Winter Hiking Tips

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

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 one 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 and trail signs are buried beneath snow?

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

*Do you agree that leaving a hiking itinerary with someone trustworthy at home is non-negotiable?


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 - whew!

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 to answer your questions about what to wear hiking in winter conditions.

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.

Instead, choose polyester, merino wool, and other fabrics which draw your sweat away from your body.

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 (not cotton) socks that can be swapped out after the hike for a dry pair
  • A non binding, wire free, wicking sports bra
  • A set of long underwear, paying attention to the fabric and fit (tights can be used for the bottom layer)
  • A vest that is lightweight and not bulky
  • Waterproof pants and jacket
  • Sorry, 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: versatile in changing weather conditions

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

More winter hiking tips are waiting for you here.


Keep your footing
on icy trails

In addition, I carry some winter hiking equipment to keep me safe.

One example: traction devices for my boots, for the same reason car owners who drive over wintery mountain passes use studded tires and carry tire chains: enhanced gripping ability on slippery or uneven surfaces.

For hikers, increased stability and safety on snow packed and icy surfaces translates into more confidence and a smaller chance of injury.

  • 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!

Switch your shoes

Carry snowshoes and switch over to them when trail conditions and terrain make them necessary.

Additional weight on your pack?

Yes, but you'll be able to go places that would turn you back without snowshoes.

Your footing will be more solid, too.

  • Read detailed snowshoeing tips here.

Use trekking poles

Having a pair of poles in your hands gives you the ability to probe ahead for trail hazards, and so much more.

Read all of the ways you can use hiking poles to keep yourself safe and stable here.


Winter hiking tips for safety

There are plenty of things you can do to stay safe on a winter hiking trail. Let's take a look.

Sunshine is good, right?

Yes, it's great to have a sunny day for your winter hike.

But realize that light conditions will vary throughout the day, 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 on a winter hike, so carry sunscreen, too.

Factor in much shorter daylight hours when you plan your destination.

  • What takes you only a few hours in summer might take longer on a winter trail, so adjust your turn around time accordingly.


Keep stoking the furnace

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 bottle 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.

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 and impair good judgment.


Guard your body heat

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.

  • Your clothing layering system is also working to keep you safe (see above).


Keep your hands and feet warm at all costs.

To keep your feet in top shape on cold weather hikes, use these tips.

Prevent cold hands with these tips.

Use technology to give yourself a wide margin of safety:

  • 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.

Always have your hat and gloves ready in an outside pocket of your backpack or jacket, 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.

Ditto for frostbite.

  • 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.

Hike smart!

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.
  • When you get tired, eat and drink something, then turn around, regardless of how close you are to your destination.

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.
  • Find an appealing flat rock or log for your backpack, rather than contact the cold surface directly.
  • Bring a tarp to create a dry surface for your lunch break.

These 7 habits make all the difference!

How to stay warm and safe on cold weather hikes & snowshoe trips: 7 habits for any hiker who tackles winter hiking.  #outdoorsafety #winterhiking #wintersafety #hikeinwinter


Change up your mental approach
with these winter hiking tips

The way you think about winter hiking needs to be adjusted from your default summer settings, 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.

Navigation tips for winter hikers

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

Ditto for a winter hike in brilliant sunlight: the terrain gets washed out and can lead you literally over a cliff.

It's also 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.
  • Eat, and hydrate, accordingly.
Snowshoer and tracks with snowy mountain in the distanceSlow and steady makes for a great winter hike


Pacing changes on winter trails

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.


Falls can happen

If you hike long enough on winter trails, you're going to go down.

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.
  • Your backpack can break your fall somewhat, protecting your neck.

Two more winter hiking tips
for you

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.

  • Check the weather forecast before you start your hike.
  • If conditions change during your hike, turn around. Glare ice on a trail is a hazard you don't want to deal with, especially if you're cold and tired.

Always be prepared to spend a night outdoors.

Winter hiking is not the time to cut corners or take chances.

Always be prepared to take care of yourself.

Don't rely upon cell phone coverage to bail yourself out of a dicey situation. Instead, carry a personal locator beacon.


Solo winter hiking?

And a special word to solo winter hikers.

Think long and hard before leaving for 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.

Why?

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, early to late, 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?

Any questions about these winter hiking tips?

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!


Still not convinced that winter hiking is right for you?

Read all of the reasons why winter hiking is a skill you can develop to keep you on the trail year round!


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Winter Hiking Tips


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