For some, an expedition in the cold may sound less than ideal—akin to waiting at a security checkpoint. Yet winter hiking can be nothing short of astounding when your planning is up to par! Trails are almost empty and landscapes take on all-new aesthetics with their crisp blankets of snow. However, it's paramount that you don your necessary gear before venturing out and make sure you bring along something warm to drinks! As soon as December rolls around and the snow starts to accumulate, it's time to prepare yourself for a cozy winter hike. If you're looking to become an expert in this field or simply stay warm, there is one surefire way: just keep on moving!
No matter what your ambitions for a winter hike may be, safety and comfort should always take precedence. Keep these 10 easy tips in mind before heading out on the trail, so that you can ensure your journey is both delightful and secure. Here's how to get ready:
1. Dress like an Onion
The people of Quebec have an expression that conveys the importance of wearing layers "s'habiller comme un oignon," which translates to “dress like an onion”. This tactic is especially essential for winter hiking, as temperatures can differ drastically between the trailhead and peak. Putting together several coats of insulation will help maintain your body temperature and ensure your comfort while you hike.
Personally, I prefer sporting a layer of long underwear, a light fleece or softshell jacket, and waterproof pants. It's essential to ensure that your base layer is made of moisture-wicking fabric. Otherwise, any perspiration on the skin will cause you to feel chilled once you stop exercising. I always carry an insulated jacket (whether down or synthetic loft), fleece pants and a waterproof shell jacket in my bag when expecting inclement weather. To stay toasty and warm on a winter day, no matter the weather or temperature outside, don't forget to wear extra-thick socks since your feet are the first place you'll start feeling cold.
Additionally, layering up with two pairs of gloves and/or mittens (one for insulation purposes and another for waterproofing) is highly recommended for added protection against the elements. A beanie should also be thrown into your backpack without exception -- just in case!
2. Start small and start early
When planning your initial winter journey, take into consideration the trail's length and difficulty. Completing a 12-mile loop may be achievable in summertime but could face serious hindrances with snow or ice during winter which will extend the time of your excursion. It is also important to note that many access roads leading up to preferred trailheads are closed down and unplowed throughout this season, requiring you to add additional mileage just for transportation alone. Avoid the exasperating experience of trudging through deep snow for miles and instead, pick a trail that is easy to conquer.
If you don't usually like to wake up early, changing your routine and beginning a winter hike at the break of day is essential. Remember that it gets dark faster in the colder months! Make sure to finish your trek before sundown since temperatures drop abruptly once night falls.
Recommended prep tips:
Download Gaia GPS on your phone to access the latest trail info, including reviews from recent hikers, length of trails, and altitude gains. Plus view stunning photos that capture all the beauty you can explore!
Make sure your phone is fully charged before you embark on any journey and ensure that someone knows the details of where you're going and when to expect you back.
I like to also bring a small lightweight portable charger just in case.
3. Bring safety gear.
To stay safe on a day hike, it is essential to pack the right items. Make sure you have all of your basic hiking gear along with a trail map, first aid kit, compass, pocket knife or multi-tool, hand warming packets and headlamp - spreading out heavier safety items among group members will be beneficial. Additionally keep in mind that colder weather means more calorie expenditure; make sure to bring extra snacks! With these simple preparations you can enjoy an unforgettable outdoor adventure without any hassle.
Hikers should always be prepared for an unexpected night in the wilderness. I recommend carrying essential items such as a bivy sack or sleeping bag, down parka, cell phone and sleeping pad when embarking on any hiking trip; even if it is just for the day. Though this may increase your backpack's weight slightly - taking these precautions can save you from frostbite should you find yourself needing to remain outdoors overnight.
Related Post: The Best Hiking Tips for a Safe and Fun Trip
4. Check the weather
Hikers should always be aware of the conditions they will face on their trek, particularly during winter months. Consider consulting weather forecasts to learn more about wind speed, precipitation levels and avalanche warnings in your area as well as daylight hours before you set out. Winter hikers must become familiar with seasonal climate patterns for optimal safety and success!
It is imperative to be aware of the potential hazards that exist in winter conditions and how they differ from those present during summer months. A dozen people have lost their lives due to avalanches on Mount Washington alone, so it's essential that you do your research before venturing into this distinct environment. Furthermore, when exploring beyond tree-lines there exists an additional hazard of navigating limited visibility or even whiteouts which can prove very challenging.
To ensure a safe and enjoyable hiking experience, plan your outing on a day when the weather forecast is favorable. If you're uncertain about the conditions, it's best to delay until they look more suitable.
5. Learn to use microspikes
When the trail is slippery, microspikes are essential for success when it comes to summiting.
Yet, if used incorrectly you could easily get injured – so if you're new to this type of equipment (which is a small and less intensive version of crampons) take your time and learn about the techniques before attempting an easy trail. It's important that you get familiar with putting them on or taking them off too - don't forget to ask a friend who has more experience using microspikes in both ascending as well as descending trails!
When you set out to explore, it's important to be mindful and tread carefully. One slip or stumble can easily cause an injury, from a cut on your leg to spraining an ankle. Microspikes are rows of metal spikes that attach securely onto your feet for extra grip on the ice - however, despite feeling safer with this equipment, they still boast sharp edges which should always be handled (and stored) responsibly!
6. Take an experienced friend.
Exploring a wintery wonderland is best done with friends; not only does it make the journey more enjoyable, but also keeps you much safer. An experienced companion can help equip you with the correct gear, show how to use microspikes or snowshoes in dangerous conditions and potentially even lend extra gloves, hiking poles or goggles for your trip that won't break the bank! Before setting off on your adventure together though- be sure to leave at least one friend behind who knows where you're headed so they can easily reach out if necessary.
7. Make tea or cocoa.
Hydration is essential when hiking during the winter months, especially since it's easy to forget to drink while trekking in cold weather. You'll be burning lots of calories and will need plenty of fluids, so don't forget to take frequent water breaks! Add some comfort and motivation to your journey by carrying a lightweight portable stove or an insulated mug along with you - this way you can make yourself hot tea, coffee or cocoa whenever necessary. What better way could there be than sipping on a warm beverage at the summit as reward for all that hard work?
8. Invest in good gear.
Any winter hiker worth their salt should own essential gear for a successful outing in the outdoors. Crampons or snowshoes, waterproof pants and jacket, knee-high gaiters, insulated coat and boots - these are just some of the must-haves! Hiking poles, gloves and beanie to keep you warm while trekking; goggles or wrap around sunglasses to protect your vision from glare. And why not invest in a camp stove so you can enjoy hot meals on the trail?
With all this equipment secured beforehand, nothing will be able stop you from having an epic adventure! It can be tempting to just settle for the cheapest option, but I urge you to search for sales and discounted prices instead. This is because your gear could end up saving your life one day! When you're first starting out, check out REI for closeout items – even though it may be pricey initially, many of the pieces can be reused for camping and hiking adventures in the warmer months.
9. Be prepared to turn around.
Renowned mountaineer Ed Viesturs, states “the mountains have stood here long before us and will be standing for many years to come - if you ever face circumstances which seem potentially hazardous then do not hesitate to turn back." Remember that the journey isn't over once you've reached a summit. To ensure your safety and well-being, it's important to consider both the ascent and descent when planning any peak run. If for some reason you don't make it all the way up, there's always next weekend!!
10. After winter hiking, treat yourself to a great meal.
As a finishing touch, don't forget to treat yourself for completing the job! After I've descended from a mountain, I often seek out comforting food like Chicken Pot Pie or a juicy burger. Don't be discouraged by how you may look and smell - restaurants near any major peak are familiar with hikers stopping in for a meal. Carbohydrates, sodium and vitamins are all beneficial nutrients that your body needs after an exciting day outdoors.