Temperatures got you down? Too much snow in the mountains to hike? Are your favorite lakes frozen over? Don’t put your backpacking gear away, go winter hiking instead!
Embarking on a winter hike can be the first step towards combating seasonal depression and beginning a lifestyle of outdoor living, year-round. Knowing how to prepare, what to pack, and what to expect are the first steps to enjoying the cold part of the year.
Why Would I Even Want to Hike During the Winter?
Whenever I engage in a conversation about winter hiking, the first response I usually receive is, why? Of course, my non-agreeable personality shows its true colors as I usually answer, why not? And leave for the hike.
I will spare you my cranky demeanor and thoroughly explain as to why I simply love winter hiking.
There are no Crowds When Winter hiking
First and foremost, the lack of crowds makes every trail simply delightful. The beauty of winter hiking is that I don’t have to drive to the farthest trailhead or embark on a 20 mile hike to find solitude. Instead, I can hike popular viewpoints and trailheads close by. During the summer, these places are swarming with children, dogs, and people. When it’s cold outside, I am the only one there. I find these hikes more relaxing and I am able to absorb what makes the hikes so popular in the first place. Usually, the best photo opportunities can be found at the most heavily used areas. Winter hiking is a good time to indulge in social media posting and get those sweet notifications from a well taken photograph.
Hiking in the Snow is Absolutely Stunning
If you have a favorite hike or a landscape you simply love, try seeing it with a fresh coat of snow. This layer of white creates an entirely new experience. The trees are seemingly blanketed in powder and the ground radiates energy as it reflects the sun’s rays. Mountains are covered in white and the valleys are reduced to pastoral scenes that harken back to simpler times. Winter is a reminder of how the seasons ultimately dictate the pace of life. And this is only during daylight hours.
Hiking through the snow after the sun has gone down promises a magical experience. The snow reflects your headlamp like a million tiny diamonds. The accumulated powder absorbs the sound of your footsteps and the sound of silence is deafening. The cold air enhances your senses, your eyes taking full advantage of the minuscule light reflections bouncing off the snow. Even your sense of smell is better during a winter hike.
No foliage and no Bugs
Have you ever had a picture thwarted by trees obscuring the view? During winter months, most trees lose their foliage and the views open up for miles. There are some hikes that completely surprised me with sweeping panoramas because I had only hiked them during the warmer months. Without leaves on the trees, the world opens up and the undulating topography can expand before your eyes.
Do you like mosquitos? During the winter there are no bugs, no mosquito, no flies, no ticks, nothing is alive during this time of year. You don’t have to smell like bug spray or worry about taking breaks and being eaten alive. This is also the best time of year to use a tarp to camp with. You don’t need a bug net and this can reduce some weight in your pack. What else could you do if you didn’t have to worry about insects?
Preparing for a Winter Hike
Will all the benefits of wintertime practically begging you to go outside, you might be thinking it’s time to prepare for this venture. Without preparation, winter hiking can lose all of its fun and be downright dangerous.
If you haven’t noticed, preparation is a constant theme on this website. Read more into prepping for thru-hikes here.
Dressing for the Elements
If you don’t already know, winter hiking promises to be a cold experience. And I mean it. This is not a quick run from the office to the car. This is potentially a multi-mile expedition into a frozen landscape. Bringing the proper gear and dressing in layers is of the absolute importance.
The first layer to put on is your base layer. This is relatively thin material that goes directly against your skin. Ideally, it includes both pants and a long sleeve top. The idea of the base layer is to protect your epidermis against sweat and hypothermia. It also acts as the last defense to snow melt or rain permeating your outer layers. Because the base layer needs to insulate even when wet, never use cotton. And why no cotton? Cotton absorbs up to 27 times its weight in water. The best material, in my opinion, is 100% wool. It insulates when wet, is comfortable, and is naturally anti-microbial. Wool does not smell as bad as polyester materials and this benefit cannot be overstated, especially if you have a partner. Most importantly, make sure your base layer is comfortable. This will be your second skin during the winter time.
Wearing insulated, waterproof pants is the best way to stay dry and warm on a winter hike. Unless you have been cursed by a dry winter, any outdoor hiking or activities will be undertaken in the snow. Snow pants are usually built for physical activities, either snowboarding, skiing, or shoveling. The loose fit makes physical activities easier to undertake. No reason to dress like you’re going to the moon, make sure you are comfortable to hike.
I was caught in a winter storm, in patagonia, for nearly 24 hours. Heavy wet snow thoroughly saturated by soft shell rain jacket and I would have been in big trouble if it wasn’t for my wool sweater. Ever since then, wool has been on my shortlist of materials to wear. You don’t necessarily need a wool sweater. But it is a good idea to wear some type of insulated, thicker layer over your core. If you can keep your heart warm, your blood will pump into your extremities much easier. This phenomenon of losing feeling in your fingers and toes is a survival mechanism against hypothermia. Your body will keep the blood flowing to the more important organs, like the heart and brain, sacrificing your fingers and toes to stay alive. Wearing a warm layer on your upper body can save you from having cold toes and fingers.
If not the most important part of your wardrobe, it’s certainly the most fashionable. My first recommendation is to invest in a well insulated and waterproof jacket. Another great alternative is a heavy down coat. Your winter coat needs to be large enough to allow for freedom of movement but not to loose that it allows snow inside. Make sure it has a hood. On the windiest of days, using a hood to cover your head and face can be a lifesaver.
Gloves or mittens? I will always argue that mittens are superior. Separating your fingers by thin pieces of cloth will never offer the insulation necessary on the coldest of days. The right pair of mittens will provide comfortable warmth day and night. Always use waterproof mittens. This will allow you to throw snowballs without soaking your fingers.
My preferred hat is the Canadian fur trapper hat, with the flaps on the side. Extra points if you have one with real fur on the inside. But of course, this is a personal preference. As long as your head and ears are covered, your hat is doing its job.
Wearing either a mask or a scarf will protect the sensitive skin on your face. Unless you want to suffer from wind burn or even frostbite, cover up all exposed skin. A ski mask or a scarf provides exceptional coverage. Couple one of these with a hat and a hood and you are ready for anything.
The most important choice of socks is what they are made from. If you have been following the trend of this article, you can probably guess that wool socks are your top choice. Naturally warm, investing in a couple pairs of thick, winter, wool socks can save your toes from unnecessary frostbite. This being said, it is important your socks are not so thick that they prevent circulation to your toes.
Waterproof and insulated, make sure your winter boots are prepared for the challenges of winter. For the right pair, this investment can be an extremely hefty one. But unlike hiking shoes, a solid pair of winter boots should last you a few seasons. When trying them on, wear your winter socks. Ensure the circulation to your toes is ample.
Hand and toe warmers
Are you aware of those little packets of dirt, that when exposed to air heat up? Well, I never go on a winter trip without them. My mittens have a pouch that can hold the packet and I throw one into each of my boots to keep my toes warm. If you’re like me, you may suffer from poor circulation, especially during the winter. Once I started using hand warmers, my life completely changed. I actually began to enjoy winter.
Layers and sweat
On any winter hike, it is vital to dress in layers. This will prepare you for any temperature swings or weather fronts. At the beginning of the hike, you are most likely to be extremely cold. Wearing all of your layers at the beginning is smart. This will help your blood start flowing and acclimate your body to the weather. As the hike gets underway, your core temperature will warm, faster than expected. At this point, you need to pay close attention to how hot you are becoming. Sweating on a winter hike can be a remedy for hypothermia. All that water against your skin will freeze once your body temperature drops.Taking off layers to mitigate sweating is the perfect solution.
Different Ways of “Hiking” During the Winter
As hiking goes, it can be a fairly simple activity. Walking, no matter where the walking occurs, doesn’t take much critical thinking. The ground can be wet, muddy, rocky, sandy, but overall, it is fairly stable and easy enough to walk over. During the winter months, you are challenged with a different type of ground cover, snow and ice. Snow does not provide a hard surface for your feet to step on. Instead, it lets your boots sink and can spill over the top of your foot. Falling into deeper snow can make forward progress almost impossible. Hiking through the snow can easily become an exercise in futility, with the snow preventing any actual hiking from occurring.
If your favorite hiking areas are blanketed in the fluffy white stuff, you might want to try an alternative to walking.
If the snow is deep enough, strapping snowshoes onto your boots could be the perfect option. Hiking through deep snow is nearly impossible with only traditional boots. Your body weight is centered on your feet, and it causes your legs to plunge through the snow. This makes any type of hiking extremely difficult and basically impossible.
What snowshoes do is spread your body weight over a larger surface area. This reduces each step’s impact on the snow and will prevent you from falling through deep snow. Polar bears have wide paws, over 12 inches, to better distribute their weight across ice and snow. Walking in snowshoes is like being a polar bear and that is always a good thing.
Snowshoe Tips and Tricks
Although similar to hiking, using snowshoes is not without its own set of challenges.
- Take it slow. Even with snowshoes on, hiking in the snow is hard and slow going. If you are used to covering 20+ miles in a day, cut your mileage in half. Snow is not an easy surface to walk over. Some areas may be deeper than others. Areas could be frozen while other areas are only powder. Snowshoes are also heavy, even if you invest in a lightweight pair, these are no trailrunners. More weight on your feet, colder temperatures, and snow, all combined promise a slower and harder hike. Of course, you do get the benefits of climbing mountains covered in snow and breathing in the cleanest air of the year.
- Use your toes. When investing in snowshoes, be sure there are spikes underneath the toes. I recommend models that incorporate metal teeth as I feel anything made of plastic will break. These spikes will be a god send when climbing uphill. As the mountain gets steeper near the peak, you will have to rely on these spikes to arrest any downward falls.
- Use the right boots. Picking out the right pair of winter boots is instrumental in having well fitting snowshoes. Look for boots that have a hard body, allowing the snowshoe straps to securely tighten around them. Also, waterproof boots will stop any of the snow from leaking into your toes.
If walking through the snow seems slow, why not try skiing? Faster than snowshoeing, cross-country skiing takes winter activities to a new level. Able to be used on any kind of snow cover, this is a great way to experience the back-country.
Unlike snowshoes, going uphill on skis is a much more difficult process. Harder, but not impossible, many ski hills are offering cross country skis for guests who are interested in climbing the slopes. Deciding on which trail to undertake is completely up to you but my recommendation would be to start on flat surfaces.
Are there any frozen lakes nearby? Cross-country skiing over the surface of a lake provides an incredible experience. I particularly enjoy doing this activity at night, underneath the milky way. Without any topography in my way, I can glide on my skis, free from worry.
Cross-Country Skiing Tips and Tricks
Faster than snowshoeing, cross-country skiing is no walk in the park.
- This is harder than it looks. Instead of walking, you are skiing. This process involves lifting your heel off the ski while keeping your toe strapped down. Unconventional, the mechanics take some getting used to. It is also an entirely new way of locomotion, promising to burn calories and provide you a workout.
- Look ahead. Unlike snowshoes, skis are much longer. When taking them into the back-country, look out for fallen trees and rocks. If you get into a rhythm, sliding one ski under a log can quickly knock you over. Like anything in the outdoors, cross-country skiing takes practice.
This Winter, go for a Hike
Don’t let seasonal depression get you down this winter. There are ample opportunities to enjoy that fresh powder and still get a workout in. Whether you want to go on a hike, use snowshoes, or try cross-country skiing, the winter could easily turn into your favorite season.