When the temperatures plunge and the snow moves in, do you find yourself throwing your hiking boots in the closet and retiring to a Netflix binge? No more hibernating. While winter hiking does take more preparation and caution than other seasons, there is still much fun and adventure to be had on snow-covered trails. Read below for some tips that will keep you hiking all winter long, no matter the weather.
Cold weather hiking clothes
Say it with me: Layers, layers, layers. To have a successful winter hiking adventure, you need to stay warm and dry; dressing like an onion helps. Start off with the three-layer strategy and build if you feel you need added layers for the conditions you’ll be exploring.
Base layer: The layer closest to your skin. Pick synthetic and wool fabrics and avoid cotton at all costs. For cold weather, consider doubling up with your base layers by combining a lightweight and heavyweight layer. Quick pick: SmartWool Midweight Pattern Zip-T Long Underwear Top and SmartWool Midweight Long Underwear Bottoms Middle layer: This is the layer that keeps you warm and insulated. Look for fleece or microfleece garments and goose down jackets. Quick pick: Patagonia Better Sweater Fleece Jacket Outer layer: This is the most exterior layer that is designed to keep you protected from water and wind. Look for shells made with GORE-TEX product technology for waterproof, windproof, and breathable protection. Quick pick: Marmot Alpinist Jacket
In addition to the layers, you’ll need to make sure you have essential add-ons, too. Pack hats, gloves, face/neck gaiters, and hand warmers to keep all of your limbs and digits warm. Find more tips for dressing for snowsports here.
Adventures on snow-covered trails call for waterproof and breathable boots if you want to keep your feet dry and comfortable. If you’re worried your everyday boots won’t hold up, look for hiking boots designed specifically for winter and mountaineering use. Quick pick: Lowa Renegade GTX® Mid Boot
Winter hiking essentials
If you’re looking for a winter hiking essentials list, the National Park Service offers the items below for winter hiking in the Grand Canyon National Park, but the list is applicable to many cold-weather hiking destinations.
Winter hiking checklist
- Food – especially salty foods. Eat twice as much as normal.
- First Aid Kit – bandaids, ace wrap, antiseptic, moleskin, etc.
- Map – while many trails are well-marked, maps are helpful tools.
- Water – plain and some with electrolyte replacement.
- Pack – to carry the essentials.
- Flashlight/Spare Batteries – allows you to hike out at night.
- Appropriate Footwear - waterproof and breathable boots and gaiters to keep snow and mud from entering at the ankle.
- Over-the-shoe traction devices - it will only take a short and unexpected stretch of ice to make you glad you have extra traction.
- Hiking Poles – to help with footing on icy trails.
- Whistle and/or Signal Mirror – for emergency use, know how to use your equipment.
- Waterproof/Warm Clothing – parka, hat, gloves for the snow and rain, plus an extra set of dry clothing – in case you get wet.
Cold weather hiking gear
With more preparation comes more items. Winter hiking may require you to carry more essentials than normal, so plan ahead to ensure your pack can fit all of the necessary equipment. When packing, make sure your items are waterproof and ready for the cold temperatures. A sleeping bag that has a temperature rating of 40 degrees may have been fine in the spring and summer, but your winter hiking trip will likely require a sleeping bag rated much lower. You should also plan for the worst. Seasoned adventurers can get lost in broad daylight, so snow, sleet, wind, and hail can certainly be disorienting. For this very reason, you may want to pack extra food and dry clothing than you normally would on your typical warm-weather hike (bring backups for your backup). Quick picks:
- REI Expedition Sleeping Bag
- The North Face VE-25 Tent
- Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy
- Garmin GPSMAP 64s GPS
Most of the same advice carries over season to season: don’t hike alone, research and talk to people that can give you trail pointers (aka locals), leave a trip plan for friends or family, carry cash for unexpected emergencies, and so on. But with winter hiking, you should also educate yourself on avalanche activity and safety. In addition to checking the forecast, you should plan to check in on local road conditions to make sure you can safely arrive at your trailhead. An important tip to remember as well: Don’t be afraid to turn around. Winter hiking is nothing to play around with. Turning around is not a failure, it’s safe. Take it from professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich.
As you plan your next winter hiking excursion, look to the experts on weather conditions and hiking tips. Check local forecasts for up-to-date weather information. Going to a national park? The National Park Service offers winter advice, warnings, and an idea of what to expect for places like Yosemite National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Glacier National Park.