Winter Hiking How-To Guide: Pro Tips

For many, it can feel far less natural to head out for a backpacking trek in the depths of winter. Still, for those who can stand a bit of cold air and brisk winds, the snow-capped peaks and open trails await.

Hiking in the winter takes a bit more know-how and gear prep, but it can quickly become a rewarding activity. With these winter hiking tips, getting out to the trails will be a safe, easy, and enjoyable activity no matter the time of year or amount of snow.

Winter Hiking Tips

Check the Weather Before You Go

It’s always smart to check the weather, but this especially goes for the winter months. You’ll want to know how much it snowed the night before, if parts of your chosen trail are impassable, if the roads are clear, if there’s a high-wind warning, or anything else. Maybe you’ll want to bring an extra hardshell layer, or maybe you’ll need crampons.

Also, make a plan with your hiking partner or group to line up a plan B.

Hike in the Daylight Hours

Depending on the part of the country you’re in, winter can be a very dark time of year. The days get shorter, meaning there’s a lot less time to safely hike on trails.

Shorter hikes can still lead to beautiful spaces and will fit the bill perfectly for wintertime. Getting an earlier start can also help you fit more miles into a shorter day.

hiking in the winter
Photo credit: Joseph

Be Bold, Start Cold

Our first instinct in the cold is to bundle up and find warmth. Hiking in the winter is naturally harder, and we produce more body heat. Wearing several layers can lead to overcompensating and sweating, which can be dangerous.

The sweat sitting on skin will cool the body down at a risky rate, creating an ideal environment for hypothermia. Starting the hike feeling cold can be incredibly difficult, but the body warms itself up quickly, and as you get moving, you’ll feel quite comfortable. Also look for base layers that help wick away sweat and keep the body and skin cool and ventilated.

Hydration

Water is essential for hiking at any time of the year. In the winter, it can be lifesaving and will keep you warmer. As the body becomes dehydrated, blood will thicken and move heat around less efficiently. Staying hydrated allows for the body to circulate heat and keep everything from head to toes warm.

It can be challenging to convince yourself to drink cold water while hiking in the cold. Packing a thermos of hot water or tea can bring more warmth into the bitter cold hike in addition to upping hydration levels.

Water bottles will also freeze if it’s cold enough overnight. To have liquid water rather than an ice block in the mornings, try putting the water bottle inside your sleeping bag. Take care to make sure the lid is on extra tight. You can also get into the habit of bringing a stainless steel water bottle to put in the fire each morning to thaw frozen water.

hydration and eating in winter
Photo credit: Michael R Perry

Eat Extra Calories

As your body works to keep warm and perform the exertions of hiking, you will burn more calories. Hiking in the winter provides a great excuse to eat. Foods with a high fat content like peanut butter will help keep the body nourished and able to pump out more heat.

One method of staying warm that outdoor professionals use all the time is consuming food and drinks made with butter or coconut oil. Throwing some extra fat into morning coffee, oats, dinners, or hot chocolate at night both adds a special flavor and is an incredible heat source.

Batteries Need Warmth

Technology struggles in the cold. Batteries drain faster, some gadgets move slowly, and others will shut off if it’s cold enough. To prevent dealing with a malfunctioning GPS or smartphone, hike with batteries close to your skin.

Chest pockets, for example, are great for cellphones. Body heat will help keep batteries at operating temperature, maintaining your headlamp’s charge for when you pull it out at night.

If you’re camping, put essential electronics (phone, headlamp, battery pack) inside your sleeping bag each night. Some sleeping bags have interior or zip pockets for this purpose.

winter camping
Photo credit: Tom Quiggle

Guide to Winter Gear

Having the right equipment and apparel on the trail during the winter becomes far more important than in other seasons because of freezing temperatures.

Winter Hiking Pants

Quality winter hiking pants need to be well-insulated, water-resistant or waterproof, breathable, and flexible. As backcountry ski touring has taken off in popularity, more brands are producing great gear for the sport. This type of pant also works great for winter hiking.

Patagonia’s PowSlayer Pants check all the boxes to allow for a comfortable hike in the deepest of snow.

patagonia pants

Winter Hiking Boots

Boots for winter will be one piece of gear that will be very different from those of summer. Of course, you can buy old beat-up boots two sizes too big and add three pairs of socks and a plastic bag, but your feet will never forgive you.

The ideal standard for taking care of feet in the winter comes with insulated and waterproof boots that allow the feet to breathe but not collect sweat. Frostbite occurs exponentially quicker when digits are wet.

Salomon’s Toundra boots and The North Face’s Chilkat 400 boots are both guaranteed to give love and care to your toes on the most challenging of winter hikes.

salomon boots

Gaiters

Another piece of gear to consider when hiking in winter is a pair of gaiters. If you’re heading to a trail with deep snow and post-holing on the hike, gaiters will stop snow from finding its way into your boots. You can also opt for snowshoes if the terrain requires.

No matter how waterproof your boots are, they will always take water in from the top. Gaiters help to stop this and seal the foot up almost entirely, and snowshoes stop you from post-holing at all.

Outdoor Research makes high-quality gaiters that can keep water out without compromising the breathability of your boots.

outdoor research

When going out during winter, you will find yourself in a beautiful space with fewer people around and more of what makes nature so grand. By following these winter hiking tips, you can safely find the quiet solitude that winter hiking offers.

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