I hear it all the time, "too bad it isn't hiking season". And every time I do I have to pause for a second. Winter or snow, does not mean you can't go hiking. In fact, it's a whole new experience and one of my favorite times to hike.
It can be intimidating the first time you hike in snow and ice, but as long as you are prepared it can also be great fun! By the end of this, you will feel prepared and ready to hit the trails for a winter wonderland adventure.
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So first things first, why on earth would you want to hike in winter? If you aren't into the snow and not much of a cold-weather person then this might truly be your first thought when looking at the Headline. Here are a few reasons why I love hiking in winter:
No bugs!! No need to load up on bug spray or worry about needing to outrun the mosquitoes. No pesky hoarse flies or gnats swarming around your head, and no fear of ticks! After the temperatures hit below 41F ticks will usually become inactive so you will be able to enjoy your hike without having to constantly check to make sure you didn't pick up any hitchhikers.
Less crowded. As I already mentioned, not a lot of people think that winter is the hiking season. Only the avid hikers are really going to be out on the trails and they will usually be a lot easier to hike with. But because of this, you will typically have the trails to yourself. You can go at your own pace and not fear that you are holding up the line, or that you might look "embarrassing". When I first started hiking this was one of my biggest fears was that people would be judging me, so winter hiking is perfect!
Seasonal Depression. More than 10 million Americans suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) each year. If you are a woman then you are four times more likely to be diagnosed with it. With shorter days and longer nights, our bodies are sometimes tricked into creating more melatonin which not only makes you more sleepy but also creates a depression-like state. What better way to fight this than to get outside and be in the fresh air. it is a proven fact that Nature always makes it better.
Now that I have convinced you hiking in Winter is a good idea, what the heck do you wear?
Layers, Layers, Layers
When hiking in winter, the number one rule is going to be layers. When hiking you want to make sure that you are comfortable. Hyperthermia is a huge concern when you are hiking in winter and when you are sweating this can actually make it more likely that hyperthermia happen.
You also don't want to be too cold, because again, hyperthermia! You've got to find that happy medium and the only way to do that is going to be by having the layers to do it. You can take off layers when you're hot or put them on when you're cold. Something to keep in mind is that everyone is going to sweat a little while they are hiking and the goal is to just make sure that your clothes are not getting damp.
Winter Hiking Layers and Hiking Gear
So what layers do you need to have?
Winter Hiking Boots
Base layers are going to be your first stop for hiking in winter. You want something that is usually made out of wool and breathable. A base layer can sometimes come with a hefty price tag but it makes such a difference. This is the Merino shirt I have, and the base layer leggings I use. (I could literally have a whole blog post about these leggings and highly recommend them over anything else in this article).
Hikes are meant to be a little more strenuous and will usually have you breaking a sweat. During winter it is such a good idea to wear a quick-drying shirt over your base layer. Wearing cotton is not as quick-drying and whenever you stop to take a break you might get chilly pretty quickly. Typically any long sleeve workout short is going to work, this is the one that I have.
I usually run a little hotter when I hike so it's rare that I start out in my mid-layer. I usually have it in my pack for when I stop to eat lunch or in case of an emergency. A fleece jacket is usually the best mid-later. I love this one.
As for a Mid Layer with pants, some opt for a fleece-lined pair such as these ones. But in all honesty, I usually get too hot and so I opt for just the base layer leggings and that's it. Depending on how windy it is I sometimes opt for a pair of windbreakers to wear over the top of my base layer. These are thin enough to not make me sweat but still help block wind and rain.
A great "puffy" jacket is always a must-have with hiking, not only for hiking in winter. I like a little bit more of a lightweight jacket that doesn't compromise warmth. I've had friends who got nice cheap ones from Walmart, but this one has always been my favorite and not too expensive without losing a good quality.
Getting the right combination of layers is going to depend on each person and how their temperature runs. It is also going to depend on just how cold it is outside/ how windy. Some might opt for a heavier mid-layer and a lighter Outer shell/ insulating jacket. While Others might opt for a thinner Mid layer with a heavier outer layer. Trial and error are going to help out best.
Finding the right pair of wool socks is going to be essential to make sure that your feet are not only staying warm and not sweating but also to make sure that you are not getting blisters. There are some that are made specifically for winter as well as thinner ones made for summer. For winter it is pretty obvious that you want a thicker pair, I usually go for these pair.
Winter Hiking Boots
Investing in a good pair of winter hiking boots is going to save you in the long run. They are made specifically for snow and will help your feet stay dry as well as keep them warm. They will typically be insulated and in low temperatures, they will protect the rubber from hardening. This is the pair that I recommend!
If you want to learn more about how to find the best pair of boots for you you can find out more on the Blog post I wrote here.
Though an insulated winter boot is definitely going to give you more traction than a normal hiking boot, investing in Microspikes is definitely a good investment. They are going to give you better traction on slopes and ice. These work out pretty well. And here are some even for kids boots.
This is a no-brainer, gloves help keep your fingers nice and toasty. Check out these pair here.
A hat is going to help keep your head and ears warm but also going to help keep your heat in so that you don't lose a significant amount. This one is my favorite.
Just because it is winter does not mean that you don't need sunglasses, In fact, you probably need them more! I always bring my sunglasses just in case and love Blenders. not only are they great quality but also extremely affordable.
Gaiters are going to help you while hiking in the snow. If you hit a clearing that is too high then these can save you from that annoying snow in the boot feeling. Having wet socks is never any fun. I usually have them in an easily accessible place in my pack. These ones work great.
Trekking poles are honestly great in all seasons, but when you are hiking on slippery snow it is going to allow you to have a steadier footing. They even come with this little basket to cover the tips to help you hiking in the snow. These are a great set.
When hiking no matter the length of the hike it is always a good idea to carry the 100 essentials. Probably even more so when hiking in winter because you never want to be stuck in an emergency situation without them. This can absolutely save your life and you should always have them when hiking:
Navigation (i.e. map and compass)
First Aid kit
Protection (knife/bear spray)
Tips for Hiking in the Snow
Hiking in snow is ten times harder than hiking in summer or in fall. If you are new to hiking then you want to pick a relatively flat easy trail.
Pay attention to when it gets dark and know that sometimes it gets darker sooner in the woods because of the trees and the hills/mountains.
Just because it is cold doesn't mean that you are not sweating and losing water. Make sure to stay hydrated. Dehydration actually increases the chance of hyperthermia so make sure that you drink your water.
On a similar note, if it is freezing out then try bringing hot Nalgene bottles instead of a water bladder, or even a thermos.
This one sounds weird, but, an empty bladder will actually help keep you warm. I know going to the bathroom in the snow is the last thing you want to do, but in the long run, it will help you!
Be extra careful about natural hazards. Things like rivers, snowy hills, frozen lakes, or fallen trees. Also, make sure you know what things like tree wells are and how to spot them. These are typically going to be holes that are near trees.
Keep an eye on the weather.
Let people know where you are going and if you have service to send your location do it.
Attempt to stay on flat surfaces and try to avoid areas that have a 35-45 degree angle. This is going to help you avoid creating an avalanche.
Hiking, like most things, just takes practice. Maybe more so when it is winter. I recommend trying winter hiking on a trail you are already familiar with and a little bit easier.