Snow-covered glittering pines, empty trails, and leafless vistas that let you see for miles. Hiking in the winter can be a stunning and magical experience, but outdoor enthusiasts often avoid it. And for fair reasons, too—it’s cold, you need more clothing and gear, and it presents challenges and safety concerns hikers don’t have to deal with in fair weather.
But you don’t need to stay indoors as days get shorter. Making sure you’re prepared for the fourth season before you head outside can help you reap the great benefits of winter hiking.
When planning to spend a winter day outdoors the priority is to stay warm. But this isn’t like layering up for an afternoon at the sledding hill—the strategic placement of specific layers is of the utmost importance to decrease your risk of hypothermia and make for a pleasant outing.
Ruthie Schnitt, a backpacking guide at Wildland Trekking, recommends focusing on core warmth. By insulating your body from below the hips and all the way to the shoulders, it will be less likely your arms and legs will be cold, she explains.
Evan Gill, an expert mountain climber known on YouTube as Black Sherpa, recommends starting with a warm, snug, synthetic base layer designed to wick moisture and dry quickly. Then add a warm mid-layer like a fleece or synthetic hoodie. If it’s really cold out, top it all off with a puffy jacket, ideally one that uses synthetic insulation, as when down gets wet it loses its ability to insulate. Finish things off with a water- and windproof shell to protect you from the elements.
If you’re wondering if all those layers are actually necessary, the answer is simple. Body temperature fluctuates wildly when you’re exerting yourself in the cold, so you need to be able to make small adjustments throughout the day to stay warm, but also to keep any moisture out. Once your clothes become damp, they lose the ability to keep you warm and there’s a greater chance for hypothermia to set in.
When it comes to winter hiking, avoiding sweat is the name of the game, and the key to winning it, says Schnitt, is to be proactive. Before you start hiking up a slope, remove a mid-layer or two, and as soon as you start heading down or stop to take a break, replace those layers so you don’t get cold. Once you start feeling a chill it’s harder to warm back up.
Bring the right gear
Once you’re adequately layered, it’s time to outfit yourself with the right gear. In winter, neglecting to do so can be deadly.
What equipment you bring along with you will depend on the terrain. If there’s deep snow, you’ll likely need snowshoes and trekking poles. You may also want to consider waterproof gaiters to keep the white stuff out of your boots. If you’re expecting thick ice, bring crampons, heavy-duty spikes that attach to the bottom of your boots. And in any winter conditions, Schnitt recommends keeping a pair of microspikes in your pack. These small, lightweight spikes that you strap around the soles of your shoes come handy any time you want a little extra traction, like when you tread on ice or thinner snow.
Gill also recommends packing zip-top plastic bags, which can have numerous useful functions. During a recent hike, he punctured his boot so he changed into dry socks, stuck on some warmers, placed his foot in a plastic bag inside his boot, and finished the remaining five miles to the trailhead.
Finally, as with any hike, don’t forget a first aid kit, and extra layers in case the ones you’re wearing get wet.
Carry plenty of water in an insulated bottle or get an insulated hose for your hydration reservoir to keep it from freezing and sip regularly. You can also add electrolytes to water to delay freezing: the salt will slow down the process.
Although your body doesn’t necessarily need a lot more calories when it’s cold—shivering doesn’t burn that many— you may feel hungrier. Frequently eating high-calorie foods will help keep your body warm via thermogenesis, so pack more than you would for fair weather hikes. Schnitt recommends items you can eat on the go so you don’t have to stop.
“Bonus points if you can keep your gloves on while you’re eating,” she adds.
“Plan ahead and prepare” is a good rule to have for any outdoor outing, but it’s especially true during winter. For starters, no matter how many times you’ve hiked a trail in warm weather, don’t think it’ll offer the same experience in the colder months of the year.
“When I set out for a winter hike, I have an understanding that there’s truly no way to know how long the trail is going to take,” Schnitt says.
Delays are common and they may be the result of a handful of factors. Snow and ice are guaranteed to slow your pace, but the trail might also be obscured by snow and trees might be downed. Things could look so different, you might have to switch to plan B.
“That’s when your landscape-bearing skills come into play,” Gills adds.
Before you set out, make sure you have a backup plan or alternate route in case your original one turns out to be too dangerous to follow. Knowing how to read a map is crucial to finding your way around, especially because you can’t fully rely on battery-powered navigation devices or cell phones when hiking in the winter. The cold zaps battery power quicker than you might think, which could leave you high and dry if you don’t have a paper map and compass, or the ability to use them.
As you hike, Schnitt also recommends checking in with hiking partners. Ask them if they’re warm enough and if they’re drinking or eating enough. This will, in turn, make you ask yourself the same questions and help you avoid a potentially dangerous situation.
“For some reason, it’s easier to check in on other people than it is to check in on yourself sometimes,” she says.
Finally, because winter days are shorter, make sure you make the most of daylight by starting your hike early. While on the trail, be constantly aware of time, so you know exactly when to turn around and get back to the trailhead before dark. And just in case you miscalculate, bring a headlamp and extra batteries.
It might take a bit more preparation and gear, but winter can be a rewarding time of year to enjoy time outside. So layer up, brush up on your navigation skills, hydrate, and make the most out of the cold temperatures.