For the uninitiated, hiking in winter may seem unthinkable--what with words like “hypothermia,” “frostbite,” and “avalanche” getting tossed around a little too often among trekkers.
While there’s no doubt that winter hiking comes with a few challenges, it can actually be a fun and rewarding experience. Think: stunning snow-capped peaks, empty trails, and--the icing on your winter cake--no bugs!
If you haven’t tried hiking in winter and would like to give it a go, then read on.
Here’s everything you need to know to get the best out of your winter hiking adventure. (And hey, consider this a dry run for when SHTF in winter!)
What to Wear When Hiking in Winter
Dressing for a winter hike is crucial to ensure not just your comfort but your survival as well. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather...only unsuitable clothing!
Layer your clothing
To beat the cold when hiking in winter, layering clothing is key. Wearing multiple layers allows you to adjust your body temperature so you’re neither too cold nor too hot for long periods of time.
There are three specific layers you need: base layer, mid layer, and a shell layer.
The base layer is what directly touches your body, such as a thin top, bottom, and underwear. You’ll want to choose lightweight and moisture-wicking fabric like merino wool or a synthetic fabric because they dry much faster and will move moisture (such as sweat and water) away from your skin. Next, your mid layer. It should be warm and insulate you from cold. Fleece or wool both work great. Finally, you have your shell. It should be able to cut wind and keep moisture out.
It can feel like a chore to keep adding and removing layers throughout your hike. But if you want to stay warm and comfortable (and don’t wanna risk dying from hypothermia) then you gotta dress like an onion!
Wear loose, comfortable clothing
Go for loose, comfy clothing. Wearing tight clothing and accessories can restrict blood circulation and will increase your chance of getting frostbite.
Avoid cotton at all costs
As mentioned, you’ll want to wear clothing that will dry quickly, which means you have to avoid cotton at all costs! Cotton clothing takes forever to dry, sucks heat away from your body, and will leave you feeling damp and cold.
Mosquito bites aren’t a problem when hiking in winter, but frostbite definitely is! So make sure to take care of the rest of your body and stay covered so you can come back in one piece.
- For your hands - Your hands and fingers need the extra love when you’re going on a winter hike. Wear lightweight fleece gloves followed by waterproof shell mittens or gloves. It’s also a good idea to bring hand warmers as well as an extra pair of gloves in case the ones you’re wearing get wet.
- For your legs and feet - Layering can also apply to your legs and feet. Start with your socks--again, wool not cotton. Next, your hiking boots. You’ll want a pair that’s waterproof, breathable, and insulated. Then, you can also get some gaiters. They’re extremely helpful for keeping snow, water, dirt, and pebbles from sneaking inside your boots.
- For your ears - Don’t wanna lose an ear or two? Protect them by wearing a hat, headband, or earmuffs.
Slather on sunscreen
Just because it’s freezing outside doesn’t mean sun damage is but a myth. Remember, the sun’s rays reflect at you from the ice-covered ground. So it’s a must to apply sunscreen especially around your neck and on the underside of your nose and chin.
Winter Hiking Food Must-Haves
For a typical cold weather hike, your body is likely to burn more calories just to maintain the internal heat you need for survival. Thus, it’s important to keep your body fueled with food and water so you can stay energetic and warm on the trail.
Being properly hydrated can mean the difference between a fun and enjoyable hike and a long and painful one because of muscle cramps and fatigue. So make sure to drink water often to avoid dehydration. Most hikers consume a liter of water before they head out. But be careful not to drink too much water at once because it could go right through to you. A general recommendation is to drink 10 fl. oz. about every 20 minutes.
Don’t let your drink freeze
While you’re at it, don’t forget to place your water bottles in an insulated carrier to keep your drink from freezing. Another option is to store your water bottle inside your jacket. Your body heat will prevent the water from freezing.
Pack warm drinks
You can also take your favorite hot beverage (in a thermos, of course) with you to warm you up. Sipping hot tea or hot chocolate while on a break will help you keep warm and comfortable.
Throw in some trail-ready snacks in your backpack
Remember, your body needs more calories to stay warm, especially if you’re hiking on steep terrain with deep snow. So it’s a must to pack the right food to give you the energy you need. Fruits, nuts, and cheese are always a good idea, along with jerky, crackers, and cookies.
Keep your food from freezing
Who wants to chomp on rock-hard food on a chilly day? Keep your food from freezing by stowing them close to your body. Or you could also bring food that can don’t easily freeze or stay soft much longer than some other items in cold weather.
Common Winter Hike Navigation Hazards
Even if you’re clad in the best winter hiking clothing and carry the most advanced hiking gear, the unexpected can still happen! Your best defense is to plan your route and prepare for the following hazards to avoid any nasty surprises.
Buried trail junction signs
If your best bet for reaching your destination is to rely on signs at trail junctions, then good luck. Signs can easily get hidden from view or buried in snow, which means you may find yourself in the middle of nowhere! Better brush up on your map reading and compass skills to be safe. You can also use GPS or navigation apps to help you find your trail.
Don't assume that an easy summer day hike will also make for a terrific winter trek! It’s important to choose your destinations wisely and always check the avalanche forecast in your area. Some of the red flags you should look out for is whether your area has had recent avalanches, if there has been heavy rainfall or snow in the past 24 hours, and if there is a significant warming of temperature.
Fewer daylight hours
In summer, you’ll want to avoid hiking during the sunniest time of the day. In winter, it’s the opposite. You’ll want to hike when the sun is highest and finish your adventure before sunset, especially if you don’t plan on camping. Remember, not even the brightest headlamp can help you to quickly and accurately confirm where you are or where you’re going.
Frozen rivers or streams
We all know a friend or two who’s daring enough to skate down a frozen river. If you’re that friend, props to you! If not, well better be safe and know your ice.
As a rule of thumb, it’s safe to pass on clear ice with a bluish tint since it’s the strongest. On the other hand, steer clear from white, milky ice because it’s typically formed by melted and refrozen snow and won’t be able to hold a load as well as clear ice.
Injuries to Avoid When Hiking in Winter
Hiking through snow-muffled woods and rolling white-blanketed hills is truly an experience of a lifetime--but so are hypothermia and frostbite! Knowing these common winter hiking risks and how you can avoid them is crucial so you can save your life and others as well.
Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, resulting in a drop in your body core temperature. Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures is a common cause of hypothermia.
Early warning signs of hypothermia that you should be mindful of include:
- Fumbling hands
- Temperature of 89-95 degrees Fahrenheit
If you or your hiking buddy recognize any of these symptoms, the first thing you need to do is move to a dry, warm environment. If you’re far from shelter, take off any wet clothing, hats, gloves, shoes, and socks and rewarm the person with extra blankets.
It’s important to get medical attention immediately if you suspect that the condition has progressed to an advanced stage as it can be life-threatening. Individuals with severe hypothermia could experience cold, inflamed skin, hallucinations, no shivering, undetectable pulse, and a temperature lower than 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remember when we said you gotta stay covered up if you’re hiking in winter? Yeah, you totally have to do that if you don’t wanna risk getting any of your body parts frostbitten!
Frostbite is the freezing of skin tissue, which commonly affects the fingers, toes and ears or any exposed skin in cold, windy weather.
It occurs in several stages: frostnip, superficial frostbite and deep frostbite.
- When you have frostnip, your skin gets red and may begin to sting, feel numb, or have a prickling sensation.
- Superficial frostbite, meanwhile, will cause your reddened skin to turn pale and waxy. Swelling may also kick in. You may also develop blisters, especially when you rewarm the skin at this stage.
- When exposure to the elements continues, frostbite can get severe. The skin may become white or bluish gray and you may lose sensation in the affected area. The area may also hard and darken as the tissue dies.
For frostnip, the easiest way to treat it is to cover up the exposed skin and warm the affected area. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of superficial or deep frostbite, however, it’s best to seek medical attention quickly to avoid further damage to your skin tissues.
Hiking is a fun and challenging way to explore the outdoors during winter. But just like any activity, the first rule for hiking in winter is to always be prepared!
That means having the appropriate knowledge and gear to ensure your safety as well as the others.
But if you’re going solo, it’s a must to let someone know where you’re heading, what route you’re taking, and when you expect to be finished, so you can easily get help when things take a turn for the worse.
Have you tried hiking in the winter wilderness? What are your tried-and-tested winter hiking tips? Let us know in the comments below!