Winter hiking can be intimidating for beginners. Although I’ve been hiking pretty regularly since about 2010, I didn’t go on my first winter hike until 2018. I thought it would be windy, cold, and generally unpleasant. I love the feeling of warm sun on my skin as I lay across the warm rocks on a well-earned summit. I thought winter hiking would be just awful.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Winter hiking is a wonderland. The pines are draped in snow, the ice is shaped into a million intricate sculptures, and the entire world is turned into a majestic landscape like something out of a dream. On top of all that, there are way fewer people out, so you may get the summit to yourself.
Winter hiking is amazing. But, more than at any other time of year, it is imperative that you go prepared. Winter is a volatile season in the mountains and it can be dangerous. Preparation is key and safety should always be your top priority. If you take the proper precautions, winter hiking can be one of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have in the mountains. Even as a beginner.
Winter Hiking for Beginners: Before You Go
There are a few key things that beginners ought to keep in mind as you start to plan your first winter hike. First, don’t hike alone! If you’re used to hiking solo in the spring, summer, and fall this can be a tough pill to swallow—but winter hiking is dangerous! Hike with a buddy for your first winter season until you learn how to adapt to the changing landscape. You can find hiking groups on facebook or places like meetup.com if you don’t have any hiking buddies.
Second, know your route. I realize this is also true during the warmer months, but it is so much easier to get lost in the winter. You could be hiking an unbroken trail, an unexpected whiteout could hit, or you could lose the trail when hiking above the tree line. More than ever, when winter hiking as a beginner you need to know the names of the trails, have a map, and be ready to use it.
Third, be prepared for any conditions. On a single winter hike, the weather could change from bright, sunny, and above freezing, to windy, snowing, and dangerously cold. Come prepared with the gear you need to face any weather, not just what the forecast reads.
And on that note, let’s get to the good stuff…
What to Wear Hiking in Cold Weather
The key to hiking in the winter is wearing layers! You want to ensure that you don’t sweat on the way up. If you sweat, your clothes will get wet and you run the risk of frostbite. Wear clothing that breathes well and wicks away moisture. Stay away from cotton. Once wet, it will never dry. Instead, try packing winter gear like this:
- Base Layer shirt and pants made of a thin, breathable, synthetic material.
- Warm second layer like a fleece shirt and thicker leggings.
- Down jacket with detachable outer shell like this North Face jacket.
- Insulated snow pants
- Insulated tall socks and sock liners
- Glove liners and insulated mittens (I prefer mittens to gloves for my outer hand layer as they retain heat better).
- Insulated hat.
- Insulated hiking boots. I wear Salomons.
- Gaiters (if your snow pants don’t include them).
- Sunglasses or ski goggles
- Balaclava or other face cover
What Gear to Pack for a Winter Hike
Because you need to be prepared for several different situations on any one hike, winter hiking can require a lot of gear. Finding friends or groups to hike with can help offset the cost, as can renting some gear, such as snowshoes, for the first season if you can’t afford all the gear up front.
But, to be properly prepared for a winter hike, I recommend packing the following gear:
- Map + Compass (and know how to use them)
- Snowshoes and microspikes/hillsounds – be ready to need both depending on conditions.
- Water in insulated containers. Choose water bottles over bladders as the tube can freeze too easily. Bring hot water in a thermos.
- Small stove and pot for boiling snow, especially on very long or very cold hikes.
- Hand Warmers – these are useful for keeping extremities warm. But also keep one in your pack near your phone to save battery life. If you want to be environmentally conscious, I recommend getting some reusable hand warmers.
- Flashlight – even on a day hike it gets dark fast in the winter.
- Hiking Poles
What To Wear On Your Feet
This is the big question and a source of major debate among winter hiking enthusiasts. But if we rule out skiing/boarding for now, on the day of your hike you have three choices for footwear.
- Snowshoes: No matter what the conditions, you should always bring snowshoes with you. When there is recent snow on the trail or lots of snow, you’ll want to use your snowshoes. It’ll make it easier for you to walk, and help preserve trail conditions for other hikers.
- Microspikes/Hillsounds: If snow cover is thin or you expect the trail to be hard packed and maybe a bit icy, microspikes or hillsounds are the way to go. These smaller spikes help you grip the snow and prevent you from slipping as you walk.
- Crampons: These larger spikes are necessary when the trail is extra steep or icy, or if you plan to descend down a steep rock face during your hike. The long spikes help you secure your footing and prevent injury.
As always, no matter which of these options you choose, you’ll want to wear a pair of insulated winter hiking boots.
What Food to Bring on a Winter Hike
Winter hiking uses up more energy than warm weather hiking because your body is working overtime to keep you warm. Because of this, you need to eat plenty of high calorie food to keep your metabolism and your body temperature high. Some snacks I recommend are:
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Candy (Snickers is my favorite hiking candy).
- A thermos of hot cocoa
- Protein bars
Whatever food you like to eat on a hike, bring lots of it and eat! You’ll be very cold by the end of your hike if you neglect your nutrition. Eat a lot and keep warm.
Winter Hiking Can Be Awesome for Beginners
Most of all, have fun and be safe! Be willing to turn around if the weather gets bad. Let go of pride and prioritize safety. Pay attention to your gut feelings—especially if they are telling you to be careful! Be safe, follow these winter hiking tips for beginners, and I promise you’ll have an absolutely amazing time exploring a winter wonderland.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!
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