Just because you can’t see the ground doesn’t mean you can’t hike on it. Snow and cold shouldn’t stop you from hiking as long as you prepare properly. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather—just poor gear. Here are our top tips to make winter hiking safe and comfortable.
Check the weather conditions—not just the temperature—at your hiking destination, and be prepared to turn around if the conditions get bad. Come prepared to spend the night outdoors—it probably won’t happen, but just in case it does, pack a thermal blanket (or a sleeping bag), extra food, water, hand warmers, and a head lamp. And, of course, bring standard hiking safety gear: a compass, a map, a first-aid kit, and a multi-tool or knife.
Ideally, go with a friend or a group of friends. The stakes are a lot higher with winter hiking, so if you’re going to hike solo, make sure someone knows where you’re going, what route you’re taking, and approximately when you expect to be back.
Layers and layers
It may be freezing, but after tromping along on the trail, you may still get hot. Make sure you stay comfortable and dry by dressing in easily removable layers. Start with a base layer of moisture-wicking fabric like merino wool or a synthetic fabric—avoid cotton, which will hold water and leave you feeling cold and damp. The next layer should be warm and insulating—think fleece, goose down, and other cozy fabrics. Your outer layer should help repel water and cut wind.
The right gear can mean the difference between a pleasant winter hike and a frozen death march. This stuff is pretty much indispensable for winter camping:
- Waterproof boots and pants
- Snowshoes or YakTrax if necessary
- Insulated coat with a wind-breaking outer layer
- Lightweight backpack
- Hat, gloves, and neck warmer
- Wrap-around sunglasses or goggles
- Hiking poles
- Wool socks with sock liners
Nice-to-have gear can include a lightweight portable stove (for on-the-trail coffee), crampons for icy trails (just make sure you know how to use them safely), and an ice ax (again, make sure you know how to use one safely). Also consider bringing extra gloves or socks in case yours get wet.
Location, location, location
Do a little research and find trails in your areas that are well travelled by winter hikers. Remember that access roads may not be plowed, so either allow for extra walking to get to the trailhead or gear up for some intense winter driving. Also, keep in mind that hiking in snow or on ice takes much longer than walking on dirt or grass, so plan your hike accordingly. Take sunset into account as well—it’s earlier at this time of year, so set out earlier as well.
Bonus hint: carry your water bottle upside down
You can carry your drinks in a Thermos, but if you’re using a regular water bottle, do what climbers do on Mount Kilimanjaro: fill your water bottle with warm water, and carry it upside down. Starting with warm water means it freezes more slowly, and carrying your bottle upside down will cause the bottom to freeze before the top, meaning you’ll have liquid available longer. Of course, you have to make sure it doesn’t leak first!
Where is your favourite place to hike in the winter?