Just because it’s really cold outside doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get out there and hike! With the right preparation, hiking in the winter can be very enjoyable. Snow cover lends a hush to the woods that completely changes the experience. I love the peace and serenity in the wilderness at this time of year. Sure, it can be tough slogging through snow, but the payoff is worth it. I’m going to use this post to offer some tips for hiking in cold weather. Hope you enjoy!
Hiking in the winter is one of my favorite times of year for a few reasons. First, you’re usually by yourself! Most people don’t want to be out and about when its below freezing. They’d rather be curled up inside where it’s warm and cozy. Good for them and good for you if you’re able to experience the snow covered hills (shout out to Fleetwood Mac) by yourself. Second, I’d rather focus on keeping warm than constantly sweating. Although you do have to worry about overheating (more on that later), keeping cool generally isn’t tough. And lastly, hiking in the winter with snow cover is a new way to experience the forest. Just like hiking at night, the woods change under a blanket of snow and it gives you a whole new perspective on the outdoors.
The most important part of hiking in the cold is, as you might expect, your ability to maintain your body temperature. You don’t want to be too cold (obviously) but you also don’t want to be too warm. That leads to sweating and sweating, when you stop to rest, can chill you very quickly. The first part of staying warm is what you wear. You need to dress in layers so that you can add and remove things as appropriate to maintain your body temperature right where you want it. I’m going to list out my standard winter clothing here – you can check out my Gear List for everything else I carry.
From head to toe…
- Standard baseball cap – holds in a bit of heat while letting your head vent. While I’m hiking, this is all I need. I have a down beanie in my pack as backup if I need it
- Sunglasses – the glare off the snow is real. You don’t want a headache 30 minutes into your hike because you’re squinting constantly
- Buff – I throw one around my neck, keeps the back of my neck warm. Also doubles as an additional head layer if you need it. They come in all sorts of colors / patterns.
- Base layer – I like the Nike Pro Combat stuff as a base layer. I don’t really like the compression stuff so I skip that and go for the standard line. Not married to Nike, just happens to be the stuff I found cheap at Marshalls.
- Mid Layer – North Face Ventrix jacket and I love it. Breathes really well despite the lack of pit zips and work through a wide range of temps. This is probably the most important layer in your setup so get one that works for you!
- Gloves – my Craft Thermal gloves keep my hands warm but also maintain the dexterity I want. They are made for runners so breathe well and don’t make my hands sweat. I usually take them off after a mile or so as my hands are warm enough at that point.
- Pants – love my PraNa Stretch Zion Convertible pants. They keep my legs warm and breathe really well. Not for the winter but these also zip off into shorts which is a plus. You can layer long underwear under these if you need to.
- Socks – Darn Tough merino wool are my favorites. They keep you warm and let your feet breathe. Plus they have a lifetime guarantee! I’m going to try sock liners out as well but haven’t used them to this point.
- Boot – Merrell Moab 2 Ventilators – I don’t use waterproof boots as they don’t let my feet breathe well enough and they take forever to dry out if they do wet through. Footwear is a personal thing so try before you buy!
- Gaiters – I use a low gaiter that goes up 3 or 4 inches above my boot. In deep snow, my pants shed enough that they don’t get wet. There might be a time I need a high gaiter (right below the knee) but not yet.
- Microspikes – if the trail is icy, microspikes are a must have to maintain your footing. They slip over your books and give you great traction. I use Kahtoola branded ones but they recently tore on me – working with their great customer service on a replacement.
What I like about this setup is that it gives me flexibility. I can have the gloves, hat, and buff on or off without much trouble. The Ventrix is a full zip front so I can open it up to cool down if I need to. I’ve been out in temps as low as 0F with this gear and have done just fine, even with a bit of wind. It’s cold when you start out but once the blood gets flowing, it’s more than adequate. I also bring my Ghost Whisperer jacket with me but usually don’t wear it. If I was injured or needed to stop for whatever reason, it serves as a warmth layer.
But there’s more to keeping warm than just your clothing. Having enough food and water is also critical. Of course, that’s true for any hike but it’s vitally important in winter. Food is critical to maintain your body heat – it is, after all, your fuel. If you are hungry, you will struggle to stay warm. Always pack an extra snack or two so you can keep your fire going. It takes a lot to hike through the snow – you’ll also need more to drink than you expect. Just because it isn’t hot doesn’t mean you wont be thirsty! And remember that if it’s well below freezing, the water in your hydration bladder hose can freeze up. Take sips periodically or get a hose insulator to keep this from happening. I know from experience, a frozen hose is a pain in the arse!
Do you have any questions or other tips for hiking in the cold? Please post in the comments below.
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