Just because snow is falling and temperatures have dropped, it doesn’t mean it’s time to hang up your hiking boots. In fact, hiking in the winter has some unique characteristics. Many trees have lost their foliage, sporting incredible unobscured views, not to mention that trails aren’t nearly as crowded. Hiking is something that you can enjoy all year long, but like everything else in life, if you want a pleasant experience, you need to prepare properly.
Start Early and Choose a Trail Comfortably Within Your Skill Level
Hiking in winter is very different from warm-weather hiking. Naturally, terrain changes during the winter, factoring in snow, strong winds, and ice. If you’re a novice winter hiker, it’s not advisable to make your first winter expedition one with intense rock climbing, ravine crossing, or other daring adventures. Instead, be reasonable about the difficulty and distance of the trail, and opt for something simpler until you become better acquainted with winter hiking.
Also, keep in mind that days are significantly shorter during the winter. Wake up early so you can be ready to start your trek at dawn (8 am in December to 7 am later in the winter), leaving plenty of time before night is upon you.
Be Prepared to Turn Around
Winter hiking can be very challenging. Fierce winds, avalanches, limited visibility, and whiteouts pose serious threats when hiking in the winter. Before you set out, check the forecast to get an accurate picture of the weather; precipitation, wind speeds, avalanche reports, and daylight hours.
If conditions suddenly become dangerous mid-hike, put your pride to the side and turn around. In a competition between nature and man, nature will almost always win. Those mountains will be there tomorrow. You, on the other hand, are a lot more vincible.
Give Your Boots and Boot Liners a Warm Place to Sleep
If your boots or boot liners have gotten wet during the day and you happen to find yourself in a place where temperatures drop below freezing at night, you can sleep with your boots and/or boot liners in your sleeping bag. If you don’t, they’ll freeze during the night, and you’ll be waiting for them to thaw before continuing on your journey the next day. To help protect boot liners from getting wet from sweaty feet, you can wear oven roasting bags under your socks.
Bring Two Stoves in Case One Fails
Winter gas stoves can fail if you use dirty fuel or fail to clean them properly, or when temperatures become too cold for their fuel to vaporize. If you are winter backpacking in a group, have more than one person carry a backup stove, preferably ones that use the same kind of fuel. White gas stoves are the best for hiking in winter.
Pack Frozen Food Versus Dehydrated Food
Dehydrated food, although serves a purpose, is not that tasty. When you’re hiking in the cold, you can consider frozen meals instead, keeping in mind their weight. There are many frozen dishes that can be simply boiled when you’re ready to eat. Depending on how long you’ll be trekking through the white lands, a combination of frozen and dehydrated may serve you best.
Keep Your Drinking Water in an Insulated Pouch
Imagine pulling out your water bottle after an arduous hike only to find that your water is frozen. Avoid this by keeping your water bottle in an insulated pouch on the outside of your hiking backpack if you want easy access, or tucked inside equally insulated. When hiking in the winter, it’s best to use a wide-mouthed bottle so that you can fill it with melted snow. At night, though, put it in your sleeping bag so that it doesn’t freeze.
Use Your Backpack as Added Insulation
On exceptionally cold nights, you can empty the contents of your backpack and use it as added body insulation. Put the pack over your feet and wiggle into your sleeping bag.
Brush Up on Your Navigation Skills
Snow changes terrain, period. Knowing how to navigate through snowscapes skilfully is essential if you’re hiking in the winter. Be aware of winter navigation hazards, and be sure to carry a trail map and compass at all times.
Always Bring A Tent When Hiking in the Winter
Winter weather conditions can change quickly making a four-season tent a necessity. Knowing how to build a winter shelter is equally essential in emergency situations. If you’re able to make a fire, you can keep your tent warm by heating up a large stone, removing it after several hours, and letting it cool until you’re able to handle it, but it’s still hot. Wrap a towel around the rock, and place it at the foot of your sleeping bag or in the center of your tent, or shelter.
Bring Safety Gear Just in Case
Even day hikers should pack safety gear in case an emergency arises. Toss in a trail map, hand warmers, first aid kit, a mylar emergency blanket, a multi-tool, a compass, avalanche beacon, and a headlamp into your backpack for good measure.
Have an Experienced Winter Hiker Join You
No one should hike alone, but especially true when hiking in winter. An experienced friend can help choose the right gear, teach you how to use crampons or snowshoes, and identify hazardous conditions.
And if it gets really cold, two bodies will stay warmer during the night.
Wear Three Layers of Clothing
Staying warm and dry is high priority when doing pretty much anything in the winter. Wearing three layers of clothing; a base layer, a middle layer, and an outer layer is fundamental. The base layer, closest to your skin should not be made of cotton since cotton dries slowly and looses its insulating qualities when wet. Instead, opt for a fabric that wicks moisture to the exterior layers, where it’s evaporated. A fleece or down pullover with an attached hood will help retain body heat and makes a great middle layer. Finally, a hardshell waterproof coat with an attached hood should keep you warm and dry, and protected from the elements.
If you start to get a little too warm, take layers of as necessary before you start to sweat. Avoid sweating since sweating can cause your clothes to become damp. The dampness will quickly chill you whenever you stop moving.
If Necessary, Hike in Your Damp Clothes
Yes, this seems contradictory, but let’s consider the logic for a minute. If you get rained on or snowed on and your clothes get wet, the first thing you’ll want to do is change into something dry. Go ahead and do that, and then put the damp clothes in your sleeping bag so that they don’t freeze, assuming you’re on an overnight trek.
When you wake up in the morning, change back into those (probably still) damp clothes. If you hike in the dry clothes that you slept in, and it rains or snows again, you’ll have “two” sets of wet clothes and “one” recipe for hypothermia.
Get Proper Winter Hiking Apparel
In the summer, you can just throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and set off on your hike. In the winter, though, you’re going to want to put a little more thought into your hiking clothes. Appropriate winter hiking apparel is essential if you are to stay dry and warm.
Protecting your feet while hiking is high priority. After all, they got you onto the trail, and they’re the only things that will get you off the trail. While some people dare to hike in open-toed shoes during the spring and summer (not recommended), boots are essential when hiking in the cold weather, especially if snow and ice are in the equation.
Winter hiking boots generally have more treading than other types of trail footwear. The tread allows you to grip uneven surfaces, preventing slips. This is incredibly important when hiking in winter given trails can be slippery. Boots also provide your ankles with support and keep your feet dryer from puddles and mud than would other types of hiking footwear.
Winter Hiking Boots for Women
- Columbia Women’s Bugaboot Cold-Weather Hiking Boot
- Keen Women’s Hoodoo III Winter Hiking Boot
- Timberland Women’s Keele Ridge Winter Hiking Boot
Winter Hiking Boots for Men
- Columbia Men’s Bugaboot Winter Hiking Boot
- Merrel Men’s Moab Polar Waterproof Winter Boot
- Sorel Men’s Conquest Winter Hiking Boot
Additional Winter Hiking Apparel
A good pair of hiking boots is just one of the essentials that you’ll have on your winter hiking apparel checklist. You’ll also want to have appropriate winter clothing.
For your head:
- Lightweight and heavyweight wool or fleece hat
For your hands:
- Lightweight fleece or wool gloves
- Waterproof shell gloves with insulated liners
For your body:
- Insulated hardhsell coat with attached hood
- Waterproof/windproof jacket with attached hood
- Hardshell waterproof/windproof pants
- Fleece jacket, or pullover, or insulated vest
- Long sleeve jersey
- Long underwear