The weather outside is frightful and a winter hike seems so delightful, or something like that… With winter upon us and the cold weather that comes with it, it’s easy to forget about hiking. Don’t do that.
Hiking IS a four-season activity, and there are copious reasons to escape the warm comforts of a fire and Netflix.
So pack up and head out to fresh footprints in the powder, a light drizzle of snowflakes, and a thermos full of your favorite soup.
Now that we have snow and an empty trail (hopefully), it’s time to start planning your winter hike. There’s no better time to enjoy a hike then winter. It brings with it a new set of challenges and different equipment to consider before you get out and go… Find out how to plan for a winter hike and everything you need before hitting the trail below.
How to Plan for a Winter Hike
A winter hike in the snow is a magical experience, and with it comes a whole slew of new challenges. That is half the excitement, sure it’s easier to hike in the summer, but the best things in life are never easy. Take some added precautions and be aware of the dangers the winter brings with it, and you’ll for sure be back for more.
Clothing For a Winter Hike
Layers, Layers, Layers…
Staying warm on a winter hike is going to be your number one priority, as it should be. Hiking in layers gives you the flexibility to remove one layer at a time, as you inevitably heat up when you get into the meat and potatoes of the hike.
You don’t want five layers of thick wool, you’ll sweat and then get cold, sweat and get cold again. You’ll spend most of you hike taking clothes on and off, over and over and over again.
1. Base Layer
The base layer is the first line of defense. Wear thermal underwear, otherwise known as long johns, that sit tightly against your skin. The base layer is critical, it keeps you dry and not a hot sticky mess. Avoid cotton clothing, when it gets wet it loses all capabilities of keeping you warm.
2. Middle Layer
The middle layer is the second line of defense, it is the layer that does most of the work. The middle layer keeps you warm and retains heat. Some good fleece lined pants and a long-sleeved shirt will do the trick. Players choice here, fleece isn’t your only option.
3. Shell Layer
This is your shield against the wind and snow, mother nature can be a tough cookie, so it’s best to be ready for the worst possible conditions. Wind and waterproof jacket and pants are a must-have for any winter hike, hypothermia is a proven killer. Once you start to get wet the real trouble sets in, so get some good shell gear.
4. Warm Socks
Cold toes are the WORST. Keeping your feet and toes warm is easy with a couple pairs of socks. A thin sock first and then a nice thick pair of outdoor socks will do the trick. Pack an extra pair of socks in case your feet get wet.
5. Eye Protection
Say whaaat? Yep, eye protection is another layer you do not want to forget in your bag of goodies. According to the NY Times, the sun reflecting off of the winter snow can give you a severe eye sunburn. So grab your sickest pair of sunglasses, and stay cool as ice on your next winter hike.
6. Winter Hat
If you have no hair, this is really important, you can take the snow hat off and your head will have a cool steamy effect. If you do have hair, it’s still just as important to wear a warm hat. Heat is lost through your head, and yes it is less than you heard as a kid…
Keeping your hands warm on a winter hike is a constant struggle. You don’t move them as much and they always seem to get colder than the rest of your body, that’s my non-scientific opinion… Wear a couple layers of gloves, like socks, use a thin inner pair and a thick outer pair.
For sure don’t hike in tennis shoes, the summer kicks simply won’t cut it in the snow. A good pair of waterproof, insulated, leather boots are going to be your best friend.
Having a good pair of winter gators will protect snow from getting into your boots. Cold feet suck, and if you end up hiking through some deep snow your pants will inevitably come up above the top of your boots. Snow gators are a great way to keep the snow out.
10. Get Your Cramp On
If you know your going to be hiking in icy conditions, and if you are hiking in the snow you will be at some point. Crampons are a traction device, usually spikes, that you attach to your hiking boots. Even the best pair of soles will feel like ice skates without a good pair of crampons.
Winter Hiking Essentials
The layers are important, but the gear you take along with you is equally as important. A man with no plan is no man at all or something like that. A lot of these “essentials” are covered in the Ten Essentials, but we’re covering it here with winter in mid. Have a gear list that you bring on every hike, winter or summer.
11. First-aid Kit
This is one that is on every hiking gear list made, ever. There is always a chance that an injury may occur, and in the unforgiving conditions such as winter, the consequences are amplified. Always pack a first aid kit to treat cuts and scrapes, sprained ankles, and other minor injuries.
The last thing you want to be is lost in the dark, in the woods, while in the snow. Having a headlamp that you can put on in the unforeseen situation of finishing up your hike after dusk will give you peace of mind and hopefully clear direction. Always pack extra batteries for the headlamp, and a backup light source.
In case you do get lost at night, which is the worst case scenario, having a whistle will help you get rescued. No one plans on getting lost and yet it happens to the most experienced hikers. Keep a whistle with you at all times for the off chance you lose your way.
For obvious reasons, ALWAYS carry a compass and learn how to use your compass correctly. Having a GPS these days is nice, however, it should never be the only direction tool you bring. A magnetic compass is time-tested, doesn’t run on batteries, and rarely fails.
15. Extra Grub and Drank
Think water and food. When hiking in the winter you will consume more calories than a normal hike due to deep snow and icy conditions. Pack some high-nutrient snacks and extra water.
That’s not a knife, THIS is a knife. Having a survival knife, or some sort of knife that will aid in any survival/first-aid situation. It’s a knife, you know how to use it, and you’ll be pissed if you don’t have it. Carry a blade, who knows you might run into a Yeti.
17. Fire Starter
It may sound counter-intuitive being that it is winter in the snow, however, a fire will save your life. Have a means of starting a fire and the knowledge to do so. Taking the time of year (winter) into consideration, carry a fuel source as well, finding dry starters in the winter isn’t always an option.
18. Carry a Real Map
No, it’s not 1903, however, there is a chance you will need a paper map. You can’t always rely on your phone to give you accurate directions, especially in the mountains, it’s a recipe for disaster. This time of year the signage and trail markers may be long gone, so have a map and the knowledge to read the map.
Helpful Tips for the Best Winter Hike
Now that we have what may seem like 11987348 pounds worth of clothing and gear covered. Here are just a few tips that you can take with you to make your winter hike a smashing success.
19. Jumping Jacks
Not necessarily jumping jacks, but it’s cold outside and you don’t want to pull any muscles right out of the gate. Take a few minutes and warm yourself up before your hike with some stretches and light exercises. It may seem silly, however, a pulled groin five minutes in will end your day before it gets started.
20. Stay Hydrated
It’s going to be cold outside and drinking lots of water will probably be one of the last things on your mind. Dehydration in the snow is an issue, ask anyone who participates in snow sports on the regular and they will tell you. Don’t eat the snow, especially the yellow stuff, just remember to stay hydrated.
21. Choose a Familiar Trail
Choose a trail that you have hiked before, more than once. One of the biggest hurdles on a winter hike is keeping your course, everything is covered in snow and ice. It’s beautiful, but also deceiving, keeping your course is more manageable if you know the trail like the back of your hand.
22. Avoid Avalanche Zones
Avalanche zones are a clear and present danger in the winter. Hiking in the mountains has a slew of challenges, you don’t need to add an avalanche to the list. Take a little time beforehand and be sure that your hike isn’t anywhere near an avalanche zone.
23. You Don’t Have to Finish
Just because you didn’t finish the trail doesn’t mean that the trip wasn’t a success. With snow comes obstacles of all shapes and sizes, you don’t have to be billy badass and finish every winter hike. A wise man once said, “Momma, I’m coming home.”
24. Check the Weather Report
I get all the news I need from the weather report. No matter how much you prepare and how much gear you bring, hiking in terrible conditions is no bueno. When you get above the treeline in a powerful storm, whiteout conditions may occur. It looks cool in the movies, but remember how that movie Alive ended?
25. Get High With a Little Help From Your Friends
Everything’s better with your friends. For this situation choosing a friend that has some killer navigation skills and compass skills would be an added bonus. Make a few phone calls and get a group together to tackle the challenge of a walking in a winter wonderland.
To plan a winter hike there is special gear required and new obstacles that you’re going to run into. It’s easy to lose focus on what’s most important, having fun. Enjoy it, enjoy every second of it. The plan for a winter hike doesn’t always go in the direction you assumed. These are the best and most memorable times, smile if something goes wrong and laugh about.
Take a minute to take it all in. Whether you finish or not, the journey is the adventure. As they say, keep calm and hike on.