Most hikers stash their packs, boots, and camping gear into the closet after the first frost and wait for the spring. With the right gear and a few extra safety precautions, winter can offer some excellent hiking. The trails are quiet and the atmosphere is completely different from the rest of the year. The following winter hiking tips will help you stay warm and safe during your cold weather outings into the backwoods.
Dress in Layers for Winter Hiking
A good layering system will keep you warm and is adaptable to almost any conditions that you may encounter during your winter hike. As you warm up from activity, you can remove layers. As you cool down at camp, you can add layers. The goal is to regulate your body temperature so you stay warm but don’t sweat too much. Most hikers use the following 3 layer system.
Layer 1. Base Layer
You wear this layer directly against your skin. A good winter base layer should wick sweat and breathe well. This way your skin stays dry sweat evaporates away quickly.
Many hikers like merino wool for a winter base layer. The material is soft, breathable, sweat-wicking, and dries incredibly quickly. As an added bonus, wool has antimicrobial properties that help to prevent odors from forming. I like the MERIWOOL Mens Base Layer.
If you don’t like wearing animal products, synthetic materials like polyester make a good alternative to wool. They have excellent sweat-wicking properties and dry almost as quickly. Another benefit to synthetics is that they also feel great against the skin. Polyester base layers are also much more affordable than wool options.
Layer 2: Mid Layer
This is your main insulating layer. You want to choose a material with a good amount of loft that will trap your body heat inside to keep you warm.
Many hikers choose a fleece mid layer. Fleece is a synthetic material that is designed to have similar properties to wool. The material is breathable and quick drying. It also provides a good amount of insulation for its weight.
Down is another popular mid layer option. The material provides a lot of warmth for its weight. It’s also compressible and easily packable when not in use. The biggest drawback to down is that it loses its insulation properties when it gets wet. It is also slow to dry and doesn’t breath very well.
To help you decide, check out my fleece vs down pros and cons list.
For a winter hike, you may want to consider packing both. You can wear the fleece on the trail then put the down jacket on at camp for additional warmth.
Layer 3: Outer Shell
This layer protects you from wind and precipitation. A good rain jacket makes an excellent outer shell. It will keep you dry and provide some additional insulation. For more warmth, insulated rain jackets are also available.
If you expect extremely cold weather during your winter hike, you may choose to pack a parka instead of or in addition to a rain jacket. These insulated and waterproof jackets are designed to keep you warm in even the most extreme conditions.
Lower Body Layers
To keep your legs warm, pack a thermal base layer to wear under your hiking pants. You can choose between wool, fleece, or other synthetic fabrics. Make sure whatever you material you choose breathes well and wicks sweat.
Tip: Avoid Clothing Made of Cotton
Cotton is very slow to dry and doesn’t breath very well. Once it gets wet, it may stay wet for the duration of your hike. This can be dangerous if you don’t have enough additional clothing to keep you warm.
Check the Weather Forecast Before Your Winter Hike
Before leaving home, you need to get a complete picture of the expected weather conditions. Take a bit of time to learn about winter weather and how to safely hike in it. An unexpected storm hitting during the summer may cause you some discomfort. During the winter, the same storm could put you in a life or death situation. To properly prepare for your winter hike, you want to look at:
- Precipitation- Check the forecast to see if you should expect snow.
- Temperatures- This one is obvious. Make sure your sleep system can keep you warm if you plan to camp.
- Daylight hours- During the winter, the sun sets much earlier than in the summer. In some places, you may only have a half of a day of daylight to hike. If it gets dark by 4 pm, you’ll want to be off the trail by then. You won’t be able to cover as much ground as you’re used to.
- Wind speed- The wind chill factor can make it feel like its much colder than it actually is. If your clothing isn’t windproof, you’ll get cold. Wind also makes you more susceptible to frostbite.
- Avalanche reports- Avalanches are a real risk while hiking in the winter. Avalanche.org is a great place to learn about avalanche safety and check the reports to find out where you should be cautious.
- Visibility- During a heavy snowstorm or foggy day you may experience whiteout conditions. This can make the trail nearly impossible to navigate.
Know How to Navigate in the Backcountry
After a couple of inches of snow falls, the trail becomes invisible. If you don’t know how to navigate, you could easily wander off-trail and get lost. Even if you know the area well, you still need to be prepared. A place looks unrecognizable when it’s covered in snow.
Before setting out on a winter hike, make sure you know how to navigate with a map and compass. If you’re just learning, take things slowly at first. Stay near civilization on a well marked trail. You may also want to carry a GPS as a backup.
Stay Well Hydrated and Drink Hot Liquids
Drinking cold water on a cold day isn’t too appealing. On top of that, you’re not getting as hot and sweaty as you’re used to during a warm weather hike so you may not feel the need to drink as much water. It’s easy to get dehydrated while winter hiking.
One way to stay hydrated and warm is to make yourself a hot beverage like tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. If you’re day hiking, you can keep your beverage warm all day in a thermos. If you’re camping, you can boil some extra water with your meals to make yourself a hot beverage.
Use Quality and Reliable Hiking and Camping Gear
While winter hiking, you rely on your gear to survive. After all, humans didn’t evolve to live in a cold climate without warm clothing. Your gear needs to be reliable and able to hold up to the harsh conditions that you’re putting it through. If a critical piece of gear fails, you could end up in a life or death situation.
Winter hiking also requires a bit of extra gear that you don’t need for a warm-weather hike. This includes:
- Crampons- These help to prevent you from slipping on icy trails.
- Gaiters- These keep the snow out of your boots. They also help to keep your pants and boots dry. For more info, check out my guide to gaiters here. I like the Unigear gaiters.
- Ice ax- If you’re planning to hike a trail that is covered in snow and ice or glaciers, an ice ax can help you stabilize yourself. It can also help you self-arrest if you begin sliding down an incline.
- Goggles or sunglasses- The snow reflects harmful UV rays right into your eyes on sunny days. Make sure you choose a pair of glasses or goggles with UV protection.
- Gloves- Protect your fingers from developing frostbite. Look for gloves that are waterproof and quick drying.
- Warm hat- Keep your head warm and protect your ears from frostbite. A hat can also help you stay warm while sleeping.
- Face mask- These protect your cheeks and chin from the cold.
- Insulated boots- Your toes are at risk of developing frostbite if they get cold. Make sure your boots can keep your toes warm.
- Trekking poles- Helps with stability on icy trails.
- Camp stove- You need a stove that can operate in cold weather. Some types of stoves and fuels don’t work if it gets too cold.
- 4 season shelter- 3 season shelters aren’t designed to handle a snow load. They may collapse under the weight. If you expect heavy snow, you’ll need a 4 season shelter.
Cover your Skin and Keep Your Extremities Warm to Avoid Frostbite
While winter hiking, you put yourself at risk of developing frostbite. This condition occurs when your skin or tissue freezes. Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, chin, and cheeks because these areas have less blood flow. Windchill increases the risk by removing heat from your exposed skin. Frostbite can cause permanent damage and even loss of extremities or limbs in extreme cases.
Luckily, frostbite is easy to avoid. Simply keep all of your body parts warm. Wear thick socks and insulated boots to keep your toes warm. Wear thick gloves and mittens to protect your fingers. A warm hat will protect your ears. If it’s extremely cold, consider wearing a face mask to protect your cheeks and chin from freezing.
Learn How to Use Crampons and an Ice Ax
If you’re new to winter hiking, these are two pieces of gear that you’ve probably had no use for in the past. They come in handy while hiking icy trails that otherwise wouldn’t be passable without some extra grip.
Crampons have a bit of a learning curve. It’s important to learn how to properly use them before your hike. Put your crampons on and take them off a few times at home. Try them out on an easy trail to get a feel for walking in them. For help getting started, check out this great guide to using crampons from REI.
An ice ax is another useful tool to help you navigate icy sections of trail and glaciers. This iconic piece of hiking and mountaineering gear can help to anchor you while climbing a steep slope, cut into the snow and ice, or slow you down if you begin to slide or fall. Ice axes take a bit of practice to use properly. To help get you started, check out this guide to using an ice ax from Backpacker.com.
Pack Winter Safety and Survival Gear
While winter hiking, you should always be prepared to spend the night in the backcountry, even if you’re just day hiking. You need to be able to protect yourself from the weather and stay warm enough to survive the night if a survival situation arises.
Your pack will be a bit heavier but at least you’ll survive. In warm weather, people can survive for days without gear. During the winter, you won’t make it through one night unless you’re properly prepared.
At a minimum, you should pack a heat reflective bivy sack like the S.O.L. Escape Bivy. It weighs just 8.5 ounces and reflects 70% of your body heat back to you to help keep you warm. Better yet, pack a sleeping bag with it for extra insulation.
In addition to camping gear, you should also pack the standard safety gear such as a first aid kit, compass, map, pocket knife, hand warmers, and flashlight or headlamp. You should also pack some extra food and water to be safe.
Start your Winter Hike Early in the Morning
During the winter, days are short. Depending on the latitude you’re hiking at, it may be completely dark by 4:00 in the afternoon. Even earlier if you’re winter hiking in the far north. To enjoy the most daylight hours during your hiking day, you’ll want to start early in the morning when the sun comes up.
Tip: Check sunrise and sunset times while you’re planning your hike. This will help you plan daily distances.
Plan Short Days When You’re Starting Out Winter Hiking
You’ll burn more energy while winter hiking. After all, your body needs to produce extra heat to keep you warm. Walking through deep snow and slippery ice also takes more energy to navigate. You may tire out more quickly. On top of that, winter days are short.
While winter hiking, you may not be able to keep the hiking pace that you’re used to. When you’re just starting out, plan shorter days so you can learn what your body is capable of in the conditions. You don’t want to get caught on an icy trail after dark when the temperature drops and visibility is poor.
Consider Using a Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL)
This misunderstood and underused piece of gear can greatly improve your winter camping and hiking experience if used properly. A VBL is a non-breathable material that does not allow any water to pass through it. You wear your VBL directly against your skin or over a quick-drying base layer. A VBL can come in the form of clothing or a sleeping bag liner. VBLs are usually made of sil-poly, sil-nylon, or something as simple as a trash bag. The material doesn’t matter as long as it’s not breathable.
VBLs work in three ways:
- VBLs block sweat from reaching your outer layers- This helps you keep your sleeping bag, jacket, and mid layer dry. Because they stay dry, they maintain loft and keep you warmer. If you’re hiking in damp conditions which don’t allow your gear to dry or you naturally sweat a lot, this can be a lifesaver.
- VBLs reduce heat loss- When you’re wearing a VBL, you’re not losing as much heat to evaporation. The humidity is trapped between your body and the VBL. You essentially create a humid microclimate inside. This helps you stay warmer.
- You can better control your body temperature with a VBL- You more easily feel the sweat building up. This is your indication that you should remove layers or increase ventilation. Without a VBL, you could more easily sweat out without noticing.
VBLs aren’t for everyone or every hike. Waterproof material doesn’t feel very nice against the skin. The solution is to wear a base layer under the VBL. They can also get kind of clammy and gross inside. This is particularly problematic if you don’t have the opportunity to dry your VBL out during the day. Imagine climbing inside of a damp trash bag when you’re going to sleep. VBLs are also only useful for sub-freezing conditions.
For more info, check out this excellent guide about VBLs and how to properly use them from Andrew Skurka.
Don’t Allow Yourself to Sweat Out
While winter hiking you want to minimize the amount that you sweat the best you can. The reason is that sweating makes your clothing wet. Wet clothes get cold when you stop hiking. You’ll need to produce a lot of body heat to warm them up and dry them out. In cold winter conditions, your sweaty clothes can freeze and never dry out.
Another problem is the loss of insulation. Clothing keeps you warm by trapping heat in air pockets. This is called loft. When clothes get wet, they lose loft and can’t provide the same amount of warmth. Some fabrics perform better than others when wet but none work as well as when they are dry.
Of course, it’s impossible to completely eliminate sweat while hiking. After walking up a big hill, you’re going to sweat. It doesn’t matter how cold it is. The best thing you can do is reduce the amount that you sweat the best you can and try to manage the sweat that you do produce.
To reduce sweat and allow your clothing to dry out:
- Take it slow- If you keep your heart rate at a reasonable level, you will sweat less
- Take breaks- If you’re beginning to sweat, stop hiking for a few minutes to let your body cool off.
- Remove clothing- If you get too hot and begin to sweat, take off your outer layer.
Improve ventilation- Wear breathable clothing that allows the sweat to evaporate away.
Stop and Dry Out Your Gear Whenever You Have the Opportunity
If you’re hiking for multiple days, moisture builds up in your clothing and gear. There is no avoiding it. The moisture comes from sweat, the environment, or your breath. Slowly, your sleeping bag, jacket, and clothing will get damp. The more moisture that builds up, the less effective your gear will be at keeping you warm due to the loss of loft. This is particularly dangerous if your sleeping bag gets damp. It won’t keep you warm.
If the sun comes out, lay out your clothes, sleeping bag, tent, etc and let them dry. Do this at every opportunity you get. Ideally every 2-4 days depending on the weather conditions. If you’re thru-hiking and pass through a town, consider stopping at the laundry mat to dry everything out. Alternatively, stay in a hotel or with a host if possible.
Use a 4 Season Shelter if You Expect Snow While Camping
Most tents are marketed as 3 season tents. The reason is that they aren’t designed to accommodate a snow load. 3 season shelters can collapse under the weight. If you expect more than a couple of inches of snowfall during the night, you’ll probably want to use a 4 season shelter that is designed for winter camping.
4 season shelters can also provide some extra warmth. Many are designed with a slightly thicker material that provides a bit of insulation. Unfortunately, this means that they are heavier and bulkier.
Many hikers use 4 season bivy sacks for winter camping. These lightweight shelters are designed for use in alpine conditions. A bivy is generally cheaper and warmer than a comparable tent.
A popular winter camping option is the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy. This Gore-Tex bivy is lightweight waterproof, and breathable.
For more help deciding, check out my Bivy Sack Vs. Tent Pros and Cons List.
Make Sure Your Sleeping Bag is Warm Enough for Winter Weather Conditions
For winter camping, your sleeping bag or quilt is probably your single most important piece of gear. It’s what allows you to survive the freezing nights. I’ve endured several nights camping in bags that weren’t quite warm enough. It makes the trip miserable if you can’t sleep because you’re trying not to freeze every night.
Before leaving for your hike, check the weather forecast and look at the low temperature expected during your trip. Remember to factor in elevation. Choose a sleeping bag or quilt with a comfort rating around the lowest temperature that you expect to see. Most 4 season sleeping bags have comfort ratings of 0°, 15°, or 20° F. Warmer bags are available if you expect extremely cold weather.
A sleeping bag temperature rating represents the lowest temperature that the average person will remain comfortable. Everyone is different. Some people sleep cold and other sleep hot. Take your body into consideration when choosing a bag. To learn more, check out this great guide about sleeping bag temperature ratings from REI.
For most winter hikers, a 20° sleeping bag is probably the most versatile. It will get you through most winter nights and can be used in the summer as well. I have the Kelty Cosmic 20 and am pretty happy with it. Read my full review here.
Tip: Consider a synthetic sleeping as opposed to down if you plan to do a lot of winter camping. Synthetic bags maintain some of their insulation properties when they get damp. A wet down sleeping bag could put you in a life or death situation if you can’t find a way to dry it out.
How to Increase the Warmth of Your Sleeping Bag
Quality sleeping bags and quilts are expensive. If you already own a nice sleeping bag but it’s not quite warm enough for your winter hike, there are a few ways to increase the warmth. You can:
- Use a sleeping bag liner- Depending on the material, these can increase the warmth of your bag by 3-10 degrees. This Coleman Stratus Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner would be a good choice.
- Use a bivy sack- You can use a bivy sack as a stand-alone shelter or in addition to your tent. They can add 3-5° or so of warmth to your sleep system depending on the material.
Use a second sleeping bag or quilt- You can double up sleeping bags to increase warmth. You could also lay a quilt over the top of your sleeping bag.
- Use an extra blanket- Drape it over the top of your sleeping bag or bring it inside if there is room. Depending on the material and thickness, this can add a few degrees of warmth.
- Put more insulation under you- You lose a lot of heat to the ground if your sleeping pad isn’t warm enough. For extra insulation, you can use a second pad, sleep on your empty pack, or sleep on your clothes.
- Sleep in your clothes- Wear your base layer, mid layer, jacket, and socks when you sleep.
- Use a vapor barrier liner (VBL)- This is a waterproof liner that you sleep in inside of your sleeping bag. It traps humidity to slow heat loss.
With the above methods, you can probably increase the warmth of your sleep system 5-10° Fahrenheit at the most. You can’t really take a 40° summer sleeping bag and use it in 20° weather and expect to stay comfortable. Manufacturers are pretty generous with their temperature ratings anyway. If you expect to see temperatures much below your sleeping bag’s comfort rating, you’ll probably need a warmer bag.
One thing to remember when trying to increase the warmth of your sleeping bag is that compressed down doesn’t provide insulation. Make sure that the bulk of your blanket, second sleeping bag, clothes, bivy sack, etc. isn’t compressing your sleeping bag. If the down loft gets compressed, it won’t trap heat and you’ll get cold.
Also consider the hassle of setting up camp. If you’re using multiple layers of blankets, sleeping bags, clothes, bivy, VBL, etc. it can get annoying to set this all up. You’re better off just getting a good bag that is built for the weather if you can afford it.
Use a High R-Value Sleeping Pad
Sleeping bags don’t keep the underside of your body warm because they are compressed under the weight of your body. They cannot loft and trap heat under you. When it comes to keeping you warm at night, your sleeping pad is almost as important as your sleeping bag. You lose a lot of body heat to the ground if your pad doesn’t offer enough insulation from the ground.
Sleeping pad warmth is measured in r-value. The higher the number, the more insulation the pad provides. For winter camping, look for a sleeping pad with an R-value of 3-5. To help you choose, check out my inflatable vs foam sleeping pad pros and cons list.
If you already have a summer sleeping pad, you can pair it with a cheap foam sleeping pad to increase insulation. For example, an inflatable summer sleeping pad on top of a foam pad provides enough insulation for winter camping in most cases. For additional insulation from the ground, you can put your pack and clothes under your body.
Bring Anything That You Don’t Want to Freeze into Your Tent or Sleeping Bag
Some of your gear can get damaged if it freezes. Some items can’t be used when they freeze. For example-
- Water- If it freezes, you’ll have to fire up your stove to melt it.
- Food- Some items get too hard to eat while frozen.
- Water filter- If it freezes with water inside, it can crack or break.
Toothpaste, contact lens solution, and other toiletries- Some items can freeze and become unusable.
- Fuel- Some fuels don’t work or become difficult to light if they get too cold.
- Batteries- They discharge quickly if they get too cold.
If you expect the temperature to stay around freezing or slightly below, you can just store the above items in your tent. Your body heat should keep the temperature above freezing inside.
If you expect temperatures well below freezing, you’ll want to store the above items in your sleeping bag with you. Most hikers wrap them up in some clothing and put them in the foot of their sleeping bags. This way, they’re out of the way and they stay warm enough that they won’t freeze.
Take Short Breaks While Winter Hiking
Your body cools down surprisingly quickly when you stop exerting yourself. To stay warm, try to limit your rest breaks to just a few minutes. Instead of stopping to eat, keep hiking while you’re eating.
Tip: If you need to take a long break, try to wait until you’re at the at a point where you’re just about to start up an incline. That way, you’ll warm up quickly when you start hiking again.
Consider Wearing a Face Mask to Protect Your Lungs
Breathing cold, dry air for extended periods can cause irritation to your lungs and airway. If it gets cold enough, you may experience a burning sensation, coughing, a tight chest, or shortness of breath. When you exert yourself, you’ll breath harder, making these conditions worse.
To help your breathing, consider wearing a face mask that covers your nose and mouth. These help you retain heat and moisture around your mouth to warm and humidify air as it enters your body. A neck gaiter can also help to warm air entering your lungs bu keeping your neck warm.
I like the Ergodyne N-Ferno 6823 Balaclava Ski Mask. The best thing about this affordable piece of gear is the versatility. It works as a hat, neck gaiter, and face mask. It is made of a warm and breathable fleece material.
Don’t Be Afraid to Turn Around and Cut the Hike Short
Winter is a difficult season to hike in. If you push on against your better judgment, you could end up putting yourself in a life or death situation. There is no shame in calling it quits due to weather, lack of experience, exhaustion, injury, or any other reason. The trail isn’t going anywhere. You can always return to complete the hike at a different time. There is no reason to put your life at risk.
Treat Yourself Once in a While
You can only endure so much time out in the elements before you start feeling too cold and miserable. Remember, you’re out there to have fun. Treat yourself to a hot meal and some drinks when you get off the trail. If you’re thru hiking, treat yourself to a warm hotel room every few days. Take a rest day if you need it. Otherwise, you’ll burn out. The cold weather is draining.
A Few More Winter Hiking Tips:
- Eat right before going to bed- Digestion causes your body to produce additional heat. This will help you warm up your sleeping bag faster and stay warmer during the night.
- Avoid alcohol while winter hiking- Drinking may make you feel warmer temporarily, but it actually makes you lose body heat more quickly. When you drink, your blood vessels expand. This allows more heat to leave your body. After your buzz wears off, you’ll be colder than you were before.
- Tie loops of cord around your zippers- This allows you to operate the zippers on your jacket, sleeping bag, etc. while you’re wearing your gloves or mittens.
- Do a bit of exercise before going to bed- This increases your body temperature and will help you warm up your sleeping bag faster. When doing this, you don’t want to exercise until you begin to sweat. Just do a few jumping jacks or push-ups then crawl into bed.
- Use a pee bottle- When you get up to use the bathroom in the night, you lose a lot of heat. You may not be able to get warmed up again. By going to the bathroom in a bottle, you can save some heat and avoid the hassle of crawling out of your shelter in the dark. Alternatively, stop drinking water a couple of hours before bed so you don’t have to go in the night.
- Make a hot water bottle- Boil some extra water with your dinner, pour it into a bottle, and put it in your sleeping bag. This way, when you crawl in, your bag will already be warmed up. Make sure you use a sturdy bottle to do this. You don’t want the bottle to burst and soak your sleeping bag. Nalgene bottles work well. Also, be careful not to burn yourself.
Final Thoughts: Winter Hiking Tips
Winter can be a surprisingly peaceful time to go hiking. Trails are empty, it’s quiet, and the winter provides a new and unique atmosphere. Trails that you know well look unrecognizable when they’re covered in snow.
To stay safe you need to properly prepare. Cold weather and snow add a whole other level of difficulty to hiking. Hopefully, this guide makes your planning process a bit easier and your hike a bit warmer and more comfortable.
Do you hike in the winter? Share your winter hiking tips and experience in the comments below!
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