Winter Hiking Tips: How to Hike in Snow
Learn our top winter hiking tips to keep you toasty and safe on cold and snowy trails, including advice on layering, snacks, staying hydrated & more.
As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, it’s easy to lose the 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 and can even boost your mood and improve your mental health. 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.
Whether you are winter’s biggest fan or not, we want you to feel comfortable getting outside and enjoying all four seasons. Here are our best winter hiking tips and ideas for staying active and getting outside in the snow!
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.
One of the first things we recommend doing is to make sure you’re prepared by looking up current trail conditions for the trail you want to hike and make sure you can get to the trailhead safely. We recommend AllTrails for this because their database includes nearly every trail across the U.S. and their trail reviews give real feedback from previous hikers, often including things like how the road conditions are, accessibility info, and even insights on the trail.
While their free version is great, we’ve found AllTrails+ to be well worth it as it allows you to download trail maps for offline use and get alerts if you stray off the trail. Use the link above to get a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+!
Here are several additional 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 solely on your phone and keep it in airplane mode to reduce power use.
- Snowpack can hide the trail and trail markers making it easier to get lost. Pay attention and know how to avoid getting lost.
- 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
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 Stanley Insulated Thermos, 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!
Check price: REI | Backcountry
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.
Check price: REI | Backcountry
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. Remember that the sun sets pretty early (usually by 5pm in most places in the Western US) in winter! 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 for 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.
>> Read Next: Best Hiking Snacks
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: Icebreaker 200 Oasis Top
- Insulating layer: Arc’teryx Atom 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: Icebreaker 200 Oasis Leggings
- 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.
Check price: REI | Outdoor Research | Backcountry
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.
Check price: Backcountry | Outdoor Research
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 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 Yaktrax ICETrekkers microspikes work great on flat, mellow winter terrain.
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 | Backcountry
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.
Winter Hiking Safety
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.
Have A Safety Plan
In order to stay safe, this is the process I use to prevent accidents from happening. Use these general guidelines 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.
- Check the conditions for the trail you want to hike. Our favorite tool for this is AllTrails since it often has recent reviews from hikers that share important information on current trail conditions and accessibility.
- 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.
- Be prepared for worse weather, just in case.
- If you bring technical winter gear, know how to use it (like an ice ax).
- Pack the 10 essentials, even if you only plan to be out for a couple of hours.
- Bring a good map, compass, and GPS device. AllTrails Pro allows you to navigate on the trail without cell service and will even send you alerts if you make a wrong turn or stray off trail. I also recommend investing 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 | Backcountry | Amazon
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 | Backcountry
Have A 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!
Related blog posts:
- Winter Hiking Clothes & Cold Weather Layering Basics
- Best Women’s Winter Boots
- Best Winter Vacation Destinations for Outdoor Adventure
- Best National Parks to Visit in Winter
- Cold Weather Camping: Tips for staying warm this winter
If you have any questions or comments about winter hiking tips or gear, leave a comment below!
This is the right web site for anybody who wishes to find out about this topic.
You understand so much its almost hard to argue
with you (not that I really would want to…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a subject which has been written about for decades.
Wonderful stuff, just excellent!
Great article but I would argue that the YakTrax you have on aren’t microspikes and are pretty limited in value for most hikes. Hillsounds and Kahtoolas are well worth the initial extra $$ as they work and they last.
Thanks for the suggestion Carol!
I love travelling. This is a very informative article!!
Brilliant ideas and very useful, many thanks
Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading
Do you have any tips for hiking on steep inclines/declines where you have to climb up and down on icy/snowy rocks? I read that microspikes are used in winter snow but I also read that it shouldn’t be used on rock. The ice is pretty shallow on the rocks.
Ideally microspikes would just be used on snow or ice, but if there’s a bit of rock on the trail in places between the snow and ice it’s not the end of the world. If you are hiking on steeper/icier pitches you may want to consider burlier crampons instead.