Just because the temps have dropped and the snow has started, it doesn’t mean hiking has to stop. Winter hiking comes with some challenges and additional planning, but the beauty of snow covered trees, frozen rivers, and frosted peaks make it worth it. So let's get your winter gear dialed in and get you back on the trails.
Hiking in the winter requires some extra precautions to have a safe and fun day on the trail. Here's some tips to help you get started.
Always check the weather and trail conditions before venturing off.
Below is a great website for checking the weather on mountains all over the
world. This website also shows forecasts at different elevations.
Usually you can find local trail conditions by searching on google or using
Facebook groups. Here's a few examples:
In weather conditions with poor visibility, it can be very easy to get off the
trail and get lost. If snow levels are high enough, trail markers and signs
may be buried. Pay close attention and carry a map.
Don’t expect the weather conditions you see at the trailhead to be the same
at the summit. Make sure to carry extra gear for changing weather
Daylight hours are much shorter in the winter so start early and carry a headlamp.
Carry warm liquids in a thermos. Some of my favorites are hot cocoa, apple cider, chicken broth, tea or coffee. Sipping on them can warm your core.
Bring food that you can eat while moving and food that won’t freeze in colder temps. Make sure to stay nourished which will help you keep warm! You burn more calories hiking in the winter so it's a good excuse to bring your favorite snacks.
The batteries on your technology devices will drain faster in colder temps. On colder days, keep your phone and headlamp batteries in an extra wool sock and keep it close to your body.
Safety is always my number one priority on the trail and hiking in the winter is no exception. If you're an experienced hiker, you probably follow safety precautions already, but here's some extra tips to follow in the winter.
Always tell someone (that is not with you) your hiking plans and what time you think you’ll return. Check in with them after your hike (not only for winter).
Stay Hydrated - Just because it’s cold out, doesn’t mean dehydration isn't a factor. Dehydration causes your blood to thicken and move heat around less efficiently. This can speed up the onset of hypothermia so make sure to stay hydrated. If you're going to be hiking for a long time, it's a good idea to add electrolytes to your water.
Don’t let your drinking water freeze. Wide mouth water bottles paired with an insulating sleeve are best to help prevent your water from freezing. I don't recommend using a water bladder in the winter, but if you insist, make sure to have an insulated tube. After each time you take a drink, blow back the water from the tube into the bladder so your water line doesn’t freeze. Lastly, filling your bottle or bladder with warm water will help prevent freezing.
Snow reflects the sun’s UV rays and makes them even stronger. Make sure to wear SPF protection on your skin and lips and carry sunglasses.
Don't assume river crossings are frozen. Always test it before putting your full body weight on it. Make sure to keep dogs on a leash near partially frozen water.
Be prepared to turn around if conditions turn for the worse. The mountain will always be there another day. If it's not safe to keep going, know that it is perfectly acceptable to return to the trailhead without reaching the summit.
If you hike in unsafe conditions or you are under-prepared, you’re not only putting yourself in danger, but also the lives of the team that will have to rescue you.
Temperatures can vary greatly on winter hikes from 40℉ to -20℉ or colder. My comfort level usually ends around 0℉, but I start carrying extra gear once the temps are in the teens. During any winter hike, you will need to be prepared for a range of temperatures, snow, rain, wind, sun, and ice. If you are hiking with all of your layers on, you didn’t bring enough. The gear you bring should be able to keep you warm enough if you were to get injured and had to wait for help.
Layering Your Clothes
The key to winter hiking is dressing in layers. As your body moves and warms up, remove layers. You’ll want to remove layers BEFORE you start sweating. Keeping your clothes dry is essential to staying warm. When you get to higher elevations or stop for breaks, add the layers back on. You will probably remove and add layers multiple times during any winter hike. Another benefit of layering clothes is the space between the layers trap air close to your body and helps to keep you warm.
What Materials to Choose
In addition to layering your clothes, they also need to be the right material. Have you ever heard the hiking saying, “Cotton Kills?” Cotton absorbs moisture and is slow to dry. When you stop to rest or reach higher elevations where the temperature is cooler, the moisture filled cotton will cause you to rapidly lose body heat, which could lead to hypothermia. This is why it is important to choose moisture-wicking and breathable fabrics such as wool or polyester. Here are my top picks:
Base Layer: The first layer should be lightweight, thin, and made of a moisture-wicking, fast-drying material such as wool.
Insulating Layer: This layer adds warmth, but should still be breathable enough for when you're working hard. There are a lot of options you can choose for this layer such as a wool sweater, fleece jacket, or insulated vest. Depending on the temperatures you might need to wear more than one.
Puffy Jacket with Hood: This layer is typically worn during rest stops. Once you stop moving, your body will cool down rapidly, so add this layer immediately at the beginning of your rest. For this layer choose a down or synthetic jacket, although down is preferred because it weighs less. If you're only planning on doing low mileage, casual hikes you can opt for a jacket with less fill to save some money, but if you're going to be on the trails all day, hiking in freezing temps, or hitting higher peaks, it is smart to invest in a warm down jacket.
Hard Shell with Hood: This layer is meant to protect you from rain and wind. A good hard shell will be waterproof and windproof. Gore-Tex, lightweight and non-insulated are features most recommended in a hard shell. I also recommend selecting a shell with zippered armpits for extra ventilation. NikWix works wonderfully for re-waterproofing older gear!
Underwear: For years I just wore regular underwear when hiking and it wasn't until I tried wool underwear that I realize how much of a difference it makes when you're on the trails all day.
Base Layer: Just like the base layer top, the base layer bottom should be lightweight, thin, and made of a moisture-wicking, fast-drying material such as wool.
Soft Shell Pants: This layer adds warmth to your base layer. On warmer winter days I will skip the base layer and just wear the fleece-lined tights.
Hard Shell Pants: This layer should be waterproof and windproof to protect you from the elements. A full length zipper along the leg is recommended so you don’t have to remove your boots to put on/take off the hard shell pants.
Your layering system will depend on the weather. For example: On days above 32℉ I will wear just the fleece lined leggings or pair the base layer with the Prana pants. On days in the teens, I will pair the fleece lined leggings with the Prana pants. In both scenarios I carry the hard shell pants in my bag or wear them if I'm chilled or getting wet from the conditions.
Boots: If you're going to be frequently hiking in the winter I’d recommend investing in a pair of insulated, waterproof boots that have good traction. If you have regular waterproof boots and don’t want to invest in insulated boots you could pair them with thicker wool socks. Just remember keeping your feet dry is essential for staying warm and safe.
Boots are not a cheap purchase so I highly recommend trying on multiple pairs before taking them on the trail. As everyone's feet are different, boots that work great for one person might not for another.
Socks: Wool is the most commonly recommended material for socks since it regulates temperature well, is moisture-wicking, and provides extra cushion. Please do not use cotton socks! I use wool socks all year around, but go with a slightly thicker sock in the winter. Make sure there is still enough room in your boots to wiggle your toes. This increases blood circulation and warmth. Smartwool and Darn Tough are my go to brands. I always pair my wool socks with a silk sock liner to help prevent blisters. Carry an extra pair of socks in your pack in case you need a dry pair to change into.
Microspikes: Now that you have your socks and boots picked out, you’re going to need some traction. Both Hillsound and Kahtoola are reputable brands. Don’t cheap out in the beginning and get spikeless traction; those might be sufficient for shoveling your driveway, but they aren’t going to help you on a mountain. Get the spikes! You’ll be surprised how great they work on sheer ice! Keep your spikes sharp by taking them off when walking on uncovered rock. This might mean taking them off/putting them on multiple times throughout your hike, especially in the shoulder seasons. Pro tip: When wearing microspikes, tuck your shoe lace loops in. A spike can catch on the loop very easily and send you flying.
Snowshoes: Anytime your foot breaks through the snow, covering up to your ankle, leaving a hole behind - that’s called postholing. Sometimes you can end up postholing all the way up to your waist. This will translate to far more effort to continue hiking and can cause serious injury if your knee or ankle twists the wrong way. Postholing will also leave the trail a mess for other hikers until the next big snowstorm. Using snowshoes will help you float on top of the snow and create a nice packed trail. If the trail is already packed down and you’re not breaking through, you have the option to wear your microspikes.
Last winter my snowshoes broke and they don’t make that style anymore. When I went to order a new pair this winter they were on back order almost everywhere. After a lot of research I chose the MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes and I will review them when they are delivered mid-February. Unlike my last pair of snowshoes, this pair has a televator which lifts your heels and saves your calves from fatigue while hiking up steep terrain. I can’t wait to try this.
When selecting a pair of snowshoes, consider the type of terrain you’ll be snowshoeing on and what you think the snow conditions will mostly be. The snowshoes I picked are for hiking steep elevations and a variety of terrain. If you’ll mostly be on flat trails, you can get something at a lower price point like the MSR REVO Explore or MSR EVO Trail.
Snowshoes typically come in different lengths. The length you should get will be dependent on your weight (including packed weight) and what type of snow you’ll be on. Powder typically calls for a longer snowshoe to stay afloat. Shorter snowshoes are better in wet snow and are typically easier to walk in.
Gaiters: The purpose of gaiters is to keep water, snow, and debris out of your boots. Choose the height of the gaiter for how much protection you need. A taller gaiter is recommended in the winter.
Hat: I usually carry two hats on winter days. A thin wool hat for when I’m moving and thicker fleece-lined hat for when I’m resting or chilled.
Mittens/Gloves: I recommend carrying two pairs minimum. A thin liner and a pair of thick, warm, insulating mittens. For liners, I’ve tried multiple things, but my favorite is the convertible fingerless to mitten gloves. I wear the liners when I’m moving and can take the mitten part off if I’m too warm, while still having some protection on my hand. Once I’m above tree-line or at the summit I usually need my thicker mittens. The Kombi mittens, linked below, warm my hands up pretty quickly. I like that they have a zippered pocket on top for ventilation or you can add a hand warmer in for extra warmth. I do not have the Outdoor Research mittens linked below, but these are the number one recommended mittens for extreme coldness.
Trekking Poles: I find trekking poles helpful during all seasons, but especially in the winter to provide for more stability and balance. Poles reduce the impact on your knees and force you into more of an upright position for better posture. Using poles also puts your arms to work so your legs aren’t doing the only heavy lifting.
Backpack: You do not need to get a special backpack for hiking in the winter, but you might need a larger one in order to carry all your extra gear. If your backpack isn't waterproof, I recommend lining it with a trash bag to keep your gear dry.
If you're in the market for a new backpack, I swear by the Hyperlite Mountain Backpacks. They are extremely lightweight, waterproof, and fit comfortably. I have the 3400 Southwest, which is the one I use in the winter and for backpacking, and the Daybreak Ultralight Daypack, which is what I use on regular day hikes. The 3400 Southwest is advertised as completely waterproof and I have fully tested it in torrential downpours. The Daybreak is advertised as water resistant because of the zippers, but I've never had any problems with this in the rain either.
Personal Locator Beacon: A lot of times when hiking you can't rely on cell phone reception. I carry a beacon for peace of mind, especially when I'm hiking solo. The beacon uses a GPS satellite system for communication and identifying your location. Most beacons allow you to send messages to a contact to check in, say you're ok, or ask for help. During an emergency, you can contact the authorities directly. I have the SPOT Gen3, which is a model they no longer make, so I'll recommend the newer version, SPOT Gen4.
Miscellaneous Gear: Some extra gear that can help with warmth and safety.
Cable ties - handy for fixing broken microspikes or strapping snowshoes to your backpack
10 Essentials: A good way to prepare for emergency situations while hiking is to carry the 10 essentials that have been established by the hiking community.
Navigation: map, compass, GPS device, or personal locator beacon (PLB)
Headlamp: plus extra batteries
Sun protection: sunglasses, sunscreen, and SPF chapstick
First aid: including blister treatment and insect repellent (as needed)
Knife: plus a gear repair kit (duct tape & cable ties)
Fire: matches, lighter, or stove
Shelter: light emergency bivy or space blanket
Extra food: Beyond the minimum expectation
Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation
Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectation
Technical Gear: Please note that this is a gear guide meant for winter hiking, not mountaineering or extreme conditions. It is your responsibility to know what gear is needed for a successful hike and to research the weather and current trail conditions. Some terrain or conditions may require the use of technical gear and the knowledge of how to use it.
By no means do you have to go out and buy all this winter gear at once before getting on the trail. When I first started winter hiking I bought a few of the essentials (warm coat and microspikes) and gathered cold weather gear that I already owned or could borrow. I planned my hikes (time, distance, and weather) based on the gear I had for the conditions I'd be hiking in. Overtime, I added or upgraded my gear which has allowed me to get out during more extreme conditions and for longer lengths of time.
All the gear that I’ve link in this post I have tried and tested myself or where it’s gender specific, I’ll list items my male friends have recommended. In some cases I’ve listed “dream” gear for what I’ll get when my bank account allows me to upgrade or new models of discontinued gear I have. Please note that the gear listed here can be used as a guide, you don’t have to get the exact same item, but by looking at the items I've linked you can see what materials, features, and temperature ratings are recommended. All of these items are carried by different brands and you can shop for the best sales. Most major carriers: REI, LL Bean, and Backcountry have sales around the holidays and I always have a gear wish list queued up. If there is one thing I hate, it's paying full price for gear.
This blog contains affiliate links. If you do choose to buy an item that I've recommended, I'd greatly appreciate it if you shop through my link. As an affiliate I may earn a small commission on qualifying products at no additional cost to you.
My last piece of advice is when buying gear, don’t shop for the present hike, consider future goals too so you don’t have to re-buy an item of better quality or warmth down the road.