Winter doesn’t have to mean the end of adventures. With the right clothing and gear, you can enjoy your favorite hiking trails all year round! There’s a unique beauty of hiking in the winter. There’s fewer people, the air is crisp, and snow creates a winter wonderland. And while it can be intimidating, with the right knowledge, you can safely get outside! In this post, we’ll go over the basics of layering, important tips, and discuss the winter hiking gear you’ll need.
Most people think winter clothing should keep them warm. The reality of though is that you need to stay warm AND dry. You lose heat 25x faster when wet. So if you start to sweat, and then that sweat cools, you’ll get cold very quickly. That’s why layers are the key to winter hiking gear, so you can add them on or take them off as you go. To understand layering your clothing for outdoor activities, you need to know the function of each layer:
Base Layer: As the next-to-skin layer, a base layer’s job is moving perspiration away from your skin, aka “wicking.” In cool or cold conditions, wicking long-underwear-style base layers are needed to keep your skin dry. Base layers should be made of synthetic fabric or merino wool. You’ll want to avoid anything that’s made of cotton!
Middle layer: You mid layer will go on top of your base layer. I’s role is to insulate and retain body heat. There are three main material options: fleece, synthetic down, and down. Synthetic fill is quick-drying and insulates even if wet. Down on the other hand, when wet, takes a long time to dry and loses its ability to insulate. If you’re going to be active, like hiking, synthetic is usually the way to go. Our blog, How to Choose a Down Jacket, provides more information on this!
Outer layer: If there is a chance of sleet, snow, rain, or wind, you’ll want to add an outer shell over your winter hiking clothes. This will protect you from the elements and keep your other layers dry. Shells range from pricey mountaineering jackets to simple wind-resistant jackets. For winter hiking, look for a 2.5-layer jacket that is waterproof and breathable. Our blog, How to Choose a Rain Jacket, provides more information on this.
Aside from your three main layers, you’ll want to have these additional clothing items with you!
A merino wool or synthetic beanie is essential! A headband works well if you want to just protect your ears from the cold. A couple of great winter hiking hats are the Skida Alpine Hat and Smartwool Merino 250 Headband.
Neck Gaiter, Buff, or Scarf. A wool or synthetic gaiter is a great way to trap warmth from escaping up your collar and shield your face from the wind! Consider the Buff Lightweight Wool Gaiter.
Gloves or mittens. Whether you prefer your fingers separate in gloves or together in mittens is up to you. All that matters is you have a pair! We recommend a thin glove liner you can wear while moving, and then a warmer pair you can layer on top for when you stop.
Wool socks. Again, you’ll want to avoid cotton when it comes to winter hiking! Make sure you have warm, wool socks, and throw an extra pair in your bag in case your feet get wet!
Waterproof pants. While waterproof pants are not a necessity to have the same way your upper shell is, they can be nice to have a shell pant in your pack for if the weather turns and you’re caught in a freezing rain!
Aside from your clothing, here is the winter hiking gear you’ll want to have.
A backpack. You’ll want your layers to be easily accessible, so having a backpack that fits them all is important! You’ll want a slightly larger backpack than what you’d use for summer hiking in order to fit them. Line your backpack with a trash bag, or purchase a waterproof backpack cover to keep your layers dry in the event of snow or rain!
Polarized sunglasses and sunscreen. Bright, white snow can be blinding, so make sure you have sunglasses with you! Sunlight reflecting off snow can burn your skin quicker than on a hot day on the beach, so make sure to apply sunscreen!
Gaiters. If you’re going to be in fluffy snow, consider using gaiters. These attach to the button of your boot, and cover the exposed top of your shoes to prevent snow from falling in.
First aid kit. You’ll always want to have one of these when hiking, but it’s extra important when hiking in winter! Consider adding an emergency blanket and satellite phone to it.
Headlamp and extra batteries. The sun sets much earlier in winter, and since winter hiking takes longer than summer hiking, you may accidentally find yourself in the dark. Have a headlamp in your pack just in case!
Trekking poles. These are optional, but are great for helping balance in the snow!
Traction device. Whether it's microspikes or snowshoes, you’ll want to have a traction device on your feet to stop from slipping and sliding in the snow. What’s the difference between them? Our blog Microspikes for Hiking: Traction Devices 101 shares more on this.
Cold, wet feet are a big no-no for winter hikers. That’s why choosing a winter boot with enough insulation, waterproofing, and traction is critical to a successful winter hike. We recommend buying boots with higher calf coverage and 200-400 gram Thinsulate insulation for all-day hikes in the winter. Keep in mind though that overheating, sweating, and blisters can become a real issue if your boots are too warm - so don’t wear an insulated pair on an above-freezing winter day. A few examples of good winter hiking boots are:
Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid Winter Thinsulate ClimaSalomon Waterproof
While it’s unlikely you’ll experience frostbite or hypothermia when wearing proper winter hiking gear, it’s important to know the signs! When it's cold out, skin that’s not covered may get red or sore. This is called frostnip, and it’s an early warning sign of frostbite. If your skin starts to get white, hard, and tingle or burn, these are all signs of frostbite. Remove any wet clothing, cover the area of skin immediately, and turn around.
Hypothermia occurs when your body’s core temperature decreases to a level in which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired. Symptoms include uncontrollable or violent shivering, slurred speech or inability to communicate and fumbling or lethargy. If you or your companions start to show these symptoms, put them in an emergency blanket and seek medical attention.
Now that we’ve covered winter hiking layers, clothing, gear, and boots, let’s chat about some additional tips!
Hydration. Our brain isn’t wired to recognize the increased amount of water vapor we expel in our breath when the air is cold and dry, or added perspiration when you wear insulated clothing. That’s why it's important to drink lots of liquids on winter hikes, even if it doesn’t feel like you’re thirsty! To prevent your water sources from freezing in the winter, store your water bottles upside down in your pack, or purchase an insulator for your water hose.
Check snow conditions and weather before leaving the house. If it’s a blizzard with poor visibility, it increases your chances of getting lost or losing the trail. Also remember that winter hiking takes longer than summer hiking as you tend to move slower and encounter more obstacles, so plan accordingly!
Be avalanche aware! Slopes 35 degrees or more can slide, and it’s important to be aware of this danger. We’re hosting an online class on January 19th with the Northwest Avalanche Center. You can register here.
This concludes our guide to winter hiking gear! If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in our Adventures For Everyone Facebook group!
Share the love: