How to Beat the Cold When Hiking in Winter
In this straight-talking guide, discover how you can become an all-season, all-weather hiking warrior with our easy-to-follow and invaluable insights.
Want to know how to stay safe in winter conditions?
You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- Learn how to stay warm
- Minimize the risk of subjective and objective dangers
- Know how to dress for cold-weather success
- Winterize you gear essentials
When temperatures start turning south in Fall, many hikers are apt to stick their boots in storage and resign themselves to a few months of hibernation.
Hiking in frigid conditions, after all, is not without its hardships. We have to pack with more care. Our backpacks are heavier. Rain, snow, and strong winds are to be expected. Conditions underfoot range from bog-like at best to ice-rink-like at worst.
But it ain’t all bad.
Hiking in the winter offers many benefits that more than offset the downsides. The trails are quieter. Parking’s easy. The snow-clad world of your surroundings is magical. The feel and sound of fresh snow crunching under your feet is awesome. And best of all, of course, doing so earns you a “bona fide badass” rating from your friends.
So you can enjoy all of the above and do your wintertime wandering in safety and comfort, we’ve compiled a short guide to help you prepare to beat the brrrrr and everything that goes along with it when hiking in cold weather.
- Research and plan your route ahead of time
- Leave a route card with a friend
- Carry the ten essentials of hiking
- Layer up!
- Follow trails made by others on steep snow slopes
- Underestimate timing
Trail Knowledge & Preparation
A good hike always starts with good at-home preparation.
To avoid unwelcome surprises, the most important part of pre-trip prep is getting a handle on the conditions in which you’ll be hiking.
First up, check weather forecasts carefully. If you are unsure about the conditions of the route, or you have never hiked the trail before, then contact the local ranger station or land managers. If you happen to be planning a hike in an area where hunting is permitted, it’s also wise to check the dates of the hunting season before setting off.
Secondly, make sure you have a clear route planned, and always leave your route and expected return time with someone trustworthy. Should things go wrong, they can contact the authorities if you fail to return on time.
Finally, because daylight hours are fewer in winter, leave plenty of time to complete your hike before dark. When doing so, bear in mind that the going in winter conditions is often much slower due to snow and/or ice on the trail.
What to Wear Hiking in Winter?
Let’s start with the bottom line as regards hiking clothes for winter: start warm to stay warm. Cooling down when you’re too hot is far easier done than vice-versa. This is particularly true if you happen to be using the…
Three Layer System
The layering system is, pretty much, the gold standard of safe and suitable sartorial practice in the wilds. And its benefits are never more evident than in winter.
In the layering system:
Your base layer is all about “moisture management.” Sounds icky, we know, but this simply means the layer absorbs sweat and “wicks” it through to the next layer, leaving your skin dry.
Dry skin = happy skin, particularly given that liquid can conduct heat away from the body up to 25 times faster than air.
The mid-layer is all about insulation, i.e. warmth. While the temptation may be to opt for a bulkier midlayer, two thin midlayers will actually serve you better because they’ll be more breathable and create an additional, buffering air pocket between each layer.
The shell layer is all about keeping the elements out. With waterproof pants and rain jackets, opt for waterproof-breathable fabrics that block our rain and snow but allow sweat to wick through and evaporate on the surface. To complete your armory, throw on a pair of gaiters to keep your feet dry.
Each layer in this system should be breathable and high-wicking. If any layer isn’t, then the whole system will fail. Also bear in mind that cotton is a poor choice. It absorbs sweat and wicks roughly as well as your average sponge, i.e. suboptimally.
The above applies to both shirts and pants for winter hiking. Even if you’re buying insulated hiking pants for winter, it’s wise to invest in a pair with a breathable shell and ventilation panels that will let you dump excess heat if need be.
The layering system can also be easily tweaked without removing layers. To release heat, simply push up sleeves, open cuffs, remove gloves, down your hood, pit zips, or side zippers on pants, switch to a headband instead of a hat, and/or open your pockets.
To trap in more heat, cover your neck with a buff, tighten the hem in your jacket, tuck socks into pant bottoms, and wear gaiters even when there’s no ground snow.
The key to avoiding chills and frostbite is avoiding leaving any portion of skin exposed. As such, it’s a good idea to wear a balaclava, face mask or buff, a hat or headband to cover your ears, and glove liners that will allow you to perform more delicate tasks (taking photos/peeing/using your compass) without exposing the skin.
Also avoid tight clothing (this can hinder healthy, heat-giving circulation), bring extra gloves and socks, and throw on a pair of sunglasses or goggles to protect your eyes from the sun’s reflections in the snow.
Food & Drink for Hiking in Cold Weather
In winter, our bodies burn more calories in a bid to keep warm. As such, on winter hikes we need to make sure we’re putting enough fuel in the engine to keep it running smoothly.
Also, our bodies generate heat while digesting food, so getting your munch on will help to maintain your core temperature.
The best foods for winter hiking are, ahem, those that remain edible for the hike’s duration. This may seem like a no-brainer but rules out many popular summertime trail foods that can freeze over easily and, thus, become inedible or likely to deprive you of pricey dental work.
Whatever types of eats you choose to bring, store them in jacket pockets or the rear of your backpack so your body heat will keep them from freezing.
H20 is no less important in winter than in summer. But getting an adequate fill can be tricky, with wild sources frozen over and carried supplies following suit en route.
To prevent your hydration bladder from freezing, blow the water in the tube back into the reservoir after each sip. Alternatively, buy or build insulation for the tube and bite valve. Making your own can be done in various ways, but the most effective involves covering the tube in neoprene or foam wrap.
If all this sounds like too much hassle, switch your bladder for a wide-mouth water bottle and store it upside down in your backpack (water freezes from the top down). And if you’re especially concerned about being able to hydrate adequately, bring a thermos flask filled with your favorite warm beverage or hot water as backup.
Safety Tips for Winter Hiking
Staying safe in winter requires a little more diligence than in warmer months.
As always, prevention is far better than cure.
Winter-Related Injuries & Illnesses
Frostbite is one of the most serious injuries you can sustain while out hiking in the cold. It occurs when the skin and underlying tissue freeze and can result in permanent damage or loss of fingers, toes, ears, your nose, or lips.
The signs of frostbite include cold, pale, and waxy skin, tingling and numbness, and a wood-like hardness and hollow feeling in the affected area.
After thawing, painful blisters often form on the skin. These may also be accompanied by something known, in ice-climbing parlance, as the “screaming barfies”. This is the almost exquisite, tear-inducing pain caused by blood and heat attempting to return to the extremities.
The best way to prevent frostbite is to wear adequate clothing, stay dry, and keep all parts of your body covered at all times.
Here’s how to treat frostbite should it occur:
First, cover the affected area, ideally with insulating fabric like wool or fleece. Place frostbitten extremities in your armpits (or your partners) to warm them up. Your crotch is also a good option if you’re not too shy/prudish.
It’s important not to rub the skin, as this can result in damage to both the skin and tissue. Take the shortest safe route to your vehicle and seek medical assistance asap.
Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 35C/95F from the normal 37C/98.6F and can, in extreme cases, be deadly.
The signs of hypothermia include shivering, clumsiness, confusion, slow thinking, and disorientation.
The best way to treat hypothermia is to get the affected hiker inside and warm asap. If this is not possible, they should be protected from exposure to rain, wind, and snow by using an emergency shelter. This can take the form of an emergency bivy bag, tarp, sleeping bag, or tent.
Next, swap wet clothes for dry ones, give the stricken hiker food and water and attempt to raise their core temperature using your own body heat by spooning and rubbing.
The winter sun is weaker but still more than capable of causing sunburn or sunstroke, particularly when there’s snow coverage. Snow and ice reflect the sun’s UVB rays, amplifying their potency.
To avoid sunburn, headaches, and sunstroke, be sure to add sunscreen to your cold weather hiking gear and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
As with all aspects of safety, avalanche avoidance begins at home. Before setting off, make sure you check online avalanche forecasts and call ahead if these are not available.
It’s also well worth taking a class in avalanche awareness so you’ll be able to gauge risk, ascertain the safety of any given route, and will know what to do in the event of a member of your team being caught in an avalanche.
A few general rules of thumb should be followed.
First, avoid hiking in mountainous terrain following sharp shifts in temperature, which are prone to undermine the stability of the snowpack.
Secondly, steer clear of high-risk slopes. These are heavily laden slopes with an angle of roughly 25 to 45 degrees.
Thirdly, don’t follow another’s trail—just because others have passed safely before you is no guarantee you’ll do likewise.
Fourthly, consider buying an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel to help with rescuing others/being rescued in the event of being caught in an avalanche.
Finally, if you have any doubts whatsoever, turn back.
The Importance of Rest Stops
When you’re hiking in the chilly winter months, the number of rest stops you take and their duration should be kept to a minimum.
Stopping too long will let your core temperature drop and any sweat you’ve built up will cool quickly, further contributing to the loss of body heat.
A good policy is to hike for longer between breaks at a lower speed. This will allow you to cover the required ground without sweating excessively, using your layering system, zippers, and cuffs to cool off as you go.
If you have to stop for longer than a few minutes, throw on an extra layer prior to “parking” and close all zippers and cuffs.
Hiking Gear for Cold Weather
Carrying a few cold-weather-hiking-specific pieces of kit can greatly enhance your safety and comfort on winter wanders in the wilds.
First up, tweak your ten essentials to make them winter-worthy. This means doubling up on insulation, carrying extra batteries, food, and warm drinks, and storing everything in dry bags or waterproof containers.
Because underfoot conditions are liable to range from icy to post-holing-prone snow, you may also need to carry snowshoes, crampons, or at the very least a pair of slip-on microspikes. Again, getting a handle on trail conditions before you leave home will help you determine the most appropriate choice.
Getting lost in winter months could have far graver consequences than in summer, so bring a backup navigation system to be on the safe side. If your backup’s a GPS device, bring extra batteries and store these and the device close to your body—cold temps can sap battery juice quickly.
Finally, a few other winter hiking gear add-ons that could turn out be worth their weight in gold include a pack liner or cover to keep your gear dry, electric or chemical hand warmers to keep your paws in working order, and a lightweight stove to make yourself a restorative brew when your thermal flask runs empty.
Maintain a Positive Attitude!
Hiking in winter takes a little more prep, patience, and stoicism, granted. But rewards are well worth the effort…
Not only do you get to go home feeling a whole lot more badass than you did when setting off, you’ll also have truly taken a genuinely less-traveled path and, no doubt, racked up a handful of truly unforgettable memories along the way.
By following the above tips, moreover, you’ll be able to continue doing so safely, comfortably, and with greater confidence in your ability to deal with whatever the winter weather gods might choose to throw your way.
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