Photo: Michael Hanson/Tandemstock

Winter Hiking

This is no time to hibernate. Here’s how to enjoy the fourth season.

It’s common for hikers to hang up their boots when winter comes around. But we have a message: Don’t. With the proper gear and a little know-how, you’ll discover a whole new world of outdoor adventure—one full of silent, crowd-free trails, new wildlife-spotting opportunities, and gorgeous winter landscapes. Bundle up and let’s get out there.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What gear and clothing you’ll need for winter hiking
  • How to manage layers for ultimate comfort
  • How to stay properly fueled and hydrated
  • Techniques for walking on snowy slopes
  • Navigation tips for winter
  • Preventing cold injuries and avalanche exposure

Gearing Up For Winter

No surprise: You’ll need to be prepared for cold temps, snow, and bitter wind. But as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather—just bad gear. Here’s how to get equipped.

Apparel

Staying warm is all about layering. In cold temps, you’ll want four upper-body layers that you can mix and match: a wicking baselayer, a midlayer, an insulating puffer jacket, and a weather-resistant shell (either a waterproof hardshell or a more breathable softshell). Depending on the conditions and your exertion level, you’ll want to add and remove layers to stay in that sweet spot of being warm without sweating.

On the bottom, you can go with a pair of hiking pants alone in more moderate weather. Add baselayer bottoms underneath for colder conditions; if you’ll be in wetter weather or high alpine terrain, add a pair of softshell or hardshell pants as your outer layer.

Accessories

Protecting your extremities is key. Make sure you have a warm beanie and gloves or mittens. Add a neck gaiter and/or face mask for the coldest conditions. And if you’ll be walking or snowshoeing in deep snow, gaiters over your boots will help keep your feet dry.

Footwear

Start with thick, warm socks, but make sure they fit inside your boots. You don’t want to restrict blood flow with too-tight shoes. The boots you wear in summer might work, if conditions are moderate, or you can upgrade to insulated, winter-specific boots.

More snow on the ground? If it’s packed and icy rather than deep and powdery, traction devices like spikes or coils will give you extra grip. These devices fit over your boots. If you’re heading for deep snow, you’ll need the superior flotation of snowshoes. 

Poles

Poles are a great idea in the winter, as they help steady you on slippery or uneven ground. You can use winter-specific poles, which tend to be a bit longer and have snow baskets on the ends to keep them from sinking too deep, or trekking poles with snow baskets swapped for the usual smaller baskets.

Photo: Ian Shive/TandemStock

Key Skills For Winter Hiking

Manage Your Layers

In cold temperatures, getting wet can lead to hypothermia—when your internal body temp gets dangerously cold. Your waterproof shell should prevent you from getting wet from the outside, but sweat can still get you wet from the inside. To prevent the sweat-chill effect, adjust your layers promptly as needed. Start out a little cold, as you’ll quickly warm up with the exertion of hiking. Put on your warm puffer jacket when you stop for breaks, then take it off as you move. If you feel yourself overheating, ditch a layer and/or slow your pace. 

Fuel—and Drink—Up 

You need calories to boost energy and warmth in colder temps. Refuel frequently with calorically dense snacks that don’t freeze, like nut butters, gummies, avocados, and cheese. 

You also need to stay hydrated, which can be a challenge in cold weather. Keep water accessible and make a point of drinking often (you’ll know you’re hydrated when your pee is light yellow or clear). Prevent the hose on a water reservoir from freezing by blowing excess water back into the reservoir after you drink; water bottles are less likely to freeze when it’s very cold. Even better: Pack hot tea or cocoa in an insulated bottle. 

Traveling On Snowy Slopes

If your winter travels take you on some snowy ups and downs, it’s worth knowing a few travel techniques. When ascending a steep pitch, kick a platform for your foot into the snow with your boot before putting your weight down. When descending, try the plunge step: Lead with your heel and point your toe up, letting your feet slide downhill a few inches with each step (in a controlled way). If winter mountain travel is new to you, take a skills course to learn more advanced techniques for snowy alpine trips.

Stay On Track

Snow can make navigation more difficult (it can also make it easier if you’re following a well-trodden path). Keep a close eye out for trail blazes to help guide you. GPS devices and navigation apps are great, but always carry a map and compass as well.

Prevent Cold Injuries

Frostbite occurs when ice crystals form in between your cells (often on feet or hands), and it can cause serious tissue damage. Prevent it by dressing in layers warm enough for conditions, using chemical handwarmers or footwarmers, and making sure not to restrict blood flow to your feet with too-tight boots. Early signs of frostbite (called frostnip) include tingling, throbbing pain, numbness, and white skin. If you experience these symptoms, get out of the cold. Warm the affected areas with body heat (armpits or stomach work great) or soaking them in 105- to 110-degree F water (don’t use hotter water or direct heat from a fire or stove). Caution: Don’t thaw frostbite if there’s a chance of refreezing.

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in your body’s core temperature. Prevent it by wearing the proper layers, eating and drinking frequently, and staying dry. Early signs of hypothermia are shivering, stumbling, slurring speech, and feeling abnormally clumsy. If you start to experience symptoms, get to a warm place ASAP, build a fire, drink a hot beverage, and/or climb into a sleeping bag. 

Stay Safe in Avalanche Terrain

If you’re hiking in the mountains, it’s essential to check the local avalanche forecast for the risk and to avoid slopes between 30 and 50 degrees (the ones most likely to avalanche). But there’s no substitute for taking an avalanche class with a reputable outfit to fully prepare yourself for the risks of avalanche terrain.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.