Winter Hiking: How to Enjoy the Snow and Cold
Now that summer has gone, the autumn leaves are falling, and snow is predicted up in Tahoe next week, I’m equal parts amazed by how quickly things change and excited for the winter hiking in my future!
To be clear, seasons are not some thing I had experience with up until six or so years ago. I grew up in the perpetual spring of Southern California and winter is relatively new to me.
But over the years, and much patient teaching by my German and Canadian friends, I’ve learned how to thrive in snowy conditions, backpacking in the snow in Alaska and Peru, spending hours outside in the Arctic of Canada and Finland, and enjoying winter hikes in Idaho and Wyoming as well!
I came to learn that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad outfit choices. This was reinforced last year when I spent hours outside in the middle of the night in -25 chasing the northern lights – and honestly wasn’t cold!
So don’t swear off outdoor activities just because it’s winter, with the right preparation and clothing, you can enjoy the thinner crowds and the beauty of winter hiking! This is my step by step system:
1. Layers are your friend
Even if it’s crazy cold outside, you might be surprised by how quickly you warm up, and sweat, once you start moving. For this reason layers are important so that you can add and take away as needed.
A good base layer is typically made from synthetic material or merino wool. When cotton gets wet from sweat (and you will sweat!), it takes much longer to dry. This is problematic in the winter where sweat = wet = cold.
I’ve had the same base layer for six years now and have worn it on almost every cold-weather hike. I know that cold weather clothing adds up quickly, but I do recommend going for quality so that your items survive the test of time. It’s better for your wallet and the planet!
With that in mind, all of the items that I recommend are high-quality and should last you a decade or more, and I tend to prefer companies that are ecologically minded and give back, so you will notice a lot of higher-end outdoor brands listed here.
Next we need an intermediate layer that provides lots of warmth. Fleece can be great for this (I have this one and love the fuzziness), and I also like my puffy jacket, which packs up real small but provides lots of warmth for the bulk. After all, no one wants to be walking around looking like the Michelin man. We’ve got to go for function and style here!
Finally, I get a waterproof top layer that is appropriate for the temperature. I bought the winter coat in the photo (this one is very similar) below six years ago and have worn it in everything from just freezing to 25 below.
Before buying a coat, make sure that you’ve looked at what temperature it’s rated for, that it is lined with quality materials, and that it is waterproof.
For my legs I layer as well, usually putting snow pants over thick or even merino wool leggings.
Finally, make sure you have a good beanie on. I prefer ones that are lined if it’s going to be very cold, I also like fleece lined gaiters for my face. If I’m snowmobiling or there will be a windchill, ski goggles can also be a lifesaver.
Finally, what you wear on your hands is super important. My fingers are the first thing to get crazy cold, so I opt for heavy duty gloves. If it’s super cold, I will put hand warmers in them as well and/or opt for mittens so that my fingers can warm each other up.
You’ll have to experiment a bit with what works for you, but at least by having layers you can add and take off as needed.
2. Ensure the fit
Before going out on an epic adventure, make sure that each of your chosen items fit. Since you’re layering, it could end up tighter than it would normally be, so when you try things on, make sure that nothing is too tight or cutting off any circulation. This can make you more vulnerable to frostbite, and we don’t want that!
3. Cover Exposed Skin
If you’re correctly layering, this won’t be a problem, but you want to make sure that you don’t have exposed skin if it’s super cold.
Snow is very reflective, so you can end up with a double whammy of sunburn and potentially frostbite. Keep your eyes protected with sunglasses as well!
4. Choose Your Footwear Correctly
When shopping for boots, one of the first questions is to ask what kind of temperature it’s rated for and to make sure it has room for heavy duty socks.
I opt for wool socks, the same ones I wear hiking, and footwear that are suitable for the activity. So if I am snowshoeing, I usually wear these snow boots. There are also hiking boots specifically made for low temperatures. Pair with snowshoes, crampons, or yak tracks depending on the activity.
I have a couple pairs of snow boots, one that is more for the temperatures we get in the Sierra mountain range, which is usually not too far below freezing, and those that I wear for arctic adventures.
They’re obviously two very different sets of boots. I’d be too hot wearing my Arctic boots here in Reno, but way too cold if I didn’t have them for northern lights chasing in Canada.
If you’re taking a northern lights tour, the companies often will rent the heavy duty gear to you because it does get crazy expensive, so just ask first before spending $1000 on shoes!
5. Stay Dry
This probably goes without saying, but just in case anyone needs to hear it, make sure that you stay dry. If you’re getting snowed on, have gear on that won’t let it melt through to your base layers. This is why I wear snow pants and waterproof jacket.
But the other consideration is your sweat making you wet. This is why we avoid cotton and choose things that will dry quickly.
Remember, if you’re backpacking and aren’t going to have something to warm you up, like a car or a house, staying dry so that you can keep warm is your first concern.
6. Food, Water, and Safety
When hiking in the cold, we have to remember that our food and water can get cold, too. Though heavier, bringing a warm drink in an insulated thermos will usually ensure drinkability. CamelBaks on the other hand are probably better suited to summer hiking, since the tube can freeze easily.
Food can, too, so keep any bars or food well insulated in your bag and consider thawing in your pockets before eating.
Backpacking in the snow? I guess this isn’t your first time backpacking, because that would be quite an advanced adventure to take on, but there are different considerations for backpacking in the snow versus the summer.
One of the biggest things is the trail. I like to have off-line maps downloaded so that I can use GPS to locate the trail when it’s covered in snow.
You’ve also got to be hyper vigilant about avalanches, ice, hollow parts under the trail where snow may have melted, and keeping your batteries warm for headlamps and devices. The cold will kill them real quick!
Talk to the Rangers or get as much information as you can before you head out so that you have a better idea of what you’re getting into. You may need extra fuel to melt snow for water, you almost certainly will have heavier gear, and it’s possible that you will need crampons, or even ice axes.
If you have never hiked in the snow before, go with someone who has experience so that you can learn. You may even need some mountaineering skills depending on the steepness of the trail.
You will also need a sleeping bag that is made for credibly cold weather. They can get expensive, but stores like REI will sometimes rent them out. I have a list of backpacking gear here.
Remember to keep an eye on your friends and make sure people aren’t shivering or experiencing tingling or numbness. If you can change the environment or move away from whatever is causing the issue, do so. Most importantly, be prepared with warm enough gear.
And enjoy the adventure!