Winter hiking can be a ton of fun if you are seriously prepared, have the right mindset, and have the correct gear. It’s much less forgiving than summer hiking so approach it seriously. Hiking alone isn’t a good idea in winter conditions, so find a hiking partner and start with short hikes first to gain some experience in cold weather as well as when it’s snowing. Moreover, it’s reasonable to choose some easier and flatter terrain to practice first. You can jump to rough terrain and difficult trails when you have enough skills and experience to face the challenges of winter hiking, especially if you fancy high altitude hiking.
Planning and preparation are keys to having an enjoyable winter hiking experience. You’ll need plenty of stuff and you can’t get away with shabby equipment, especially in areas where harsh winters are the norm. Learn how to manage layers and check different combinations to find out what works best for you and what doesn’t.
Table of Contents
Tips for delightful winter hiking trips
Plan your trip carefully and have a backup itinerary
A little careful planning is important in hiking and can be the difference between an exciting and exhilarating trip and a total disaster. Knowing the hazards typical for the place you’ll be hiking in is essential, so do your research and make sure you have enough relevant information about the winter hiking dangers you may encounter during your trip. Sometimes there is no way to predict the weather, however, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of the weather forecast to eliminate at least some uncertainty about the current weather. Having a backup itinerary is an excellent way to avoid staying home or planning. Sometimes, you just have to abandon your Plan A because of bad weather.
Eliminate excess packaging and don’t overpack, however, don’t underpack either. When packaging, find the right balance between what’s really necessary for your expedition and what’s desirable but not absolutely essential. Plan meals and take the amount of food necessary plus some emergency rations in case something goes wrong and you are forced to stay longer in the wilderness. Plan routes carefully and lower your distance/time expectations, considering that walking in snow is harder.
Get proper hiking clothing
Once you have the appropriate clothing and gear and know how to manage your clothing layers to stay comfortably cool (most people overdress; as a result, they overheat and within minutes start sweating profusely to cool), you’ll find winter hikes a lot easier than you ever thought. Layering is important because by adding or removing layers, you can better regulate your body temperature. The decision about how many layers to wear is strictly individual, i.e. it’s up to you. It often depends on the weather conditions (including temperature, precipitation, the presence or absence of wind, etc.), personal preferences, and on how long your hike is going to be. Certainly, you need at least a moisture-wicking base layer that feels comfortable next to your skin (best materials for functional base layers are merino wool and synthetics as each of them has its pros and cons) and a windproof outer shell. When having to deal with very low temperatures and precipitation, an insulating mid-layer and a waterproof outer shell can be added to your hiking outfit. Having some dry garments in reserve is a must when hiking in winter conditions. You can wear them in camp and/or when you need them (for example, in case of emergency). Until then, they can stay in your pack.
Gaiters will help you keep the snow out in snowy conditions. A softshell pant with a pair of gaiters is a good combination that will keep you dry from the calf down to your toes. Of course, other options for your hiking pants are viable too. For example, some hikers prefer wearing fleece pants, while others like wearing waterproof shell pants with side zips for easy ventilation. What’s really important is not the type of hiking pants you’re wearing but rather whether they work for you or not. Their main functions are to keep you dry and cool and not to allow moisture buildup inside your clothing.
Don’t forget to carry some type of headwear and handwear to protect yourself from the elements. Warm hats, balaclavas, and warm headbands come in a wild variety of colors and styles and every sort of material, including fleece, wicking synthetics, wool, and mixtures of everything. Mittens are warmer than gloves in low temperatures, however, gloves make it easier to do tasks that require dexterity. Many experienced outdoorsmen apply the concept of layering to hand protection as they employ various combinations such as, for instance, liner gloves and waterproof mittens as a shell layer.
Get boots suitable for snow and cold
Even a bit of snow can make the terrain too slippery for winter hiking. Soft-soled boots and shoes are much more prone to slipping and they will also cause your foot to work harder. It’s not a good idea to walking up slopes in your running shoes, though many people do it. Hence, look for some stiff-soled boots that are stable and can cut edges into the snow to help you keep balance. In general, you shouldn’t have any problems traversing hills in such footwear.
Two of the most important characteristics of winter hiking are the cold weather and snowy/icy conditions. So, on the one side, your hiking footwear must make sure that your feet stay dry and warm, while on the other side, it must provide stability and ankle support. Insulated hiking boots are a good option for all-round winter footwear. Soles are thick to provide insulation from the frozen ground. However, they aren’t designed for steep slopes and crampon use as they are suited for forests and tundra but not for the mountains. Mountaineering boots are preferred for hiking in harsh conditions when having to negotiate steep, rocky terrain. They have stiff soles necessary for wearing crampons and are tough enough to withstand being scraped on rocks. Today, classic leather boots are not as common as they used to be. The new designs include plastic shells, waterproof membranes, integral gaiters, and other hi-tech features. Anyway, keep in mind that no single boot can do everything well.
Snowshoes are a traditional aid for snow travel designed to permit efficient travel in soft snow and to improve traction on hard snow. The typical design is aimed at decreasing side-to-side slippage and includes metal frames with lightweight, durable decking materials, as well as plastic composite models. Snowshoes are more practical than skis when carrying a heavy pack and can also be used on rocky terrain. Another positive feature of snowshoes is that their bindings can be used with almost any footwear, unlike skis.
Microspikes are suited for icy conditions on flat ground. They’re a must if you reach any area of little snow as there will likely be ice, however, they are no substitute for crampons.
Crampons can handle ice under a thin layer of snow. They penetrate hard snow and ice to provide traction thanks to the metal spikes. There are different designs with various features. For example, some crampons are more suitable for alpine use while others – for ice climbing. In general, before purchasing crampons, do your research to know what kind is suitable to wear with your footwear. For instance, more technical crampons can only be used with plastic mountaineering boots.
Knowing about the different types of footwear used for winter hiking is cool but make sure that you know how to use them properly because of their specific features. Keep practicing before you ever carry them in the woods or in the mountains.
Insulated sleeping pad and sleeping bag that fits your body
Having the right sleeping bag for winter conditions is critical to making sure that you spend a warm and comfortable overnight in the wilderness. You can also use your sleeping bag to dry out gear such as boot liners, gloves, and socks. In addition, you can prevent a water bottle from freezing overnight if you place it inside the sleeping bag. Don’t try to dry large items though. They won’t dry but will make you and the bag wet and cold. The overall efficiency of a sleeping bag depends on the type, amount, and thickness (called “loft“) of the insulating fill, as well as the bag’s style and fit to your body. Goose down and synthetic fibers are the two most common insulation materials for sleeping bags suitable for winter conditions and low temperatures. The mummy sleeping bag has the most efficient design for winter hiking. It is compact and very efficient at heat retention at the expense of limited space inside the mummy sleeping bag. Your sleeping bag must fit your body and that’s probably the most important thing when choosing a particular design. Keep in mind that too wide, too short or too tight sleeping bag will, generally, be colder.
Ground insulation is no less important part of your outdoor sleeping system because it minimizes the conductive heat loss by decreasing the conduction from the ground. A good sleeping pad reduces the amount of heat you lose to the ground and makes a big difference in the way you feel overnight. A sleeping pad should be an indispensable part of your gear for winter travel. In summer, some people use things like extra clothing or a backpack for insulation and padding. However, these cannot do the job of a sleeping pad in winter.
Build a proper shelter
A good shelter is essential for winter camping. When weather conditions are changing and the temperatures are below freezing, you need a secure place to stay – a camp where you can dry out your sleeping bags, hiking clothing, and gear. Tents are the preferred choice because they’re relatively light and can be set up quickly. On a sunny day, at midday, the temperature inside of a tent can be 22 to 28°C warmer than the outside air.
You need to select a flat spot for a tent platform and flatten it to get rid of uncomfortable lumps. Use a mountaineering shovel to establish a suitable tent platform. Compact an area large enough to hold the tent and to allow for movement around it. It’s important to flatten and smooth the area well to prevent sliding downslope during the night, especially when you’re going to stay in one location for several nights. The reason is that the platform will become rock hard after the first night.
If you have more time and tools such as snow saw or straight-bladed snow shovel (both are perfect for cutting blocks), you can make a more solid shelter like a snow cave or an igloo. Such structures are stronger, warmer, and more spacious than a tent. The interior of a properly built snow cave will be at least 0°C no matter what is going on outside. You can also build a snow wall around your tent for better protection from the wind. The main function of such a wall is to deflect wind away from the tent. That’s why its walls should be at least 1-2 meters high. Keep the walls as far from the tent as they are high. The reason is that the wind will quickly deposit snow on the leeward side of the wall.
Figure 1: Typical winter camp
Source: Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills*
During a storm, clear snow away from the tent periodically. Snow deposits are dangerous because they:
- Pile up and load the tent posing a risk to break the poles and bring the whole construction down.
- Increase the risk of asphyxiation (by burying parts of the tent), especially if someone is cooking inside the tent.
Unlike tents, snow shelters don’t require snow removal to protect the structure and its occupants. It’s because snow accumulated during a storm makes such a shelter even sturdier. The ventilation inside a snow shelter may be inadequate. Thus avoid cooking inside because there’s a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Don’t rely on one device for navigation
In winter conditions, good weather seems to be the exception, not the rule. So don’t rely on good weather to orient yourself on the trail. Route finding in bad weather is almost impossible without a map and a compass (or a GPS to keep track of the trail). It’s because heavy snowfall can obscure trails and trail markers in a matter of minutes. Otherwise, you risk getting lost. Relying on one device only can’t be a smart decision since this device could die in the cold. You’d better have multiple devices (such as a compass, GPS, a headlamp for hiking at night and a topographic map. They can be lifesavers if things go wrong. Keep the map and the compass in a jacket pocket for easy access. The GPS device is essential when traveling into particularly remote terrain or an area that is infrequently traveled.
Hike with experienced winter-hikers
Hiking with experienced winter-hikers will help you become more proficient in route finding and avoid common mistakes. In addition, you’ll have someone to rely on if an injury or illness occurs. Getting lost in a remote area is one of the most dangerous situations that can occur during winter hiking. This is often the case when going off-trail and it’s almost inevitable when everything is covered by heavy snow.
There are several key factors for winter hiking and you need to get used to them. Do your research, make a plan and execute it. Don’t forget to make a backup plan so that if something goes wrong, you can rely on your Plan B. Collect the correct gear, learn more about the different types of hiking footwear suited for winter conditions and how to use them properly, and don’t overpack. You’ll probably have some difficulties navigating your way through trails covered by snow and ice. Thus bring a compass and a map to orient yourself and to minimize the risk of getting lost.
Most of all, plan carefully your trip, have the right attitude, and be prepared for some nasty winter conditions. Oh, and enjoy your winter adventure.
* In R. C. Eng. (Ed.), Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 8th ed., 2010, The Mountaineers