How to Stay Warm on a Winter HikePublished on 10/08/2021 · 8 min readPlanning a cold-weather adventure? Camping & Hiking Expert Elizabeth Hansen shares her tips for staying toasty on chilly days outside.
Photo by Dino Reichmuth
Winter hikes are one of my favorite things to do when the weather gets cold, especially since there isn’t enough snow to ski yet. A winter hike is a great way to enjoy the beauty of nature while avoiding crowds! Cold weather hiking requires a bit more preparation and equipment than fair-weather hiking, but don’t let that discourage you. This article will help you get set up with the perfect shoes, apparel, and gear to have a fun winter enjoying the outdoors!
What should I wear?
Clothes are the most important aspect of winter hiking. It all begins with a high-quality baselayer, also known as long-underwear, thermals, or long-johns depending on where you live. These are the first layer of clothing that sits directly against your skin so picking the right one is crucial to keeping warm.
You want a baselayer that will keep you warm while also wicking moisture. Wool and silk are great material options for your baselayer. Wool will keep you warm even if you get wet and it naturally wicks moisture. Synthetic fabric can provide wicking abilities and some companies even make baselayers with reflective liners that are meant to reflect your own body heat back to you. The biggest material to avoid in base layers is cotton. Cotton is not insulating when wet and does a terrible job of wicking the moisture off of your skin. Smartwool is a great company that specializes in 100% wool and wool-blend apparel. I highly recommend their Merino wool baselayer long sleeve tops and bottoms! Another killer wool baselayer brand is Minus 33.
Under my thermal top, I will wear a sports bra or an athletic tank top with a shelf bra that is built-in. It’s the easiest way to keep everything supported and ready for cold-weather adventures!
After my baselayer, what’s next?
You want to have multiple layers, allowing you to add or take off as needed. After my baselayer, I wear a ¼ zip thermal top and a fleece-lined pair of leggings. For many of my winter hikes, this is all that I need, but I always bring an extra layer to add on in case it gets colder. You also want layers that you are able to take off if you begin to sweat. Maintaining a stable core temperature is key during winter hikes!
If I need a third layer, I like fleece options. They are very insulating and super comfortable! Full-zip jackets with a hood offer the biggest range of temperature control.
Is there any other clothing that I need to bring with me?
Yes! Having a waterproof layer is crucial for cold-weather hikes. Getting wet is a one-way ticket to getting hypothermia. A rain jacket and rain pants are the easiest and most lightweight options for protecting yourself from moisture while out in cold weather. They are easily ventilated to help keep you from sweating and will keep you dry from any rain, sleet, or snow you may encounter. If you need the extra insulation, opt for a winter shell. These types of jackets are usually marketed towards skiers or snowboarders, but your jacket doesn’t care what activities you are doing while you wear it! 3-in-1 jackets are an awesome, versatile option that can be used for any winter activity. The shell on its own is a great way to keep dry without adding too much insulation, while the full jacket zipped together is a way to stay warm and dry! The inner layer (often fleece or down) can also be used alone when needed.
Hats are super important as a lot of heat can be lost from your head. I like wearing a beanie with a folded brim that can be adjusted up or down if I need more warmth.
Neck gaiters are super versatile, they can keep your neck warm or be pulled up over your mouth and nose to help keep your face warm. I’ve also used a wool neck gaiter as a headband when I wanted to have my hair up but didn’t want to get frostbite on my ears.
Gloves are another important item to help keep you warm. I enjoy hiking in thin fleece glove liners, they are just enough to keep the chill off my fingers but still allow me to use my hands. I have also hiked in thicker gloves that are more waterproof. These are great for snowy days. Full-on ski gloves or mittens are usually overkill for winter hiking, but they are a great thing to carry for any impromptu snowball fights!
Don’t forget your sunglasses! Snow + sunny days = very bright conditions. These conditions can even cause damage to your eyes called snow blindness if you aren’t being careful. Sunburns are less likely in the winter due to less skin being exposed, but they can still hurt. I often forget to put sunscreen on my cheeks and end up looking a bit crazy—so don’t be like me! If you will be hiking in snowy or windy conditions you may want to hike in goggles. They provide extra warmth and protection from the elements.
What type of shoes should I wear for a winter hike?
Your choice of shoes comes down to what kind of trail conditions you will encounter. On snow-packed or icy trails, you can get away with wearing your regular hiking boots. Waterproof boots are a good option to consider regardless of the season you will be hiking in. They will keep your feet dry during creek crossings in the warmer months and will prevent your feet from getting wet due to melting snow during the winter. I have also used my Blundstone boots on winter hikes. They are super solid all-around boots that are great for a variety of conditions. There is also a winter-specific style that is both waterproof and insulated.
If you will be hiking in areas with deep snow or plan to go off-trail, opt for a tall snow boot. These Sorel’s are a solid option. They are not the lightest option out there but you can’t beat their warmth and snow protection. For off-trail adventures in deep snow, bring a pair of snowshoes to help make your travel easier. Walking in heavy snow is very tiring and it can also be dangerous to “post hole” off-trail. That means your foot breaks through any crust of the snow and leaves a hole similar to one that would be needed to set a fence pole into—it sounds more fun than it actually is.
Socks, socks, socks!
Waterproof boots will do some of the work to keep your feet warm, but choosing the right pair of socks is equally important. Thick wool socks are the way to go! Wool is insulating even when wet which is perfect for winter conditions. I also recommend bringing an extra pair of socks in your backpack, it’s always nice to have fresh dry socks if necessary on the trail. I also enjoy changing my socks once I’m back at my car which is just a little added luxury!
My favorite winter hiking socks are the Darn Tough Women's Bear Town Micro Crew Light Cushion Socks. These are awesome socks for hiking in any season and are lightly cushioned in the heel and toe for extra comfort. These are also super cute!
Another killer sock from Darn Tough is their boot socks which are fully cushioned and super warm and cozy!
The crew socks from Smartwool are a comfortable, mid-weight choice for your hike!
What other gear should I bring on a winter hike?
I hike with trekking poles during all seasons but they are especially helpful in the winter when dealing with variable trail conditions or ice. They add extra points of contact with you and the ground to help keep you more stable. I’m a very clumsy person and my hiking poles have saved me from falling on my butt so many times! These adjustable Leki Voyager poles are a great budget-friendly option that is adjustable for different heights. I also enjoy adjusting my poles on the trail, shorter for uphill travel and longer for downhill. On side slopes, you can also extend one pole and shorten the other to even yourself out.
Microspikes are another great winter hiking accessory that I love to carry with me. Think of them as the average person’s crampon. They are super helpful on any slippery surface and help give you traction. Microspikes are easy to put on via the rubber grips that fit over your boots. Spikes like these are best on packed snow while a knob style is best on ice.
What food or drinks should I bring on a winter hike?
Snacks are my favorite part of any outdoor adventure. When preparing for a cold-weather activity, pack calorie-dense foods that will help keep you warm. I love the Nut-Butter filled bars from Clif Bar and turkey jerky from Trader Joe’s. Keep in mind that the items you bring may freeze so avoid bringing gummy candies or other chewy items on especially cold days. Trust me on that one, no one wants to eat a frozen gummy bear on a cold day!
A hydration bladder is awesome during the summer, but leave them at home in the winter. It’s not worth fighting to drink out of a half-frozen straw. I always carry my water in an insulated bottle to keep it from freezing. I love my Hydroflask! If you want to carry a hot beverage out on the trail, (mountaintop hot cocoa anyone?) try out a Stanley Classic Legendary. They are called “legendary” for good reason and come in tons of sizes!
I hope that this article inspires you to pull out your hiking boots again this winter and hit the trail for some awesome cold-weather hikes. Stay warm and safe out there and chat with a Curated Camping & Hiking expert today to make sure you have the right gear for whatever winter adventures come your way!