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If you’re anything like me, you may have put winter hiking out of your mind – it seems cold, seems wet, seems hard to trudge through all that snow. That was what I thought for many years and just stuck to warm weather hiking. But I’ve finally discovered the joy and beauty that hiking in winter can bring and I hope you’ll give it a chance, too!
Follow the guide below to make your winter hikes safe, warm and even fun 😉
Safety tips for hiking in winter
Be wary of shorter daylight hours. If you’re still a relatively new hiker, and especially a new winter hiker, winter is not the time to attempt a super long hike. The goal should always be to get back to your car before it gets dark and the temperature really begins to drop. (Unless, of course, you’re winter camping, which is a whole other story!) During the shorter days, it might start to get dark at about 4 or 5 PM! That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room compared to the summer months when you have until 8, 9 PM or later to get to where you need to be. Be sure to start early and leave yourself lots of extra time to be back well before dark, keeping in mind that your hiking pace in snow will probably be slower than your usual summer hiking pace.
Protect your skin from the sun, wind and cold. Wear sunscreen – even in winter! Your cheeks can totally still get sunburned. Any exposed skin, like your face and ears may also get pretty irritated from the wind and cold, or worse, you may even get some frost bite going on. Try Dermatone to protect your skin during winter hikers, fully cover up with a full face mask or avoid going out altogether during extreme wind chill.
Be avalanche aware. Do your research ahead of time to see if you’ll be hiking in potential avalanche terrain. In most places in the US, you won’t have to worry about this, but it’s always worth it to do a quick google search of ‘avalanches in [state or area you’re hiking in]’ to see if it’s something you need to worry about. If you still feel called to go hiking and snowshoeing in avalanche prone areas, please, please, please consider taking a course in avalanche safety and rescue.
How to stay warm on a winter hike
Stay hydrated. Avoid caffeine and alcohol which contribute to dehydration. It’s much harder for us to recognize when our bodies are thirsty or dehydrated in the winter as opposed to the summer months. Staying hydrated is one important key to keeping our bodies comfortable and functioning at their best on the trails.
Bring a hot beverage, soup or broth in an insulated mug or thermos. This is a huge pick me up, and great way to stay hydrated, on breaks during your winter hikes. Bonus points if you add a hearty soup or extra olive oil to give your body a caloric boost throughout the day.
Use handwarmers, not only in your gloves but also on inside pockets of your coat or snow pants, too. Hothands handwarmers were a life saver for me when I used to prune apple trees in the winter and I wasn’t moving fast enough to create much body heat on my own. These are also great to throw in your sleeping bag with you if you get cold on an overnight hike.
Use foot warmers in your boots. Sometimes if your feet and toes get totally chilled through, it can make you want to turn around sooner than you planned. Make sure your hiking boots aren’t laced so tight that they are restricting blood flow to your feet and invest in some good winter hiking socks to help keep them insulated, then throw some foot warmers on the outside of your socks.
Keep it moving. You know I’m the queen of extra long breaks and naps along the trail on my hikes… but not in winter! If you break for too long, you’ll get cold real quick and might have a hard time warming back up again after that. Try to keep breaks short and opt for frequent short breaks over one long break on a winter hike.
Bring a butt pad to sit on if you’ll be breaking. When I say ‘butt pad’ I mean a small cut off portion of a closed cell foam sleeping pad, or the Thermarest Zseat, to sit on so you don’t freeze your butt off trying to sit on snowy ground or icy picnic tables.
Put on extra warm layers during a break. I usually only wear a long sleeved synthetic shirt and a fleece pullover while I’m hiking and working up a sweat in the winter. But I always bring my puffy down coat and my rain coat in my pack as extra layers to put on during breaks to stay warm, or in case it gets colder out as I’m hiking.
Protect yourself from the wind with a hard shell jacket or rain coat. If it’s really windy out or is precipitating at all, I wear my raincoat over my puffy down coat to stay dry and warm. Or you could get a good hard shell winter coat, usually these have an inner insulating layer and an outer, waterproof, hard shell that can be worn together or taken apart.
Cover up with a fleece buff or face mask. Keep cold air out, warm air in your coat and insulate your neck, ears and face with a fleece buff or a face mask made for skiing.
Wear goggles if it’s real windy. If it’s borderline unbearably windy and cold out, I’ll throw on small ski goggles to make it more comfortable for my eyes to be open and not tear up so much.
Stay dry! Seriously though. Stay dry at all costs. Keep your hands and gloves dry. Keep your butt dry. Keep your feet dry. It is much easier to stay dry and warm than to try to dry off and warm back up after getting wet.
What to wear hiking in winter
The same rule applies as summer hiking wear: no cotton, all synthetic clothes! Some examples of non-cotton materials to look for when you’re shopping for hiking clothes are nylon, polypropylene, spandex, wool, and silk.
Luckily, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to invest in winter hiking clothes. You may even already have some tucked away in your own closet or drawers. Don’t get me wrong though, if you go into a big name outdoor gear store and start looking at brand name clothes like Patagonia or Prana – they are going to be very expensive. But a good old fleece from the thrift store or a no name brand shirt will work just as well here, as long as it’s synthetic, promise 😉
The biggest differences between what to wear when hiking in summer vs what to wear hiking in winter is everything should be long, long pants and long sleeves, and then at least double layered.
I usually start with synthetic leggings or yoga pants as a base layer on my legs, then put on my regular synthetic hiking pants over them, and if it’s bad conditions out, I may also wear snow pants or rain pants on top to provide even more protection from the elements.
Then on top, I wear a long sleeved synthetic t shirt with either a fleece or synthetic fuzzy pullover over the t shirt. The one thing that may cost you some more serious money, but is totally worth investing in, is a good puffy down winter coat to go over top of your long sleeve layers. Then finally either a rain coat or hard shell winter coat to go on top of everything during more harsh weather conditions.
And, of course, as I mentioned above, a fleece buff for your neck, face and ears. You should also bring a warm hat and gloves/mittens if you’re not wearing them out the door already.
The only time I recommend wearing water proof boots is in the winter! Like I said, staying dry at all costs is key to staying warm. So wear either water proof hiking boots or full on winter boots to hike in, and get some good winter socks to help keep your feet warm.
Extra gear to bring on a winter hike
Snowshoes or microspikes. If you’ll be hiking through fresh, deep snow you’ll want snowshoes to help keep you afloat on top of the snow instead of post holing all the way through it. Post holing is when you walk through deep snow and you fall down into a deep skinny hole, well past your knee and it’s pretty hard and annoying to get out of – only to fall into another hole with each step. Snowshoes will prevent that 🙂
If you’ll hiking on snow that is already packed down into a thick, hard layer, that you can easily walk on without post holing or falling through, then you may be able to get by with just a pair of microspikes on the bottom of your boots to give you extra stability on the snow and ice.
Wagbags. Really every hiker should carry at least one of these when hiking in winter because you never know when nature will call! Usually to poop in the woods and practice Leave No Trace, we would dig a proper cat hole and bury our waste in there. However, in the winter when the ground is frozen and also most likely covered in snow, it’s not possible to dig a cat hole, so we need to pack out our waste. All of it. Please do not leave the horrid surprise thawing human feces for other hikers to find in the Spring! Wagbags are cheap, lightweight, and easy to use, I promise.
If you’ll be doing quite a bit of hiking in winter, check out these 5 winter hiking items I add to my pack in addition to all my usual day hiking essentials.
Leave any questions or let me know how your first winter hike or snowshoe hike goes in the comments below!
For more winter hiking tips, check out:
- Top 10 tips for safe winter hiking
- Things I add to my hiking pack for winter
- 22 Snowshoeing tips for beginners