In this post, you'll learn how to make the most out of winter hiking--what gear to pack, how to keep warm, how to walk in the snow and where to find gorgeous winter trails.
Hiking in the snow is a totally different experience than hiking on a dirt trail. You just can't shuffle your way down the path. You have to walk deliberately in snow, lifting your leg high as your feet sink into the snow. You may also posthole, which happens when you step on a soft patch of snow and sink up to your waist.
Let's dive in with some of the essential gear items you'll need to take with you.
When hiking in the winter, you'll come across three significant types of trail conditions: dirt and mud, soft snow, and hard-packed snow and ice. Because winter weather can change extremely fast, your gear (esp. your footwear) should be versatile enough so that you can hike comfortably and safely regardless of the conditions.
|Tent||Slingfin Portal 2||39 oz|
|Footprint||2mm Painter's Drop Cloth Tarp||1.0 oz|
|Stakes||Shephard Hooks stake kit||2.8 oz|
|Backpack||HMG 3400 Ice Pack||29.7 oz|
|Pack liner||Trash Compacter Bag||0.5 oz|
|Sleeping bag / quilt||REI Co-op Magma 15||28.0 oz|
|Sleeping pad||Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm||15.0 oz|
|Pillow||Klymit Pillow X||1.9 oz|
|Stove||MSR DragonFly w fuel||14.1 oz|
|Stove fuel||11 oz fuel bottle||4.3 oz|
|Pot||Toaks Titanium 750 ml||3.9 oz|
|Spork||Sea to Summit||0.5 oz|
|Knife||Spyderco Honeybee||0.5 oz|
|Lighter||Mini Bic||0.5 oz|
|Towel||Nano Packtowl||0.9 oz|
|Water purifier||Steripen Ultra with batteries||4.94 oz|
|Water container||Platypus 1L||1.0 oz|
|Headwear||Half buff||0.6 oz|
|Hiking top||Columbia Long Shirt||7.2 oz|
|Hiking bottom||Arc'teryx Zeta SL Rain Pants||9.3 oz|
|Underwear||Starter Athletic Briefs||2.5 oz|
|Shoes||Altra Lone Peak||20.8 oz|
|Socks||Darn Tough Basic Crew x2||6.4 oz|
|Gaiters||Dirty Girl Gaiters||1.5 oz|
|Rain jacket||Outdoor Research Helium II||6.4 oz|
|Down jacket||Montbell Plasma||4.8 oz|
|Sleeping top||Icebreaker Lightweight Wool||5.3 oz|
|Sleeping bottom||Minus 33 Lightwegith Wool||6.0 oz|
|Camp socks||Injinji sock liners||2.0 oz|
|Camp shoes||Feathered Friends Down Booties||9.3 oz|
|SNOW GEAR (DEPENDING ON CONDITIONS)|
|Snowshoes||MSR Lightning Ascent||66.0 oz|
|Microspikes||Kahtoola MICROspikes||12.0 oz|
|Ice axe||Petzl Summit Evo||14.1 oz|
|Bug Spray||100% DEET Mini||0.5 oz|
|Sunscreen||CeraVe SunStick||0.5 oz|
|Toilet paper||NA||0.1 oz|
|Hand sanitizer||Mini travel bottle||0.6 oz|
|Ear plugs||Pair of foam||0.1 oz|
|Pain reliever||4 Ibuprofen pills||0.0 oz|
|Anti diarrhea||4 pills||0.0 oz|
|Wound cleaning||Antiseptic wipe||0.1 oz|
|Blister prevention||Leukotape (12'' strip)||0.2 oz|
|Phone||Motorola smartphone||5.1 oz|
|Headlamp||Petzl E+Lite||1.0 oz|
|Charger||3-inch micro USB cable||0.5 oz|
|Wall port||USB wall adaptor||0.7 oz|
|Battery||Anker portable charger||2.4 oz|
|Trekking poles||Gossamer Gear LT4S||4.6 oz|
|Stuff sacks||Granite Gear 16L x2||2.0 oz|
|Plastic bags||Sandwich Ziploc and gallon Ziploc||0.4 oz|
|Wallet||Zpacks Tri-fold minimalist wallet + content||0.8 oz|
(for a full gear breakdown and further model recommendations, scroll to the bottom of the post or click here.)
1. Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Transport yourself back to the Ice Age with this arduous four-mile climb that ends at the Harding Icefield. Spanning 700 square miles, the Harding Icefield is the largest field of ice contained entirely within the United States. (more info)
2. Peek-a-Boo Loop in Bryce Canyon
Want to get your feet wet with winter hiking but are not ready for extreme winter conditions and arduous climbs? Then check out the Peek-a-Boo Loop in Bryce Canyon, where you are treated with sweeping vistas and striking snow-capped hoodoos. (more info)
3. Mazama Ridge Snowshoe trail, Washington
You'll experience breathtaking views of Mount Rainier and its surrounding snow-covered meadows from the snowshoe-friendly Mazama Ridge trail. (more info)
4. Lion Head Trail, Mount Washington, NH
Want to experience some of the country's worst winter weather? Then head to the summit of Mount Washington, where a bluebird day in the morning quickly turns to whiteout conditions with 100 mph winds. (more info)
5. Mount Colden, Adirondacks NY
Not for the faint of heart, Mount Colden starts off easy, but the steep climb to the summit will leave you crying in your effort. Your effort will be worth the jaw-dropping views you'll get from the summit. (more info)
Total Snowfall by State Over 30 Years (1985-2015)
(Source: The Weather Channel)
A. HOW TO LAYER
Pack warm clothing that you can wear in layers—a base layer, a mid-layer, and an outer layer.
How you layer is critical. Most people wear their windbreaker on the outside, and their puffy underneath. Unless it is snowing or sleeting outside and you need to keep your puffy dry, you may want to switch that around.
Start with a puffy layer on the outside and your windbreaker or rain jacket underneath. When you begin to warm up, you can easily remove the outer puffy, stash it in your pack, and get back hiking right away.
If you have your windbreaker on the outside, you have to remove the windbreaker, remove the puffy, and then put the windbreaker back on. It takes twice as long, and you are more likely to catch a chill by taking on and off multiple layers.
B. HOW TO SLEEP WARM
Eat a filling meal before you go to bed as the process of digesting your food will help you keep warm.
Climb into your sleeping bag with a layer or two of light clothing. You want to stay warm, but not overdress and start to sweat. Make sure all the zippers are zipped in the bag and the hood is securely cinched around your head and neck. You want to seal up any holes to avoid a draft that pushes cold air into your sleeping bag.
For extra warmth, drop a hand warmer into the foot box and place one on your chest.
C. ADDITIONAL TIPS
Check the weather ahead of time
Plan for the worst and carry enough supplies in case you are stuck a few days in the wild
Avoid getting wet and sweaty -- take off layers or slow your pace to avoid soaking your clothes with sweat
Minimize breaks as you can get cold quickly. Once cold, it can be challenging to warm back up
Streamline layer changes so you can take off and put on your warm layers as quickly as possible
Let someone know where you’re hiking and when you’ll be back
Use a satellite communicator
Keep your water supply and filters warm: can’t use if water is frozen
Bring extra fuel for warming up ice/snow and turn it into water
Do not burn fossil fuels inside your car or closed shelter or you'll risk carbon monoxide poisoning
Pack out everything as toilet paper, human waste and food waste will not decompose in the winter
Winter hiking not only opens the doors to hikes in the snow-covered woods, but it also can be a gateway to mountaineering and similar extreme winter experiences.
Most people who head out for a day hike in the mountains don't think about hypothermia, but they should. Search and rescue data shows that hypothermia is the most common type of non-traumatic injury encountered during rescue missions. It also accounts for a majority of the deaths in the sport of mountaineering. Staying dry and using layers to keep warm is the best way to avoid becoming hypothermic. Make sure you carry the right type and amount of clothing for the conditions you will encounter.
✅ SHELTER SYSTEM
Choose a rugged tent or tarp shelters that can withstand the snow and wind you'll encounter when winter backpacking. Be prepared to pay more for a winter tent because of the heavier fabrics and thicker poles. Winter tents also are significantly heavier than their three-season counterparts.
Don’t skimp on quality as you don’t want your shelter to collapse when the weather turns nasty.
You can use any pack for winter backpacking, but a mountaineering or ski/snowboard backpack has straps or daisy chain loops on the back panel to attach your snowshoes.
Just make sure the pack is large enough (35 to 45L minimum) to accommodate all the clothing and food you will need.
I highly recommend lining your pack with a trash compactor bag (approx 70 L) to keep water out and protect the contents of your pack as well.
✅ SLEEPING SYSTEM
Down feathers are usually preferred over synthetic insulation because they are light, compact, and extremely warm. Bags that use down feathers are typically about 50% more expensive, though.
For winter hiking, you'll want a 20-degree bag or lower and a full-length insulated sleeping pad with an R-value of 5 or higher. The R-values of sleeping pads are additive, so you can carry two lighter three-season pads to achieve the same warmth as a single, heavier winter-only pad. I use a closed foam pad on the bottom and an insulated inflatable pad on top.
✅ COOK SYSTEM
Cooking in the winter can be challenging.
The best stove is a liquid fuel stove like the MSR Whisperlite or DragonFly. Liquid fuel bottles can be pressurized to deliver a powerful flame even in the cold.
Some people bring an alcohol stove because they are so compact and ultralight, but they can be problematic in the cold. You need to warm the alcohol to ignite it, and it doesn't burn as hot as a liquid or canister stove. An alcohol stove requires significantly more fuel and time to boil a cup of water.
Canister stoves, such as the Jetboil, are popular in the summer, but they too struggle when the temperature drops. If you choose a canister stove for convenience, look for a stove that lets you invert your gas bottle for the best performance in cold conditions.
✅ WATER STORAGE
Staying hydrated can be challenging when hiking in the winter. You don't sweat like you do in the summer, so you often don't feel like drinking. This is a mistake as you still need a steady supply of water.
Keeping a drinkable source of water is tricky. The water inside a water bottle or a bladder will freeze in cold temperatures.
Store your water as close to your body as possible. You'll also want an insulating sleeve for the bladder tube and an insulated sleeve for your water bottle. Because water bottles freeze from the top, it helps if you store your water bottle upside down to prevent the threads from freezing shut.
Insulated bottles are another option but they tend to be heavy.
✅ WATER PURIFICATION
Purifying water can be a hassle in cold weather.
The best method is the Steripen, which works regardless of the outside temperature.
Chemical treatments take longer to purify your water because the cold water slows down the chemical reaction.
Filtration systems still work in the cold weather, but don’t let the filter freeze. If the filter freezes accidentally, the filter membrane may be damaged, and it will no longer purify water to safe drinking standards. Carry the filter close to your body and keep it in your sleeping bag while you sleep.
Pack warm clothing that you can wear in layers: a base layer, a mid-layer, and an outer layer. On your top half, you will need a base layer (preferably wool or nylon/polyester but NO cotton), a long sleeve shirt, a light mid-layer fleece, a puffy jacket preferably with a hood, and a waterproof and windproof jacket with an attached hood.
You should wear a base layer or leggings with a hardshell or softshell pant on top of your bottom half. Choose wool, down, fleece, or synthetic fibers. Again, NO cotton. Always bring extra socks and an extra base layer in case you get wet and sweaty.
✅ DOWN OR SYNTHETIC JACKET
A down or a synthetic jacket is an essential layer for your winter clothing. Make sure to look for down jackets with a fill power of 800 or above and down fill at least 30% of the total item’s weight to stay warm.
Synthetic jackets typically use some form of PrimaLoft. Try to get a minimum of 60 grams of PrimaLoft per jacket Down is lighter and more compact, but synthetic jackets excel when the conditions are wet.
If you know you will be hiking in sleet, then leave the down at home and grab the synthetic jacket.
✅ WATERPROOF AND WINDPROOF JACKET
A good waterproof and windproof jacket is a critical layer that’ll keep you warm and dry as you hike. A hood is a must-have as it prevents snow from going down your back. You also should look for a jacket with zippered vents that let you shed some extra heat without removing the jacket.
Stick with more rugged hardshell pants as they won’t tear as easily as softshell pants when you accidentally step on your pants leg with your microspikes or snowshoes.
Winter hiking pants should have long zippers that make them easy to take on and off without removing your boots. You don't want to remove your boots in the snow. It also helps if the pants have leg vents so you can let off some steam as you hike.
Don't forget to bring gloves -- a lightweight pair for hiking and a warm pair for break time during the day or base camp at night. Like your gloves, you also need two hats -- a lightweight fleece or wool hat for hiking and a heavy fleece or wool hat for when you stop.
✅ BOOTS AND SOCKS
Wear insulated boots if possible and warm wool socks. Because your feet are likely to get wet regardless how hard you try, you may also opt for a pair of fast-drying hiking shoes. Bring extra socks that you can wear at night. Gaiters also are recommended as they keep the deep snow from getting into your boots.
Toilet paper works best in the winter as it won’t freeze like diaper wipes. Always pack it out as it will not decompose in the snow and cold temperatures. You'll also want to bring along some dehydrated toothpaste (powder), hand sanitizer, sunscreen, and lip balm.
Snowshoes are useful when the snow is deep and soft. Snowshoes provide some traction on steep terrain, but their primary function is to keep you from sinking into the snow. You'll want to wear them anytime you encounter more than a few inches of snow on the trail. They also work well to pack down the snow on the trail, so others behind you have an easier time walking.
Snowshoes are a must-have, especially those with a side rail and a heel lift for navigating steep terrain.
✅ CRAMPONS AND MICROSPIKES
When snowshoes are too much, you'll want a pair of microspikes or crampons. Crampons have larger teeth and are meant for thick ice and very hard-packed snow. Microspikes have smaller teeth that can handle snow and regular patches of ice.
Microspikes have elastic on top that slide over your boots and small spikes that cover the bottom of your boots. They provide outstanding grip on snow and light ice conditions. If you regularly hike on thick ice slabs, you'll need crampons that have significantly larger teeth that securely bite into almost any ice you'll encounter.
Note that most winter hikers use microspikes, which will fit over your hiking boots. Crampons are used when mountaineering and require a special plastic boot.
Don't rely on electronics for navigation or communication in the winter. Battery life is shortened in the cold, and screens will fog from the temperature changes. Assume your electronic devices will not work and bring a map, compass, and headlamp instead. The only exception is a satellite communication device or PLB that can signal for help if you are injured or lost.
You also will need the following extra items: a balaclava to protect your face from the cold, a pair of goggles to protect your eyes from harsh wind and high-altitude Uv light, hand warmers for hands during the day and inside the sleeping bag at night), and lastly, trekking poles for stability and to test the safety of ice and snow depth.
Choose foods that are high in calories because you will need all the extra fuel you can get. Make sure the food you bring will not freeze while you hike. Dehydrated food, crackers, jerky, and nuts hold up well in the cold, but candy, fruits, and granola bars do not. You can break a tooth trying to gnaw on a frozen apple or milky way.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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