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A Beginner’s Guide To Winter Hiking

mountain hiker looks out over snowy mountains

Can we let you in on one of the best-kept hiking secrets?

Despite what some people think, winter is actually primetime for serious nature lovers. The cold and snow tend to keep many would-be hikers inside at this time of year, which means the parks are relatively vacant and surprisingly quiet.

Even the most popular National Parks and nature hotspots see a drastic dip in visits when it’s cold out.

That means wide, open spaces and plenty of solitude for you and your hiking companions, both of the two- and four-legged variety.

© Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

Your Essential List of Winter Hiking Gear

Winter hiking has lots of benefits, but it does come with a couple of risks that should be of consideration.

The colder temps mean risk of frostbite — and its less severe sibling, frostnip — and a more substantial likelihood of slips and falls on the ice.

And, even though it’s chilly out, we’re still susceptible to sunburn, so don’t forget the SPF. Luckily, with gear both obvious (coats, gloves, hats) and not-so-obvious medical ID bracelets, you’ll stay safe and enjoy all the outdoors have to offer.

  • Warm base layers. Start with the basics! Your thermal base layers should help wick away sweat and regulate temp, so go for a wool or synthetic option.
  • A warm, waterproof coat. Slim, lightweight insulation is best. Look for one labeled “ultralight” with a relatively high fill power (850 or more). 
  • High-visibility apparel. Daylight is in short supply in the winter, and if you tend to hike in the evenings or during low-visibility weather, consider wearing some high-visibility layers. 
  • Comfortable snow pants. Don’t skimp on your bottom half! Look for snow pants or waterproof hiking pants that shield out moisture and cold but don’t add so much bulk you can’t move around freely.
  • Waterproof, broken-in hiking boots. Do not — we repeat: DO NOT — go out for a long hike in a brand-new pair of boots. Break those babies in first!
  • Moisture-wicking socks. Socks are of crucial importance when devising a good hiking ensemble. Make sure they’re slim, warm and waterproof.
  • A small emergency kit. You don’t need to pack anything too elaborate but do plan for emergency scenarios. Bring a small first-aid kit with the basics plus stormproof matches, a survival blanket, a flashlight, water purification tablets or a filter, etc. In the winter, a few cheap hand-warmer packets and an extra pair of gloves can be clutch, too.
  • Wayfaring essentials. Snow, sleet and ice can obscure a well-marked trail, so make sure to pack a map and compass even if you know the route well.
  • A wearable ID for you and Fido. The wide, open trail may tempt your pups with exciting new smells, so make sure their pet ID tags are up to date. In more high-risk situations or if you have a medical condition, always have ID bracelets made for you and the kids.
  • Water and snacks. Sustenance is crucial any time of year. Always keep your pack filled with plenty of water and high-protein snacks for the whole family.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses. It seems counterintuitive, but the truth is that the sun can be super harsh in the winter, causing extra glare and UV exposure. Make sure to wear UV-blocking sunglasses and apply sunscreen before you head out.
  • Lip balm. We all know what it feels like to have burning, chapped lips, so don’t forget the lip balm. Side note: While lip balm addiction isn’t totally real, you should be careful with the stuff so you don’t mess up your lips’ natural hydration abilities. 
© zhukovvvlad/Shutterstock

Tips for Surviving Tough Winter Hikes

In addition to planning a warm, all-weather outfit and packing some essentials to keep you safe, you can improve your winter hiking experience by following the tips below.

A basic understanding of survivalism is critical, primarily among those who plan to go off trail or hit the backcountry. Here are some more important things to keep in your hiking toolkit.

  • Bone Up on Survival Skills The first rule of wilderness survival is, of course, to be prepared, and that means planning for hiccups on your journey, regardless of the season. Some important things to brush up on before heading out include:
    • How to find water in an emergency, particularly in the winter. Know that drinking snow melt (water made from clean, white snow) is generally considered safe to drink, but bring some purification tablets just in case.
    • How to build a fire in the winter. Make sure you have practice building winter fires with forest wood. The wind can be a challenge, so make sure to pack windproof matches. 
    • How to alert others of an emergency. A raging fire can serve as a warning sign to rescuers, but consider investing in a personal locator beacon if you plan to spend time off trail or on particularly rigorous terrain.
  • Pay Attention to the Weather — Keep an eye on the weather forecast, especially the temperature, and how it will change throughout the day. In the winter, there could be a difference of 20 or 30 degrees in a single day, so try to head out during the warmest windows. This is often the time of day that the sun is most powerful, so make sure to pack your sunglasses and sunscreen.
  • Bring Something Warm to Sip — If you’re heading out on a day hike, fill your tumbler with a toasty drink to keep you warm. In the same vein, we’d recommend finally pulling the trigger on the fancy insulated travel mug or tumbler you’ve been eyeing because these things have the ability to keep your beverages super-warm in the winter and nice and icy in the summer.

Enjoy the Cool, Fresh Air

At the end of the day, winter hiking is about enjoying the restorative power of nature.

With the right gear and preparation tactics, you’ll have no trouble taking full advantage of the fresh air and beautiful sights surrounding you.

And since the trails are likely to be less busy, be sure to take as much time as you want to take it all in!