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Winter Hiking Tips

These winter hiking tips are what you need to stay safe and comfortable on snow covered trails.

These winter hiking tips are going to make you a smart winter hiker.

Why not extend the hiking season when cold winds blow?

There's no reason you need to retreat into your warm winter woollies and gaze longingly at your backpack hanging in the gear locker.

How to hike in the winter adds an entirely new skill set to your hiking resume.

Let's get started with a question.


Is winter hiking for you?

Icy rock filled creek flowing through snow covered banksBrrr! Is this for you?

If you answer yes to these additional questions, then you can safely say YES to winter hiking.

*Is your hiking clothing up to the task of blocking wind, shedding snow, and insulating you in layers?

*Is your gear waterproof, lightweight, pliable and easy to get on and off when you're bundled up?

*Do you have a sturdy pair of winter hiking boots?

*Are you easily chilled, even when indoors?

*Can you navigate when familiar landmarks are buried beneath snow?

*Are you on board with why carrying the hiking ten essentials is important?


Congratulations!

If you're still reading, you're a winter hiker.

WooHoo!

Winter hiking tips, coming right up!

Hiking in the winter means a lot of benefits will flow your way:

  • No insect or reptile bites
  • Sparsely used trails and trail heads (easy parking!)
  • Amazing photographic opportunities in winter light conditions
  • Burning more calories than usual, so second lunch is mandatory (as is a thermos of hot chocolate)
  • Animal encounters that can only happen when you track a fox or snowshoe rabbit in the snow
  • Bear worries are over for the season

And many, many more joys of winter hiking.

I grew up where the snow piled up higher than a car two months into the winter season, and the wind howled in below zero temperatures for weeks.

So I know my way around winter hiking, and am delighted to share these winter hiking tips with you.


Best winter hiking tips begin with
the right clothing

Snowshoer taking a photo of Mount Rainier in winter conditionsAll covered up with layers of clothing to beat the cold wind coming off gorgeous Mt. Rainier

Let's start off with some winter hiking clothing tips.

Humans aren't hairy enough to stay warm without the aid of winter clothing.

But promise me that you will ditch fabrics that won't keep you warm and dry. That means no cotton, no matter how cosy it feels at home.

Dress for the worst possible scenario, and be able to peel off layers easily.

Avoid tight fitting or binding sleeves or pants. You want all of your hot core blood circulating freely to keep you warm.

To give you an idea of how serious your hiking clothing layering system needs to be, here is what I wear when hiking in winter (and snowshoeing):

  • Thick, moisture wicking socks that can be swapped out after the hike for a dry pair
  • A non binding, wicking sports bra
  • A set of long underwear, paying attention to the fabric and fit
  • A vest that is lightweight and not bulky
  • Waterproof pants and jacket. Water repellent just doesn't cut it in the winter, when cold wet conditions are the norm.
  • Bombproof hand coverings: gloves and mittens.
  • A neck scarf that does double duty under my bum when I sit on my pack during food breaks
  • A hat with ear flaps and a tie down that is versatile in changing weather conditions

For details on all of this womens hiking clothing, go here.

More winter hiking tips can be found here.

In addition, I carry traction devices for my boots, for the same reason car owners who drive over wintery mountain passes carry tire chains: gripping ability on slippery or uneven surfaces.

  • For moderate winter conditions and not much elevation gain or loss, I wear minimalist Yak Trax.
  • For really gnarly winter hiking trails where terrain and conditions change from snow to ice to bare patches beneath trees, on open slopes, and everywhere in between, I wear Microspikes.
  • Need more info about hiking traction devices for your boots? Here it is!


Winter hiking tips for safety

Your safety should be a big consideration when planning a winter hike, for all sorts of reasons.

Light conditions will vary, so be sure to carry sunglasses for winter glare but also carry a headlamp for early nightfall situations.


It's possible to get a doozey of a sunburn, so carry sunscreen, too.


Bring more food than you think you will need.

The extra weight in your pack causes you to work a little harder than on a summer hiking trail.

But the peace of mind you have with extra food (which is fuel for your internal furnace) is priceless.


Eat fast, easy to digest carbohydrates with a bit of fat and protein for staying power.

Some winter hiking menu suggestions:

  • Dense, calorie rich foods like pemmican, trail bars with nuts, and dried fruit.
  • An insulated thermos of hot water that you can use with a favorite tea bag, or filled with hot chocolate almond milk (easy to digest, nutrient rich and delicious).
  • Or carry a JetBoil for almost instant hot water.
  • Sandwiches piled high with nut butters and jam make a great mixed nutrient lunch.
  • Avoid heavy meats or jerky that are strongly seasoned or take a long time to chew. They get cold and may even freeze.
  • Skip cold foods like apples or carrot slices. You don't want to devote calories to getting your food warm enough to digest.

Wear winter hiking traction devices on your boots for increased stability and safety on snow packed and icy surfaces.


Keep moving. Winter hikes are not the time to lounge around at a (probably windy) viewpoint.

  • Prepare to be shocked at how fast you cool down when you stop moving.
  • And if you're working hard breaking trail or navigating, you'll be wet with perspiration. You need to prevent your body temperature from plummeting by continuing to move your large skeletal muscles.

Always have your hat and gloves ready in an outside pocket of your backpack, and whip them on whenever you take a break from forward motion.


It's easier to stay warm than it is to get warm. 

  • Keep your backpack on during rest breaks, to preserve your body heat.
  • If you become chilled, stop and eat something after you cover up all exposed skin.
  • Move your digits often: wiggle your toes inside your boots, curl and uncurl your fingers inside your gloves. This brings fresh, warm blood to them.
  • Face away from the wind when at all possible. Taking the wind right in the face can quickly cool you down.
  • If you're horribly chilled, take a break behind a wind break on wildly windy days as you eat, layer up, and rest while standing up.

Know the signs of hypothermia. Take immediate action when you experience them, or spot them in a hiking companion.

  • Keep an eye on small, young and old hikers in your group, because they're most vulnerable to hypothermia.

Avoid hazards with conservative decisions.

  • Don't trust snow cornices, snow bridges, dicey stream crossings, thin ice on lakes, or heavy snow laden branches above you.
  • Hike conservatively in terms of your energy level, daylight and distance because if you get into trouble, time is of the essence.

Don't lean or sit on wet surfaces.

  • Use a layer of insulation between you and cold ground. A downed fir tree branch works, or use an inflatable cushion like I do.
  • Sit on your backpack on top an appealing flat rock, rather than contact the cold surface directly.
  • Bring a tarp to create a dry surface for your lunch break.

Dehydration is possible even when you don't think you're sweating or thirsty.

  • Stop regularly to sip water or a warm beverage.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages, as they work against you in the cold.

Keep your hands and feet warm at all costs.

  • I rely upon this hand warmer, which I activate when I feel my fingers getting numb. It's durable and reusable, keeping cheaper disposable warmers out of the landfill.
  • Boot warmers? Love 'em!
  • Winter worthy socks? You need these.

These 7 habits make all the difference!

How to stay warm on cold weather hikes and snowshoe trips: 7 habits for any hiker who tackles winter hiking.


Change up your mental approach
with these winter hiking tips

Your mental approach to winter hiking needs to be adjusted in terms of navigation, distance, elevation gain and pacing.

Winter hiking is harder than an easy summer trail, and will demand more from you.

Here are some winter hiking tips that I've learned the hard way, and would like you to consider before you head out into the cold.


Navigating in dim light on cloudy winter days gives your depth perception inaccurate information.

Ditto for a winter hike in brilliant sunlight.

It's easy to think distances are shorter than they appear, so double check your mileage on a map.


Don't try new routes on a winter hike unless you're rock solid with your navigation skills.


Double check your route on a topographical map before heading over terrain that might lead you off the edge or downhill at a steep angle.

Gaining elevation might be harder than expected, but so is losing elevation in deep snow or icy conditions.

Every step, whether up hill or down, will cost you more in terms of energy and commitment.

Snowshoer and tracks with snowy mountain in the distanceSlow and steady makes for a great winter hike

Pace yourself according to conditions and hours of daylight left.

Accept that your pace will be far slower than on a summer hike.

Keep track of the passing hours and be firm about your turn around time.

If weather conditions deteriorate, turn around without regret.

Be prepared to feel more tired, and much hungrier, than on a summer hiking trip.


Fall smart.

If you feel yourself sliding or slipping, resist the urge to fling out your arms and hands to break your fall.

Instead, fall on your back or side if at all possible. This protects your more delicate bones from breaks that will complicate your return to the trail head.


Carry snowshoes and switch over to them when necessary.

  • Additional weight on your pack? Yes, but you'll be able to go places that would turn you back without snowshoes.
  • Read some snowshoeing tips here.

Finally, here are two of the most valuable winter hiking tips I can offer you:

Don't let less than ideal weather stop you from winter hiking, but be respectful of Mother Nature and check the weather forecast before you start your hike.

Be prepared to spend a night outdoors.

Winter hiking is not the time to cut corners or take chances. Always be prepared!


Solo winter hiking?

And a special word to solo hikers.

Think long and hard about doing a solo winter hike.

Although I never hesitate to hike by myself in the other 3 seasons, I pause when considering hiking solo in winter.

There is a razor thin margin of safety if you become hypothermic or injured, even when carrying a personal locator beacon.

  • Help might be on its way, but you'll be cold while you wait for it.
  • That makes carrying the essentials and survival gear even more necessary for you.

For solo hiking considerations before you head out alone on a winter trail, read this.


Winter proof your hiking gear

If your summer gear is water repellent, it's time to up your game to water proof coatings.

And if your gear is dirty, it's time to clean up to give yourself every chance of staying warm and dry.

I rely on NikWax for this, for both my clothing and my gear.

Realize that these coatings need to be reapplied after hard usage or with the passage of time.

It's also good hiking practice to go over your gear before you attempt a winter hike, looking for torn fabrics, holes, pulled apart seams, or too much wear and tear at failure points like zippers.

When you get home from a soggy, cold winter hike, be sure to empty your pack and hang up your gear away from direct heat sources. This is one of the best winter hiking tips to heed!


Ready for a winter hike?

Hiker wearing green backpack, standing at edge of frozen lake on a winter hike

After all of these winter hiking tips, I certainly hope so.

Hiking in the winter is one of the best ways to find solitude and silence.

It demands more from your body and mind, but it delivers a whole ton of advantages over summer hiking.

Fight the urge to curl up under a blanket, and use these winter hiking tips to conquer a new frontier: hiking when Mother Nature shows you her less friendly side.

Feeling really adventurous? Read up on winter hiking tips for camping in the heart of winter.

Any questions about these winter hiking tips? Drop me a line using the CONTACT link at the top left of this page.

I'd be delighted to kick around some winter hiking approaches for your upcoming hiking trip.

And if you have some winter hiking tips to share from your winter hikes, please post them here for all of us to enjoy!


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