TO MANY PEOPLE, hiking in the cold sounds about as appealing as standing in an airport security line. But the thing is, trail exploration in winter is quite magical, as long as you do a bit of planning. There are far fewer people on the trails, and the views you’re accustomed to in summer have a different flavor when capped in white. Proper gear is pertinent, as is a mug full of your favorite hot beverage. Come December, when the snow starts falling, there are just a few things to know for a comfortable winter hike. Of course, the easiest way to become a pro (or to keep warm) is to just start moving.
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1. Dress like an onion
The Québécois have a saying — s’habiller comme un oignon — which literally means “dress like an onion;” i.e. wear layers. This is especially important for winter hiking, as temperatures can change greatly between the trailhead and the summit. Having a variety of insulating clothing will help you regulate your body temperature and keep you comfortable. I like to wear a layer of long underwear, a light fleece or softshell jacket, and waterproof pants. I keep an insulated jacket (either down or synthetic loft), fleece pants, and a waterproof shell jacket in my pack in case of foul weather. Make sure your bottom layer is a moisture-wicking fabric as any sweat on your skin will start to feel cold very quickly the moment you stop moving.
Always wear thick, winter-weight socks, since your toes are the first place you’ll feel cold. It’s also a good idea to have two layers of gloves or mittens — one for insulation and one for waterproofing. Tossing a beanie in your backpack is always a good idea, too.
- Patagonia Nano Puffy Jacket (Women’s) or Patagonia Down Sweater (Men’s)
- REI Merino Wool Expedition hiking socks
- Patagonia Better Sweater Gloves
2. Start small and start early
When planning your first winter hike, be reasonable about the distance and difficulty of the trail. While it might be a cinch to do a 12-mile loop in summer conditions, you may run into ice or snow on the same trail in winter, which will slow you down. Many access roads to your favorite trailheads may be closed and unplowed in winter, which could add significant mileage to your trip to reach the trailhead. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as wading through knee-deep snow for miles on end, so choose a trail you know you can handle without difficulty.
Even if you’re not a morning person, start your winter hike early. Don’t forget that the sun sets much earlier in winter. Plan to be off the trail well before dark, especially as temperatures drop dramatically as soon as the sun goes down.
Recommended prep tips:
- Download Gaia GPS on your phone. This app offers trail info including length, altitude gain, photos, and current reviews from recent hikers.
- Be sure your phone is charged and tell someone both where you’re going and when you think you’ll be back.
3. Bring safety gear.
There are a few basic items everyone should carry in case of an emergency. Aside from basic hiking gear, you should always have a trail map, a first aid kit, a compass, a pocket knife or multi-tool, hand warming packets, and a headlamp. For a day hike, it’s a good idea to split up some of the heavier safety items among your group members. You should also bring more food than you’d need for a summer hike as you’ll burn more calories in colder weather.
Avid outdoorsman Frank Gibbons, who hikes and backpacks year-round in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, warns that even day-hikers should be prepared to spend the night outside in an emergency. “Every member of the group usually carries some emergency gear like a bivy sack or sleeping bag, down parka, cell phone, sleeping pad (for laying someone down if hurt), etc.” While it may mean that your backpack is a bit heavier, it may also mean that you avoid frostbite if you have to stay on the mountain overnight. Many hikers choose to always carry the 10 Essentials in their packs.
- HART Outdoor Day Hike First Aid Kit
- Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
- REI Trailbreak Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad
4. Check the weather
While this might seem like an obvious step, it’s always important to know what conditions to expect during your hike. This is especially true when hiking in winter. Look at the precipitation, wind speed, avalanche reports, and daylight hours. According to Director of Programs at the Mount Washington Observatory Peter Crane, winter hikers should aim to become knowledgeable about winter weather patterns.
“Do your research, learn about winter conditions and how they vary from summer conditions. It’s really a different world in the winter. A dozen people have died on Mount Washington due to avalanches. When you get above treeline, you have the added challenge of finding your way in limited visibility or even whiteout conditions.”
Be sure to plan your hike for a day when conditions are manageable and the weather forecast is promising. If the conditions look less than perfect, postpone your hike.
5. Learn to use microspikes
When the trail is icy, microspikes can make the difference between summiting and turning around, but it’s easy to injure yourself if you use them improperly. If you’re new to microspikes (which are a smaller, less climbing-oriented version of crampons), read up on techniques and try them out on an easy trail. Practice putting them on and taking them off. Ask a more experienced friend to show you how to use them going up and downhill.
Take it slow when you’re starting out to avoid accidents. One misstep or stumble and you could cut your leg or sprain an ankle. Microspikes are rows of metal spikes attached to your feet, and while they may make you feel secure on ice, they’re still sharp and should be stored (and used) safely.
- Kahtoola MICROSpikes Traction System hiking crampons (light snow/ice cover)
- Kahtoola KTS Steel Crampons for harder ice cover
6. Take an experienced friend.
Hiking with friends is always the way to go, especially in the winter. Not only is it more fun to share the adventure with others, but it’s also safer to be with a group. An experienced friend can help you choose gear, use microspikes or snowshoes, and identify dangerous conditions. If you’re new to the sport and don’t want to spend a lot of money, your friends may have extra gloves, hiking poles, or goggles laying around you could borrow to check off your packing list. Be sure to leave at least one friend at home who knows where you’re going.
7. Make tea or cocoa.
It’s essential to bring carry of water when hiking in the winter as dehydration is a common problem. It’s easy to forget to drink when you’re cold, but you’ll be burning serious calories and will need to remind yourself to take water breaks. Add some comfort to your trip by making tea, coffee, or cocoa in a lightweight and portable stove, or carrying it with you in a leak-proof insulating mug. A hot beverage can warm you up and provide a nice break from the hike. There’s nothing like a hot cocoa break to motivate you for the final push to the summit.
8. Invest in good gear.
While no two packing lists are exactly the same, there are some basic items every winter hiker should be prepared to buy. Most avid winter hikers will want to eventually have their own crampons or snowshoes, waterproof pants and a jacket, knee-high gaiters, waterproof boots, insulated jacket, lightweight backpack, hiking poles, gloves and beanie, and goggles or wrap-around sunglasses. A camp stove can also be a nice buy for warm meals and drinks on the trail. While it’s tempting to take the cheap route and get sub-par gear, I recommend looking for end-of-season sales and coupons instead. Your gear could save your life.
Look at REI for closeout items. It can be expensive when you’re getting started, but you’ll be able to repurpose many of the items for summer camping and hiking, too.
9. Be prepared to turn around.
Legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who has climbed all 14 of the world’s mountains above 8,000 meters (roughly 26,200 feet), once said, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” Echoing this sentiment, Mount Washington Observatory’s Crane advises that “the mountains have been here for a long time, and they’ll be here for a long time still.” Don’t hesitate to turn around if you run into conditions that look dangerous. Reaching the summit of a peak is just half the journey, and you need to have time and energy left for the descent. Focus on the entire trip, not just the ascent. You can always try again the following weekend.
10. After winter hiking, treat yourself to a great meal.
Lastly, be sure to reward yourself for a job well done. When I come off a mountain, I like to find the nearest source of comfort food. Sometimes it’s a cozy bar with great burgers; sometimes it’s a lively pizza place. No worries about your appearance and aroma; restaurants at the base of any big peak are used to hikers stopping off for a meal. Carbs, sodium, and vitamins are all good things to pack into your body after a long, active day.