Well, my friends. It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the evenings cooler. Soon the snow will be falling as well, covering our hiking trails in glistening (and slippery) whiteness. But the arrival of winter doesn’t have to mean the end of the hiking season. In fact, some people actually prefer winter hiking to summer hiking.
I’ve asked some of my blogging friends to contribute their top tips for safe and comfortable winter hiking. We have tips on gear (like microspikes and gaiters), tips on safety (like staying warm and staying connected) and we have tips to ensure you have a good time out on the trail (finding routes and ensuring they aren’t affected by winter closures).
So let’s dive into all of the tips for winter hiking!
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Winter Hiking Tips & Tricks
Stay Safe on Ice with Microspikes
By Erin Gifford at Go Hike Virginia
There’s so much to love about winter hiking – the crisp air, wildlife tracks in freshly-fallen snow, the absence of flying, buzzing, biting insects. It’s heaven. That is, until you reach the first icy patch on the hiking trail and find yourself on your backside. Eesh. For this, there’s microspikes.
For winter hikers, pack a pair of microspikes for hiking in your daypack, even if you think you may not need them. They provide needed traction on slippery surfaces, like ice and snow. Slip them over your trail runners or hiking boots and you’re ready to hit the hiking trails.
Microspikes reduce your chances of a slip, fall, spill or splatter when out hiking in winter. Small metal spikes dig into snow and ice to keep you safe, secure and standing tall. They are perfect for tackling moderately icy or snowy trails. They are also good to have on higher elevation trails where you may unexpectedly encounter ice.
On a winter hike with my son, microspikes came in handy on an icy trail with lots of ups and downs. He wore the one pair of microspikes we had between us. I held his hand on the way up (as I was sliding). He had no trouble getting up the hills. On the downhills, I simply slid on down.
Technically, Kahtoola owns the rights to the word “microspikes.” Actually, MICROspikes. If you do a quick Google search, you may see these slip-over spikes listed as icy grips, footwear traction devices, even snow spikes. They are all essentially the same and, importantly, will keep you from face-planting on icy winter hiking trails.
Wear Gaitors to Keep Your Feet Dry
By Bernadette of Explorer Chick
One of the best ways to tackle a winter hike is to use layers and it is no different when it comes to protecting your feet and legs. But instead of just pilling on the socks or thermal underwear, gaiters are a handy piece of hiking gear to add to your equipment list.
Gaiters are used for hiking to protect the feet and legs by keeping out debris, water, snow, etc. It is made of fabric that is slipped on over pants and hiking boots. To keep it in place, there are snaps or velcro at the top and a strap that goes around the bottom of the shoe or a hook for the laces. There are many different versions of gaiters from lightweight ones made of stretchy fabric that can be used during the summer to thick insulated gaiters that are perfect for hiking in the snow.
Most of the time getting a pair may be overkill, especially for those that go on established hiking trails. But for extended winter trips, gaiters can really help keep you warm. I have found high gaiters super useful because I do not have to worry about getting scratches during a hike or wet socks because snow somehow got into my hiking boots. And if it happens to rain there is no way that the water will find its way into your shoes!
Dressing Properly for Winter Hiking
By Karen of Outdoor Adventure Sampler
Dressing warm for winter hiking is essential for safety and enjoyment in cold environments. I’ve used the acronym WISE to teach several generations of outdoor leadership students about dressing for success in winter activities.
WISE stands for Wicking, Insulating, Shell, and Extra. The wicking layer is the thin layer next to your skin that allows moisture to be dispersed in your outer layers. Since perspiration will make a hiker cold, it’s essential to have it wicked away from the core body. Some examples of wicking layers are polypropylene, silk, or merino wool.
The insulating layer holds in heat radiated from your body and protects cold from getting in. This layer tends to be bulky and puffy. Think thick wool sweater or fleece or proprietary fabrics such as Nano puff.
The S in WISE refers to an insulating shell that serves as an outer layer to the base layers. It’s designed to protect from wind, rain, or snow. The shell is either waterproof or water-resistant depending on conditions but should be breathable to let moisture escape.
The final layer is the extra one you carry in your pack. When winter hiking, an extra insulating layer can replace damp layers or supplement your layering system. I like to bring a down jacket in my pack to pop on when I stop for a break. It keeps me warm as I refuel or hang out but is stuffed back in the pack when hiking, keeping me from overheating on the trail.
Bring Trekking Poles
By Christina of Live A Wilder Life
We had never done winter hiking until we visited Arches National Park in winter and learned firsthand how important it is to have proper winter gear. Our biggest lifesaver? Hiking Poles. While hiking poles are an excellent investment for year-round hiking, they provide much-needed balance and stability when navigating an icy, slippery trail in the winter. They also come in handy when you have to cross a stream and need to test out if the stream is frozen. While navigating the steep and icy slick rock of Arches, I was able to confidently hike the trails and take in the stunning sights because I wasn’t anxious about slipping. Using hiking poles for winter trekking can often be the difference between catching yourself when you stumble and a visit to the emergency room for a broken ankle.
When looking for winter hiking poles, you’ll want to buy a pair of telescoping poles so you can adjust the height as needed. We prefer a hiking pole with a rubber grip since it doesn’t absorb water and won’t be cold to the touch in winter temperatures. It’s also more convenient for travelling since they pack down to a small size and can be carried on your hiking pack.
By Sarah of In Search of Sarah
One important winter hiking tip a lot of people don’t think about is to stay hydrated! Many hikers perceive cooler weather as not being as thirsty, or your body not requiring ample hydration, but in reality, winter hiking can be more physically demanding and challenging.
Perception of thirst is so different in cold weather than in warm weather – and you don’t realize your body is working harder which drains your reserves more during the course of the day. Even the act of drinking water is more difficult during the colder months since you’ll likely have gloves to contend with! If you are layering your winter attire, you’ll be sweating less, which means you won’t notice how much water you’re losing. Your breathing is a major factor too – winter air is drier and your body works much harder to humidify the air you’re breathing, which also depletes your hydration levels.
You’ll want an insulated water bottle to prevent water from freezing on longer hikes. You may also want to add flavour enhancers to entice you to drink more, like electrolyte packs or herbal teas.
You can try to pre-hydrate prior to long-distance winter hiking, whether it’s starting your day with tea or coffee, and sipping water on your way to the trailhead. This will cause you to pee more, but you’ll stay ahead of dehydration and will help keep your focus and energy levels up, which is especially important if you’re solo hiking. Finish off with a hot tea to help warm you up afterwards!
Always Pack the 10 Essentials
By Hannah of Get Lost Travel Blog
It is important to pack the top hiking essentials all year round. However, when winter hiking, it becomes even more important to pack the proper hiking safety tools.
Winter hiking presents a greater risk with more unpredictable weather, shorter daylight hours and potentially hazardous terrain. No matter how experienced you are, you should always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. When hiking in winter, make sure you always have the following safety equipment packed.
Firstly, always have a first aid kit on hand when hiking. In most cases, you’ll never have to use it but with the increased risks of trips and slips in winter, you need to have one. If you already own one, check the use-by date on all items before your next hike and replace old products. Luckily, ours hasn’t been put to major use, but the blister plasters were a lifesaver four miles into a ten-mile hike!
Another safety essential to pack when winter hiking is a flashlight. Be sure to check the batteries and pack it on your next trip. It is a more reliable option than your phone light if you take a wrong turn and your hike takes much longer than expected!
Finally, pack a whistle in your bag. If you do get lost or injured and require assistance, you can use it to alert people further away. This small but vital piece of kit should be at the top of your packing list on your next winter hike!
Navigate with AllTrails
By Shelly with Almost There Adventures
In the winter trails can be more difficult to find and stay on due to snow cover and wind blowing snow. There can be limited visibility due to shorter daylight hours as well as snow or wind that can impact being able to see trail signs and blazes making them easier to miss. The app AllTrails released a new feature for its Pro membership that notifies you when you are hiking and go off the trail.
To use the off-route notification you load a custom map or download a map into the Navigator or you can also press record from any trail details screen. This will load your route into the Navigator so you can follow along the trail using the built-in GPS on your phone. While you hike you can see your progress along the trail and will receive a notification on your lock screen if you’re going off-trail. If you are an Apple watch user and your phone is locked or put away, you will get a notification on your watch. This can be incredibly helpful when hiking in the winter with trails difficult to see.
I used this on a solo hiking trip to the North Shore in Minnesota when trails were covered in snow and I wanted to be safe hiking alone. This app also has a Lifeline safety feature which allows you to set anticipated start/end times, identify contacts who should be notified if you don’t arrive back as scheduled or if you’d like to give a real-time location update. These features make this a great app for winter hiking.
Additional Tip: Your phone battery will die faster in cold weather. Bring a charger and power bank to ensure you have enough power throughout the hike!
Call Ahead About Park Closures in Winter
By Erin Gifford at Maryland Hikes
Hiking in winter on snow-covered trails can be pure joy. The trails are quiet and serene. There’s a stillness in the air that’s unique to cold-weather months. Many times, you may find yourself all alone on hiking trails while the fair-weather hikers are in hibernation until April or May.
To help ensure the most satisfying winter hiking season, it’s wise to keep in mind that weather conditions can vary between your home and your hiking destination. Where appropriate, call your destination (e.g., national or state park) to check on road and weather conditions before you leave your garage.
This past winter, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park frequently had road closures along Skyline Drive, the 105-mile scenic byway that cuts across the park. Occasionally, the whole road was closed, while other times only sections were closed. All the while, there was no snow at my home a mere 90-minute drive from the park.
In the mountains, ice and snow can shut down roads even if there’s nothing more than a dusting (or no precipitation at all) at lower elevations. Pay heed to when the sun will set too to ensure you return to your vehicle before dark, especially if you do not have a flashlight.
In winter, many facilities at parks and recreation areas are closed, including visitors’ centers, convenience stores, lodging, campgrounds and restrooms. Some amenities may be available, but only during limited hours. It’s smart to check the park website ahead of time to gauge what amenities will be available during your visit.
Bring a Dry Bag to Keep Items Protected from Snow
By Delilah of Our Travel Mix
Bringing a dry bag on hikes is always a good idea, but it’s even more essential when you’re hiking in winter. The weather can easily turn at any time and we usually use ours to protect our spare clothes, phones and our camera at the first sign of rain.
Most hikers will have some form of technology on them, at the very least a smartphone, and often thousands of dollars worth of camera gear.
Going on hikes is one of the best things to do in Queenstown, NZ, especially in winter when it snows. However, rain is also common on hikes in New Zealand and our Sea to Summit dry bag has saved our phones, camera and lenses on numerous occasions.
More than once, we’ve found ourselves hours into a hike only for an unexpected downpour to occur. Each time, we’ve scrambled to shove everything plus a dry change of clothes into our dry bag. This has no doubt saved us thousands.
On top of this, multi-day hikes are far less enjoyable in wet clothes and being able to store our clothes in a waterproof dry bag has made days 2 and 3 of longer hikes much more enjoyable.
On top of keeping your gear dry, dry bags also make for an effective vessel for hand washing clothing.
Generally, it won’t matter too much what dry bag you use. We used an unbranded one for years, but now we rely on our Sea to Summit dry bag. Sticking with a well-known branded can give you peace of mind that your gear will stay dry. This particular one is mostly waterproof, it’s very durable and weighs almost nothing.
Winter Hiking Tips – Final Thoughts
I hope you’ve found this post helpful and have a full toolbox of tips and tricks to keep you safe while winter hiking! Here are some additional posts you might be interested in.