Your Ultimate Guide to Winter Gear
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Winter is on its way and while you can still stay outside, the changing conditions mean that you need to change what gear you bring and pack. You’ll have more gear than you will in the summer, and there will be more extreme conditions you have to dress and prepare for. But, with the right winter gear and knowledge, you’ll be ready to head out and have some fun in the snow!
If you want to catch the recording of our Winter Gear and Recreation virtual event with climbing guide Glen, you can check it out on our YouTube channel.
Winter trip planning and navigation:
First things first. You need to research the conditions at your destination. Since snow is an issue in the winter, you can use apps and websites like Gaia and the Washington Trails Association to find the highest and lowest points of your hike to figure out what the conditions may be like. As a rule, above 2,000 feet you may need special tools and equipment for your winter adventures. The snow level doesn’t drop below 1,000 feet often, but you’ll still have to contend with rain when below that level.
Be sure to do your trail research before you go out! Besides the elevation, weather, and trail conditions, you also want to make sure that if it starts to snow while you’re out, that you can get your car out of the parking lot and back home in new snow. Having chains, a shovel, and even a saw in your car can help you if you get stuck somewhere.
Then for your body, you’ll want a layering hack! Be sure to wear layers so you can take them off or put them on as you go.
Starting with your head, you’ll want a breathable hat, such as fleece, thin enough that you can layer under a jacket hood. Hats with puffs can be a pain to fit under a hood so while they’re fun, they’re not as practical if you need to put your hood up.
You’ll also want to carry a powerful headlamp with at least 250 lumens that is waterproof or water-resistant. In snowy conditions hikes can take longer and days are shorter, it can be harder to find your way, and your tracks and the trail can even get covered, so it’s good to have a powerful headlamp to help you get yourself out.
To keep your neck warm (and help prevent the spread of COVID-19), a neck gaiter is great to have. If you aren't familiar with them already, they're a closed loop fabric covering worn around the neck but can be pulled up to the lower half of the face. They’re usually made of thin material and serve a lot of purposes. If it’s exceptionally cold outside, you can get a thicker or fleece lined one to keep you extra warm. Plus you can pull it up when passing people on the trail or if you’re around people to help prevent the spread.
You want to bring at least one pair of gloves. You can layer them like you do clothes so wear a thinner synthetic type next to your skin and if you need more, layer a heavier and more weather-resistant one outside that. While you can layer two layers of gloves, if you layer gloves with an outer mitten layer, your gloved fingers may be warmer because they’re grouped together inside the mitten.
Then there are three layers of clothes you’ll want. A base layer that’s next to your skin, a mid layer to keep you insulated, and then an outer layer to protect you from the elements. Water-resistant soft shell pants are good for trudging in snow, but rain pants are good for really wet conditions or when on an exposed ridge in wind.
Long johns or something similar make a great base layer. Fleece can be a fantastic mid layer, and something like a synthetic (not down, it loses its warmth when wet) jacket or something waterproof but breathable is also great next layer.
For your feet you’ll want to make sure you have something warm and comfortable. Your typical snow boots, the kind you wore as a kid that are lined with fleece or faux fur, are good for a day hike, but because they trap the moisture in, they’re not good for a longer hike when you need to take your shoes off and that moisture can freeze.
Hiking boots are also great for lots of winter adventures. They have traction, support, can be waterproof, and are comfortable! Pair them with some wool socks and gaiters, and you’re ready to hike or snowshoe.
And while there are multiple kinds of mountaineering boots, the two main kinds are three-season and four-season boots. Four-season boots are breathable and you can use them all winter as well for ice climbing and hiking in the snow in the summer. However, they’re slightly overkill for some winter activities so know what type of activities you want to do and in what conditions before you head out to buy any new boots. Then when buying, one tip is to choose the boot that’s the most comfortable and flexible out of the box. The less time you need to break it in, the better!
If you were like us as kids, you hated getting socks as a gift. How adulthood changes us all! A great pair of socks makes or breaks a hike. Wool socks (and wool in general) keeps you warm even when it’s wet so it’s a great material for rainy and snowy days. Carry a spare (or two) in your bag as well so that if you need to change out of yours, you can! We’ve even seen dogs wear spare socks when they’ve injured their paws on a hike.
Toe, foot, and hand warmers
Then down to your toes, insole warmers are just like hand or toe warmers, but they’re longer and shaped like a shoe insole and heat up the whole bottom of your foot. A trick for toe warmers is to put them on top of your toes instead of under to better heat them up. Hand warmers help keep your fingers nice and toasty too. They’re great for cold hikes, especially if you’re taking your gloves off to take photos. And for all warmers like this, they take time to warm up, so it’s better to start using them before you need them instead of when you’re desperate for them.
Finally, your traction devices go on the bottom of your shoes. These can be snowshoes if you’re in deep and fluffy snow, or microspikes or crampons if you’re on hard, packed snow or ice. Sometimes you’ll have to carry both! The spikes on microspikes give you more traction and help you to not slip and slide while the surface area of snowshoes keeps you above the snow so you’re not wading through deep snow.
Sit pads and blankets
Another couple of tips are to pack a closed-cell foam pad to sit on in the cold and the snow or to bring along a nice synthetic or down blanket to cuddle up with if you’re going to hang out and relax for a bit on your hike.
If you’re new to winter sports, it’s good to educate yourself on avalanches and avalanche risk. There are apps that can tell you the ground slope of the area you’ll be in and you can use that as well as weather forecast and recent weather to figure out your avalanche risk. Knowing the avalanche forecast can literally save your life, so taking a basic Intro to Avalanche course is a good idea. All that being said, you can do any winter recreation during a bad forecast as long as you’re not in an avalanche area or snow. Or if a hike goes into a dangerous area, there’s no reason you need to do the whole hike. If the beginning is in a flat and safe area, just do that part and turn around before it gets steep.
Your Winter Packing List:
Pack: Your pack for the winter may need to be larger than your summer pack—gear you need in the winter adds space, weight, and bulk, so be sure you have enough room in it!
Waterproof pack cover: Some packs come with a built-in one but if yours doesn’t, you can get an after-market one.
Inside the pack:
Food and snacks
Water: your water bladder hose can freeze in the winter, so bottles can be the better way to go depending on conditions
Waterproof bag to put your stuff inside your bag in to be extra safe and keep it dry
Sunglasses or ski goggles
Sunscreen: if you’re wearing shorts, the sun can reflect off the snow up your legs. It can also reflect into your nostrils—not a place you want to be sunburned!
First aid kit
Headlamp with extra batteries
Map or navigation
What to wear/carry:
Base layer: synthetic, wool, or silk
Wool or synthetic pants
Hat: synthetic or wool
Face mask, ski mask, or balaclava
Insulating/waterproof mittens or gloves
Waterproof/breathable high gaiters
Socks: synthetic or wool (plus a spare pair)
Hand, foot, and toe warmers
Microspikes or a similar traction device (make sure they fit your boots)
Trekking poles with snow baskets