Winter Hiking Tips (+ Free Winter Hiking Gear Checklist)
You don’t have to stop hiking as soon as cold weather arrives. Exploring the trails and hiking in winter can be magical. We know hiking in the cold isn’t everyone’s thing. But with the right winter hiking essentials, you can stay happy, cosy, and safe even in the outdoors.
Winter Hiking Guide 101
Winter hiking can be quite exhilarating. The cool air around you, flushed cheeks as you push yourself to the summit. It can also be wonderfully peaceful—there are fewer people on the trails, leaving you alone with these magical landscapes.
While the joys of winter hiking are abundant, there are many things to consider and precautions to take. We want to help ensure you’ll have a good time on the trails, and so here are some tips for winter and cold-weather hiking in general.
Clothing & Gear
Dressing properly for the weather is your first line of defense against the cold.
Layering is your best friend.
At the very least you’ll need three distinct layers on top and bottom. A base layer (usually consisting of a moisture-wicking material); a mid-layer (to pack on insulation and warmth, while continue to keep moisture out); and a top layer (sometimes your heaviest/thickest layer or a shell depending on precipitation, designed to keep warmth in and cold and moisture out). Also, avoid tight clothing and accessories, as these could lead to poor circulation and increase your chances of frostbite.
No cotton for us.
You might be thinking to yourself “isn’t cotton incredibly versatile? Isn’t it the fabric of our lives?” And you’re not wrong. However, when it comes to cold-weather activities, cotton can make or break your adventure. Cotton does not dry quickly enough for these temps, leaving you at risk for a variety of ailments and illnesses. Instead, opt for wool or synthetic fabrics, which dry much faster and wick moisture away from skin.
Keep it covered.
This winter hiking tip might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. When braving the winter wilderness (or any cold place) make sure to keep your skin covered. This keeps the elements away from your skin, protecting it from serious issues or at the very least a pretty bad chap.
- Hands: you could try layering here as well! Light or midweight fleece gloves under waterproof gloves (or mittens) will keep you warm and free of moisture. (And don’t forget to pack an extra pair or two).
- Feet: As we mentioned above, opt for wool or synthetic fabrics as your base layer (extra pair encouraged) or double up on socks. Then a waterproof boot, as you’ll be trekking through the snow. Look for some with built-in insulation, especially if you’ll be in below freezing temps.
- Face: We know sometimes a face mask can feel intrusive and obstructive but you’ll thank us later! Balaclavas, ski masks, neck gaiters—find what works for you and stay warm.
- Head and ears: Your face covering may keep your ears warm but it never hurts to have a backup. A warm (non-cotton) winter hat is perfect and easily adaptable, while headband ear muffs will warm your ears and let your head breathe a bit.
Keep snow out.
While your layering and skin covering will do a lot of the heavy lifting to keep the snow out, it doesn’t hurt to pack some gaiters for your boots. You’ll be hiking all day and, at times, in pretty deep snow. You’ll want to do all you can to keep the cold snow out of your boots and on the ground.
When winter hiking you not only need to protect your eyes from the sun but also the wind and snow. Between goggles and glasses, it’s really just your preference. What do you feel more comfortable in? What level of activity will you be doing that may require a more secure option? And so on.
Lighting the way.
It’s winter time aka fewer hours with the sun. Even if you only plan to be out during the daylight hours, we still highly encourage you to pack a headlamp and/or flashlight to keep your path illuminated into the night.
Make sure you’ve packed plenty of fully charged batteries for all of your equipment. B) Make sure those batteries stay warm. The cold can drain the charge and/or make the battery ineffective…and then you’re stranded with a dead GPS and you’re SOL.
We know it’s winter. We know most people forget about sunscreen outside of summer. But please, please do not forget to liberally apply sunscreen to any bit of you that might be exposed (especially your face). Not only is the sun still out in the winter and still just as strong but you have the added risk of the sun reflecting off the snow and into your face. Be prepared with SPF 30 or higher.
When choosing a hiking backpack for the winter you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. A) outside material B) hydration options and C) storage capacity. Your backpack should be made of a snow or moisture proof material or , keeping your belongings safe from the elements. It should also be well-insulated, especially around your water. Which brings me to C: making sure your pack can carry enough hydration via reservoirs and/or bottles. And lastly, you’ll want to tailor your pack size to the size of your adventure. All day hike=a bigger pack. Quick trek, smaller. Etc. Our SnoBlast™ 22, Powderhound™ 12, and Zoid™ hydration snow packs are perfect for any of your needs. These snow packs come complete with our Snow Shield™ material that repels snow/moisture, insulated compartments, varying sizes of storage, and our 2L Crux® reservoir with Therminator™ harness—our insulated drinking tube.
Depending on the type of hike you’re going on (duration, terrain, etc.) and your own comfort levels, you may want to pack other gear. These could range from trekking poles to snowshoes. Whatever you desire, make sure you have the space, ability, and endurance to carry these along.
It’s never a bad idea to be a little over-prepared, you never know when it will come in handy. A few things we recommend are: hand warmers, a lighter, portable charger, chapstick, pocket knife or multi-tool, compass, and a first aid kit.
Food and Hydration
No matter the distance and difficulty of your winter hike, you’ll need to make sure you’re properly fueled and hydrated. Your best heat source is your body’s metabolism, so making sure it’s working as it should is key. As well, you’ll be burning more calories trudging against the snow, and thus will need to replenish food and water more often and aggressively.
Keep it handy.
Pack easy to grab and eat food and drink for your hike. When it comes to hydration, our reservoirs with Therminator™ insulated drinking tubes are incredibly convenient, and will easily satiate your thirst without freezing! Although it wouldn’t hurt to keep an extra water bottle safely stowed in your pack.
We recommend any of our vacuum insulated stainless steel bottles that work to keep your beverages hot the perfect temperature for hours on end. However, our 32oz Chute® Mag is one of our favorites. In addition to the insulation, the cap features an easy-carry handle and a magnetic top that stows securely out of the way when open and remains leak-proof when closed.
Don’t let it freeze.
Again, make sure that both your food and beverages are wrapped, packed, and stowed securely and warmly to prevent them from freezing. Our insulated bottles help with this, as does our Therminator™ Harness for your reservoir tube.
Packing warm drinks is a way to warm you up on the trail. Tea, coffee, hot cocoa, or even just warm water in one of our insulated bottles or drinkware will go a long way to keeping you warm.
Again, the Chute® Mag is a great option but we’d also like to highlight a few of our other insulated pieces. Our MultiBev bottle is a 2-in-1 system that act as a sleek, modern day thermos. Our Forge Flow and Hot Cap travel drinkware make drinking on-the-go quick and easy. And our Carry Cap bottle is always a good choice for transporting beverages.
Oh! If you’d like your beverage to be tastily infused during your hike, then our Tea Strainer accessory is perfect. Obviously, tea is its main game but you can fill it up with all sorts of herbs, spices and fruits to make your adventure even tastier—and it fits all of the aforementioned bottles!
Take Appropriate Safety Precautions
Navigating the trail in cold weather conditions can be especially tricky. Snow or low-hanging branches can cover trail markers and signs, paths can become less visible under the snowy terrain, and so much more.
Not only does this put you at a disadvantage for navigation but it could lead to extended time in the cold and thus leave you vulnerable to cold weather illnesses, injuries, and other risks.
- Navigating. Markers can be covered or become less visible. Make sure you’ve packed a GPS and a physical map (just in case), as well download any offline maps to your devices.
- Plan ahead for the weather. Weather can change quickly in the mountains and during the winter season. Check current conditions for rain, ice, fog or snow so you can plan and pack accordingly.
- Be aware of cold weather illnesses. Illnesses such as hypothermia and frostbite are huge worries and can often start earlier than we think. Make sure you’ve layered and packed extras to help stave off these illnesses. As well, do some digging to know how to properly address both of these things and more when out on the trail. Depending on where you are it could be miles to the nearest place of help.
- Tools. A First Aid kit should be essential to any adventure, especially one occurring in the cold weather. Also, you’ll want to bring along some other necessary tools for everyday hiking needs and emergency situations.
At the end of the day, make sure you’ve done your research and are adequately prepared for the reported and possible weather conditions. As well, always know that you can turn around if things start to get dicey.
Winter Hiking Essentials Packing List
No winter hiking guide would be complete without mentioning the Ten Essentials packing list. The “Ten Essentials “ list was assembled in the 1930s for year-round outdoor adventures by The Mountaineers—a Seattle-based organisation for climbers and outdoor adventurers—to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. Back then, the list included a map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first-aid supplies, fire starter, matches, knife and extra food.
While those are still needed basics, over the years the list has evolved. It’s a good habit to pack the following essentials (or categories of essentials) even if it’s just for a short trek. You may only use a few or never use any—but if something were to happen you’ll be happy that you listened to us.
- Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger.
- Lighting source: headlamp and/or flashlight, plus extra batteries (and a way to keep them warm).
- Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen.
- First aid kit: including an emergency blanket.
- Knife or multi-use tool: plus a gear repair kit.
- Heat: you might need a way to make fire on your adventure, so don’t forget matches, lighter, tinder and/or small portable stove.
- Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
- Extra food: beyond what you think you might need; good, rounded sources of fuel
- Extra water: beyond the minimum expectation
- Extra clothes: another warm layer, gloves, hat, socks, etc.