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Even a winter that starts off with a record freeze is no reason to hide inside when a spectacular beach or mountain trail beckons.

Bill Myers in Kenwood actually prefers a cold-day hike.

"When it's cool, you want to rev up the engine and move. Hiking warms you right up. More fun than in the heat of the summer day when you're already warm and sweating to start out."

Myers is half of the popular "Bill & Dave Hikes" team with Dave Chalk. The two lead monthly hikes through state and Sonoma County parks (schedule at billanddavehikes.com).

There are benefits to hiking in winter, especially once we get rain, Myers said.

"The trails become soft, not dusty anymore," he said. "We get waterfalls. Everything starts to turn green."

And a special winter bonus, "No rattlesnakes."

But winter walking requires dressing right, "to avoid becoming cold and wet in the middle of nowhere." The first thing, said Myers, is ditch the cotton, which he calls "death cloth."

"When cotton gets wet it stays wet," he said, "and if the temperature drops you risk hypothermia," abnormally low body temperature which causes the heart and other organs to fail.

He advises moisture-wicking wool and nylon blends. For walking in the rain he favors everything Gore-Tex — shoes, pants and rain jacket.

Sonoma County Regional Parks ranger Jeff Taylor said, "What you don't want to wear is one big jacket and a T-shirt underneath."

Dressing in layers is best for the typical winter day that can start at near-freezing, slowly warm up and then chill back down.

"That heavy winter jacket you wear in the Sierras or the snow will not have the flexibility you need in Sonoma County," he said.

And leave the blue jeans for another day.

"Jeans can be a danger if they get wet," Taylor said. "Not only do they become heavy but they make you very cold."

Ranger Taylor, who gives a weekly hiking report on KRCB radio, said getting outside in winter is the ideal tonic for those who suffer from the winter blues known as SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.

The trails are less crowded in winter so "it can be very tranquil, but also stimulating and invigorating," he said. "Serotonin, that happy hormone, works that much harder in the cold."

Scott Lewis, a Santa Rosa geologist who's been hiking since he was a Boy Scout, said in winter, "you go a little slower and don't go as long. There's frost on the ground. The leaves are crunchy underfoot."

But then, you can also get a sudden warm day like he did on a recent hike on the Palisades trail in Calistoga, when the temperature shot up to 70.

The changing winter landscape can be a treat for the eyes. Nancy Bauer, hiker and garden author ("The California Wildlife Habitat Garden") said winter is the time to appreciate "the structure of our native trees and shrubs, like the beautiful form and shiny red bark of the manzanita, the moss on boulders, the fragrances of pines and redwoods after rain."

In late winter, look for early wildflowers like hound's tongue, trillium and shooting stars.

Among her favorite winter hikes are Shell Beach to Goat Rock "early in the day before the wind comes up," and Bodega Head during whale migration times. Armstrong Redwoods park is "great for misty, foggy or sunny days. Annadel when it's had time to dry out between rains."

Bauer's winter gear includes fleece for cold dry days, an insulated rain resistant jacket for wet days, an old Gore-Tex jacket for cold and wind and her trusty SmartWool socks made of Merino wool, "comfortable even when wet."

Taylor cautions hikers, "No matter the weather, know where you're going. Contact park information for trail updates before you go and always tell someone what trails you're taking and when you expect to be back.

"Don't rely on your cellphone," he said. "There may not be service or your phone could get wet."

And keep in mind the shorter days, he added. "It starts to get dark around 5 p.m. You want to get back to your car before sunset."

But don't let the season scare you off, said Myers, a former pack-a-day smoker and stressed-out businessman with a heart problem, who came to recognize hiking as "the best over-all exercise."

At 65, he rarely has a cold, walks at least three miles every day and said, "Hiking is great for your legs, great cardiovascular, all those things you need to keep climbing stairs and staying mobile as you get older."

<i>Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.</i>

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