A lot of folks think that cold weather in the winter months shuts down all the hiking trails. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as winter is often the best time of year to enjoy otherwise crowded outdoor recreation areas like state and national parks. Whether snowshoeing, cross country skiing, or enjoying good old fashioned marches through enchanting snowfall, many hikers’ favorite destinations become breathtaking winter wonderlands once cold temperatures arrive.
As you’re probably well aware, trekking in wintertime is a serious undertaking that poses a number of risks, from dangerous drops in body temperature and frostbite, to less obvious perils such as dehydration and sunburn. This being the case, you’ll want to be as prepared as humanly possible before you attempt to tackle a winter hike. Whether you’re intent on backpacking your favorite backcountry trailheads when their covered in deep snow, or just planning a simple day hike in your favorite state park, we hope these winter hiking tips and tricks help guide your way!
General Tips and Tricks for Winter Hiking
Most of what you’ll read below has to do with gear. However, there are other tips and tricks to take into account before heading out on any hiking trip, particularly those involving winter weather conditions. These include but are not limited to the following:
- Let a trusted friend or family member know you are heading outdoors and when you plan to return. Tell them that you’ll contact them when you get back, and that if they don’t hear from you, something might be wrong.
- Always check on weather conditions before you head out. Triangulate by referencing multiple sources.
- As with weather, check the news for anything going on in the are you plan to visit, such as wildfires.
- Be sure where you’re going is even open and accepting guests. You never know!
- Bring plenty of food and water.
- Don’t take on anything too long or arduous if you’re inexperienced.
- Study a map of the area before you head out. Get acquainted with landmarks and boundaries to avoid trespassing, getting shot by hunters, and more.
- Don’t go into unmarked mines or caves and avoid erosive cliffside areas.
- Don’t set a fire unless you know you’re allowed to, and you know what you’re doing.
- Play it safe: If you start getting wet and cold, and/or you start going numb, head back in as quickly and safely as possible.
Winter Hiking Boots
Successful winter hiking comes down to appropriate hiking gear, and the most important item you’ll need is a pair of dedicate winter hiking boots. Sure, warm and breathable wool socks combined with some sort of waterproof boot is a given, but if you really want to guarantee a good time, you’ll definitely need to get some serious footwear. Believe me, I speak from experience when I say a pair of irrigation boots and extra socks aren’t going to cut it.
When picking winter hiking boots, you need something that’s waterproof and covers you all the way to the calf. Basically, you want a gusset boot of some kind, as they are cobbled with the tongue attached to the upper. This will help keep loose snow and other sources of moisture out, which will make all the difference between an enjoyable round trip and a potentially dangerous outdoor ordeal.
If you’re a cross country skier or wearing snowshoes, the same applies, although your specialized approach to winter hiking will definitely put you at less of a risk than your snow-tromping winter hiking counterparts.
Winter hikers should always expect and anticipate icy conditions regardless of where they plan on going. Even if you’re only enjoying a short 3-mile loop on a section of the Appalachian Trail you know to be covered with soil, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Rather than buying specialized ice boots, just bring some packable microspikes or a mellow model of crampons; these handy strap-on devices add steel and rubber grips to the bottom of your boots and will greatly increase your traction if you come across slick and slippery surfaces. Some of the best winter crampons available can be purchased through Amazon, REI, and many other outdoor retailers.
Winter Hiking Outfits
Although your favorite winter jacket might keep you cozy and warm when you’re going about your everyday business in town, it will quickly become a walking sweat lodge when you’re huffing and puffing your way along the trail. The same can sometimes be said about snowboarding and skiing outfits as well. This being the case, seasoned winter hikers know that layering is the best way to dress for cold weather marches. Really, it’s as simple as 1-2-3: You want a thermal base layer, a warm yet breathable mid layer, and some sort of waterproof outer. Between these 3 layers and other useful additions like gloves, gaiters, balaclavas, beanies, leg warmers, etc. you’ll be ready to dress up and down as wear and weather demand.
In many ways, winter hiking is just like regular hiking, only in winter conditions?in fact, that’s exactly what it is. Mind blowing, right? Whether there’s snow on the ground or not, the sun’s still out, and your body still needs hydration, nourishment, and other animal comforts. Just so, be sure to bring all the items you’d pack for any other hike, including but not limited to:
- A water bottle
- A first aid kit
- Snacks (Maybe a thermos full of warm soup!)
- Toilet paper
- Bear mace
- Trash bags
- A multitool or pocket knife
- A whistle
- A GPS device and/or map and compass
- Insect repellant (You’re less likely to need it in cold weather, but whatever)
Like as not, winter hiking trips, like all outdoor excursions, can go south in two ways: gradually and suddenly. From minor adversities like getting injured or lost, to more serious threats like blizzards and avalanches, it’s better to hope for the best, while preparing for the worst. Whether you’re just stranded after dark or your outing becomes an impromptu winter camping trip, you’ll be glad you brought the following items along with you, even if they sound a bit excessive right now:
- 2 Extra pairs of wool socks
- A dry change of winter layers
- A pack of hand warmers
- A first aid kit
- An emergency blanket
- A winter emergency kit with things like flares, a whistle, and an emergency blanket
- A flashlight (preferably a headlamp to keep your hands free)
- Extra food
- Kindling and a fire starter
- Water purifying tablets and/or a water pump
Got any tips and tricks for winter hikers? Help your fellow adventurers on our Wide Open Roads Facebook!