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Winter hiking comes with a bit of a learning curve mostly because of two things: the cold and it requires different gear than what you might expect. In this blog post, I break down my winter hiking essentials including everything you’d find in my day pack and a few tips for keeping warm on trail. If you’re new to winter hiking or would like clothing recommendations, I recommend checking out my Beginners Guide to Winter Hiking as it’s a more in depth guide to winter hiking preparations.
Backpack and the Ten Essentials
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 that, what’s outlined below and then some! My favorite pack for carrying all of my winter hiking essentials is the Gregory Jade 38L. It’s a bit larger than what you might be used to on a day hike but it comfortably fits everything outlined in this blog post, and then some! I love it because it’s shaped to fit a woman’s body, has chest and (very) comfortable, padded waist straps, external pockets for storage, a water reservoir pouch, rain cover, and top brain compartment for storing items you might need quick access to.
What’s Inside my Backpack on a Winter Hike
Now that we’ve covered the pack, let’s cover what winter hiking essentials you’ll carry in your backpack on a winter day hike.
Navigation, SOS Device and Avalanche Safety Equipment
It’s important to know where you’re going, and how to return to the trailhead safely! When on trail in the winter, it can be extremely hard to tell where the trail leads after a fresh snowfall. AllTrails is a great app to help you navigate and with the Pro subscription you can save maps offline to easily navigate when you don’t have service.
On that same note, I always have a battery charger for my phone! Not only do the low temperatures drain your battery but using apps and taking photos does too.
The Garmin inReach Mini is my go to satellite communication device. Its palm sized, but don’t let that fool you, when you don’t have cell service this communicator is your lifeline. You’ll need a subscription to their satellite service (plans start at $30/month) in order to use the device but you can cancel whenever you’re not using it. You can send messages to preloaded contacts as well as send out a distress signal. I’ve never needed to send out a distress signal while hiking but as you know, there are different threats and things to consider when winter hiking. Namely, avalanches.
On that note, you’ll want to carry a shovel, beacon and probe for avalanche safety. I typically stick to trails away from slopes that are steeper than 30 degrees, as 35-50 degrees is the typical slope an avalanche can occur on. Before heading out this winter, please educate yourself on the terrain you’ll be exploring and brush up on avalanche safety.
If I’m hiking for sunrise or sunset, a headlamp is always with me because I know I typically get carried away with timing and get to summit for sunrise way too early and stay on the summit for sunset until its dark out! I love this one by Petzl because the battery is rechargeable, the head strap is adjustable, and you can easily change the beam range.
Sun Protection + Sunglasses
The sun in Colorado is NO JOKE, especially in the winter at 10,000 feet above sea level. Thus, I cannot stress it enough how important it is to protect your skin. Here’s my go to sun protection while winter hiking:
When it comes to eyewear, I purchased a pair 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.
First Aid Kit
Depending on the hike, type of terrain, distance, and simply what makes you feel most at ease what’s in your first aid kit may differ. For me, this is what I am most comfortable with. In my typical day hike first aid kit I carry bandaids, leukotape, antiseptic cream, and Tylenol/Advil. I keep it pretty simple and this is within my comfort zone. That said, know your limits and know what you need to feel safe and secure on trail.
Water Reservoir + Electrolytes
Hydration matters. Even though its cold out and you might not feel as thirsty – your body still needs water to replenish itself. I use this water reservoir by Osprey. I really like the way the straw securely attaches to the reservoir and the way the bladder closes (from the top). I’ve never had this leak in my back – on day hikes and 3-night backpacking trips!
Tips for keeping water from freezing
- If you know you’ll be out for a while and it’s a cold day I recommend bringing an insulated water bottle (like this one by Stanley) filled with hot water as an emergency backup. Liquids tend to freeze quite easily on trail and the last thing you want is to be out of water.
- Face the soft side of your water reservoir towards your back- your body heat will help keep it warm.
- When you’re not drinking water out of your straw, push the water back into the bladder with forced breath.
- Buy a straw insulator like this to keep your straw protected.
One of the most important winter hiking essentials: sustenance! I find, most meal replacement bars or ‘protein’ bars are loaded with sugar. This might be good for a quick blood sugar fix but not for sustaining long term energy. Some of my favorite trail snacks are peanut butter and honey on whole wheat bread, EPIC bars, nuts and seeds, turkey pepperoni, dried mango, a banana and the Probar Electrolyte Gummies!
When packing your food on a winter hike, I recommend keeping it somewhere away from the elements. I usually keep food that I know will likely freeze close to my body, wrapped in my extra clothes or surrounded by a couple of hand warmers.
Hiking poles help me on steep, icy grades while hiking in the winter. I use the Hikelite’s by L.L. Bean. These hiking poles are lightweight, adjustable, have baskets and are anti-shock which helps absorb some of the impact and bumps! Plus, they fit perfectly in the loops of my Gregory pack when I’m not using them.
Microspikes and Snowshoes
My go to winter hiking boot has been the Obōz Bridger 7 because they offer the support and grip I was looking for, have 200g 3M Thinsulate insulation, are waterproof, have gaiter D-ring and molded heel kick. While they do have great grip, they don’t stand a chance against ice! I also love the Merrell Moab 3 Mid Thermo Waterproof boots. They have 200g Primaloft, a waterproof membrane and fleece lining.
Over my boots, I wear the Kahtoola Microspikes for a little extra traction when the trail gets icy or packed down. As a backup or when I know I’ll encounter deep snow, I pack the MSR Ascent Snowshoes because they’re lightweight, have great traction and have a heel riser for steeper grades. Here are some other snowshoes that work great for winter hiking:
I keep all of my personal hygiene items in a Stasher bag so it’s organized and easy to access. In my hygiene kit I include:
- Face wipes
- Tissues/toilet paper
- Plastic bag for trash
- Hand sanitizer
In my Beginners Guide to Winter Hiking I breakdown an exact outfit I wear on trail in the winter. In addition to what I wear on trail, I pack extra layers just in case! Here are the winter hiking essentials that you can find in my pack when it comes to additional layers!
While I’m usually not too worried about rain in the winter in Colorado or other mountain areas, I like to pack a rain jacket as an added wind layer and for warmth. A rain jacket helps with deflecting the wind off of you rather than absorbing it. My trail rain jacket is the Trail Model Rain Jacket from L.L. Bean. I layer it one of two ways: over my puffer jacket or under my puffer jacket. When I wear it over my puffer it acts as a wind deterrent and when layered under my puffer jacket it helps traps body heat keeping me nice and warm.
I usually don’t wear snow pants right from the start unless I know the trail is going to require trekking through deep snow, my gaiters are usually enough. But when the occasion permits, here are some of my favorite snow pants for winter hiking:
The North Face Freedom Insulated Snow Pants: With zippered pockets, 60 g Heatseeker™ Eco polyester insulation (90% recycled) provides lightweight warmth, and DryVent™ 2-layer construction provides waterproof, breathable protection from the elements; PFC-free durable water repellent (DWR) finish helps moisture bead up on the surface – these pants are perfect for all day stoke on trail. Plus, they come in a Short size option.
Patagonia Torrentshell 3L Pant: Lightweight, breathable and made of 100% nylon. They tend to fit loose which makes them great for mobility and layering. These pants are not insulated but act as a water repellent to keep you dry and warm. The Torrentshell are a great option to have in your pack because they can easily be layered on without taking your boots off with the zippered ankle feature.
Columbia Bugaboo Omni-Heat Snow Pants: Columbia is known for their OmniHeat technology and these snow pants make great use of it. They use Omni-Tech™ waterproof/breathable fabric with critically sealed seams blocks wind and water and Omni-Heat™ thermal reflective technology and 60g Microtemp XF II synthetic insulation that delivers reliable warmth.
Peak Design Camera Clip
No matter the season, I always have the Peak Design Clip on my pack strap. The clip attaches right to the strap of your backpack making it super easy to access your camera! Before this clip, I would always pack my camera in my backpack, which ultimately made the weight I carried on my back 10 pounds heavier. With it attached to my backpack strap, the weight is evenly distributed and the whole process feels more streamlined.
Winter Hiking: Other Things to Consider for a Successful Winter Hike
Below I share some other winter hiking essentials to consider ensuring you have a successful winter hike!
Leaving Extra Food + Water in the Car
As you begin to hike more, you’ll get to know exactly what your body needs! For me: I always pack just enough food and water for the hike (with a lil extra just in case) but without fail, I return to the car and am both hungry and thirsty. Thus, extra food and water! I always keep the Stanley Iceflow Flip Straw 64oz jug filled with water in my car. Regardless of hikes, road trips, daily errands – whatever it might be. It’s great peace of mind knowing I have some extra water. I also love to come back to my car to real food so I’ll pack a sandwich, some fresh cut veggies and hummus, and a block of cheese in my Stanley Easy Carry Cooler with the Klean Kanteen Food Box Set. I also use the Klean Kanteen TKWide and the 20oz TKWide with a Cafe Cap to keep all my on the go beverages easily accessible.
Waste disposal will differ based on your location so be sure to look for signs at the trailhead and research ahead of time! Typically, proper disposal of solid human waste is digging a hole and burying it. In the winter the ground is frozen so more often than not, that isn’t an option. Head to this post to read about how to dispose of waste properly in the backcountry.
Change of Clothes and Shoes
And the final piece of the puzzle: a fresh change of clothes! I pack a change for every clothing item: socks, underwear, bra, shirt and pants. I also always leave a non-hiking shoe in my car and in the winter its typically the Ice Puff 4 slip on. It’s a super cozy and warm shoe to slide into after a long day on trail.
Final Thoughts on Winter Hiking
There you have it. All of my go to winter hiking essentials for a successful winter hike! As you begin to hike more and more in the winter, you’ll learn what methods and gear work best for you on trail. As always, please remember to follow Leave No Trace Principles. If you’re in need of more hiking inspiration, head to the hiking + camping section of the blog for detailed trail and packing guides.