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Winter comes with a bit of a learning curve all on its own. It’s no wonder that winter hiking can be intimidating. I am entering my third season of winter hiking and, through a lot of trial and error, I’ve figured out what works best for me. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably looking for a bit of inspiration to get out there and explore this winter. In this blog post, I share all of my recommendations for gear, preparation, safety precautions and how to prepare for winter hiking.
It’s important to note, there are several risks to consider when hiking in the winter. Namely avalanches. Everything described in this blog post is in preparation for non-avalanche hiking areas though I do touch upon some safety things to consider at the end as it relates to avalanches and weather. As always, don’t forget to follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles! Here is my beginners guide to winter hiking.
Winter Hiking Clothes
First things first, it’s important to cover what you’ll actually wear on trail! Layering your clothes is the first key to success when it comes to winter hiking. Personally, I prefer to start hiking wearing only a couple of layers rather than being bundled up. I quickly learned that when I start hiking all bundled up and perfectly warm, I was prone to sweat faster. The key is to sweat the least amount possible, which I know sounds hard because you’re exerting so much energy and effort, but when you’re wearing more layers, you’ll sweat more! As you continue to hike more and more in the winter, you will figure out a system that works best for you and you’ll learn when your body needs warmth vs a little bit of a cool down.
It’s also important to note, when shopping around, look for pieces that are made of synthetic materials and fibers rather than cotton. Merino wool, polyester, and nylon are great because they wick moisture and are typically fast drying. In comparison to cotton which takes longer to dry and doesn’t wick moisture away from your skin which means you’ll stay sweaty in warm temperatures and cold in cold temperatures. The saying goes “cotton kills.” From your underwear, bra and socks, to your base layer, mid layer and outer shell – wool and/or synthetic materials are key!
That said, you just want to be comfortable! Here are the three main layers to focus on: base layer, mid layer and outer shell.
How to prepare for winter hiking: key hiking layers
Base layers are the layers that are closest to your skin so these will be tightly fitting but comfortable enough to move around in. These help wick moisture from the skin so your clothes don’t get/stay wet. The mid layers are all about warmth as these are the layers that are worn over your base layers. A fleece, lightweight jacket, and a second pair of pants are all considered mid-layers. The outer shell would be your puffy down jacket, gaiters, rain gear, or any other pants/outer layer you might need depending on the forecast- this layer protects you from the elements. Below I outline my go-to layers for winter hiking and later on I share a sample outfit that I wear on trail while hiking in the winter featuring the pieces below.
My favorite winter hiking clothes
- Thermal Zip Base Layer – Top
- Merino Wool Long Sleeve
- Icebreaker Techlite Tee
- Merino 250 Base Layer – Bottoms
- Smartwool Classic Thermals
- Darn Tough Coolmax Socks
- Smartwool Seamless Bra
- Polartec Fleece Lined Leggings
- Winter Warmer Pants – Columbia
- Outdoor Voices Waffle Long Sleeve
- Trailsmith Fleece
- Microdini Halfzip Fleece
- Patagonia Fleece Pullover
- Adventure Grid Fleece
Winter Hiking Boots and Microspikes
I am a firm believer that if you’re going to hike in the snow, you should have proper, insulated, waterproof boots! Sure, you could hike in your summer boots, but speaking from experience it can be miserable- no matter how many layers of socks you wear. I invested in the Obōz Bridger 7 because they offer the support and grip I was looking for, have 200g 3M Thinsulate insulation, are waterproof, lightweight and have gaiter D-ring and molded heel kick. I also wear the Merrell Moab 3 Mid Thermo Waterproof boots. They have 200g Primaloft, a waterproof membrane and fleece lining.
I pair either of these with the Kahtoola Microspikes for a little extra traction when the trail gets icy or packed down. Or, if I know I am going to be in some deeper snow, I opt for the MSR Ascent Snowshoes because they’re lightweight, have great traction and have a heel riser for steeper grades.
Hat, Gloves, Buff and Sunglasses
My go to is usually a wool hat and I’ll pack something a little more lightweight so I can switch out if I find my head getting too warm. That’s often not the case though since you lose so much heat from that part of your body!
For my hands, I opt for a glove and mitten combination. I recently discovered these glove liners. The pointer finger and thumb roll back which gives me access to use my phone and camera. On top, I use these shell mittens. They’re an all in one fingerless glove and mitten. So, I layer the above gloves under these mittens and my hands stay warm and dry all day long. Inside the mitten, there’s even a pocket for hand warmers. Like I said before, this combination works really well to access my phone and camera because I don’t have to take the mittens off – I only need to flip back the top part of the mitten and roll back the fingertips on the gloves.
As you can see, just like my clothes, I layer my gloves too. I learned the hard way that oftentimes gloves are meant to be layered than to be worn on their own. For me, I know my hands are often the coldest part of my body, along with my toes.
A buff is great for a little added neck warmth and for protecting your face from the harshness of the sun and wind- especially out here in Colorado! Also on the topic of sun protection, wearing SPF and a durable, quality pair of sunglasses is important too! I purchased a pair of sunglasses from Izipizi called the Sun Glacier. These offer 100% UV protection, which is super important considering the snow can reflect 90% of the sunlight it receives, and this increases as you climb. The lenses are made of an ultra-resistant brown polycarbonate; this type of lens helps enhance the ability to see the terrain a bit better too! Another feature I love is that your eyes are completely enclosed within the sunglasses and little to no natural light makes it in. While Izipizi doesn’t seem to make these anymore, I’ve linked some sunglasses with similar characteristics below at varying price points.
Other favorite hats, gloves, buff and sunglasses
- Glove Liner – Outdoor Research
- The North Face Montana Glove and Mitt
- Storm Tracker Glove – Outdoor Research
- GoreTex Primaloft Mitten
- Lighweight Beanie
- Pattern Beanie
- Solid Waffle Beanie
- Pom Beanie
- Merino Gaiter
- Oakley Clifden Sunglasses (splurge)
- Spectron 3 Sunglasses
- Smith LowDown Sunglasses
Winter Hiking Outfit Example
As promised, here is an exact example of what you’ll find me wearing on trail in the winter! I hope this helps take away any guesswork when it comes to outfitting yourself for a winter hike.
Depending on the temperature I will wear one or all of these together. On cold, windy days all three layers are necessary.
- Base Layer: Merino 250 Base Layer – Bottoms
- Mid layer: Polartec Fleece Lined Leggings
- Outer shell: Torrentshell Pant
- Socks: Darn Tough Coolmax Socks
On cold, windy days I will wear all of these layers. I provide a couple of options for the base and mid layer because I find that on warmer days two long sleeve layers are not necessary so instead I’ll opt for a short sleeve shirt with a long sleeve layer over it.
- Base Layer: Smartwool Seamless Bra with Merino Wool Long Sleeve and/or Icebreaker Techlite Tee
- Mid Layer: Trailsmith Fleece or Microdini Halfzip Fleece
- Outer Shell: Patagonia Down Hooded Jacket or Ultralight 850 Down Jacket or 650 Down Jacket
Accessories + Boots
Your backpack is your lifeline while winter hiking as it holds everything you need. One thing that’s a non-negotiable is carrying the 10 essentials. These are the 10 essentials items you must always have with you, no matter how long you plan to be out, no matter the season.
- Navigation (map, compass, altimeter, GPS device etc. I love my Garmin Pro Solar Fenix 6S and Garmin inReach Mini)
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- Sun protection
- First aid
- Fire (matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove)
- Extra food
- Extra water + filter
- Extra clothes
You’ll want a pack that can fit all of this plus extra layers and a shovel, beacon and probe for avalanche safety. I find that a 26, 30 or 40 liter pack fits everything I need for a day trip in the mountains. My go to is the Jade 38L by Gregory, the red pack pictured above. Ever since I discovered Gregory – I’ve been hooked. It’s my go to pack brand for day hikes and long backpacking trips. A few key features I like my packs to have are trekking pole loops, top brain storage, outer pockets and a water reservoir compartment.
Here are my favorite winter hiking backpacks
Food and beverage
On that note, food and bev! Again, depending on how long you’re going to be out for, what you carry with you will vary. For me, I always like to pack extra food and water – usually more than I think I could ever possibly consume. I look for food that is high in fat, carbohydrates and protein and try to avoid the super sugary meal replacement bars and snacks. I find when I eat those I experience a crash later in the day, which is a no go when trying to explore.
When it comes to water, keep your water, straw and water filter insulated so that they don’t freeze. A good rule of thumb is to carry a couple of insulated, water bottles with hot water – as the day progresses the water cools that way you aren’t starting off your day with a frozen block of ice in your water bottle. If you’re using a water reservoir system, I recommend purchasing an insulated tube kit, just be sure it will work with your water system.
Other than water, winter trail drinks aka hot cocoa and tea are my favorites. I love enjoying a nice hot bev when I summit or reach whatever the destination. I always bring my beverage gear from Stanley with me! I’ll let you in on a little secret, a fresh cup of pour over coffee tastes really good at the summit.
If I’m not feeling like making coffee or cocoa at the summit, I’ll bring it pre-made with me in the Classic Legendary Bottle(1.5 QT usually does the trick!). The bottle has double-walled vacuum insulation that keeps drinks hot for up to 40 hours! The collapsible handle makes for easy grab-and-go and the insulated lid doubles as a cup for drinking. The handle is collapsible so it seamlessly fits in the water bottle pocket already on your pack. Usually I’m hiking with someone so I’ll bring along the Legacy Never Leak Travel Mug or the Classic Legendary Camp Mug so that we can each enjoy a nice hot cup of coffee, cocoa or tea.
The gourmet version of this is: making a fresh cup of pour over coffee at the destination. In this case, I will bring the Perfect Brew Pour Over Set, my jetboil and fuel, extra water, a few scoops of my favorite ground organic coffee, and a little bit of coconut milk. Here’s how it goes:
- Boil the water in the Jetboil MiniMo
- In the meantime, pour the ground coffee into Stanley’s Perfect Brew Pour Over Set
- Once the water is boiling, pour it over the ground coffee
- Share (or don’t) with your hiking buddy
The set is made of durable, stainless steel and includes everything you need, even the easy-to-clean reusable filter and camp mug. Once the coffee is made, all you have to do is remove the pour over from the camp mug when it’s finished (as that’s where it drips into) and voila, you have a delicious cup of your favorite coffee. With a side of epic mountain views! Oh P.S. if coffee isn’t your thing, here’s a delicious recipe to the best summit cocoa you’ll ever have!
Finding the right trail for your ability
When someone asks me how to find a trail that’s in line with their hiking ability, I always direct them to AllTrails. I love this app because it provides all of the essential information you’d need for determining if a trail is at your ability level or not. For each trail the app includes information about difficulty, length, elevation gain, route type, if dogs are allowed, hiker reviews, photos, directions to the trailhead and with the pro subscription you can download the trail map offline and record your hike! I find the hiker reviews to be very helpful when it comes to trail conditions, especially in the winter!
Overall AllTrails just a great, well rounded resource. You can also create folders and save trails as you find them for future hikes! I find the hiker reviews to be very helpful when it comes to conditions of the trail which is very dependent on the season.
When picking a trail, my rule of thumb is to always start with an easy, heavily trafficked trail because you’ll likely see others and these trails are well marked (usually).
As always, it is important to let your friends and family know your intended plan and which trail you’re going to hike. In addition to letting friends and family know, I always let a knowledgeable trail friend know my plan – this friend isn’t on trail with me rather off trail but is familiar with the kind of terrain I will be hiking on.
Safety first, always! I can’t stress this enough, winter hiking is a whole other ballgame in terms of hiking and if this is your first time experiencing mountain terrain in the winter, I encourage you to start with the shorter, easier and less technical trails in comparison to the harder climbs. Even if you’re an avid summer hiker, winter hiking requires a different approach and different gear altogether. And not to mention the ever changing weather in the mountains! When planning your hike, reference Mountain Forecast to get the most accurate forecast for the mountain terrain you’ll be hiking.
You must always consider the risk of encountering avalanches. I turn to the states’ avalanche center when I’m planning a winter hiking adventure because they provide detailed condition updates and forecasting. There are a lot of avalanche safety resources out there and some are free like the CAIC. Occasionally, REI offers free classes too. In addition, if you want more training around avalanche safety I recommend reaching out to one of your local outfitters as many of them will offer training.
Other than avalanche safety, like I said before, stick to what you know. Don’t set off to hike the tallest mountain in your area if you’ve never climbed that high before or have no prior winter hiking experience. Remember to always tell your family and friends your intended plan and carry some sort of satellite communication device (like the Garmin inReach Mini) with you in case of an emergency, and practice using all of your gear at home before adventuring!
Winter Hiking Tips for Staying Warm
Here are some tips to help you while out on trail this winter!
- Make sure you can use your hands while wearing your gloves. Practice zipping and unzipping your jacket pockets, using your phone, opening your pack and food while wearing them at home before hitting the trail.
- Put hand warmers in your jacket pocket and pack extras in your backpack.
- If you wear gloves and you find your hands just won’t warm up, purchase a pair of oversized mittens, layer them over your gloves and add hand warmers at the tips where your fingers are.
- Try to stay moving. Our bodies work hard during the hike but as soon as we stop moving our heart rate drops causing our overall body temperature to follow suit. If you can keep moving, taking only brief breaks, you’ll be able to stay warmer, longer.
- Wiggle your fingers and toes to keep blood flowing so that they stay warm.
- Pack warm drinks to help keep your insides toasty!
- Avoid the shade whenever possible and hike on warmer winter days.
Final Thoughts on Winter Hiking
I know, I know. This is a lot of information to digest! But if I’ve learned one thing when it comes to winter hiking it’s that it is better to be over prepared than underprepared. Be sure to check out my Day Hike Essentials Guide to see what’s in my pack for winter hiking.