The chance to escape into a winter wonderland certainly has its appeal, but the inherent beauty of the landscape is also its main danger. Cold kills folks. We decided to put together our definitive winter hiking guide to help you start exploring safely. From winter hiking gear recommendations, identification of cold related illnesses, to proper food and hydration you’ll have everything you need for a successful hike.
We know the thought of hiking in winter can sound absurd to some people. Who would want to go freeze their butts off for hours, in the snow, with only a few chances of seeing anything cool (stinking clouds)? Strangely enough, we would. We love the solitude, the chance to see wild landscapes blanketed and unspoiled under pillows of snow. Sure, winter hiking isn’t always glamorous— get snow in your boots and you’ll know exactly what I mean— but man oh man is it worth it.
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Winter Hiking Clothing and Gear
Staying comfortable consistently on a cold hike is probably the hardest part about hiking in winter. There are three main factors to consider when choosing clothing: layering, material, exposure. Gear is all about covering your bases. It’s not entirely a “better to have and not need” situation but it’s close. Odds are (and hopefully) you will carry items you won’t ever use. If you wonder why I say hopefully, I’m pretty sure no one wants to use their first aid kit but you sure as heck want it when you need it.
How to Pick Your Winter Hiking Clothing and Gear
Layering is actually a pretty simple process that makes winter hiking so much more comfortable. Each layer has a unique purpose in the goal of keeping you warm. The idea is that you add and remove layers as necessary to stay comfortable throughout your hike. Sweating means you’re too warm and need to remove a layer, whereas, shivering means you need to add one. Ideally, you realize what you need to do before you’re actually sweating or shivering 😊 Your base layer should wick moisture away from your body, the middle layer is the nice warm insulation layer, and the outermost layer is simply a shell to keep out rain, wind, snow, etc. Pretty simple
Choosing the correct material for your clothing is another simple way to stay warm. First and foremost, ditch the cotton. Cotton is a notoriously slow drying material, meaning once you get wet, you’ll more than likely stay wet. That sounds like a good way to be miserable the whole hike to us. Look towards synthetic or wool clothing instead, not only does it wick moisture away but it also comparable thermal conductivity.
Exposure is also a very basic concept. If you can see the skin, its going to get cold. Extremities like your nose, ears, cheeks, fingers, and toes are extremely prone to frostbite and need to be covered accordingly. Additionally, that pesky half inch between the base of your glove and the end of your coat will quickly freeze up if not covered. Basically, if you can see it, cover it!
Winter Hiking Clothing and Gear Recommendations
Now that we’ve covered how you should bundle up we’ve compiled a list of our favorite winter hiking gear. We’ve broken it down into clothing and gear by body part and use. In the sake of honesty: this page contains affiliate links. In the event of a sale, as an Amazon Associate we will be awarded a small commission (at no extra cost for you). This allows us to continue to produce great content, so thank you!
Warm Winter Hiking Boots
Look for winter hiking boots rated for 20 below zero Fahrenheit at a minimum. This should cover the majority of day hikes you’ll go on. If you plan on venturing above tree-line look for even heavier duty boots. Plan on buying between a half and full size larger boot. This will allow you to wear multiple or thick socks and still fit comfortably within your boot. Our favorite insulated hiking boot is the Keen Summit County Boot.
There are a couple approaches to socks for winter hikes, some choose layers others a thicker wool pair. Personally, I love a single pair of wool socks. Extra pairs just seem to lay funny in my boots. Whichever approach you choose make sure there is enough room left in your boots to wiggle your toes. Why? Partially for comfort and partially for warmth. Blood flow is a good thing! EchoGorge makes some amazing wool socks, I even wear them skiing!
Gaiters are those really cute (not) puffy things that run from below your knee and over the boots. What they lack in style they make up for in practicality. They do an excellent job of keeping cold wet snow out of your boots and socks. Look for Velcro gaiters instead of zippers. The Velcro holds up to the constant cold and flexing much better than their zipped counterparts. I personally don’t use Gaiters but I’ve heard the best are Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters. Again, practicality not style my friends.
Winter Hiking Traction Systems
Traction on the trails is critical. Ideally, you’d get to hike in an inch or so of fresh snow over a soft pack base every time you hike. Unfortunately, we’re not usually that lucky. For hardpack and slick conditions we turn to Hillsound Trail Crampons. They’re lightweight, easy to pack (watch the spikes though), and work well in most snowpack conditions.
If you venture further out or find a nice powder stash you may also be in the market for some snowshoes. For mountainous hiking look for heels with a lift. The lift makes climbing hills so much easier— just don’t ask me how it actually works. Also evaluate the binding system, if you think you’ll need to take off your gloves to adjust them look elsewhere. We have a couple pairs of Tubbs snowshoes by K2 and they work spectacularly.
Waterproof Hard Shell Pants
Hard shell pants are like a nice raincoat for your legs. They keep all the water (snow and rain) and wind on the outside. They aren’t quite as warm as a softshell so most winter hikers recommend wearing long underwear underneath. Try to buy a pair you can zip down the side to take off so you can leave your boots on when you’re too warm. KAILAS makes an amazing pair of hard shell pants. They’re fairly light, extremely durable, and pretty easy to slip in and out of.
Warm Softshell Pants
For those of you who run a little more cold blooded softshell pants are a lifesaver. Think of them as superpowered long underwear. They fit a little more snugly but boy do they pack the heat. Pack a pair of hard shells to keep the wind off your legs. Again, KAILAS makes some amazing pants, their soft shells are just as packable, rugged, and user friendly.
I know that the beauty of layering is that you’ll always have a certain combination that should be the right warmth. That all works fine and dandy for when you’re hiking but what about when you stop and take a break? That’s when you need the big, fluffy, puffy jacket with a hoody. Something all about comfort and heat. This is where Kestra immediately screams, “Get a parka!!” and she’s right. They’re long enough to keep your legs and core warm, comfy, and extra puffy. I really like the look of the Western Mountaineering Meltdown Down Parka. Avoid anything much lighter weight because those are better served as mid layers.
Hard Shell Coat (Outermost Layer)
These guys are not meant to be warm or really even that comfy. They serve the same purpose as a nice hard shell pant, they keep you bone dry and the wind off of you. Look for one with a built in hood that you can put up when its really coming down. Non-hooded jackets are nice but do you really want a drain circling water around your neck? We recommend looking for jackets with armpit zippers (you can thank us later) and a couple exterior pocket to store hats and gloves. The Outdoor Research Panorama Point Jacket is really the perfect epitome of those sentiments.
Mid Layer Insulation
Almost everyone has a mid layer they swear by. That’s all fine we just recommend you try out a few options and see which fits you and your budget best. The three main schools of though are jackets, pullovers, or vests, depending on how warm you run. Additionally, most people look towards fleece, wool, or synthetic (polyester) for the material. All are warm and good at pulling moisture away from the body. I love and use the North Face’s Glacier fleece, in fact I wear it around the house because it’s so comfy.
Base Layer Shirts
There are two main key to base layers. First, ALWAYS avoid cotton. Again cotton absorbs but doesn’t wick away moisture. Second, believe in wickability! Wicking removes any moisture or sweat away from your skin, and since you’ll have your base layer on all day it’s very important you aren’t wet. The Patagonia Capilene Lightweight is a great choice. They run as jerseys (loose) or as long underwear (tight). I used to wear the long underwear version to school all the time back when Under Armor and other tight shirts were cool.
For winter hiking most people will recommend bringing at least two hats. One is a lighter “day” hat, the sun is up and you’re working hard so not as much insulation is needed. The other “night/sunrise/sunset” hat is much thicker and keeps you warm when you’re sitting still or as the temperature plunges. Mountain Hardware makes a phenomenal lightweight “day” and heavy “night” hat. Perfect from piling on or switching in between. Personally, I use the hand knitted Grandma Hardware version but I may have to switch over soon if they’re as great as everyone says!
Lots of people also carry a neck warmer and reinvent its use as a hat, or face mask, or even the trusty neck warming option. I’d recommend the SmartWool Merino 250 Gaiter. Double the insulation, machine washable, wicking so you don’t get that awful water buildup on your chin.
Kind of like the hats most hikers use a two pair glove approach when it comes to hiking. Don’t be surprised to hear some people say they take along even more though. Again, this should be approached from the heavy duty and light duty perspective. Your heavy-duty gloves should be modular in design with a waterproof shell exterior and warm liner interior. This way you can ditch liners as your hand sweat throughout the day. As for mitts or gloves. Mitts are a bit warmer but gloves allow you to maneuver more freely, weigh what matters more to you! Outdoor Research Mt. Baker Modular Mitts are named after one of the snowiest peaks in the USA so can be sure they can handle a day of winter hiking!
The lightweight pair of gloves is meant more for the strenuous sections of your hikes. Your blood should be pumping enough that a thin lightweight glove should be all you need. Personally we’d recommend thin softshell gloves over medium fleece gloves for your second pair. Typically, if you’re cold enough for the medium you should wear the heavy-duty anyway, and the snow is less prone to stick to the softshells. I’ve used the Marmot Glide Softshell Gloves on a couple runs and I think they’d be perfect softshell winter hiking gloves.
Spare clothes are a necessity plain and simple. It’s amazing how quickly winter hiking can go from fun and pretty to damp and miserable. Not changing between layers, a slip in deep snow, or even a quick dip in a stream will certainly put a damper on any hike. Plan accordingly, be sure to pack additional socks, underwear, a base layer, and some pant in case of an emergency. While those alone won’t allow you to finish your hike home, they will give you time to dry out your essential clothing and get on the move again.
Additional Gear for Tree Line Hikes
Once you exit the tree line winter hiking grows exponentially more difficult. Windblown conditions mean you need to carefully consider wind protection and traction for ice and slides. Personally, we recommend a full-face balaclava and a pair of ski goggles. This will keep your eyes from freezing shut and protect any exposed skin on your face. The googles also will protect you from any blowing material and snow blindness (yes, it is real!). The Self Pro Balaclava is an integrated facemask and balaclava that’s super warm, windproof and wicking, perfect for above tree line hikes. Kestra has a pair of Zionor goggles that she uses and loves, plus they have a ton of cool colors 😉
Back to the traction aids. The ice, snow slides, and windblown conditions will require extra traction. If you plan on venturing above tree line you’ll need to carry both an ice axe and a pair of heavy duty crampons. Ideally, you’ll visit a local Co-op or outdoor store where they can train you accordingly. If you’re properly trained and just looking for some recommendations, I’d check out the Yaktrax Summit Crampons and Black Diamond’s 505g Raven Ice Axe. Both are superb for intermediate level hikers looking to push the boundary a little further without breaking the bank.
As you’ve noticed, winter hiking means you’ll wear and carry a lot more stuff than normal. All this extra gear means you need a bag large enough to accommodate it. Anywhere between 30-50 liters should do the trick. Additionally, you should look for a bag with numerous attachment points. That way whatever doesn’t fit or doesn’t need to fit inside can hang out (think crampons, snowshoes, waterbottles, etc.). Always make sure your winter hiking pack has an easily sealable lid and several pockets to keep things tidy. I’m still using my summer pack for winter hikes and things can get a little tight. If I get a little more spending money, I’d get the Osprey Mutant 38, it has tons of colors options, a flap over seal to keep stuff dry, and its matches my summer pack 😉
I know this may seem goofy but hear me out. Your normal water bottle probably won’t work. Anything with a straw will freeze solid. Thin mouthed bottles will freeze shut. Reservoir hoses will freeze up. You need to carry a couple wide mouthed bottles. If you carry outside of your pack be sure to place an insulated sleeve. Kestra and I both love our Nalgene bottles, they’re wide mouthed, carry a ton of water, and have their own line of sleeves you can buy.
The 10 Essentials
The ten essentials are basically ten items that you should always have on you when you go explore. They alone should be enough for you to spend multiple nights outside and survive, and be able to respond positively to an accident or emergency. There are two main schools of thought: the classic bare boned approach and the functional system approach. Personally, I subscribe to the bare boned school of thought. I carry enough to safely navigate the situation but don’t over-prep for every scenario. If you’re a little greener maybe try a mix of the two list.
The Classic List
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Extra clothing
- Headlamp or flashlight
- First-aid supplies
- Extra food
The Functional Systems List
- Sun Protection
- First Aid
- Extra Food
- Extra Water
- Extra Clothes
If you’d like to read more about either list you should be sure to check out Mountaineers.org’s post here: What are the Ten Essentials. The do a phenomenal job highlighting the highs and lows of each system, the history of the list, and how to stay safe on the trail.
If you’re planning on winter hiking you need to account for the chance that something might happen on the trail that won’t allow you to return that night. Maybe it’s an injury, a storm, or maybe you just got lost, things happen and you need to be prepared. If you’re alone you’ll need to plan on a larger pack to accommodate the extra gear but if you’re in a group you can split it up as you see fit.
There are five main things (along with the Ten Essentials) every group should carry along on their hikes. A sleeping bag, sleeping bad, and bivy sack will keep you warm and dry if you have to sleep outside. You will also need a way to melt snow for drinking water to keep hydrated, look at liquid fuel stoves and collapsible pots. Personally, I like the Coleman Mummy Bag, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite, and the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy for staying warm and dry. I turn to the MSR WhisperLite and the Sea to Summit 1.3L collapsible camp pot for staying hydrated.
Food and Hydration Tips for Cold-Weather Hiking
You can practice good layering all you want but your body is your best chance at staying warm. Just like you feed fuel to a furnace you have to keep your body fed. This means consistently snacking and sipping water as you go.
Try packing you bag according to this philosophy. If you plan on eating, and pack smartly, you can easily reach food and water while you hike and won’t have to stop near as often to refuel. Also pack according to the snack and temperature. Avoid snacks with lots of pointless wrappers (you have to carry those out you know!) or snacks that become hard to eat as they get cold. Everyone loves a Milky Way until you break a tooth biting into one. Looks towards more natural snacks like nuts and cheese that hold up better to the cold temperatures and still pack some protein. No matter what you decide to bring the closer you keep it to your core the better chance there is you’ll be able to eat it.
The worst thing you could do is let your water supply freeze. I know we warned about reservoirs and thin mouthed bottles and if you said, “What do they know?” more power to you I guess. Regardless, If you decided to use a thin mouth or reservoir try searching for similar hose or bottle insulation. You should also sip often to prevent the water from freezing in the line and try blowing into your reservoir to keep the tube empty.
If you’re using a water bottle there are a couple more tips that can help you keep hydrated on the go. Think about a lake, what freezes first? The top or the bottom? Try flipping your bottle upside down to ensure your lids won’t freeze shut. Insulation sleeves also add an extra layer to protect your drinking water from the cold. Lastly, try packing warm drinks in vacuum bottles. This little bit of heat will go a long way to keeping your core temperature and spirits up. Plus, who doesn’t like hot chocolate? Just remember, don’t do it in your Nalgene or plastic versions.
Cold-Related Injuries and Illnesses
Being able to quickly identify cold-related injuries and illnesses is vital to your safety. Winter hiking exposes you to the elements like you haven’t experienced them before. Frostbite and hypothermia are both very real threats and your ability to identify and begin treating them can make a tremendous difference on their severity.
Frostbite is the freezing of healthy tissue due to exposure or extreme cold. It’s most likely to happen on small extremities like fingers, toes and nose or on exposed skin. Frozen tissue often dies and the surrounding tissue is damaged due to the lack of blood flow. It can cause extreme pain and even fester into gangrene. Frostbite afflictions are categorized in three ascending stages: frostnip, superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite. All three levels can look similar while frozen, so it can be difficult to assess the damage until after the skin has thawed.
Signs of Frostbite:
- Skin is cold, pale, or even waxy
- Red, white, bluish-white, or grayish-yellow skin
- You may feel tingling, numbness or pain in the affected area
- Clumsiness or muscle stiffness
- Your skin can feel soft if partially frozen or hard if frozen
- Blisters often form with superficial and deep frostbite after rewarming
Treatment of Frostbite:
Frostnip can be treated immediately by covering up exposed skin and slowly warming the affected areas. Try placing cold fingers in your armpits or use a partner to warm cold toes and other extremities. The consistent warm heat allows the affected regions to slowly be brought back up to temperature. Do not attempt to place affected areas under hot water and do not rub the cold skin. This violent and drastic change can damage the tissue.
If the initial treatment fails and skin blisters or peels it is time to see a doctor. It is likely you have superficial frostbite or deep frostbite and educated medical attention is your best chance at recovery. Again, avoid direct heat and rubbing of cold skin. Do not let any frostbitten areas refreeze, the tissue is very fragile and any chance of recovery can be mitigated.
Hypothermia is caused when the body loses heat faster than it is capable of replacing it. Hypothermia also comes in three ascending stages: mild, moderate, severe. It begins when the body drops below 95 F (35 C). Hypothermia does not only occur in winter. It can happen anytime and anywhere, even inside your home. Age, medical conditions, dehydration, and alcohol use can all have an affect or your susceptibility. Stay warm, use proper layering, and try to stay dry.
Signs of Mild Hypothermia:
- Shaking, shivering, or chattering
- Minor clumsiness (eg. zipping or clasping bag)
- Slow thinking, confusion, mood swings
Signs of Moderate Hypothermia:
- Intense shaking, shivering, or chattering
- Obvious change in coordination (e.g. tripping, falling, stumbling)
- Obvious change in mental state (e.g. forgetfulness, anger, irritability)
- Shaking may stop due to exhaustion
- Extreme deterioration of mental state (e.g. disorientation, irrational behavior)
- Pulse may be faint or week
- Flushed skin in infants or young children
To begin treating hypothermia you need to immediately change the environment. You need to move the person away from what is causing the cold stress. If you can get them inside do so immediately, if you cannot, get them off the snow (pine branches or even packs work) and out of the wind. Immediately swap any wet clothes for dry clothing and make sure they are well insulated. Keep them fed and make sure they drink water. They will need energy to shiver and make heat. Making sure they have the fuel to do so is part of the process.
Taking the proper steps, it is possible for hikers with mild hypothermia to recover and continue with the trip. If you or your partners exhibit symptoms of moderate or severe hypothermia immediately seek medical attention and evacuate them from the situation. Begin the same steps for treating mild hypothermia until help arrives.
Preventing Frostbite and Hypothermia
Prevention is always a better option than treatment. Actively looking out for yourself and your winter hiking partners is part of the process. Proper clothing, gear and technique can only go so far. Use common sense and think about the following:
It is way easier to start and stay warm than to get warm later. Using the proper clothing and layering approach you can easily maintain a consistent temperature. This is much easier than trying to warm up once you’re too cold.
Don’t be Stupid:
If you start to feel yourself getting cold check on yourself. Take a break and warm up, switch clothes, rehydrate, refuel, you name it! Do what you need to take care of yourself and make sure you’re comfortable and if you feel somethings wrong speak up.
Look Out for Your Buddies:
A good winter hiking buddy always keeps an eye out for their friends. Talk and ask how others are doing often. Make sure your friends are dressed and prepared appropriately. Don’t let them attempt portions they aren’t equipped for and watch their backs.