As fall transitions into winter, many outdoorsmen begin their somber migration indoors. Your list of outdoor activities diminishes with each decreasing degree, leaving you wishing for warmer days to get back out there and enjoy the trails you’ve trekked all year.
Your outdoor adventures don’t have to stop once the snow begins to fall, however. Winter hiking can be an interesting way to get back outside and get a new perspective on nature. In addition to seeing landscapes in a newfound (i.e. snow-covered) light, there can be less crowds on the trails and less nuisances to worry about like insects or poison ivy. Winter hiking does present new obstacles to the average hiker, though, and preparation is pivotal when battling the colder elements.
Your winter hiking gear will have an added emphasis on warmth and safety, and with these Pro Tips, you’ll be closer to beginning your winter hiking experience.
WINTER HIKING ESSENTIALS
Your winter hiking equipment won’t be entirely unique to the colder conditions. There are a number of items that are useful no matter the season.
Be sure to pack a compass and map, even if you plan on using a GPS unit. Many winter trails and indicators can be hidden due to snowfall, so understanding your route and being able to navigate through unknown areas is important. You should also always notify a friend or family member before leaving for your adventure so someone knows where you’re going.
You should always carry a well-stocked first-aid kit during winter hiking excursions. This kit should have plenty of core essentials such as bandages, wraps and cloths. Injuries can happen no matter what trek you’re on, so you want to make sure that you’re prepared. You also want to stay protected from the sun, which can be even more prevalent in winter due to snow glare. Include a small bottle of sunscreen in your kit and make sure to apply it to any exposed skin, mostly around your ears, eyes and nose.
A knife or multi-tool is also a great addition to any hiking pack. These can be used in a variety of settings and are huge assets when applying bandages or repairing gear. Other helpful tools for winter hiking include a headlamp, fire starter kit, water purification agents and, of course, extra batteries.
PRO TIP: Look for lithium batteries to power your electronic devices. These batteries are generally more resistant to colder temperatures, meaning their power could last longer than nickel metal hydride and alkaline batteries.
Finally, it’s always essential to pack water and snacks. Consider wrapping your water bottle in a koozie, or even extra layers of clothes, so that you don’t risk it freezing. In terms of snacks, you want to pack food that can sustain your appetite for the entirety of your trek. Energy bars and trail mixes can be quality choices for the avid outdoorsman. To prep for potential emergency situations, you should also carry enough food to last one night outdoors, as well as a way to boil water. A small canister or liquid stove and accompanying pot should do the trick.
STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM: SOCKS AND FOOTWEAR
For winter hikes, it is best to leave your traditional hiking boots or shoes at home. Because of the possible snow and cold temperatures, you should opt for a pair of well-insulated and waterproof winter or mountaineering boots. This style of footwear should feature a gripping tread suitable for snow travel that can also keep your feet warm and comfortable. Consider getting a pair of winter boots that are a half- to a full-size larger than your normal footwear to better accommodate thicker socks or liners without being too tight. When buying this type of footwear, make sure to try them on with a pair of thicker socks you’d wear in those situations to get a better idea for sizing and fit.
For additional traction, consider packing crampons or traction aides for better footing. Snowshoes can also be used in regions with more snow accumulation, but be sure that your pack can efficiently hold them prior to purchase.
When deciding on the right socks, look for thicker materials that provide ample circulation. Wool or synthetic blends are popular options. You can also use sock liners to help prevent blisters and add additional insulation. Regardless, make sure that you have enough room when standing to wiggle your toes inside your boot.
In addition to winter-rated boots and socks, you can also add a pair of gaiters to your footwear list. Worn over the boot and shin, these pieces can help keep snow out of your boot and keep your socks dry. Gaiters that are breathable and waterproof are recommended for winter use, so look for materials featuring these qualities.
LAYER UP: APPAREL AND EXTRA CLOTHING
So, what should you wear hiking in cold weather? One of the best ways to tackle the colder, potentially snow-covered environment is by using a four-layer clothing system for winter hiking. Layering can be a great way to help stay dry, warm and mobile on your next adventure, allowing you to change out items if conditions become too warm, or add on pieces if the temperatures begin to drop.
The baselayer of your getup should be composed of long underwear and lightweight, synthetic pieces. Look for baselayers that feature moisture-wicking capabilities, since this technology is made to help move sweat away from your body and reduce the chances of you chilling off during your trek.
Your mid-weight layer should serve as your insulating agent. Pullovers, fleece jackets and other items of this nature are best in this situation. This layer should be easily removable so it isn’t a hassle to change out baselayers on the fly.
Your outer layer (or shell) should be able to withstand the wind or precipitation you might come across while winter hiking. Hardshell jackets and pants are solid go-tos for these needs because of their superior waterproof and windproof qualities. They don’t have to carry a lot of insulation, as your mid layer should be providing that, but this is again up to personal preference. Look for items with at least a few exterior pockets to house gloves, hats and other accessories, too.
PRO TIP: Look for hardshell pants that feature a zipper along the sides. This can allow for ventilation if you get too hot and also makes it easier to remove your boots for a quick sock change.
You should also carry a puffy insulated jacket as a potential final layer to your winter hiking ensemble. Designed for extreme temperatures and increased insulation, this jacket can be used as an extra outer layer if conditions get even colder. Puffy insulated jackets are easily compacted for efficient packing, making them the recommended backup outer layer for the job. Look for a puffy insulated jacket that features an integrated hood for even more warmth on the mountain.
Be sure to pack a few extra baselayers, as well as an additional mid layer and pair of socks. If you become too sweaty or damp from the snow, having these backup layers can help keep you warm, dry and safe in the cold.
For more layering tips, read our Mountain Safety: Dressing in Layers guide.
CAN’T FORGET TO ACCESSORIZE
To go along with your layering system, your winter hiking gear should also include a few accessories like hats, gloves, sunglasses and balaclavas.
Consider packing two winter hats for your excursion. Your first option should be lightweight and warm, with your backup providing more insulation in case of frigid temperatures. Also look for winter hats that feature some windproof qualities for added protection from the elements.
The same two-piece approach can be applied to your glove options, as well. Your first pair should be lightweight and breathable to prevent sweating during movement, while your second pair should feature a hardshell design with a high-performance liner to help keep your fingers warm. There are a number of glove styles available to battle the elements. Learn more about which gloves will be best for your needs in our winter glove buying guide.
You should also pack a pair of sunglasses or snow goggles for your winter adventures to help protect you from snow glare and gusting winter winds. Trust us, you don’t want to leave these at home.
Lastly, a balaclava or face shield can help keep the wind from biting your cheeks, nose and ears during those intense climbs. Made from synthetic materials providing insulation and core warmth, these items can help keep your face comfortable against many winter conditions. A popular option for those wanting superior coverage is to wear both a balaclava and facemask for all-encompassing protection.
SNOW SURVIVAL GEAR
Even if you only plan on being out for a few hours, it’s still crucial to bring survival gear in your pack just in case an emergency arises. Always carry some form of emergency shelter such as a winter tent, tarp or other structure so you can make camp.
You should also pack a sleeping bag or reflective blanket to help keep you warm. For sleeping bags, consider the weather conditions and look for bags rated 10 degrees lower than your expected temperatures. Sleeping pads can also provide comfort and add an extra layer between your bag and the snowy floor.
It can also be beneficial to bring along a travel snow shovel or ice axe. Snow shovels can help remove snow from trails and be a blessing in survival situations. You can dig out shelter in snow banks or pack down snow around camp for easier movement and less blowing snow.
Your liquid or canister stove can help boil water for clean drinking, and a personal locator beacon or probe can help rescuers find you in rougher conditions. While it might seem like a lot of gear for novice hikers, it’s always best to be as prepared as possible.
CAN I REALLY CARRY ALL OF THIS?
By now you may have realized that winter hiking can require much more gear than your average spring, summer or fall day hike, but it’s always best to be overly prepared. In order to efficiently pack for a winter hike, you might want to get a bigger pack. A 35- to 45-liter pack with plenty of external compartments and strapping points should be enough to house your extra layers, essential gear and survival equipment.
Winter hiking can be an intense, exhilarating experience for those looking to extend their hiking season. By following these packing tips and taking all of the necessary precautions, you should be fit for the trails with all of your winter hiking essentials. Pack up and get out this winter with these Pro Tips.