There are many reasons why most people don’t want to go winter hiking. Most people don’t want to go hiking during the winter because:
- It’s cold and wet out, you and your gear can get cold and wet
- It’s easier to get lost in bad weather (visibility is reduced)
- There can be limited views at the summit
- The terrain can be especially challenging with mud, a flooded trail, slippery rock surfaces and sometimes even bigger water crossings
What’s So Great About Winter Hiking?
There’s Less Crowds out on trail during the winter. This often means getting a normally busy trail, all to yourself when it’s cold and wet out.
Winter Hiking Extends Your Hiking Season To Year Round. No more waiting for a nice weather period or certain parts of the year in order to go hiking. If you’re prepared with the right gear, you can go hiking anytime you want to…and not be miserable while you’re out there.
Hiking in the Winter Can Help Make You A Stronger Hiker. Not only will you get good physical training when hiking in the snow, rain and mud, but you’ll also get to practice your skills. Skills like trip planning including knowing where to go and what to bring, navigation and even mentally preparing for your hike.
It’s A Great way to Test Your Gear to make sure it works for you. You’ll find out firsthand if your rain gear and insulating layers really do help keep you warm and dry.
It’s A Big Time Confidence Booster. You’ll build up your confidence, not only with using your gear in less than perfect weather conditions, but also with being out on trail by yourself because let’s face it, most of your friends and family will NOT want to join you out there.
In an effort to help inspire you to want to get out on trail this winter, I’m going to share with you how I prepare for winter hiking including what to wear, gear to bring and some of my favorite winter hiking tips.
Tip #1: Pack The Right Gear For the Right Conditions
In addition to carrying the 10 Essentials such as navigation, illumination, shelter, extra clothing, extra water, extra food, sun protection, fire, knife and gear repair and a first aid kit, you also want to wear clothing that will help you stay warm and dry.
When it’s wet and cold out, consider wearing your clothing in a layering system that consists of a base layer, mid layer/insulating layer and an outer layer. Choose synthetic base layers that will dry quickly and keep you warm. Avoid cotton because in cold, wet weather, cotton is rotten. Cotton is heavy and once it’s wet, it loses any insulating abilities.
For an outer layer, choose a rain jacket that’s lightweight with good ventilation. Waterproof gear will help keep the water out, but it can also keep the body heat in, potentially causing an increase in sweat and condensation underneath your rain gear.
My favorite rain jacket is the Enlightened Equipment Visp Rain Jacket because it’s lightweight and the outside material is waterproof and repels water. This jacket has pit zips, which allow me to regulate my body temperature underneath so I can prevent myself from sweating while I’m hiking.
I also like wearing a pair of trekking pants that are comfortable enough to hike up the trail in, provide a little extra warmth and keep me dry when it’s wet out. My favorite pants this season are the Duluth Trading Company Flexpedition Pull-On Slim Leg Pants. They’re stretchy and comfortable with a wide elastic waistband instead of a traditional zip fly construction, have 5 total pockets and have a water-resistant finish.
In addition to dressing in layers, make sure to wear the appropriate socks and footwear for the wet conditions you’ll be hiking in. When hiking in the winter, I like wearing a lightweight, high top, Gore-Tex trail runner like the Altra Lone Peak ALL WTHR Mid 2 Hiking Boots because they’re lightweight, waterproof, have an extra roomy toe box, provide extra ankle support and do a great job of helping to keep my feet warm and dry when out in the rain. And I always pack an extra pair of socks.
To help keep my legs and feet dry from snow, rain and mud, I also wear a pair of knee-high Gore-Tex gaiters like the Outdoor Research Cascadia II Gaiters over my pants. And if it’s really cold out, I’ll wear a pair of Hot Sockee neoprene toe covers to help my toes stay warm.
When out hiking during the winter, I might also:
- Wear a winter skirt over my trekking pants
- Bring a pair of gloves to keep my hands warm
- Wear a hat with a bill to keep my head warm and snow and rain off my face
- Use a pack liner and/or a pack cover to help keep my pack and the gear inside dry
- And keep all of my electronics dry in a waterproof stuff sack
Want to try winter hiking but still have no idea what kind of gear you’d need? Check out my Winter Hiking Gear List to see all of the gear I’ve been using this season.
Tip #2: Be Bold, Start Cold
One of my favorite winter hiking mantras is to be bold and start cold. What this basically means is start hiking wearing fewer layers out of the parking lot. You’ll be cold at first, but once you start moving, especially if it’s uphill, you’ll warm up pretty quickly.
One of the keys to staying warm and dry when hiking in cold, wet weather is to stay dry by avoiding sweating. Sweat will soak the base layers sitting next to your skin. Wet base layers will make it much harder for your body to stay warm and dry.
To avoid sweating, be prepared to stop and give yourself a layer change as soon as you feel your body warm up. Whenever you stop for a break, don’t give your body a chance to cool down and add a layer. If you feel yourself start to cool down while you’re hiking, especially if you’re going downhill, stop to add layers to help you stay warm.
Tip #3: Keep Outer Layers Easily Accessible
Keep your rain gear along with any other outer layers like a pack cover, easily accessible so if it does start to snow or rain during your hike. This way you don’t have to worry about digging through your pack to find it and risk getting all of your gear wet in the process.
I like keeping my rain jacket and pack cover in the back mesh pocket of my pack for easy access when I’m out on trail. You can also use a trash compactor bag to line the inside of your pack to help keep everything inside dry when it’s snowing and raining out.
Tip #4: Know How To Use Your Gear
Know how to use all of the gear you choose to bring with you on your hike. Know how to use your navigation system before getting to the trailhead, whether it’s a paper map and compass or a digital navigation system.
If you’re using a digital map, make sure you not only know how to use the app, but that you’ve also downloaded the map for the area you plan on traveling in before leaving cell or WiFi service AND don’t forget to charge your electronics before your hike!
If you’re using a satellite communicator, make sure you know how to send a message, turn the tracking on and off, be familiar with knowing how to check the weather on the device or through the pairing app and know how and where to press the SOS button should you need in an emergency.
If you’re using traction devices like snowshoes or micro spikes, practice putting those on at home over the shoes you’ll be hiking in so that you’re comfortable putting them on at the trailhead or when out on trail.
Tip #5: Keep Your Electronics Warm (and Dry)
Cold weather can suck the life out of electronic batteries. Store your electronic devices, batteries and power bank close to your body throughout your hike so that the cold air doesn’t drain their battery life.
For all of your digital devices, make sure their fully charged before getting to the trailhead. it might also be a good idea to bring along an external battery pack so that you have a way to charge your electronics should any of your batteries get drained due to usage and/or cold weather.
Tip #6: Take Shorter Breaks
Don’t give your body a chance to get cold. As soon as you stop for a break, remove any wet clothes and put on an insulating layer like a fleece hoodie, a puffy jacket and a pair of gloves. It’s much easier to stay warm than it is to try and get warm once you’re cold.
If sitting down on your break, use something insulating to sit on the cold ground with like a butt pad. This way you’re more likely to stay warm while you’re stopped.
Tip #7: Keep Eating and Drinking
When hiking during the winter, it’s really important to keep eating and drinking, even if you aren’t thirsty or hungry. It can be challenging to force yourself to drink water when it’s cold out and you might not want to stop when it’s raining or snowing to eat a snack, but your body NEEDS the fuel and water to stay warm and well hydrated.
I recommend keeping food, snacks and water easily accessible when out on trail. This way you’re more likely to consume them instead of carrying them. During the winter, I keep my drinking water in a Nalgene bottle with a neoprene sleeve and store it in one of the side pockets on the outside of my pack upside-down so the water freezes from the bottom and then stash snacks in my fanny pack so I can easily access and eat my snacks while I’m hiking.
Tip #8: ALWAYS Check the Weather
As part of your trip planning process, you should ALWAYS check the weather forecast for the area you plan on hiking in before getting to the trailhead. Don’t look for the weather forecast for the nearby town, but the actual weather forecast for the area you plan on hiking in.
I have a habit of checking the weather a couple days before, the night before and even the morning of my planned hike. One of my favorite tools I use to check the weather forecast for the area I plan on hiking in is onX Backcountry.
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To check the current forecast for the area you plan on hiking in through the app, simply tap anywhere on the map where you want to get wind and weather information for. A location info card will pop up showing an Overview, Trail Reports, Nearby Trails and Weather tab.
Click on the “Weather” tab and swipe up to get up-to-date weather conditions and forecast for the current location. Current conditions displayed will include temperature, precipitation, wind, pressure and sunrise and sunset times. You’ll also get an hourly forecast, a 7-day forecast and the current moon phases.
To get the up-to-date wind and weather forecasts, you will need a WiFi or cell connection. The Wind and Weather feature will not update when the app and/or your phone are offline so make sure you use this feature before getting to the trailhead.
Tip #9: Pack an 11th Essential
When I’m out hiking during the winter, whether it’s in the rain or snow, I always like to pack my 11th Essential, which can be my favorite warm, hot beverage like soup, tea or hot cocoa.
Tip #10: Stay Positive
One way I’m able to stay positive and have fun while hiking during the winter in cold weather is to mentally prepare myself for my hikes. I start by accepting that I might get wet and cold while I’m out on trail and then plan accordingly with the clothing I wear and gear I bring.
Being prepared mentally helps me be able to embrace the suck when hiking in the cold weather, be better at handling whatever the trail might throw my way and helps me have fun while I’m out there.
Some other ways I’m able to remain positive while hiking during the winter include:
Thinking about what lesson I’m learning while out hiking in less-than-desirable conditions. Maybe it’s testing my gear, building up my confidence while I’m out there hiking by myself or sharpening up my navigation skills.
Getting excited about the yummy lunch and snacks I packed for my hike
Knowing that if I wasn’t out hiking during the winter, I could be stuck inside at work, staring at a computer screen. 10 out of 10 times, I’d much rather be spending my time outside on trail, even if it’s cold and wet out.
Also, remember that the more winter hiking you do, the easier it gets. Seriously.
The more winter hikes you go on, the more familiar you’ll become with hiking in your layers, using your gear, navigating through challenging trail obstacles and overall lessen the risk for hiking during the winter in the future, which can help make your experiences of hiking throughout the winter much more enjoyable.
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