Hiking is a wonderful way to stay in shape and enjoy the outdoors. While hiking during the summer is a popular activity, winter oftentimes keeps people from going outside and enjoying their favorite trails. And for good reason! Hiking in the winter can be downright miserable and potentially dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
But don’t let that stop you from getting out on a hike during the winter! If you or someone you know wants to begin hiking during the winter and wondering How do you prepare for winter hiking? , check out these 6 easy winter hiking tips to make sure that you enjoy your favourite trails all year round.
Before you go hiking during any season, it’s best to be sure that you are prepared for the conditions that you are going to get into. One common question that I get asked “Is it safe to hike in the winter?” It absolutely is but Winter hiking presents new challenges, which is why it’s important to consider the following before venturing outside for a snowy hike!
Check the Forecast
While winter hiking can be very enjoyable, it comes with new risks compared to summer hiking. Before you go on a winter day hike or night, it’s important to know the weather forecast for when you are planning to go.
One of the most important things to consider before you head out on a winter hike is the snow and ice forecast. If it’s supposed to dump snow on the day that you’re planning on going hiking, it’s likely that you’ll want to change the date of your trip. While it might be tempting to go hiking when it’s supposed to snow, blowing snow conditions can produce a whiteout.
Whiteouts occur when there is a lot of snow falling combined with strong winds. This makes hiking dangerous because you aren’t able to see where you are going while you’re on the trail. At best, this might result in you slipping, tripping, or running into something that might cause a minor injury. At worst, you could get lost or fall off a high ledge which could result in severe injury or death!
Low temperatures are to be expected when hiking during the winter. However, it’s important to know exactly what you’re going to experience before you hit the trail. Knowing the temperature will help you plan for subfreezing and even subzero temperatures!
Subzero temperatures are especially important to plan for. If you are going to experience subzero temperatures, you’ll want to be sure to cover up as much of yourself as you can. When the temperature dips below 0℉, frostbite can set in on exposed skin within a matter of minutes.
This means that you’ll need to bring along gloves, warm hats, and face-coverings if you intend to hike in subzero temps. If you don’t have the equipment or clothing to safely hike outside during subzero temperatures, it’s best to schedule your hike for a period when it’s not going to be so cold!
Winter hiking requires that you know a few more skills compared to summer hiking in order to be safe. Be sure that you learn the following skills at a minimum before going on a winter hike so that you can go with the peace of mind that you’ll know how to handle emergencies if they arise.
3. Hypothermia Knowledge
As mentioned above, it’s important to check the forecast for a couple of reasons. A potential hazard that hasn’t been mentioned yet is hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when the internal temperature of the body dips below 95℉ as a result of being exposed for an extended period of time to cold weather.
Hypothermia can begin to set in at temperatures that are 50℉ or below, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of hypothermia before you set out on a winter hike. Hypothermia can at best be uncomfortable and at worst result in death.
The beginning signs and symptoms of hypothermia are:
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Loss of dexterity in the hands and feet
- Loss of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Face, hands, legs, and arms turn blue
If you or your hiking partner start to experience these symptoms, it’s time to get out of the cold as soon as possible. Go drink something warm, huddle up with your hiking partner to share body heat, and consider building a fire to warm up.
Be very careful to not warm up too quickly in the event that you or your hiking partner has experienced severe hypothermia! If you warm up too quickly, you risk putting a lot of stress on your heart, which could result in a cardiac event like a stroke or heart attack. Slowly warm up to avoid shocking your body.
If you are unsure of how to recognise these signs and symptoms and want professional instruction, sign up for a first aid class. You’ll learn some basic life-saving skills that will come in handy in the event you experience hypothermia on the trail or need mountain rescue teams to be engaged.
A more advanced version of this class would be the Wilderness First Responder course. Check this one out if you plan on spending a lot of time on the trail, regardless of the time of year!
One easy way fo getting temperature control is to of course layer, layer and layer. Whether you are wearing those trendy wool socks or a neck gaiter, winter hiking is all about regulating yourself with good quality winter gear and layering
Navigation is supremely important regardless of the time of year that you go hiking – especially if you are not with an experienced guide who knows trails like the back of his hand. Winter hiking makes navigation tricky because landmarks that usually are very visible in the summer might look different or disappear completely under the snow.
That makes bringing along a GPS or smartphone very important to safely getting to where you intend to go and back. You might be tempted to only follow your tracks in the snow out of where you were hiking, but those tracks might get filled in by new or blowing snow.
A way to ensure that you know where to go when you come back is to bring along trail markers that you can either tie to trees or stick into the snow. Remember to set these at regular intervals to give yourself a reliable trail to follow on your way back.
While that is a good idea, you might lose your trail markers or forget to place them every so often. That’s why it’s important to have a navigational aid like a GPS or smartphone along so you can easily see where you have gone and how to get back to where you started.
But winter conditions often get cold enough to zap electronics of their battery life. That is what makes bringing a map and compass along as a backup navigational tool a must for winter hikers.
Be sure that you know how to use a map and compass properly. This is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced frequently, as it is perishable. If you have never used a compass before or you need a refresher, be sure to do a bit of research on what each part of the compass does as well as basic compass usage.
5. Fire Starting
If you end up in an emergency situation while winter hiking, you’ll definitely want to be able to start a fire quickly. When you go winter hiking, you’ll want to be sure to have the following to make starting an emergency fire as easy as possible:
- Waterproof matches
- A zippo lighter
- A small firestarter
- Knife for cutting kindling
Starting a fire can be a matter of life and death when hiking during the winter. Hypothermia sets in quickly in cold temperatures, so managing your body temperature becomes a top priority during an emergency. Give yourself the best chance to get out alive by bringing those items and knowing how to use them efficiently.
Knowing these skills is not enough though! Be sure to go practice each of these skills regularly so that when you need to use them, you won’t need to think twice. Acting quickly in an emergency can make all the difference in a successful outcome!
Hiking during the summer doesn’t really require very much gear. If you have a set of hiking shoes gathered your hiking poles and a water bottle, that is the minimum amount of gear needed to go hiking! But winter hiking requires some specialized gear to keep you warm and safe throughout your adventure. Be sure to consider adding the following pieces of gear to your kit while planning for your winter hike.
6. Clothing System
Winter hiking requires more clothing than hiking in the summer due to low temperatures as well as the potential dangers of frost bite and hypothermia. As your parents would have told you time and time again, layering your clothes is your first defence against cold weather. So before you go hiking the trails in the winter and thinking “How do you stay warm in winter hiking?”, be sure to have the following pieces of clothing to stay nice and warm!
1. Head covering
Generally, you’ll want to bring along a beanie or other sort of warm head covering. No, headgear is not just for snowfall people! These are important because the human body loses a significant amount of heat through our heads. That’s a big reason why hospitals put beanies on newborn babies! Keep your heat inside your body by keeping your head covered.
2. Face mask
As mentioned earlier, frostbite is a pretty dangerous condition that can occur pretty quickly when skin is exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Frostbite can result in the death of that part of the exposed skin, which could result in a loss of skin or in worst-case scenarios, the loss of an exposed appendage.
The most common severe frostbite injury on the face is usually the nose and ears. Face masks help keep your skin from being exposed during extreme cold. Wool usually works best for face mask fabric as it is breathable, which allows the condensation from your breath to leave the face mask and not saturate it, making the face mask wet.
3. Hardshell jacket
Hardshell jackets are important to bring in snowy conditions because they offer protection against getting wet. Hardshell jackets are waterproof, which makes them a must bring piece of gear while winter hiking. Cold can be uncomfortable. Wet and cold is dangerous.
4. Soft shell jacket
A soft shell jacket is the next layer to bring when going winter hiking. Softshell jackets are usually worn under the hardshell and provide the insulation that your body needs to stay warm throughout your hike.
Softshells can be worn alone, depending on the conditions. If it’s not snowing and the wind isn’t blowing too hard, a softshell jacket is likely sufficient for keeping you nice and warm.
5. Wool or synthetic base layer top and bottom
Under your outer layers, it’s important to have a long sleeve base layer top and bottom on. The fabric of your base layer must be wool or synthetic. Never wear cotton while winter hiking! There is a saying in the outdoor community that “cotton kills.” When wet, cotton tends to stay wet for a long time.
Again, cold can be uncomfortable. Wet and cold is dangerous.
6. Waterproof hiking pants
The pants that you choose to bring are important in staying dry as well. Consider where you’ll be hiking. If you’re hiking in snow, you’ll likely get some on your pants. When you’re moving, your body heat will warm up the snow that clings to your pants, which in turn will melt the snow. This becomes a problem when you slow down to rest and that melted snow has now saturated your pants and will likely result in you getting much colder than if you were dry.
If you’re going into some deep snow, consider wearing bibs! Bibs are basically like ultra-warm overalls. They’re awesome because they prevent snow from going down your backside when you sit down, which will keep your bottom nice and warm when you stop to rest.
7. Wool or synthetic socks
As mentioned before, cotton kills. Your socks need to be made out of wool or another synthetic material to prevent your feet from getting wet and cold. Your socks are likely going to get wet at some point. Whether that is because of snow getting into your boots or sweat coming from your feet, you’ll want to mitigate the potential risk of dealing with wet and cold feet by wearing proper socks made out of wool or another synthetic material.
8. Warm boots
Winter hiking Boots are one of the most important items that hikers take with them whether it’s snow or ice. Winter hiking necessitates that your boots also have a degree of warmth built into them. A standard thing that all winter hikers need to look for when shopping for boots is whether the boot is waterproof or not. Don’t go winter hiking in a non-waterproof boot. That’s asking for trouble!
After that, you’ll want to consider whether you want insulation in your boot. Some hiking boots have what is known as “Thinsulate” which indicates how warm that boot will be. The higher the Thinsulate number, the warmer the boot will be.
Whether you decide to buy a boot with Thinsulate or not is a matter of personal preference. If you can’t stand cold feet, you might want to bring along Thinsulate boots. If you don’t mind cold feet as much, you can probably avoid buying Thinsulate boots.
Gloves are a must for all winter hikers. After the nose and ears, fingers are some of the most vulnerable body parts to experience the effects of frostbite. The last thing that you want to happen is to lose a finger due to the cold!
Plus, cold hands make it difficult to grip or do anything with your hands, which can be dangerous if you need to start a fire in the event of an emergency.
10. Night Stay
Night camping along your trails adds a completely different dimension to your hiking experience and can be a challenge if you find yourself short of preparation. Packing food that’s rich in calories, and a warm sleeping pad goes a long way in enhancing your experience. Covering large areas with tent would be great for communal hiking in summer but winter hikes is all about temperature regulation. Smaller tents and even a sleeping bag tend to keep the heat well so when it comes to night stay and tents, more room is definitely not merrier. Maybe it also is a perfect excuse to cozy up with your partners and indulge in some relationship building activities. Tents can also be used as an emergency shelter and the key is to keep them small and cozy to manage. Keeping a warm water bottle handy to snuggle for some quick heat or a flask of hot chocolate is also a good idea!
11. Special Winter Gear
When you’re hiking in the winter, you’ll likely encounter some weather conditions that you won’t find during the summer. One of the most common winter hiking injuries in the trails is slipping on icy spots. Ice presents a real hazard, because new snow layers can hide treacherous surfaces, which can result in you slipping and falling.
Mitigate this risk by packing along crampons or snowshoes for when you go hiking in the winter. Crampons are basically attachable spikes that turn your boots into cleats. The spikes help dig into the ice, which prevents you from slipping.
If the conditions you’re hiking include deep snow, snowshoes are the better piece of gear to bring along. They offer the same slip protection that crampons do, but they also allow you to walk in deep snow without sinking all the way down.
Snowshoes distribute your weight over a larger surface area, which in turn keeps you from sinking deep into the snow. This helps you hike more efficiently, which will result in you going further and using less energy to get there!
Winter Hiking Tips: Final Thoughts
Going on a hike in winter can be an enjoyable experience when you have the right preparation, skills, and gear to counter the weather. The benefits of hiking with much more solitude compared to hiking during the winter make learning the skills and buying the extra gear worth it. And if having your favourite trail all to yourself doesn’t convince you to try winter hiking, this next benefit might; NO BUGS!
Get your gear together, find a knowledgeable guide, if required and go enjoy a hiking in winter before the snow melts! Mission accomplished….