below and I will do my best to answer them.
"Do roads remain open in winter?"
The biggest disruption while travelling to hill stations during winter is the roads. Due to heavy snowfall, roads to high altitude places are shut down for an indefinite period of time. There are a few things you can do to find out whether or not roads will be open to the hill station you wish to travel to.
• Popular hill stations such as Gulmarg, Dalhousie, Shimla, Nainital and Darjeeling are easily accessible during winter. Until or unless there the weather conditions are very bad (keep a close eye on how much and how fast the temperature is dropping), the roads to the aforementioned places remain open at all times.
• Accessibility to isolated and higher altitude hill towns and valleys such as Spiti, Ladakh, Yumthang, Lachen, Kinnaur, Uttarkashi and others, remain entirely dependent on the Border Road Organisation, which usually starts clearing the roads as soon as the snowfall stops.
• Before planning your trip, always remember to check the temperatures at the time you will be in the area. On Google Maps, you can select the 'Earth' view and see if it is or has already snowed there. The possibility of clear roads increases if sufficient time has passed since the last time it snowed, implying the authorities would have cleared the way by now.
• The best way to find out whether roads are open to a hill station is to have a local contact there. If you don't have any, then call the nearest hotel or taxi stand you can find online.
"Will I find accommodation?"
Popular hill stations that have an influx of tourists throughout the year, such as Nainital, Dehradun, Shimla, Manali and Srinagar, have hotels and accommodation options that remain open during winter.
As for higher altitude hill towns, homestays are the best options. Hotel owners, due to difficult logistics, close up and head for places with more tourists. But locals, who stay throughout the year, open up their homes for the few people who travel during off-season. Before finalising your plan, check out Airbnb for the availability of homestays and get in touch with hosts for an idea of the road conditions. Also spend time on travel forums to find contact numbers of local homestays.
For example, if you are planning on visiting Lachen during winter, then Shirish, a homestay organiser in Sikkim, is a great person to contact for both homestay bookings and road conditions. Shirish manages listings in Lachen, Zuluk and Dzongu.
"Is it too cold to travel?"
Starting from December, sub-zero temperatures are extremely normal at Himalayan hill stations. The higher you travel, the lower the temperatures will fall. Be prepared for some spine-chilling cold. Homestays have natural heating methods and some hotels might even have electric heaters. If your primary transportation is local buses and shared cabs, then dress very warm. Also, in higher Himalayan valleys, river streams end up freezing in peak winter, which results in disruption of daily chores.
For example, if you manage to find open roads and end up in Kaza during winter, then be prepared to melt ice for daily chores such as washing, bathing, cleaning and even drinking water. Times like these require living and sustaining in the habitat like a local. If you are at a homestay, help out as much as you possibly can.
"How to cope with unpredictable weather?"
The weather in the mountains, especially in the Himalayas, is highly unpredictable. It can snow on a clear day and landslides may follow the first sun after a long period of rainfall. So, take educated chances on when to hit the road and for how long you want to travel on foot.
Never leave your hotel/homestay without a flashlight, battery backup and some packaged food (such as biscuits). Plan your itinerary around the fact that it gets dark as early as 5pm in the hills during winter and you should be indoors as soon as the sun sets.
"What should I pack?"
The ideal way to pack for a vacation in the snow is to collect all the layers you think you will need, plus one. A thermal inner and a sweater plus a thick jacket are the basic requirements. Have your head covered by a woollen cap or scarf the entire time you are outdoors. And don't remove the layers, even if you start feeling warm after some physical exertion. Here's a small list of the basics you will need while travelling to a hill station during winter.
• Thermal wear
• Fleece or thin sweaters
• Ankle-length shoes
• LED torch
• Lots of socks
• Personal medical kit
• Thermos flask
• And a complete car repair kit if you are driving yourself.
"What else to do in the Himalayas during winter?"
The best way to experience winter in Himalayas is by trekking through the snow. The summit point varies from fascinating frozen lakes to Himalayan peaks and you can take your pick according to your level of comfort with various difficulty levels.
Check out this list of upcoming winter treks that you can do right now, 7 Upcoming Winter Treks If You Love Chasing Snow And Sun Burn.