For so many people, hiking in winter conditions feels impossible. Layering for the cold weather, purchasing the extra gear, and executing a hike with limited room for error can feel daunting. As someone who was once intimidated by cold temperatures, I’m excited to share 15 unique tip to make winter hiking fun.
I‘m here to share 15 actionable winter hiking tips that will have you on the trail tomorrow. What are you waiting for? Let’s get you outside!
Actionable Tips for Winter Hiking
1. Layering is Key when Winter Hiking.
Layers of clothing, how do I do it? What do I wear and where? You want to be warm without sweating profusely. Once your clothing is wet its ability to retain heat becomes impaired. It’s important that you choose each layer properly so that you can shed clothing items are you hike and your body temperature increases.
How Do You Layer For a Winter Hike?
Layer 1: Base Layer. Thin, sweat wicking synthetic fabric on top and bottom
Layer 2: Middle Layers. Merino Wool or Polyester Material
Layer 3: Insulating Layer. Puffy Zippered Vest (this is generally what I wind up hiking in)
Layer 4: Insulating Layer. Puffy Jacket with hood (worn or packed to start your hike!)
Layer 5: Outer Layer. Hard Shell, waterproof Pants and Jacket
Layer 6: Accessories (Necessities)! Fleece Hat, Waterproof Gloves, Wool Socks /Battery-powered Heated Socks, & Gaiters
Footwear: Insulated Winter Hiking Boot / Waterproof Boots
**Always pack an extra pair of each accessory!**
2. Allow Yourself Appropriate Time Frames
Hiking and Snowshoeing require similar effort (unless you’re breaking trail that is!), however, snowshoeing will take you longer. Please allow yourself more time to hike a trail in the snowy, winter months! Plan small for your first couple of winter adventures to see what speed you generally move at; it’s only up from here!
Breaking Trail means that you are the first person to walk over the untouched snow. The deeper the snow, the more difficult it will be to break trail. It’s important that you wear snowshoes when the snow is 6″ or deeper. If the trail is hard packed snow, you can wear micro spikes for traction.
3. Winter Hiking Equipment is Important
There’s always so much to plan for! First and foremost, make sure you have a good understanding of what your hike will entail and what kind of gear you might need. You absolutely need the right gear to take on winter hiking. Depending on what type of terrain you’re tackling you’ll need different traction devices.
- Snowshoes are needed to safe travel in deeper snow. Hiking through snow without snowshoes may cause you to post hole. Pot holing means your foot is taking a vertical plunge into a blanket of snow with each step. This is dangerous for you and future hikers (don’t do it.)
- Micro spikes are preferred for hiking on packed snow. They’re also ideal for ice travel on flat terrain or low-angle slopes. The spikes are relatively short, inexpensive, and easy to carry. I suggest always having your micro spikes in your backpack from November through April.
- Crampons provide you with traction on steep icy surfaces. An ice axe allows you to arrest your fall in the event that you slip. Crampons are intended for use on ice in high incline areas or when technical mountaineering. Odds are, if you’re reading this post you won’t be needed Crampons quite yet.
What do I Need To Pack For Winter Hiking?
- Backpack: Gregory Zulu
- First Aid Kit
- Hand Warmers/ Foot Warmers
- Water (64oz.)
- Extra Hat
- Extra Gloves
- Spare Socks
- Packable Down Coat
- Ten Essentials (Fire Starter, Navigation, Headlamp, Knife, etc.)
- Duct Tape
- Camp Blanket/Bivy/Sleeping Bag
- Personal Location Beacon ($$$, but could save your life!)
4. Take a Course and Educate Yourself
As always, with any kind of wilderness adventure, please make sure you are appropriately equipped in both gear and knowledge. You can usually find basic trainings and pertinent information through local organizations. If you’re having trouble, look on-line!
Great places to start includes the Leave No Trace Principles! Local Mountain Clubs and Organizations might also offer classes on winter safety, avalanche training, and more. I would also suggest that all outdoor enthusiasts look into taking a wilderness first aid course as well (or at a minimum read up on proper winter first aid needs.)
5. Follow All Leave No Trace Principles
There are 7 Leave No Trace Principles that all people outdoors should follow:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors.
Ones that really stick out to me in winter include planning and preparing, disposing of waste properly, and being considerate of other visitors.
Disposing of waste properly is big for me… and it should be for you too. Please pack out all of your toilet paper, all of the time. If you plan ahead and prepare it should be easy for you to be considerate of other visitors. No one wants to see your human waste or toilet paper along the trail.
6. Snack Storage is Important
Store snacks close to your core for heat and easy access. There are creative ways to keep your trail snacks from freezing, but I find that keeping them in inner-layer pockets is the best option.
It’s also important to have access to your fuel when you need it. The cold can convince us we’re not hungry for a number of seasons, but it’s likely you are. You may not feel hungry, but cold temperatures and breaking trail through the snow requires a lot of energy; make sure you are appropriately equipped with enough snacks!
7. Water Freezes
Store your water bottles lid-side-down in your pack. This will just change ‘the top’ which is likely to freeze first. Having a wide mouth opening and filling your water bottle with warm water before departure also help prevent water from freezing.
Pro Tip: Insulated water bottles will take longer to freeze!
8. The Cold is Draining
The cold causes batteries to die faster. Keep this in mind if you plan on using your phone, a headlamp, or a camera while winter hiking.
You can use hand and body warmers to keep these items warm while you’re hiking. I find that if my phone is in my vest pocket, it stays warm enough through my body heat. My head lamp, however, stays in my pack and it usually wrapped up in my extra hat and socks. You would be well-prepared to pack extra batteries for your headlamp.
Please, for the love of all things holy, utilize a paper map and never rely on your cellphone out there, no matter the temperature. Reference your phone if it makes you happy, but please carry additional navigation and know how to use it.
9. Warm Drinks Bring Life!
Pack a thermos full of hot cocoa, coffee, or tea! A great insulated bottle should keep this warm for a few hours. Warm yourself up from the inside out with a simple sip.
My favorite hot beverage for the trail is a protein hot cocoa! Mix your favorite flavor of protein powder with a half scoop of hot chocolate, hot water, and a splash of mile (or eggnog if you’re feeling fancy). Have a toasty beverage that will benefit your nutrition needs at the same time!
10. Plan for Seasonal Road Closures
Seasonal roads are seasonal for a reason. Many trails begin deep into access roads. It’s important tat you do your research ahead of time to know what you’re getting yourself into.
An extra half mile each way isn’t terrible. An extra 3 miles each way is borderline not worth it.
Don’t count seasonal road trailheads out entirely. Many seasonal roads do allow snowmobile access. This may be an option for you if this is a hobby of yours. Additionally, if you are a cross-country skier, you might find that skiing your way to the trailhead is faster and easier than hiking it.
11. Be Aware of the Weather Forecast
Take a look at the weather forecast and plan your dat accordingly. Check temperature, wind chill, visibility, precipitation, and sunrise and set. Keep in mind that temperatures and weather change at higher elevations.
The sun sets earlier in the winter. It’s important to keep this in mind. Although it’s nice to catch later sunrises and/or earlier sunsets on the trail, getting caught in the dark without additional layers and a light source could be disastrous.
12. Colder Days = Clearer Skies
This one might be tough to swallow… the colder it is the clearer the sky. My favorite winter hikes with the most gorgeous views have been my coldest days on the trail.
At the trailhead for this hike it was negative 12 degrees. We warmed right up and enjoyed every second of the trail! It was worth it to bundle up for these bluebird skies and empty summits.
13. Know What Hypothermia Looks Like
Frostbite and hypothermia are no joke! If you’re properly layered and geared up with a warm hat, toasty mittens, and proper footwear you should be okay. Regardless, it’s important to know what these things look like and what your next steps are.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
- Core body temperature drop.
- Exhaustion or feeling very tired.
- Fumbling hands.
- Memory loss.
- Slurred speech.
- Loss of consciousness.
If you are noticing these signs in yourself or someone on the trail take action quickly. Take their temperature if you have the ability to. If its below 95 degrees, seek medical attention immediately. In the meantime, do everything you can to warm up the core body temperature.
- Move away from wind and water,
- remove wet clothing,
- gradually warm with movement, heat packs, additional layers, and/or friction,
- offer warm, sugary beverages if available, and
- begin CPR if needed
14. Don’t Follow Footprints
It’s easier to follow footprints in the winter. They’re just too temping, I know, but try your very best not to…
Follow trail markers. You can’t trust the people who have hiked the trail before you!
15. Make a Plan and Share It
Write out a very specific plan and share it with someone you trust. This plan should include what trailhead you’ll be starting from, any spur trails you plan on taking, and what time you plan on starting your hike. Once you share this information with a loved one, give them a time you will reach them by on the day of your hike.
It’s important that you take into consideration that you might have to leave the trailhead and drive for a bit until you have cell phone service when calculating a time. If you do not reach out to this individual by the scheduled time, it’s their responsibility to first, call you and then second, call the DEC and/or State Police. Make sure your plan is detailed enough that you can easily be found if you need help!
Why Do People Like Winter Hiking?
- Trails are often desolate; few people want to brave the cold temperatures or own the proper gear to do so so you’ll often have a normally busy trail to yourself.
- Snow and freezing temperatures vastly change your favorite trails making them seem almost brand new. Your senses are surprised by new smells and sights on the same ‘old’ trails you’re used to! But be warned, the trail might not be as easy to follow so be sure to brush up on your navigation skills.
- In the winter months, your phobia of bugs and/or fear of animals on the trail is pretty much diminished! Enjoy the lack of bug spray, bear spray, and bug bites at the end of your hike.
Hit the Trail for Some Winter Hiking
Now that you have the tips and confidence to get outside this winter, let’s hook you up with a few amazing Adirondack winter hiking trails.
- High Falls Gorge
A quick mile loop with gorgeous views f the Ausable River
- Heavens Hills
2.4 miles of intertwined hiking and cross-country skiing trails just outside of Lake Placid.
- Bald Mountain
Take a scenic 2 mile trip up to Rondaxe Fire Tower in Old Forge.
Check out out the entire list of Adirondack Winter Hikes and put these tips to the test.
Although winter hiking does require more planning, additional gear, and extra safety precautions, it’s a fairly accessible winter recreation activity. Unlike skiing or snowboarding which requires expensive gear, lift tickets, and a certain level of skill, anyone can start winter hiking as long as they’re properly prepared! I hope this helps you to make it outside this winter.