5 Necessities For Chilly Winter Hikes

Hiking in winter can be a fabulous experience: fresh powder, sunshine on frosted pine trees, and empty trails all make for unforgettable hiking conditions. Without the proper gear though, this idyllic scene can turn into a miserable experience you’d rather forget. Here are some tips for planning to ensure you remember your winter hikes for all the right reasons.

Your Five Necessities

Winter hiking tips

In a nutshell, your five necessities are: clothing layers, appropriate footwear, winter traction aids, backpack, and food/water. Many items are consistent for all-season hikes, but there are certain adaptations to consider when heading out in frigid winter conditions.

1) Layering

Any hiker worth their salt knows the benefits of layering,  but the importance of bringing the correct layers when hiking in winter can’t be understated.

The aim is to have enough layers that you can start your hike wearing all your layers, removing them as you start hiking and become warmer. Ideally, you want to avoid working up too much of a sweat, as this contributes to chilling when your heart rate decreases. Removing layers is the key to this. Cotton clothing is not recommended. Once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry. Synthetic or wool fibers are your best bet.

Base layer: This is your underwear layer, which is meant to wick sweat away from the surface of your skin. For winter hikes, a long-sleeved top and long underwear made from merino wool or polyester are both good choices.

Middle layer: Your insulating layer, with the aim of keeping in your body heat when necessary. A fleece or wool top added over your base layer will keep you feeling toasty. Depending on the climate, either fleece or softshell pants are a good choice as well. You might want to add a lightweight down or synthetic jacket if you want to pack an extra layer. If you know that you’re prone to feeling the cold, this is especially important.

Outer layer: This will protect you if it’s snowing, raining, or windy. You want a jacket which is water resistant but also breathable, to prevent sweat from building up. Consider whether or not you want a jacket with added insulation, in which case you can adjust your middle layer accordingly. Waterproof pants with ventilation zips are essential if heading out in potentially heavy rain or snow.

Hat and gloves: These are really important too. Despite the myth about losing more body heat through your head than anywhere else being disproved, if your head and hands are exposed, you will definitely feel the cold more quickly.

Bring extra layers just in case. Popping some spare socks and an extra set of base layers in a waterproof bag at the bottom of your backpack is a great idea.

2) Appropriate footwear

Your choice of footwear will depend primarily on where you’re hiking. If you’re planning on heading out on trails with just a small covering of snow, chances are your usual waterproof hiking boots/shoes will be fine.

On the other hand, if you’re heading into deep snow, it’s worth investing in a pair of insulated winter hiking boots. Pair these with gaiters and you’ll stay warm and dry.

Whichever your choice of boot, thermal socks are also a great idea and will keep your toes feeling toasty.

3) Winter traction aids

hiking with crampons

Depending on what sort of trail you’re tackling, you should definitely consider packing winter traction aids. These include snowshoes, microspikes, and crampons.

Snowshoes help you cross deep snow drifts by spreading your weight over a larger surface area. This conserves your energy because you’re not battling through snow up to your waist. Some mountaineering snowshoes come with integrated crampons to help provide additional grip.

Microspikes can be fastened over your boots to provide extra grip when hiking over relatively flat ice or packed snow. Bear in mind that they add extra weight on your feet, which means that you may tire more quickly whilst wearing them.

If you’re heading over steeper ice packs, rocks which have been covered with ice, or a mixture of rock and ice, crampons are going to be your friend. They provide a greater amount of grip than microspikes and allow you to cover steeper sections more easily.

You might also consider bringing trekking poles, which can help maintain balance over slippery or downhill sections of trail.

4) Backpack

You’ve probably got a favorite backpack for hiking in other seasons, but bear in mind this might not be big enough for the extra gear you’ll be carrying for winter hikes. A bigger backpack means you can safely stow your spare layers, thermos, and snacks.

Selecting a pack with outer compression straps is a great idea, as you can use these to attach both your traction aids and keep your outer clothing layers quickly accessible.

5 )Food and Water

Campsite food and water

Bringing food and water is essential for any hike, but consider adaptations for frigid weather conditions. Hiking in cold conditions means that your body tends to burn more calories, so pack high-protein snacks which you can eat on the go. Stopping to prepare a snack means you’ll quickly start to feel cold, so it’s better to have your snacks easily accessible and ready to go.

The hoses of hydration systems tend to freeze on winter hikes, so consider either replacing with a wide-mouth bottle or investing in an insulating hose for your hydration system or place the hose closer to your body than normal.

If you’re planning on attaching water bottles to the outside of your pack, you consider adding insulating sleeves for those as well.

When hiking in the winter, nothing is better than a hot drink to warm you up from the inside out. Pack a thermos with your favorite drink, or bring along a small stove so you can heat a drink when stopping for a longer rest.

Other considerations

If you’re heading above the treeline, you might also want to consider adding a buff or scarf for additional neck protection, sunglasses or goggles with a UV protection rating of 400, and possibly an ice axe if you’re confident using one.

Standard essentials for any hike

Preparing for a winter hike means packing all your essentials for hiking in other seasons, as well as your winter-specific extras.

To recap, your standard items should include, but not be limited to: first aid kit (group and individual), headlamp, compass, map, sunscreen, sunglasses, knife or multi-tool and a water filtration system if necessary. Plus many hikers opt to take survival gear such as a bivvy bag, sleeping bag, and small stove.

Prepare to enjoy

The great outdoors

With the correct gear, winter hiking can be an amazing experience.  Take the time to prepare your essentials and you’re almost be guaranteed to enjoy yourself. If you’re heading out for a winter hike for the first time, consider taking a short hike with an experienced friend, then working your way up to full days further away from home.

Remember to take into account the shorter days, so your day hike will probably end up being shorter than those you might head out on over the summer. By the time darkness falls, we like to be tucked in front of a roaring fire, thinking about vistas of glittering snow, eagerly planning our next winter hike.

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