My Top 10 Winter Hiking Tips

Winter is still here. (Go figure.) Lots of people seem to shun hiking during the cold season. Sure, you have good reasons to be skeptical. Bad road conditions, slogging through wet mucky trails, skidding on ice and falling on your rump. And oh yeah–it’s cold! Winter hiking, though, is crazy awesome for a bunch of reasons I’ll need to detail in another post.

So if you want to hit the trail but have winter hiking concerns, I once again rounded up 10 of my favorite basic yet essential cold weather hiking tips to hopefully get you out the door and into the winter wonderland, wherever that may be.

1) Layer, Layer, Layer. Yes, dress in layers. This does not necessarily mean you have to resemble the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. In fact, you shouldn’t. You will warm up considerably as you begin to move. When you warm up, you will remove layers. When you stop to check out the view or eat lunch and get chilly again, re-layer. It’s a simple, effective system. I also recommend the layers fit well; the layer next to your skin can be snug. Everything else needs to be looser. Too tight = no room for the circulation that keeps you warm. Suggested layers:

  • warm hat, preferably fleece. If it’s sunny enough that I want to shade my eyes but still cold enough that my ears need covering, I wear a ball cap and pull a fleece earband over it. Ear muffs would work with this scenario too. Now, I was taught that we lose up to 40% of our body heat through the top of our head. Seems that’s not necessarily true, according to various scientific research. But I am here to tell you: if your head is uncovered while you’re outside, you will eventually feel cold all over! Wear a warm hat.
  • a fleece neck gaiter to keep the chill off your exposed lil’ neck. These are easier to deal with than a scarf while hiking.
  • base layer, top and bottom. This is usually synthetic, such as polypropylene, although some people swear by silk. Silk doesn’t do much for me personally. If it’s très cold, I wear fleece bottoms, although those require roomier pants over them.
  • warmth layer, such as fleece. This layer shouldn’t be too thick.
  • wind layer. I wear a wind-stopper shell made by Mountain Hardwear that really does keep the chill off if it’s blustery. This is of course unnecessary if there’s no wind.
  • heavier warmth layer. Could be a down jacket if you’re not hiking all that far or it’s so cold you probably won’t even break a sweat. Could be a heavier fleece jacket if the temperatures aren’t that ridiculously cold, or if you plan to really get a workout. Could be a down vest over your warm (fleece) layer if the temps are more middle of the road.
  • dry layer. A rain or snow jacket works well. Again, which one depends on the specific temperatures and weather. I sometimes wear an insulated (not down) ski jacket and skip the previous warmth layer. Waterproof (rain) pants are a great idea too if it’s wet out or if you’re going to break trail through deeper snow. Rain pants are also really light and pack small, so if you need to shuck them they won’t take up too much room in your pack.
  • warm gloves. Fleece is great. Waterproof ones such as you might use for skiing are appropriate if you think you might be tempted to throw snowballs at your hiking companions.
  • polypropylene (or some sort of synthetic wicking sock) socks next to your skin to wick away moisture (sweat), then warmer socks, such as wool. Beware socks that are too thick; if your feet are so squished into your boots by your socks that you can’t wiggle your toes, you will actually have colder feet.
  • appropriate boots. Ones treated with a moisture repellent are great. Plenty of people buy boots with Gore-Tex, which is one of the best bets for keeping your feet dry. However, your boots will still absorb water and eventually freeze, which is chilly. Tread is important too; snow and ice make traction more uncertain. Add-ons like YakTrax can help, although I’ve had two pairs and the rubber has snapped on both after not all that much use. (Maybe they didn’t like being scraped over rocks hiding under the snow.) Also note fit. Too tight is again no good for circulation (cold feet). Too loose is no good because that can lead to blisters.
  • dry layer over the boots. This might be necessary if you’re breaking trail through snow or plan to be out all day. I’m a huge fan of NEOS and just keep them in my truck all winter, so I can pull them on over my boots whenever I’m heading out into something slushy. That way, my boots also stay nicer (in better condition) longer.

2) Bad, Bad Cotton. There’s an old outdoor saying: “Cotton kills.” Sorry, cotton industry, but it can be true. Do not wear any natural fibers next to your skin, except wool of the non-itchy variety. Cotton holds water, which in the winter will be cold, and if that’s next to your skin, you’re miserable and quite possibly in trouble. None of your winter clothing should be cotton.

3) Water, Water Everywhere. Keep slugging back that water, whether plain or electrolyte-enhanced. I use a Camelbak hydration daypack that sports an insulated tube so my water doesn’t freeze up before it can reach my mouth. Regular hydration packs or simple water bottles will work too, as long as it’s not actually freezing outside. If you use one with a screw top, remember that if it’s cold enough and there’s water on the threads, your lid will freeze shut. (Carry it upside down to circumvent that little problem.) Start off with some hot water in your bottle/hydration pack, and it’ll stay unfrozen quite a bit longer. Bonus: consider bringing along a hot beverage in a well-insulated container, or even a hiking stove to get some hot water going along the trail. There’s nothing like hot cocoa, hot tea, coffee, or hot soup to pick up your spirits if the day is really chilly.

4) Eat Hearty, Mateys. Take plenty of snacks. Snow hiking takes more out of you because you’re working harder to get through it—yes, even on a packed trail, because you’re probably stepping more carefully to make sure you won’t slip. Take more snacks than you usually might, and be sure they’re of the quick-fuel variety. Simple, homemade trail mix still works well for this, although you can also stock up on pricey energy gels and shots and goo and whatnot. I often use Clif Bar Shot Bloks. Something basic like a banana or banana chips (mm, potassium—an excellent post-sweating snack) work great too. Of course, full on lunch works too if you’re hiking midday.

5) Plastic Bags. Resealable and grocery type. Resealable can be used for a number of things, such as stashing wet gear like socks, stinky trash like banana peels, and keeping your camera dry. Grocery bags can also be your friend. If your boots aren’t waterproof and get wet, you can pull the bags over your socks and feet (preferably before they get wet) to prevent utter freezing disaster before you get back to your car.

6) Extra, Extra. Bring extras of almost everything, because you or someone you’re with will probably need it. I’m talking clothing (warm hats, gloves, socks), food, water, batteries (camera, headlamp). Especially the clothing and water, though.

7) Heal Thyself. Bring a first aid kit. This really shouldn’t need to be said, and it goes for all hiking trips, but let’s just be redundant. You just never know when it’ll come in handy, whether you’re out for an hour or for weeks.

8 ) Know Thy Limits. Never winter hiked before? Choose a short, easy trail that won’t challenge you like you’re on some sort of reality tv survival show. This is real reality, and your probable goal is to have fun, not end up needing a rescue. Also, start as early in the day as you can to ensure you’re not stuck out after nightfall during winter’s brief days. Note: for a really short hike, early afternoon might be best, as that will likely be the warmest part of the day. Just really be sure you’re going to be back before dark.

9) Sneaky Bag o’ Tricks. Look, you’re probably not heading out to summit Everest on your winter hike. But as they say, stuff happens, and it’s usually totally unexpected. And although it can happen to the most prepared, experienced people, your chances of a happy ending are greatly upped if you consider packing some key items with you. My own short list:

-a multi-tool. I love, love, love my Leatherman Super Tool. Sure, it’s heavy. I don’t care. I’m not fast- and light-packing. I always carry it with me on my jaunts, and I often use it.

-hand warmers, like Grabber Warmers. Trust me, your hands will thank you. The foot warmers work too, but beware if you’re wear them all day, they puff up into these lumpy not-warm things that don’t feel so good anymore.

-a headlamp. This is overkill, you protest. I shall not be out past dark. Well, I sure hope not. But just in case, throw one in your pack. They don’t take up much room (nor do spare batteries for them), and you never know.

-a map. Doesn’t have to be a topo, if you have no idea how to read one. (In which case, you’d better not being going off trail.) If you’re hiking in a national park, the provided trail map should suffice.

-cell phone. Yeah, really. Put it in a resealable plastic bag, and turn it off so you’re not draining the battery.

-tiny tube o’ sunscreen and SPF lip balm. Super sunny days reflect quite well off snow.

-small notebook and pen. You might need to record vital stats if something not good happens. Or, you might just want to jot down your innermost thoughts while hiking in the beautiful wilderness.

-a lighter. Potentially useful in many situations.

-duct tape. Wrap it around a tongue depressor. Potentially useful in many situations. The duct tape, I mean.

10) Attention, Everyone… Tell someone where you’re hiking, especially if you’re going alone, and when you expect to be back. No, really. Must I reiterate the Aron Ralston story again?

7 Comments

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7 Responses to My Top 10 Winter Hiking Tips

  1. Ray Hayden

    GREAT article!! I’d also recommend bringing about 5 – 10 feet of 3mm cord just for that special ’emergency’. I’ve used it most recently to to repair a broken snowshoe binding and was really glad I threw it in my pack before heading out. It’s handy, lightweight and compacts nicely.

  2. Julie

    Thanks, Ray! And great suggestion on the cord. Definitely a handy item for a number of potential scenarios.

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  4. Nice post and necessary tips for every hiker, hiking is a best way to keep fit you and view the beautiful locations, but in this there are some risks attached. So proper planning and always follow these tips, which will helpful for you in hiking.

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