A coating of snow can make a hiking trail breathtakingly scenic and blissfully uncrowded. But safe winter hiking requires some additional planning and equipment. Here’s what you need to know…
Winter Hiking Gear
Warmth and waterproof are the two key features to keep you safe and comfortable on cold, snowy or icy winter hikes…
Winter hiking boots are waterproof and much more heavily insulated than other hiking boots. Many manufacturers also claim that their winter boots have soles that grip especially well on ice, but don’t put too much faith in those claims—even the best soles will slip on ice. Fortunately, most winter boots also are designed to be compatible with aids such as microspikes and snowshoes that can dramatically improve traction (see below). Just three decades ago, they tended to be big and bulky, like military surplus gear, but advances in fabrics and insulation mean they’re now lightweight, comfortable and breathable. Some are designed to protect hikers in remarkably cold temperatures, as low as –40°F, but a boot rated to –20°F or below should be more than sufficient for most day hikes. Recommended: Oboz Bridger 10-inch Men’s Insulated Boot and nine-inch Women’s Insulated Boot, $199*…and Salomon Toundra Pro CSWP Snow Boot for men or women, $200.
Microspikes are like tire chains for the feet. They typically attach to hiking boots with strong rubber or elastic straps, positioning metal chains and small spikes underfoot to dramatically reduce the odds of slipping on ice. The marketing materials of many winter hiking boots claim their soles grip well on ice, but don’t believe it—no rubber sole grips anywhere near as well as metal spikes. Most products are relatively easy to put on and take off, so you can adjust depending on the ground conditions. They’re most useful when the trail is icy, which is especially likely when earlier hikers have tamped down all the snow. Recommended: Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System, $70/pair…Hillsound Trail Crampons, $65/pair. Both fit a wide range of winter footwear and rarely slip off, a chronic problem with lesser products.
Snowshoes are like portable platforms that strap onto your boots, preventing your feet from sinking deeply into soft snow. Without snowshoes, walking in snow that’s deeper than a few inches quickly becomes a tiring and unpleasant battle. Snowshoes also have metal teeth underneath to provide grip on icy surfaces.
You don’t wear microspikes and snowshoes at the same time, but unless you’re certain about trail conditions, it’s worth having both with you so that you can switch between them as needed. Snowshoes are too bulky to fit in the typical backpack, but they can be strapped to it. They should be worn with winter hiking boots. Recommended: Atlas Serrate, available in versions for men, $265, and women, $203…MSR Evo Ascent, $200. Snowshoes come in many different sizes, shapes and styles, however, so before buying consider trying out a few different models to determine what feels best to you. Many ski centers and REI locations rent snowshoes.
Helpful: Walking in snowshoes is awkward at first, and novices sometimes trip. Using ski poles can greatly help with balance. Walk with a slightly wider gait than normal, as if riding a horse, to reduce the odds that you’ll step one snowshoe onto the other. Don’t attempt to step backward or turn around quickly while wearing snowshoes—walk instead in a tight circle.
Gaiters strap onto your lower legs over the pants and boot tops to prevent snow from getting into boots when hiking or snowshoeing. “High” gaiters, which come up almost to the knee, are best when there’s more than a few inches of snow on the ground. These typically have a strap that goes under the sole of the boot. Confirm that the boots you select have a gap or arch in the sole that is sufficiently wide enough to fit the strap of the gaiters you intend to purchase. Otherwise this strap would wear against the ground. Recommended: Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters, available in men’s and women’s versions, are thick and insulating, providing an extra layer of warmth for the lower legs, around $60 for most sizes and styles…REI Backpacker Gaiters, $55, are waterproof but lightweight and breathable…as are Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain High Gaiters, available in versions for men and women, $45.
Socks worn while winter hiking should be wool or synthetic, never cotton, which absorbs moisture and will leave your feet cold and uncomfortable. Recommended: Darn Tough Mountaineering Socks, available in men’s and women’s versions, $30.
Water bottles should have a mouth nearly as wide as the bottle itself—wide-mouth bottles are less likely to freeze shut on frigid hikes than are narrow-mouth bottles. Recommended: Nalgene 32-ounce Wide Mouth Water Bottle, $9.
Store water bottles upside down in your backpack—after confirming that they don’t leak—to further reduce the odds that the mouth will freeze shut. Wrapping bottles inside insulated gear such as a spare shirt or sock inside your backpack also reduces freezing risk. There also are insulators that keep your bottle somewhat protected from cold temps even when clipped to the outside of your backpack, saving you from having to dig through your backpack each time you want a drink. Recommended: Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka, $32.
Naturally, you’ll also need other cold-weather clothing such as jackets, hats and gloves, but the winter gear you already own for activities such as shoveling snow or skiing might suffice. Wear multiple layers that you can remove and stow in your backpack as needed. If you hike or snowshoe aggressively, your body is likely to generate so much heat that you find yourself removing layers even though it’s cold out, but it’s still vital to have enough layers with you that you would be safe and comfortable if you stopped moving—whether that’s to take a break and enjoy the scenery or because you’re injured and must wait for help. Avoid cotton, which provides little insulation when it gets wet, and choose moisture-wicking base layers.
Pack multiple pairs of socks and gloves so that you can change these if they become wet from sweat or snow.
Remember to wear sunglasses and sunscreen. Sunlight can be as punishing to the skin and eyes in winter as in summer.
Winter Hiking Strategy
Hike with a partner or group. Also let a friend who isn’t coming on the hike know where you’ll be hiking and when to call the authorities if you fail to report in. Naturally, you should bring your phone on the hike so you can call for help if necessary, but don’t depend entirely on a phone for safety—hiking trails often are in areas with poor cell reception, and cold temperatures reduce battery life, which means your phone might run out of power sooner than expected. A whistle is a simple and effective winter-hiking safety tool, calling help to your location if you get lost or hurt. If your phone battery life isn’t great, it’s worth bringing a portable battery pack and cord to recharge it as well.
Your first few winter hikes should be relatively modest distances—half the distance or less that you could comfortably hike during warmer months. Hiking requires more effort and energy per mile in snow, especially deep snow that requires snowshoe use.
Carry a printed map of the trail system even if the trail is well marked and/or you can access a trail map on your phone’s GPS. Some trail markings might be obscured by snow, and GPS can be deceiving at a walking pace—the GPS might misinterpret which direction you’re traveling and point you the wrong way, for example. Also, your phone’s GPS can’t help you if the battery runs down. Hiking on trails you already have traversed during warm months also reduces the odds that you’ll get lost, though trails can look very different under a layer of snow.
Drink water before beginning a winter hike—as much as a liter. It’s easy to become dangerously dehydrated on winter hikes, because you’re not only sweating, you’re also expelling moisture with each breath in the dry air. If you hydrate immediately before the hike, you’re much less likely to become dehydrated on the trail.
*All prices in this article reflect recent prices from major online sellers.