Winter Peak Bagging Tips for People Who Hate Winter

Another year, another trip to New Hampshire to visit family. Once again, I find myself voluntarily heading to the mountains with my father and his hiking buddies as I inch toward the world’s slowest completion of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers. Or maybe the “fastest completion by someone who lives 2,400 miles away.” All in the attitude, right?

In the interest of honesty, I still don’t like winter. Being cold makes me irritable, I like the ratio of daylight-to-darkness to be in favor of the sun, and most of my activities involve moderate temps and happiness. However, I know that winter hiking is a terrific way to get outside year round, stay in shape, train for a long-distance hike, and participate in a winter sport that, unlike resort skiing, doesn’t cost the equivalent of a mortgage and the promise of your first-born child.

Last year, I wrote up my favorite beginner winter hiking tips. One year later I’m still a beginner, but this year I’m telling you what helps me get outside in the mountains during winter and actually like it.

Winter Peak Bagging Tips for People Who Hate Winter

Don’t Let Yourself Get (Too) Cold

Easier said than done, but barring extreme conditions, “not getting cold” is possible if you prepare with gear, layers, and forecasting. The true ballers out there start their hike cold knowing they’re going to warm up. I’m not a baller. If you can’t handle starting cold, wear your wicking base layer, a shell, and your down jacket over the shell (as long as it’s dry out). When you heat up, you can shed the down layer and stash it in an outer pack pocket for quick access. Be sure to shed layers right when you start to sweat to avoid getting cold and clammy later. Keeping an extra layer or three in your pack doesn’t hurt either. I always carry extra hand warmers and a packable down vest. 

Insulated Fingers and Toes Are Happy Fingers and Toes

This is the year I got some gnarly insulated boots, and my feet were so much happier for it. I wore the Oboz Bridger 7″ BDry boots, with 200 grams of insulation, a high rise, and a beefy midsole. These are a fan favorite around my homeland of Montana, and they kicked butt in temperatures ranging from 25 degrees Fahrenheit to below zero on the summits. I forewent toe warmers to give the boots a test, but I did stick hand warmers in my mittens. My hands and feet get cold quickly, and once they get uncomfortable, it’s really hard for them to get warm again.

Boots: Oboz 7″ BDry Insulated Winter Hiking Boots 
Socks: Gore OTC Midweight
Mittens: Swany Arctic Toaster Mittens 

Layer Like a Smart Person Who Wants to Survive

This has been covered ad nauseam so I won’t go too much into it, plus Trek writer / badass hiker Socked In wrote an insanely in-depth piece on winter hiking clothing. But basically don’t be dumb. If you’re heading out for summits in the winter, we have to assume you have some basis of knowledge regarding outdoor apparel. A wicking base layer (I like merino), an insulating layer (I have the hunting equivalent of the Patagonia R1), a puffy, and a shell will suffice for non-extreme winter hikes. A hat (Trek Beanie, ahem), neck gaiter, and hefty socks should round this out. I also always wear a Half Buff no matter what I’m doing.

Base Layer: Kari-Traa Merino Half-Zip
Insulation: Sitka Core Heavyweight Hoody
Shell: Sitka Jetstream 
Adidas Terrex Agravic Down Jacket

Keep the Energy Up and the Crankies at Bay by Eating Enough

Having a stare-down with an Egg McMuffin and looking like Elf on the Shelf with the Trek Beanie at full extension

On top of not liking the cold, I also don’t like to eat when I’m working hard. Unfortunately, the blood sugar crash is real and energy is precious. Keeping food accessible means I’m more likely to eat, and since we like to stay moving in frigid temps, this means not taking the pack off unless absolutely necessary. If you’re a picky eater like yours truly, a variety of food in easy-to-reach spots will make this even easier. I stash mini candy bars in my hip-belt pockets, an Egg McMuffin (really) in my jacket pocket, and a sandwich with some semblance of nutritional value in the pack brain. My dad and his buddy carry fanny packs, which on top of being wildly fashionable, were convenient for extra snacks.

Hydrating Is Important. Make it Weirdly Enjoyable with Hot Gatorade

Insulated water bottle holders and a fanny pack? In winter? Groundbreaking.

Guess who’s not only bad at winter and feeding myself, but also hydrating? Amazing I’ve survived this long. Hydrating in the cold can be especially challenging, but filling the water bottle with hot water and adding Gatorade or other electrolyte powder is A) weirdly delicious (think hot cider) B) adds electrolytes and calories and C) keeps your water from freezing. We all carried water bottles in insulated holders strapped to the front of our packs. My second water bottle was a chunky Yeti Rambler, but if your spare bottle isn’t heavily insulated, pop it in a wool sock to stay warm. My Gatorade stayed hot until the first peak and was cold by the second. I swapped out bottles for the final descent.

Mentally Prepare for Shorter Breaks / Not Sitting Down

Enjoying a summit… from my feet.

I’m sure many people don’t mind plopping down on the snow. Again… not me. My last hiking outing was around seven hours, and for someone who hasn’t engaged in cardio efforts (or standing) for that length of time in many months, it was tiring just to be on my feet for that long. This is more mental than anything else, but then again, what isn’t?

Make Walking Easier with Different Traction Options

Neil and John are both wearing different iterations of the MSR Lightning Ascent. We switched to spikes halfway through the descent.

Choosing the right traction based on the trail conditions doesn’t just make your life easier, it’s the best practice to avoid being That Guy creating postholes and ruining the snowpack. A packed, semi-icy trail will potentially be deep and drifted within a few miles of climbing, which means it’s time to strap on the snowshoes. We could write a Whole Thing about this, but many avid hikers opt for either the MSR Lightning Ascent or a Tubbs Flex model. Check snow conditions for the type of Microspikes to bring, and note that beefier models have a metal plate that can accumulate snow in wet conditions. In those conditions, opt for a pair with a rubber anti-balling pad.

Lastly, Remember to Appreciate Winter

For me, this is the most important part of a winter excursion… and the most difficult. I get stressed and intimidated when I feel like I won’t be able to get warm, or hyped up anticipating being tired when the conditions get more challenging during steep sections of breaking trail. Taking a few seconds to look around, appreciate the beauty of being outdoors in the winter, and grateful for the snow and the peaceful woods can do wonders for the attitude, and ultimately the entire outing.

Feature image courtesy John Bergman. Somewhat false advertising, as my father is pictured and he loves winter hiking. He’s on the shoulder of Mount Washington in the White Mountains, with Mount Monroe in the background.

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Comments 2

  • Emily S. : Dec 26th

    You had me with you right until “hot gatorade.”

    • Maggie Slepian : Dec 26th

      Ahahaha no seriously try it… it tastes like hot cider if you use your imagination


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