A Beginners Guide to Winter Hiking

March 19, 2021

This post is written in partnership with Stanley and includes some affiliate links. If you click one of the links I may receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Winter comes with a bit of a learning curve all on its own. It’s no wonder that winter hiking can be intimidating. This has been my second proper 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 the blog post below, I share all of my recommendations for gear, preparation, safety precautions and how to prepare for winter hiking.

It’s important to note, the snow pack here in Colorado this winter has been terrible and avalanches have been very prevalent, especially in our backcountry. 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 found that when I start hiking all bundled up and perfectly warm, I was more 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 hike more and more, you will figure out a process 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, mid and outer shell – wool 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. My go to is always a pair of fleece lined leggings over my base layer. 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.

My favorite winter hiking clothes

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 Oboz 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 pair 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

These three are essential because they can really make or break your winter hiking experience. 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 gloves rather than mittens because I prefer to have my fingers functioning as much as possible. 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. So keeping hand warmers in my pockets is a must! The gloves I linked below are “smart gloves” and work perfectly with the screen on my iPhone so I’m not constantly taking my gloves off to take a photo or send a text. 

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 recently purchased these Izipizi Sun Glacier sunglasses that offer 100% UV protection, which as someone with blue eyes this is a massive struggle for me! I quickly learned that 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.

My favorite hats, gloves and buff

Backpack

Your backpack is your lifeline while winter hiking as it holds everything you need. Depending on what trail I’m doing and how long I plan to be out there for – what I carry in my pack differs from hike to hike. 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
  • Knife
  • Fire (matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove)
  • Shelter
  • Extra food
  • Extra water + filter
  • Extra clothes

You’ll want a pack that can fit all of this plus extra layers. I find that a  26, 30 or 40 liter pack fits everything I need for a day trip in the mountains. I like my packs to have trekking pole holders and a water reservoir compartment. On that note – always be sure to keep your water and straw insulated so that it doesn’t freeze (if you have your filter with you too, keep it on your body so it doesn’t freeze, crack and malfunction). 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.

Here are my favorite winter hiking backpacks

Food and beverage (aka snacks and hot cocoa) with Stanley

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 – 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.

Winter trail drinks aka hot cocoa and tea are my specialty. I love enjoying a nice hot bev when I summit or reach whatever the destination is (maybe it’s an old mining town that dates back to the 1800’s as seen in the photos here). 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:

  1. Boil the water in the Jetboil MiniMo
  2. In the meantime, pour the ground coffee into Stanley’s Perfect Brew Pour Over Set
  3. Once the water is boiling, pour it over the ground coffee
  4. 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!

P.S. you can use code hannah20 when checking out on Stanley’s website for 20% off your entire purchase!

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! Overall 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.

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. 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).

Safety

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! My go to is always Mountain Forecast to get the most accurate forecast.

I mentioned before about avalanches. As a newcomer to this, it was intimidating to learn about at first. But now I turn to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center when I’m planning a winter hiking adventure. The website offers detailed information and forecasting so I recommend checking that when planning your adventure. 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 Colorado Mountain School, Colorado Rides and Guides, or one of your local outfitters as many of them offer training.

Other than avalanche safety, like I said before, stick to what you know. Don’t set off to hike Quandary Peak (a 14er here in Colorado) 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!

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. And, to get you planning your own winter hiking adventure, here are a few of my favorite trails in Colorado: Mayflower Gulch, Radium Hot Springs and Emerald Lake.

Happy trails!

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