Hiking season doesn’t have to be over just because winter has arrived. On the contrary, winter hiking can offer wonderful rewards that are very different from those you’ll find on summer trails. These include dramatic, snow-covered landscapes, a unique sense of stillness and peace, and the satisfying feeling that comes from getting fresh air and exercise instead of staying bundled up inside while you wait for warmer weather to return.
However, winter hiking does bring specific challenges as well as new satisfactions. In order to stay safe and comfortable while you’re on the trail, it’s particularly important to plan ahead and prepare carefully. Here are eight essential tips to follow before and during a winter hike:
1. Choose your trail wisely.
Finding a hiking destination that’s a good fit for your experience level is important at any time of year, but especially so in winter. Cold weather, fresh snow, and icy conditions can all add extra layers of difficulty to any trail. This means that it’s a good idea to choose a shorter, easier trail than usual for winter hiking.
2. Check the weather and trail conditions.
When you’re hiking in winter, you should not only check the weather forecast carefully, but the trail conditions as well. Recent weather events may have significantly impacted your chosen destination—for example, a major snowfall might have cut off access to some parts of the trail—and you don’t want to discover this when you’re already halfway through your hike.
Visiting local online hiking forums can help you get a sense of up-to-date trail conditions. For snow conditions, try checking out forecasts from a nearby ski resort.
3. Maximize daylight.
When planning your winter hike, don’t forget that the days are much shorter than they are in the summer! This might seem like an obvious point, but winter hikers are often taken by surprise by how early the sun sets (especially in mountainous areas), and by just how dark it gets afterwards.
To stay safe on the trail, get an early start, choose a shorter hike, and plan to be finished well before sunset. And don’t forget to carry a light source, like a headlamp, in case you do get caught out after dark.
4. Be avalanche aware.
In the mountains, avalanches are a real possibility, and it’s important to take them seriously. When planning your hike, check out avalanche warnings and information for your destination on avalanche.org. If you don’t have any avalanche training, it may be best to steer clear of hiking trails where there is any level of risk.
5. Bring the proper gear.
We could devote many, many blog posts to the question of what gear you should take on a winter hike, but here is a quick shortlist. Specific items you’ll want for winter hiking (in addition to everything you would take on a regular hike) include: fleece gloves and waterproof shell mittens; waterproof boots; traction devices (slip-on or clip-on devices for your boots that help you get a grip on snow and ice); gaiters (if you’ll be hiking in deeper snow); and warm headgear. Optional extras include hand warmers, hiking poles for extra stability, and snowshoes if you’re hitting a particularly snowy trail.
6. Stay cool.
Believe it or not, when you’re planning what to wear on your winter hike, you’ll want to focus on staying cool rather than staying warm. Many winter hikers follow the mantra “Be bold, start cold”: this means that you should wear as few layers as possible when starting out on your hike, trusting that you’ll warm up as soon as you get moving.
The idea is to sweat as little as possible, because a lot of sweat sitting on your skin will cool you down fast and increase your risk of hypothermia (this is what can happen if you bundle up too much at the start of your hike). To help avoid this, choose a base layer that wicks moisture away from your skin, wear as few layers over that as you can when you’re in motion, and save your super-insulating, warm layers for breaks.
7. Keep your gadgets warm.
Cold and electronics don’t play well together. Some devices will operate more slowly or shut down completely if temperatures are too low, and most batteries will drain more quickly.
Naturally, this can pose problems if you’re relying on a smartphone or GPS device for navigation, or if you’re planning to use your phone or a digital camera to take pictures of beautiful winter scenery. To help protect your gadgets, carry them in an inside pocket, close to your body, so they’ll retain as much warmth as possible.
8. Stay hydrated.
When temperatures are cold, you may not feel very thirsty. However, your body still needs plenty of water to keep you moving and to help you stay warm.
To avoid becoming dehydrated during and after winter hikes, make sure you’re drinking water regularly, even if you don’t feel like you need to. If the idea of drinking freezing water from a bottle while you’re out on a cold hike isn’t appealing, consider bringing along hot water in a thermal mug.