Winter’s snow-dusted landscapes offer a stunning allure that can inspire even the most fair-weather of hikers to venture outdoors. But hiking in the cold season brings unique challenges that demand preparation, skill, and, most importantly, the right attire. As the temperature dips and frost starts to adorn the trails, it’s vital to understand how to hike safely and comfortably.
This article aims to equip you with essential winter hiking knowledge and guide you through the selection of suitable gear to keep you warm, dry, and protected from the elements. We’ll delve into the key considerations that every winter hiker must bear in mind, from layering techniques to tips for staying warm.
Embrace the winter wonderland with confidence and ensure a memorable and comfortable winter hiking experience. Let’s brave the chill together!
Cold Weather Hiking Tips to Remember
The days are shorter – It sounds obvious, but remember that there is not as much daylight during winter. You should keep this in mind when you are choosing and planning your hike. Choose something a little shorter than you normally would to make you you are back well before sunset. Just in case, pack a headlamp.
Pick a south facing hike – hikes that are in the sun (typically a south facing aspect in the winter) will be warmer and sunnier, giving a little extra warmth from the sun’s rays.
Stay on the move, but not too much – Staying active and moving will help keep your body temperature up, but working too hard will make you sweat and can put you at risk for hypothermia. Make sure to regulate your layers as you move, so you can prevent yourself from getting too sweaty.
Keep batteries warm – the cold can kill batteries rather quickly, so keep electronics near your core to keep them warmer.
Be avalanche aware – snow and winter can equal increase risk of avalanches. Don’t go hiking just anywhere – read up on local guides as to where the best winter hikes are.
Tell someone where you’re going and discuss plans ahead of time. They should know when to expect you back and when to call for help just in case. You should do this no matter the time of year you hike.
Check the weather forecast and adjust or cancel plans where necessary. Remember that the weather can change quickly and unexpectedly, especially at higher elevations.
Research before you go. Know current trail conditions and if possible, download a digital copy of your route so you can stay on track.
Things to Bring When Hiking in Cold Weather
Bring snacks – Bring along some snacks for energy such as trail mix or bars. Hiking will sap your energy, and the cold will drain you even more, so make sure you take in the proper amount of calories.
Carry emergency clothing – Cold weather hikes can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared for them. Always carry extra layers, mittens, a hat, and an emergency blanket in case you get lost or stranded.
Stay hydrated – Dehydration is just as much of a risk during winter hikes as it is during the summer. Make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your hike. The cold will make you not feel as thirsty, so it’s essential to self-regulate your water intake so you don’t get dehydrated. Don’t use a hydration pack that uses a tube, since this will freeze. Instead, carry an insulated water bottle inside your pack, as close to your body as you can, or inside a warm thermos.
Bring warm things to eat and drink, such as a hot beverage in a lightweight thermos.
Remember your sunscreen – Even though the sun’s rays are weaker in winter, they can still cause skin damage. Make sure to apply sunscreen before your hike and reapply it every few hours.
Bring hand warmers – Bring your own heat by sticking some hand warmers in your gloves and some feet warmers in your shoes.
Pack a headlamp just in case, even if you don’t plan on night hiking. The days are shorter so be prepared for early darkness.
What to Wear Hiking in Winter & Cold Weather
Here’s a comprehensive guide to the best winter hiking clothes you could wear hiking in winter weather.
A base layer that wicks sweat away from your body. This will help to keep you dry and comfortable during the hike. We prefer Merino wool base layers because they’re soft and are excellent at wicking moisture! Check out these Merino wool long sleeve tops for men and women.
An insulating layer in the middle such as a fleece jacket or down vest or jacket for warmth. You’ll want this item to fit comfortably over the base layer, but not be too bulky so it doesn’t restrict movement when hiking. A great insulating winter hiking layer is this Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody for women and men.
Outerwear layers should include windproof/waterproof material with plenty of pockets on both sides (left and right) for storing gear like snacks, water bottles, maps, etc… Make sure these outer layers have good insulation to protect you against cold temperatures! We prefer Patagonia’s Torrentshell Jacket. Waterproof and windproof, it makes a great outer layer for just about any hiking season, including winter. Here’s links to the Men’s and Women’s.
A base layer such as a pair of leggings, pants, or tights that are made from synthetic materials or Merino wool. These will wick sweat away from your body and help you to stay warm during the hike without being too bulky. For women, we like these Merino wool tights and these ones for men.
Accessories to Keep You Warm
A good pair of waterproof winter hiking boots are an absolute necessity! They should be insulated for warmth and have a waterproof sole to protect you from getting your feet wet. If you’re planning on hiking through deeper snow, consider wearing a pair of waterproof gaiters to keep the snow out of your winter boots.
A warm hiking hat is an excellent way to keep your head and ears warm during a winter hike. Make sure it’s made from a material that will wick moisture away from your skin so you don’t overheat.
A neck gaiter, balaclava, or scarf can be used to protect your face and neck from the cold wind on a winter hike.
Warm hiking socks that are made from wool or synthetic materials. You want these to fit well and be comfortable since you won’t be able to change them out during the hike! We like Smartwool brand for our winter hikes because they wick moisture away from your body and keep your feet warm. If you are concerned about getting wet feet in deep snow, consider reading more about neoprene socks or waterproof socks that work hard to keep you warmer in those wet conditions.
Pair your socks with a pair of wool liner socks. They help wick moisture when you start sweating but also keep your feet warm in the cold weather.
A pair of gloves or mittens that are insulated and have a waterproof outer layer.
Handwarmers are a lifesaver on a winter hike! They can be used to keep your hands and fingers warm, and they last for hours.
Microspikes are an absolute necessity when it comes to winter hiking. The added traction can mean the difference between a beautiful hike through a winter wonderland or a broken tail bone from falling on a hidden ice sheet!
Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun and wind.
Tips for Cold Weather Clothing
Layers are your friend. When picking out cold weather hiking clothes, it is important to wear layers. This will allow you to adjust your clothing as your body heat starts to warm up or cool down.
Mittens are better than gloves: Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves because there is no space between your digits. To keep your hands dry, use waterproof tape on any seams that are likely to leak and bring along hand warmers when it’s really cold out.
How to Layer Your Clothes for Hiking
It’s important to dress in multiple thin layers as opposed to one thick layer because this helps you regulate how hot or cold you feel based on how active you are during the hike. The more active you are, the warmer your body gets which causes blood flow to increase up through your core area. This means additional heat is being produced by your muscles via exercise so it’s not necessary (or even possible) at times for extra clothing items like jackets, coats, hats, etc… to keep warm!
How Many Layers Do I Need?
We recommend wearing three to four layers on top and two to three layers on bottom depending on how cold it is outside. If you’re hiking in freezing temperatures we suggest adding extra layers. This can also change depending on the individual, as some people run hotter or colder than others. Try out some shorter hikes to get a feel for what you need. When in doubt, always pack or wear extra layers instead of selling yourself short.
Cold-Related Injury and Illness
Frostbite is when the tissue on your body freezes. It happens when that part is exposed to extreme cold for prolonged periods of time and it’s most common on digits like your toes, fingers, and ears. There are three levels to dictate how severe the frostbite is: frostnip, superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite.
Signs of Frostbite
- The area could be tingly, numb, or painful
- The skin is soft (if partially frozen) or had (if fully frozen)
- The color of the skin is pale and waxy looking
Treatment of Frostbite
Don’t pour warm or hot water and don’t rub the affected area. Place frostbitten areas into your armpits or onto a partner’s belly. Get somewhere warm and seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
While frostbite affects a certain part of your body specifically, hypothermia affects your body as a whole. It happens when the body’s temperature drops below normal and can be life threatening.
Signs of Hypothermia
For mild hypothermia, the symptoms include shivering, slow thinking and confusion, and minor clumsiness.
Moderate hypothermia includes obvious changes in coordination and mental status accompanied with intense shivering.
Severe hypothermia signs include a further deterioration of mental status and the pulse may be undetectable. They may shiver, but it could also stop because they’ve run out of energy.
Treatment of Hypothermia
For mild hypothermia, the right treatment can help the person recover and continue on. For moderate and severe, treat as soon as possible and evacuate the person to safety for medical intervention.
If you notice signs of hypothermia, immediately remove the person from anything that could be causing it. Change wet clothes for dry ones, and seek shelter as soon as possible. Protect them from the wind and snow. Give them water and food consistently and frequently so they have the energy to shiver and regain their body temperature.
How to Prevent Frostbite and Hypothermia
The key to staying safe while winter hiking is prevention, so be prepared and listen to your body. You can do this by layering up and drinking warm liquids so you can stay warm. If you feel the signs of a cold-related illness, treat it immediately and keep an eye on your friends so you can help them recognize any signs.
While winter hiking can be different and challenging, it can also be rewarding and enjoyable if you are dressed properly and prepare accordingly. The fresh air can be healing and it’s a great way to stay in shape and get exercise year round. Just make sure you’re dressing in layers and self-regulating so you don’t get too sweaty, and have fun!
Is it okay to hike in the winter?
Yes! While winter hiking does present a unique set of challenges, it can be quite enjoyable as long as you are properly dressed and prepared. It is also an excellent method to stay in shape year round and get some fresh air.
How do you stay warm during winter hiking?
Make sure you dress in layers with an appropriate wind-proof and waterproof exterior layer. Pack hand warmers and toe warmers, and stay hydrated with warm water. Pick a sunny, warmer day, and choose a trail that stays in direct sun most of the day.
How cold is too cold for hiking?
This depends on your gear and where you live. People who live in colder climates or those who have appropriate winter gear would be more suited to hike in lower temperatures. If you decide to hike in the cold, the key is dressing appropriately and planning ahead.
Is hiking in cold weather bad?
Hiking in cold weather can be bad if you are not appropriately dressed, don’t plan accordingly, or choose to hike in poor weather conditions. As long as you take the proper precautions, hiking during the winter can still be an enjoyable experience.