There's a bit of a learning curve when it comes to getting used to how to hike in winter, but once you get the hang of it, it can actually be quite enjoyable.
If you're reading this post, I'll assume that it's likely you're new to hiking, or at the very least, new to hiking in the winter. This post is meant to be used as a quick guide to help get you started. Please keep in mind that the information here is based on my own personal experience and opinions. Feel free to research other options, try things out, and make adjustments as necessary. Something else might work differently for you, and that's okay.
That said, let's get on with it!
Day Pack: Any backpack that will hold your necessities will do.
Trekking Poles: These aren't a necessity, but they're great for helping you keep your balance and avoid falling when you trip, and for assistance on hills, especially in the snow. They're also helpful in case you need to dig your car out of the snow, in case anybody was wondering. Not that I know this from experience, of course...
Spikes: Spikes are only needed for ice and slippery, hard packed snow, and they're pretty much the one thing I never knew I needed until I owned a pair. There are all different kinds of spikes, including crampons for climbing icy mountains and smaller spikes for winter running on icy, slippery surfaces. I personally own a pair of Kahtoola microspikes that slip on over my boots, and I love them. They are easy to put on and provide good, reliable traction.
Snowshoes: These help you float on deep snow so you're not post-holing your way along the trail.
Other Gear: If you're hiking in mountainous areas, other gear such as an ice axe, crampons, and an emergency shovel may be necessary. It's advisable to seek info on if these items are necessary in your desired hiking location BEFORE you head out. Talking with local outfitters and hiking groups, and visiting the park's website is advisable.
There are two things you need to know when it comes to picking out clothing for winter hiking.
The first is DO NOT WEAR COTTON. The second is do not wear cotton. I'm only sort of kidding, though. When cotton gets wet with sweat or precipitation it chafes your skin, holds onto moisture, and takes forever to dry, leaving you with awful chub rub and putting you at risk for hypothermia.
The actual second thing you'll want to keep in mind when picking out what to wear is that your goal is to avoid becoming sweaty. We'll get more into that later.
Lined Hiking Pants: In my opinion, fleece lined, water resistant pants made for hiking are basically the holy grail of winter hiking bottoms. If you can only afford one pair of pants for cold weather day hiking, this is what I would recommend, because you'll stay warm without having to mess with base layer pants making your hiking pants fall down.
Baselayer Pants: These pants are meant to be worn as a first layer and are usually made of a moisture wicking material such as merino wool. To be honest, I usually find that wearing layered pants is annoying and makes them fall down, but I just wanted to put this option out there.
Leggings or Workout Pants: If it's not raining or snowing, it's above freezing (32F) outside, and you're staying active, any durable pair of moisture wicking leggings or workout pants will probably do just fine. If your legs and butt tend to get cold, you can also double up by layering two pairs of leggings, or a pair of fitted workout shorts with leggings.
Regular Hiking Pants: Regular hiking pants are often water resistant and have pockets, however they aren't lined with fleece. I find these to be better for warmer weather hiking (40s+), unless you want to layer your pants.
Rain Pants: Rain pants can be layered over leggings to help block out moisture or wind. Opting for a packable pair means they can be kept in your pack in case of changing weather.
Base Layer: This is a layer that you don't take off. Opt for a moisture-wicking, quick drying fabric if possible because the point of this layer is to pull moisture away from your skin. (And so you won't be totally stripping down to nothing if you need to remove your other layers.)
Insulation Layer: This layer is intended to keep you warm, so something like a fleece or a jacket is a good choice here. Unless it's really cold, I like to wear a moisture wicking "performance" flannel as my second layer but keep my puffy coat packed in my backpack to put on in case I need to stop moving. Sometimes I'll wear a packable down vest over the flannel.
Protection Layer: This layer is to shield you from rain and wind, so a rain jacket will work best. I recently invested in a packable rain jacket with pit zips, and so far, I haven't looked back.
You don't have to wear all three layers at the same time, but having access to each one will help keep you comfortable and reasonably shielded from the elements in a variety of weather situations.
Hat and/or Buff: Any warm beanie and/or a buff will do. I will often bring both so I can use one to keep my head warm and the other as a scarf. If you're hiking during hunting season, choose "blaze orange" so you'll be visible to hunters.
Gloves and Mittens: I like to bring a few pairs just in case.
Plastic Bags: It sounds weird, but in wet, cold conditions, I actually prefer just putting plastic bags over my hands.
Gaiters: If you hate getting snow into your boots and pant legs, gaiters will be your best friend. Opt for the waterproof kind.
So now that we've got the basics down, let's talk about how to put those different layers all together to create an appropriate outfit.
Once you have the appropriate layers and understand what each layer is used for, how you combine them is definitely a matter of personal preference.
Unless it's really cold or raining, my personal preference is to start out in a baselayer and hiking pants to avoid getting too sweaty. Sometimes I will add an insulated vest or a moisture wicking flannel on top of my baselayer top for a bit of extra warmth without getting too hot (and also admittedly because it's a bit more flattering).
If the temperature starts to drop and I begin to feel cold, I'll add an insulation layer. If it rains or gets windy, I add my protection layer.
Here are a few ways I've combined layers into hiking outfits for different weather conditions.
Cold: 30s - 40s F
A flannel and some hiking pants or workout pants. As a base layer under the flannel, I'll usually stick to a tank top or a t-shirt if it's at the higher end of this temperature range, and a warmer long sleeve base layer if it's at the colder end.
A fleece and some workout pants.
Colder: 20s - 30s F
A thermal top, a moisture wicking flannel, and lined hiking pants.
A thermal top, a vest, and lined hiking pants.
A thermal top, a flannel, a vest, and lined hiking pants.
A baselayer top and a rain jacket with lined hiking pants.
Coldest: Below 20s F
A moisture wicking baselayer top of some sort, my puffy coat, and lined hiking pants.
One word of caution, though. Whenever I'm hiking in my puffy coat, I almost always bring another insulated layer (such as a heavy fleece or another down jacket) along with me. That way, in the event that I do unexpectedly sweat on my puffy coat, I won't be stuck in wet clothes when I stop moving or drive home cold.
Another Tip: One resource I have found INCREDIBLY helpful for choosing how warm to go on my baselayer is the What to Wear tool from Runner's World. It's great for predicting how warm I'll feel once I've actually been moving for a while, and I've found it to be pretty accurate.
Socks: Merino wool hiking socks (or mountaineering socks) are great for winter hiking. While you can always layer up, I usually find that one pair will do the job if I wear them with my waterproof boots.
Hiking Boots: Waterproof hiking boots are great for winter because they keep feet dry and have better arch support than normal snow boots. Insulated boots are also an option.
Trail Runners: Many people opt to hike in trail runners due to their lack of rigidity. Personally, I prefer trail runners for my longer three season hikes, but in the winter boots help keep my feet warm and help keep me from twisting an ankle.
What to Pack
Here are a few of the items I like to keep in my pack for a winter hike:
- Extra Layers: Rain coat, rain pants, and down coat.
- Extra Gloves and/or Mittens
- Hand Warmers
- Chapstick or Vaseline
- First Aid / Emergency Kit
- Dog treats and poop bags for Patronus and Naga
- Appropriate Traction Devices
- Map and Compass
- Extra pair of socks
Your Pace Might Change
While it's good to have an idea of how long it typically takes you to hike a specific number of miles, keep in mind that winter conditions might affect your pace, and that's totally normal. Deep snow, ice, stopping to put on your traction devices, and slippery obstacles on the trail can all contribute to a slower overall pace. Always plan for more time than you think you'll need, and avoid being too ambitious with your mileage goals.
Mileage Might Feel More Difficult
Trudging through snow and mud takes a lot more energy than hiking in warm weather. It's possible that you might get tired or hungry more quickly than usual.
Practice Makes Perfect
Your hiking gear won't do you any good if you don't know how to use it. Practice with your gear before taking it out for real so you'll know what to do.
Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
If you're new to hiking, it's smart to start small. Opt for short hikes on easy local trails and work your way up gradually.
While some of the things I've mentioned might seem like overkill, Murphy's Law is definitely a thing. Before you head out, always check the weather conditions (and trail conditions, if possible), let someone know where you're going and when you plan to be back, and be sure that at the very least, you're carrying the Ten Essentials. (If you're not already familiar with it, it's also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace principles to ensure the safety of yourself, others, and the wildlife.)
If you haven't done so already, be sure to check out my Fall Hiking 101 post for even more cool weather hiking tips.
As always, if you have any cold weather hiking tips that you'd like to share, be sure to let me know in the comments below.