As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, it’s easy to lose motivation to get outside. It’s not as simple to head outdoors in winter as it is in the warmer months when you can just throw on your shoes and hit the trail. But, with a shift in your mindset and these winter hiking tips, hiking in the winter is actually really fun. It’s a great way to stay active and healthy during the darker months when you might feel inclined to hunker down in front of the tv.
Not only will staying active all year round provide physical benefits but spending time outside in winter can also boost your mood and improve mental health. So, if you’re feeling those winter blues, hiking might just help you combat cabin fever!
Whether you are winter’s biggest fan or not, we want you to feel comfortable getting outside and enjoying all four seasons. This guide to winter hiking will help you get out there, including gear and tips on how to stay safe and warm on the trail.
Here are our best winter hiking tips and ideas for staying active and getting outside in the snow!
This post was sponsored by REI in early 2020 and has recently been updated.
General Winter Hiking Tips
Winter hiking requires more planning than a regular hiking excursion because you need to take extra safety precautions to combat harsh elements.
Here are several winter hiking tips to be aware of that differ from hiking in other seasons:
- Daylight hours are shorter in winter, so hit the trail early to avoid being out in the dark.
- Winter hiking takes longer than summer hiking – you tend to move slower and encounter more obstacles. Plan accordingly.
- Technological devices tend to malfunction in cold temperatures, so be prepared by bringing extra batteries/battery packs and try to keep your devices warm. Don’t rely on your phone.
- Snowpack can hide the trail and trail markers making it easier to get lost. Pay attention and know how to use a map.
- Exercising in winter burns more calories, so you need to stay nourished. This will help keep you warm, too.
- Dehydration expedites the onset of hypothermia, so stay hydrated. If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Tips for Staying Warm Hiking in the Winter
You will be more comfortable staying active outdoors during the winter if you have appropriate winter layers for hiking. But, there are some more steps you can take to stay warm that are just as important.
Bring a Warm Drink in a Thermos
One of our favorite winter hiking tips is to fill up a big thermos, like this one, with your favorite hot beverage. Hot cocoa, cider, chai tea, or even soup broth is great for quick sips to warm you up on the trail. While we probably don’t need to say it, go without alcohol on cold-weather hikes as alcohol reduces your body temperature. You can enjoy that hot toddy once you’re back at home!
Stay hydrated and use an insulating hose for your hydration pack when you hike in winter. This will prevent water in the hose from freezing if you are in extreme temperatures. If you’re using a water bottle, wrap it in some wool socks or in a beanie in your backpack to help insulate it.
Hike With the Sun
In the summer months, you want to avoid the hottest part of the day when hiking. In the winter, it’s the opposite. For winter hiking, try to time your hike for when the sun is highest in the sky and the warmest. As soon as the sun drops behind the mountains and the trail becomes shady, temperatures can drop significantly.
If you plan on catching the sunset, we recommend not being too far from the trailhead and making sure to pack extra layers.
Choose Trails with Some Uphill to get the Blood Flowing
Just like climbing stairs, the uphill sections of your winter hikes will get your heart pumping. This helps to increase your circulation and raise your internal body temperature, which will keep you nice and toasty. If you do get sweaty, it’s important to wear sweat-wicking, quick-drying base layers and to have an extra layer to put on at the top so you don’t get chilled.
Bring Snacks You Can Eat without Stopping
Your body will need more calories than it usually does while hiking in the winter because it’s burning more to stay warm. Pack snacks that are high in protein and carbs to give you energy. It’s important that the snacks you bring winter hiking are quick and easy to eat while on the move. Leave the sandwich fixings and picnic at home. Stopping for a long time to eat will leave you cold, and your muscles will have a harder time warming up again.
Tips On What To Wear For Winter Hiking
The key to comfort when hiking in the winter is staying warm AND dry. If you start to sweat and are wearing the wrong material, you’ll end up wet and cold. Below are some suggestions on what I wear for winter hiking. If you are on a tight budget or you’re simply not ready to invest in winter gear, consider buying used! REI has a pretty amazing selection of used gear that will help save you money while reducing waste.
Winter Hiking Tops
When hiking in cold weather, you should have 3 layers on top. These are some of my go-to’s:
- Base layer: Blackstrap Pinnacle Crew
- Insulating layer: Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoodie
- Shell: Patagonia Torrentshell
If you get hot, shed a layer before you get too sweaty. Also, avoid cotton and opt for synthetic layers that wick moisture and are quick-drying instead.
Winter Hiking Bottoms
On the bottom, you’ve got some options. If it’s really cold or snowing, you’ll want to consider wearing a base layer and a waterproof layer on top. You can even wear ski pants. Otherwise, a pair of fleece leggings will do the trick, keeping you warm and comfortable.
- Base layer: Blackstrap Therma Pants
- Shell pants: 686 Standard Shell Snow Pants
- Fleece leggings: Patagonia Peak Mission Tights
Winter Hiking Gloves
Always pack a pair of gloves. When I hike uphill in winter, I find my hands run warm, so a lightweight pair of gloves do the trick.
Winter Hiking Hats
You lose a significant amount of heat through the top of your head. Wearing a hat is one of the most important winter hiking tips to retain your body heat. Even if you don’t think you’ll need one, it’s smart to carry one in your pack just in case.
Here are some warm beanies for winter hiking:
For more tips and ideas on winter layering, be sure to check out our post on Winter Hiking Clothes & Cold Weather Layering Basics.
Footwear for Winter Hiking
Winter hiking boots
For snowy winter hikes, you’ll want a good pair of boots with solid traction. Regular waterproof hiking boots will do, but if you are going to hike a lot in the winter, consider investing in a pair of insulated winter boots, like these Oboz Bridger Insulated Boots. Insulated winter hiking boots will keep your toes a lot warmer than regular boots or tennis shoes, especially when paired with a warm midweight thermal sock
If you’ll be traversing across ungroomed snow, wear a pair of gaiters to prevent snow from getting inside your boots. It’s also not a bad idea to bring an extra pair of socks in your pack in case the pair you’re wearing gets wet.
Winter hiking often means you might encounter snow and ice on the trail, so if you think that will be the case for your hike, you’ll want more traction in your footwear to prevent slipping. Microspikes, crampons, and snowshoes are the three footwear options for winter hiking depending on the conditions.
Microspikes (pictured above) are made of chains and tiny spikes that slip on over your boots. They’re helpful in icy conditions on flat terrain and are usually inexpensive. The Hillsound FreeStep6 microspikes work great on flat, mellow winter terrain.
Check price: REI
Crampons are a bit more durable with bigger spikes that grip into ice, making them especially helpful on steep, slick inclines. It’s nice to be able to pop these on and off when you need them because they add some weight to the shoe and aren’t that comfortable to walk normally on. The Kahtoola KTS Steel Crampons are good entry-level crampons that are easy to attach and remove from your winter boots.
Check price: REI
Snowshoes are light and wide frames that attach to your shoe, ideal for deep snow. By increasing the surface area of your feet, you’re able to cruise on top of the snow without sinking in too deep. Depending on the level of snowshoeing you want to get into, there are different types of snowshoes. If you’re curious about snowshoeing, check out these resources on how to snowshoe and where to snowshoe. You can search for snowshoes at REI to find some affordable options for winter hiking adventures.
Check price: REI
Winter Hiking Safety
Have A Safety Plan
Safety is the number one priority at Bearfoot Theory because it ensures that you, your friends, and everyone else can have a good time with fewer worries. So, in order to stay safe, there’s a process I use to prevent accidents from happening.
Use this general guideline as you plan your winter hiking outing:
- Check snow conditions and weather before leaving the house. If it’s a blizzard with poor visibility, it increases your chances of getting lost…so maybe it’s not the best day to go hiking. When in doubt, don’t go out.
- Contact land managers to inquire about conditions, safety, and higher risk areas.
- If you’re in a group, base the plan on the least experienced/able person.
- Always tell someone your plan: where you’re headed, your estimated return time, who you’ll be with, etc.
- Always be prepared for worse weather, just in case.
- If you bring technical winter gear, know how to use it (i.e; ice ax).
- Pack the 10 essentials, even if you only plan to be out a couple of hours.
- Bring a good map, compass, and GPS device. If you won’t have cell service, I highly recommend you invest in a Garmin inReach Mini 2-way satellite communicator. This allows for 2-way texts and gives you the ability to call for help in case of an injury, an avalanche, or if you get lost.
Check price: REI
Be Aware Of Avalanche Risk
Avalanches aren’t just something backcountry skiers need to be aware of. Anyone who is spending time in the mountains in winter should take the time to understand some avalanche basics so you can avoid unknowingly hiking on or below high-risk avalanche terrain.
Depending on where you are hiking (particularly in the Western US), avalanches are more common than one might think and it’s vital that you are familiar with how they happen and when they can happen.
The two types of avalanches are loose-snow and slab. Loose-snow avalanches can occur in wet or dry snow, beginning near the surface and gathering more snow as they slide. Slab avalanches, like the one pictured below, occur when an entire shelf of snow breaks free and slides down the mountain – these are the most lethal.
Avalanches are caused by four factors: a steep slope, snow cover, a weak layer in the snow cover, and a trigger. While we don’t have control over terrain or conditions, we do have control over ourselves. So, it’s imperative that you and your friends understand these tips for avalanche safety so you avoid putting yourself in danger.
- Check conditions before going. Avalanche.org is a reliable website that links to local forecasting offices around the US. Before you plan to go winter hiking, this is a good place to start to make sure snow conditions are stable.
- If you’re new to winter hiking, you might not know how to identify unstable snow or what avalanche terrain looks like. To build your knowledge and skill base, I recommend checking out REI’s Avalanche Awareness classes. There’s no better way to prevent accidents from happening than educating yourself fully so you’re best prepared.
- Just because you see footprints or other people on a trail doesn’t mean it’s safe.
- Do not take risks when it comes to snow/ice travel.
- Group-thinking can cloud your judgment – trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel/seem right, speak up. Communication is key.
- It’s okay to turn around before achieving your goal destination. Many accidents happen when people forego their better judgment because they’re too committed to achieving the goal.
- While not necessary for mellow winter trails, if you plan to frequently hike around steeper winter terrain where avalanches are common, consider investing in an avalanche beacon. A beacon is a critical piece of backcountry winter equipment that allows search and rescuers to find you if you were ever in an avalanche. If you do get a beacon, learn how to use it, and bring it with you on your hikes.
Check price: REI
Have Basic Understanding of Hypothermia
Hypothermia occurs when your body’s core temperature decreases to a level in which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired. Hypothermia can affect your ability to think clearly as well as your ability to evacuate quickly to safety. Before you go winter hiking, it’s important that you know the warning signs and are able to recognize them if you or a friend start to show symptoms of hypothermia.
Conditions That Can Lead to Hypothermia:
- Cold temperatures
- Improper clothing and equipment for changing weather conditions
- Fatigue, exhaustion, dehydration, inadequate food intake
- Alcohol intake expands your blood vessels which can lead to increased heat loss
Symptoms of Hypothermia:
- Uncontrollable or violent shivering
- Slurred speech or inability to communicate
- Fumbling or lethargy
You can read more information on treating and preventing hypothermia here.
After reading this complete guide full of winter hiking tips, I hope you feel confident to go out and enjoy the outdoors this winter! Winter is a beautiful time to experience a different side of nature and I hope you feel confident and inspired to get out there!
If you have any questions or comments about winter hiking tips or gear, leave a comment below!
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