How to Hike in the Winter: Your Ultimate Winter Hiking Guide
Do you hike in the winter?
Many do. Some don’t. For those that do hike during the winter, they enjoy many different benefits of winter hiking. Those benefits include fewer biting bugs, most snakes are asleep, big animals hibernate, and you can see everything better.
Those who aren’t hiking in the winter are simply missing out and letting their hiking fitness go.
Maybe they’re just too afraid of hiking in the cold? If that’s the case, they just need an ultimate guide on how to hike in the winter. That’s what this guide is for.
Whether you don’t want to go winter hiking but want to or need more advice, this guide was created for you to enjoy. So, let’s get on with the ultimate winter hiking guide.
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Before You Hike in the Winter, You Should…
There are a few very important things you should do before you hike in the winter months. Doing these things will help ensure you have a better and safer winter hiking experience.
Get the Right Hiking Gear
I’ll get more into what hiking gear you need for winter hiking later in this post.
However, you at least need to start planning your gear based on the recommendations in this article and the 10 essentials of hiking suggested by most hiking-affiliate brands and businesses, including Hiking with Shawn. Winter hiking requires winter-specific gear and apparel.
The right hiking gear will ensure that you have a rewarding experience while you hike in the winter months.
Research the Hiking Trail Before You Go Hiking
Make sure you put in plenty of research before choosing a trail to hike during the winter season.
Not all hiking trails are alike. Some of them are harder than others. Some become more dangerous during the cold and winter season. You need to know what level of hiking is required for a trail and what difficulty rating has been applied to it. You need to know your limits and what you can actually handle based on other hiking trips you’ve done. You also want to make sure it is being maintained. You should also research the roads to the trail, parking availability, and the trailhead.
Knowing more about your intended hiking trail will help you be prepared to hike it no matter what time of the year it is.
Know the Weather Before Your Hike in the Winter
Winter weather can be extreme enough to cause serious injuries or even death if you get caught out in it.
You must observe the weather leading up to the hiking day and get updates until you can’t anymore. Don’t go for a hike on days when the weather is supposed to be bad. Try to follow local weather sources such as local news or the local National Weather Service in order to get a better forecast. Keep in mind that many areas mean shorter days in the winter. Know when to start and when to end the hike to avoid being lost at night.
Knowing the weather will not only keep you safe but also allow you to prepare with better hiking gear and clothing.
Find an Appropriate Hiking Buddy
You shouldn’t be trying to hike in the winter by yourself, especially if you’re a beginner or you need to get better at winter hiking altogether.
But it’s important to find not just any hiking buddy but an appropriate hiking buddy. A child or a pet isn’t really appropriate, while you’re not as skilled at winter adventuring. Leave the pets and kids at home until you get better at it. Instead, find someone who knows how to hike well and would love to help show you the ropes of winter exploring. Just make sure you go with someone you’ve gotten to know and trust. If you have them available, consider hiring a hiking guide to help you enjoy a hike during the winter season.
Solo hiking is great, but it’s not always the best choice when you’re first starting. It’s safer to hike in the winter with a friend just in case you need them.
Tell Someone Where You Plan To Go
The most important thing you can do before you go for a hike in the winter is to tell someone where you’re going first.
It doesn’t matter if you’re hiking solo, with another person, a guide, or a group. You MUST tell someone where you plan to hike before you depart to the trail. Print out a map of the area. Circle where you will park, start, and finish the trail. Draw a line (roughly) showing the trail you plan to hike. This information will be VITAL in the event that you don’t make it home, and your friend needs to give it to emergency services for search and rescue efforts.
If something happens and you don’t make it out of the woods, you don’t want to be stranded without anyone knowing where you are.
Tips to Help You Hike in the Winter
The following tips will help make your hike in the winter easier, safety, and more enjoyable. Remember, winter hiking means you have to pay extra attention to your environment in order to remain safe and sound.
- Don’t rely on following footprints in the snow. This is not a good form of navigating in snowy conditions. It doesn’t take much extra snowfall and wind to quickly cover your footprints as if no one was ever even there.
- If you know your route beforehand, you’ll be better prepared. Most hiking trails have some kind of literature for them. It might be on a guide, in a book, or even on the All Trails app. Find the literature and study it. Know your route before getting out.
- Keep off ice and frozen water sources. Ice is bad all the way around. It’s pretty, but it’s a common killer of hikers during the winter. You can slip off a cliff or mountain because of ice, or you can go through a lake because you walked across the ice. Avoid it for the best results!
- Be aware of any avalanche dangers in the area you’ll be hiking at. If you’re in a sloped, hilly, or mountainous region, there could be a threat of avalanches. Do some research and understand the warning signs, dangers, and what to do if one occurs. Watch out for falling ice, too!
- Are there any dangerous animals in the area you will be hiking? Sure, most snakes should be tucked away deep inside of rocks for the winter. However, not all predator animals are hibernating. There could be bears, wolves, moose, cougars, and other animals to be aware of.
- Be willing to turn back at any time necessary for survival. Sometimes, you have to abort the hike. Maybe the weather turned bad, or you saw some type of hazard present. If you’re willing to turn around and go back to where you started, then you have a good head on your shoulders.
- Adjust layers as needed. I’ll get more into how to layer when you hike in the winter further in this article. The simplest explanation for it, though, is that you add layers when you feel too cold, and you remove layers when you’re too warm. Layers help you balance things out.
- Hydration is critical to your safety. If you dehydrate while hiking, it might require emergency assistance to get you out of danger. It is critical to your existence to hydrate as much as needed while on the trail. Take a drink every thirty minutes just to be safe.
- Choose sunnier trails that are hilly. These trails will keep you warmer during your winter hike. The sun getting to you will warm you up. A hilly trail will warm your body up quicker as well. You’ll just need to adjust your layers appropriately to balance your body temperatures.
- Keep moving but also keep taking breaks. You should definitely keep moving when you hike in the winter. It will help you stay warm and energized. But you also have to take more breaks, especially on colder days. You’re not a superhuman, after all. Rest when rest is required.
- Bring easy-to-eat snacks. If you have to do anything out of the ordinary in order to eat, then you’re doing it wrong. Bring easy-to-eat snacks that require little to no preparation other than opening the package. You don’t have time to unthaw and cook something out there.
- The most important winter hiking tip is to watch your step. I can sum up winter hiking safety in three words: Watch Your Step. If you watch your next step, you’ll avoid 99.999% of all hazards that you come into contact with. More hikers would avoid death if they just watched their steps.
These are just a few important tips to make it easy, safe, and enjoyable to hike in the winter. You’ll learn more as you hike more. Keep an open mind and take advice from other hikers when offered.
Hike in the Winter with this Essential Gear
Before you hike in the winter, you need to make sure you have essential hiking gear. The right gear will help ensure your ability to be safe and enjoy a winter hike without experiencing most issues that come with hiking. Too much gear is bad, but not enough gear can be tragic.
Carry a backpack that is large enough to handle your gear capacity. I recommend a 20 or higher liter backpack for day hiking. Get a hiking-specific backpack that has many adjustable features and an internal frame. A hiking-specific backpack will be the best to carry gear and prevent injury and pain.
Snowshoes or Cleats
Depending on the weather conditions, you should consider hiking with snowshoes or at least boot cleats/crampons/ice cleats to help you gain traction on snow and ice with your feet.
Personal Locator Beacon
Consider buying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and a subscription service for it. If you get lost or injured, your PLB is what will likely save your life and get you rescued.
Food, Water, Extras, and a Filter
Bring food and snacks that are easy to eat in the winter. Bring extra food, just in case. Bring a lot of water. Water should be your heaviest item. Bring a water filter that you know how to use and have tested before use. Staying hydrated and fueled is extremely important.
First Aid Kit
Bring a simple first aid kit made for hiking. Go through it and toss out anything you don’t know how to use. If it reduces weight, put it all in a Ziploc bag instead of the first aid kit container. Having a kit and being prepared is better than having one when you need it.
You should take at least three forms of navigation with you. A map and compass is a great form as long as you know how to use them. Bring a GPS unit if you have one. Bring an app on your phone, such as OnXhunt or Gaia. Make sure you bring a charging cord and power brick to be safe.
Trekking poles are good for helping to stabilize your balance on uneven natural terrain. They’re useful for crossing creeks, going uphill, and coming downhill. Unless you need to use them all the time, you might consider getting telescopic trekking poles so that you can put them up easily if you’re not using them. Many hiking backpacks have special straps built-in to help carry telescopic trekking poles.
Bring a whistle just in case you need help and need to communicate. Screaming significantly reduces your energy and can make your horse. A whistle allows you to communicate loudly without hurting yourself. A signal mirror is a good idea, too, as you can use it to let an aircraft know someone on the ground needs emergency assistance. Many day packs have whistles built into the sternum straps.
Bring a headlamp with you. Even if you don’t plan to stay out past daylight hours, anything can happen, and you don’t want to be stuck in the dark. Bring extra batteries and turn your batteries the wrong way so you don’t accidentally turn your headlamp on and drain your batteries.
A good knife or folding saw is a good idea. You never know when you’ll need a knife. You might need it to repair your gear or even cut firewood.
Bring a basic fire-starting kit just in case you need to build a fire to get warm or dry off wet clothes. Your kit should include fuel blocks, waterproof matches, a lighter, and some cotton balls dripped in wax to help get the fire started. Bigfoot Bushcraft makes really good fire-starting kits.
A basic shelter system is a good idea for hiking in the winter. This can be a tarp with paracord, a single-person tent, a hammock, or even an oversized poncho that can be used as a basic shelter. Even if you don’t plan to be in the woods overnight, you never know what can happen. Being without shelter when you need it the most is a horrible experience.
Bring some extra layers in case you need extra all of your clothing gets wet. I pack insulated running tights, an insulated running shirt, extra socks, and a beanie as my layers. The insulated running clothes are made to be worn alone by runners, so they will keep me warm as a last resort, and they’re lightweight, which makes them easier to carry in my pack.
A simple sit pad made of foam or something lightweight like that will be helpful to have something comfortable to sit on. This is a luxury item that some hikers take, and some don’t.
Bring a weapon if you need it. This could be something like bear spray, a knife, or even a firearm if you’re legally allowed to do so. You never know what could happen. It’s better to be prepared than not prepared at all. If in bear country, make sure you pack a bear canister and hanging system if required.
Hike in the Winter with the Right Food and Hydration
You have to stay properly fueled and hydrated when you hike in the winter. Hydration and food are just as important in the colder months as it is during the warmer months.
Hydrate with Electrolytes
It’s important to replenish electrolytes when you lose them as you sweat. You should bring plenty of water to keep you hydrated. However, bring an extra bottle of water mixed with hydration powder to give you electrolytes when you need them. Take a few drinks every half hour to keep yourself properly hydrated.
Fuel with Calories
Fuel yourself with higher calories and carbs as you hike. You can do this with healthy hiking snacks like trail bars, jerky, chews, and hiking meals. You should eat a snack (a few bites) every half hour to keep yourself fueled for your hike.
Take food and snacks that are easy to eat, don’t require preparation, and will not freeze. Try to keep your water close to your body to keep it from freezing. Bottles are better than hydration bladders. Bladder hoses tend to freeze very quickly.
Pack Warm Drinks and Soup
Consider bringing some hot chocolate, coffee, or soup with you on your hike. Keep it in a thermos that will keep it warm. This makes for a nice, refreshing way to warm up as you continue to hike.
Hike in the Winter with the Right Clothing
It’s important to wear the proper clothing when you hike in the winter. Many hikers make the mistake of wearing the wrong clothing. These hikers often have a bad experience and might even hate hiking after they are done. Proper clothing will prevent that from happening.
From Head to Toe
Before you hike in the winter, it’s important to protect yourself from the cold. You need to make sure you cover up your skin from head to toe. The following ideas will help you layer up and stay warm during your winter hike.
- Hat/Beanie/Earmuffs/Headband/Gaiter/Balaclava – To protect your head, ears, and face.
- Scarf – Protect your neck.
- Sunglasses – Protect your eyes.
- Sunscreen – Protect your skin.
- Merino Wool Base Shirt – Doesn’t have to be insulated. This is your first top layer.
- Fleece Pullover/Hoodie – Mid-layer top. Avoid Cotton.
- Wind Breaker/Jacket/Rain Jacket – Outer-layer shell top.
- Gloves/Glove Liners – Protect your hands.
- Non-insulated leggings or tights – Base bottoms layer. Avoid cotton.
- Hiking pants or insulated leggings/tights – Mid-layer bottoms. Avoid cotton.
- Rain Pants – Outer-layer shell bottoms.
- Hiking Socks – Merino or Alpaca Wool is best for winter hiking.
- Waterproof Hiking Boots – Make sure traction is good.
- Boot Gaiters – Good to keep natural debris from getting into your boots and socks.
It’s important to layer up correctly when you hike in the winter.
The idea of layering is very simple. You add layers so that you can remove them as you warm up and become too hot. You can also add layers if you’re too cold and need more warmth. Bring extra layers just in case you need them.
Your hiking backpack can serve as an additional layer. However, it can also make you sweat, which isn’t a good thing to do in the winter and cold weather. Get a hiking backpack with a frame that helps you air out any moisture you create from using the pack.
Layering is very simple.
Your base layer is your first layer and should be next to the skin without insulation needed. A good pair of spandex running tights and compression shirts are good for base layers. The function of the base should be to wick moisture from your skin.
The mid-layer is your hiking clothes. This is your first warmth layer.
The outer layer shell is meant to protect you from the elements like wind, rain, and wintry precipitation.
Enjoy These Advantages When You Hike in the Winter
There are a lot of advantages you can enjoy when you hike in the winter. Many people miss out on these advantages because they think winter hiking is too hard.
No Crowds or Bugs
Most of the time, winter hiking means fewer people, no bugs, and no snakes. Only the toughest of people will typically hike in the winter. The warm-weather tourists usually visit warmer places. Do know that some snakes do come out when it’s cold, especially if the sun is out. Continue to be on the lookout no matter what time of the year.
Better Air Quality and Fewer Wildfires
The winter usually features better air quality as no flowers or plants are blooming and sending pollen everywhere. Wildfires are also less prone to happen during the winter.
Experience Nature with a Different Perspective
When you hike in the winter, you get to experience a hiking trail with a different perspective. You can see everything. It will all look totally different than any other season. It’s an adventure worth experiencing every winter.
Staying Hiking Fit All Year Round
If you keep hiking through the winter, you’ll maintain your personal fitness and keep building yourself up as a better and stronger hiker. If you quit hiking during the winter, you’ll likely lose your fitness and gain more weight, which will be harder to lose during the warmer months.
Winter Hiking Hazards
It’s important to understand what hazards exist when you hike in the winter. The winter definitely brings around more hazards that are not present in the summer months. Once you understand the hazards, you’ll know what to keep in mind when you hike in the winter months.
Frostbite is when your body parts are too cold due to long-term exposure to cold weather elements. Frostbite can result in the need for amputation and even be deadly. You can prevent frostbite by wearing the proper cold-weather clothing and keeping your body dry.
Hypothermia is when you get so cold that your body can’t keep up and keep you warmed up. Hypothermia is dangerous and can lead to serious medical conditions and death. Avoid hypothermia by not hiking in extreme conditions.
Slips, Trips, and Falls
Falls are likely the number one killer of hikers. In the winter, it’s easier to slip, trip, and fall because everything is slick from ice and snow. The best way to avoid these hazards is to wear footwear with traction and to always watch your next step with caution in mind.
Breaking Through Ice
Breaking through ice means that you break through thin ice in creaks, streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds. This can be hazardous if you get completely wet. Avoid this hazard by staying off ice over water bodies.
A tree well is a space around a tree where a void may be created with a deep well-like depression hiding under the snow. Falling into one could mean being buried and even suffocated by snow. Avoid tree wells by staying away from trees and remaining on the trail.
Post holing is when your legs sink deep into the snow as you hike through deeper snow. The hazards that come with this could be tripping or even stepping into something you can’t see, such as a hole, drop-off, or body of water with thin ice. Avoid this hazard by not hiking in deep snow.
An avalanche can occur without warning. This is when sheets and layers of snow and ice disconnect from the ground on sloping areas and hillsides and violently slide down, covering everything with deep, heavy snow. Many fatalities occur every year due to avalanches. Avoid this hazard by being avalanche aware in areas where it’s probable to occur.
Sweating from Improper Layering
Sweating during colder temperatures can be hazardous. It can cause other cold-related illnesses and injuries if not properly managed. You can manage this by layering up properly and controlling your body temperature through layering.
Weather changes can create additional hazards depending on what kind of hazardous weather is occurring. Keeping an eye on the weather forecast can help you deal with a majority of these types of conditions.
In some areas where hiking trails are present, much of the land was once farms and settlements. Once the public land agencies took over, many of these farms and home sites were removed. Many had wells and cisterns. It would cost too much money to fill all of them in or cover them. Keep this in mind when hiking off the trail, as open wells could exist, and falling down one could be very dangerous. Avoid it by watching your step and staying on the designated trail.
It is always possible to get lost while hiking. You should bring several forms of land navigation with you. You should carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) just in case you need emergency assistance. You should never hike alone if you can help it. Avoid getting lost by planning out your hike before you go hiking and telling someone where you will be going in case you do get lost.
Dangerous wildlife could exist in your area. Predator animals like bears, wolves, cougars, and moose may be nearby to your hiking route. Make sure you bring wildlife defense sprays, bells, and other deterrents with you in case you encounter such wildlife.
There is always a possibility of encountering a dangerous human being when you hike in the winter or any other season for that matter. Sometimes, the person is dangerous indirectly, such as a hunter shooting close to you without realizing you’re there. Other times, a person may be a direct danger, such as someone who wishes to commit harm to you. You should carry some form of self-defense while complying with the laws of your area.
Final Thoughts About a Hike in the Winter
You can easily hike in the winter if you properly plan for it. Many things will ruin your hike if you’re not careful. I show you how to avoid that in the article above. Now it’s your turn to use the knowledge I’ve given you.
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Founder, Hiking with Shawn
Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman