Beginner’s Guide to Day Hiking: Winter Hiking Clothing

It’s beginning to look a lot like…. winter. With the vast majority of the trails surrounding me (OK, all the trails) coated in snow, I figured this was the perfect time to write a series of posts on some of my gear preferences for day hiking. And since it’s winter outside, it only seemed fitting to start with a winter hiking clothes and footwear post. Before we get into specifics, though, let’s cover the basics of winter hiking clothing.

Disclaimer: This post contains my personal preferences and what works for me as a hiker. I am not a professional nor do I think that what works for me will work for everyone.

Leave the Jeans and Cotton at Home

winter hiking clothing

Let me start by saying the most common mistake more beginner hikers make is wearing clothes that aren’t appropriate for hiking. Take your cotton T-shirt and jeans and put them back in your dresser—those two items are huge no-no’s. One of the most commonly quoted phrases by more experienced hikers is, “cotton kills.” Cotton clothing doesn’t dry quickly and soaks up moisture, which means you will be cold and wet longer, thus risking getting hypothermia faster, (especially in winter). On top of that, hiking in jeans or khakis is just plain uncomfortable. There’s nothing worse than trying to navigate a rock-strewn trail in a pair of tight-fitting jeans. That being said, let’s talk about what clothing you should wear when hiking.

Most Important Winter Hiking Purchases

Focus on getting these pieces of gear and then work on building your hiker wardrobe slowly.

  • Hiking shoes or boots. Here are the top shoes from the AT this year to get you started.
  • Summer top and bottoms.
  • Socks. I love Injinji, and Darn Tough is a perennial hiker fave.
  • Base layer tops and bottoms. You can use these in shoulder season while building your wardrobe. I prefer Smartwool 250 tops and bottoms.
  • Mid-layer jacket. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a mid-layer jacket. It will keep you warm through shoulder season and summer. This is a staple item in my hiking wardrobe.
  • Insulating jacket. I am in love with my new insulating jacket. It was well worth paying more for something that works perfect for me.

Introduction to Four-Season Hiking

I use the same size pack year-round now – 30L Skimmer by Osprey.

There are four seasons, according to the calendar, but in New England, as with most of the country, conditions vary greatly day to day. In the world of hiking, I see the calendar as broken into three seasons: summer, shoulder season, and winter. The gear you carry each day will depend on the weather, but the majority of your gear will remain the same during summer.

Shoulder season and winter are a different story. On every hike from around mid-September to late May (depending on the weather that year), your gear will change. For example, this year we saw snow much earlier than normal, and I was breaking out my midwinter gear in early November.  We’ll talk more about how to know what gear to carry in the hike-planning section of this series.

What I Wear on Every Hike

My favorite jacket by EMS (no longer available).

There are three pieces of clothing that remain consistent regardless of the season or weather: my underwear and my white jacket. I have found that wearing two sports bras works great for me because I can stow my cellphone between them right next to me and have it easily accessible for taking pictures or changing songs. I don’t have a pack with a pocket to hold my phone so this works well for me. I carry my white EMS Polertec jacket on every hike, even if I don’t wear it. I am in love with this item, but it isn’t made in this particular style anymore.

Winter Season Hiking Clothes

Clava by EMS, Black Diamond mittens, buff, gaiters, and hat.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into the specifics by season, starting with winter. Winter season means preparing for bad weather and carrying more gear. Your pack will be heavier and you will need to stop and rotate layers more in winter than any other season. A lot of what I carry in my pack during the shoulder season is what I wear during winter.

Typical Winter Hike

Frigid Winter Hike

Getting the right gear for hiking in the winter has taken a lot of trial and error. I own several pieces of gear that I don’t use because they don’t work for me. It’s important not to get overwhelmed by all the options, and try to focus on layering. Winter is all about layering to stay warm, but not too warm. Sweating should be avoided if possible, which in my case it is not.

Extra Packed Layers

Smartwool 250 pants, EMS gloves, Smartwool socks, and REI long-sleeved shirt.

I carry mostly the same gear in my pack year-round with the exception of swapping out clothing. I have really dialed in what works for me, and everyone is different, so I can’t emphasize enough the importance of testing out what works best for you.

Additional Clothing in Winter

Additional Clothing Year-Round

Footwear

winter hiking clothing

Salomon XA Pros on the left and Salomon Mission 3 shoes on the right. Also pictured: Kahtoola Microspikes and Superfeet insoles.

I have really bad feet, and because of this I have accepted the fact that boots aren’t an option for me. I have to stick to trail runners year-round, which means I also have to wear extra socks in winter and keep moving to keep circulation going. I’ve found that my feet don’t get that cold in winter, even in trail runners, because I wear waterproof shoes and wear extra socks. In winter I wear Salomon XA Pro Trail Running Shoes. I love Superfeet insoles and always have those in my shoes, as well.

In the winter and during shoulder season, I always either wear or carry Kahtoola Microspikes. I’ve been impressed with this form of traction and when I broke a pair, they sent me a new pair free, no questions asked. (Tip: Use cooking spray on the spikes so the snow doesn’t stick to them and ball up.) I own and have worn Hillsound Trail Pro Crampons on a few hikes but haven’t needed them yet this winter. They are also a great piece of gear to have in your arsenal if you plan on doing more aggressive winter hikes.

My final piece of footwear is snowshoes. I hate to put this out there, but I am not a fan of hiking in snowshoes. They really hurt my feet, make me go slower, and are just plain cumbersome. I don’t mind wearing them on flat terrain, but for hiking, they just aren’t my idea of fun. I own two pairs of the most popular snowshoes for hiking in the Whites—(Tubbs Flex VRT 22″ and MSR Lightning Ascents)—and have tried out both on a few hikes. Out of the two pairs, I preferred the Tubbs to the MSRs but that’s my personal preference and not something I want to get into in this post.

Final Thoughts

winter hiking clothing

I’ve found that researching and acquiring the gear that works for you in winter is more difficult than any other season. The colder weather means you will have to buy more gear, which means spending more money. The importance of finding what works for you is much greater because the weather conditions don’t allow for a lot of mistakes without serious consequences. If you skimp on quality to save a buck on gear, winter hiking gear is not the place to do it. A jacket with 600 fill isn’t going to keep you as warm as one with 850, and that can mean the difference between risking hypothermia and being warm on a windy summit. In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss shoulder season and summer hiking clothing.

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Comments 2

  • Rich : Dec 6th

    What a great article. You can really tell that you’ve done a ton of work on your winter go suit. I never considered goggles for hiking in the winter and it makes perfect sense! Thanks for all of the great info!

    Reply
    • Socked In : Dec 6th

      Thanks for your kind words! I have definitely spent a lot of money on gear that doesn’t work for me over the past few years but now I have what works for me!

      Reply

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