Winter Hiking

Winter Hiking

By: Kalli Hawkins

The sound of crunchy snow underneath your boot, the trees coated in white snow, the sun peeking through the branches while illuminating the faint flurry of snowflakes—hiking in winter is magical. A bit cold, but magical. If you're interested in experiencing this, here are some helpful winter hiking tips so you can stay warm on the trail!

Layers, Layers, Layers

The layering game is one of the most important steps when preparing for a winter hike. While the thickness of the layers needed will depend on the temperatures outside, it's great to start with a good breathable, moisture-wicking base layer. The purpose of this is to reduce moisture produced from sweat. Sweating while hiking in the winter may not seem like a big deal, but it can quickly turn an enjoyable hike into a miserable one. For instance, if your base layer gets drenched in sweat, that cold, wet layer will contribute to lowering your overall body temperature. Once your core is chilled, it takes quite some time to recover.

I like to wear a lightweight or midweight base layer consisting of merino wool or polyester in moderate winter conditions. When temperatures dip into the low single digits, I'll switch to a heavyweight base layer for the added warmth. When choosing a base layer, the fundamental principle is to stay away from any cotton material. Unfortunately, cotton's best friend is moisture.

A gloved hand pours coffee from a Thermos into a camp mug.

After selecting a suitable base layer for both your top and bottom, it's time to pile on your cozy second layer. A fleece pullover or wool sweater will do the trick for your top. Next, a pair of waterproof shell pants or snow pants for your bottoms are ideal. Last but not least, top it off with a packable moisture-shedding jacket. Depending on weather conditions, I often rotate between a lightweight puffy goose-down and a thicker waterproof insulated shell jacket.

Just for safe measure, I always bring along an extra layer or two with me. I've experienced it multiple times, where despite my persistent forecast research, by the time I get to the trailhead, the conditions are drastically different than I anticipated. So, it's nice to have an extra layer to throw on to bundle up.

Essential Gear

  • Winter Boots & Thick Socks

An insulated waterproof winter boot is essential for any winter hike. Paired with a mid or heavyweight hiking sock, your toes and feet will stay dry throughout the day. Leg gaiters can also be helpful. The waterproof material remains securely on your legs and keeps snow from entering your boot.

  • Snowshoes or Microspikes

Check the trail conditions before you head out on your hike. If there is fresh snow, and the trail hasn't been packed down yet, then yay, bring the snowshoes along! In areas with minimal snow and steep terrain, microspikes will suffice. Securing microspikes to your boot will ensure that you can safely hike in icy conditions.

A woman pulls up her snow boots while hiking.

● Trekking Poles

Poles help with balance and stability and are an excellent tool for navigating steep terrain.

A woman hikes with her dog in a snow-covered wooded area.

● Hat & Gloves

You would be surprised how much body heat you can lose when not wearing a hat. Keep your head and fingers warm with a hat and a quality pair of gloves. If you start to overheat, temporarily remove one and tuck it inside your jacket to keep warm.

A hand places gloves into an interior pocket in a puffer jacket.

● The Little Things

Winter conditions could present some difficult challenges if something were to go unexpectedly wrong on your hike. Before I head out on the trail, I throw a first aid kit, emergency bivvy, hand/toe warmers, and a set of waterproof matches into my backpack. Although these items are small, the importance they carry is significant. These little things can mean all the difference if you got lost or accidentally fell into a frozen river or lake.

Cold Weather & Sub-Zero Temperature

Here in Northern Minnesota, temperatures frequently drop below 0 degrees. Despite the cold sub-zero temps, as crazy as it may sound, hiking in -10 or -20 degrees can be strangely beautiful. I take a few extra steps when winter hiking or snowshoeing in these cold temps. First and foremost, you guessed it, I wear multiple additional layers. Balancing the layers just right is critical, as you don't want to overcompensate for the negative temperatures and then sweat your butt off once you start moving. This is where I add on the snow pants, a comfy third layer, a heavy-duty winter jacket, and a neck warmer or gaiter to cover my exposed face.

The next step I take is to protect my water source. Camelbak hoses will straight up freeze instantaneously, leaving you without the means to hydrate. Using a neoprene insulated tube cover can help, depending on how severe temperatures are. The other option would be to skip the Camelbak altogether and use a wide-mouth water bottle. Surround the water bottle with extra warm layers in your backpack to provide insulation and help prevent freezing.

A woman hikes with her dog in a snow-covered wooded area.

A nice treat for a chilly day outdoors is a thermos full of hot tea. Before heading out for a winter hike, I fill a thermos with hot vanilla chai tea and place it in my backpack. Then, if I start to get cold on the trail, I can pull that out, enjoy a nice hot drink, and warm up on the inside.

While winter hiking can take a bit more preparation—and a pile of warm clothes—it offers a chance to see your favorite trails in a new light. So, fill your thermos, bundle up, and enjoy the beautiful winter season and landscape.

About the Author: Kalli Hawkins

Kalli Hawkins is an outdoor, gear, and adventure writer based in Colorado. An avid explorer and backcountry enthusiast, Kalli can often be found on a backroad exploring the outdoors with her pup, Riley. When she's not writing or adventuring outdoors, she enjoys woodworking, homebrewing beer, and trying her hand at gardening. If you would like to connect or follow along, you can find her at @kallihawkins.