Heading out on a winter hike? Nice! In this post, you’ll find a huge set of winter hiking tips to keep you warm, safe, and happy. Let’s do this!
Enjoy camping? Check out our huge set of winter camping tips.
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26 Winter Hiking Tips: Stay Warm, Safe and Happy
Hiking in winter can be amazing. Things open up as the trees lose their leaves making wildlife and birdlife more visible. And the piercing blue clear skies are something to behold.
Avid hikers are out taking advantage of less people on the trails, and enjoying the cooler weather.
Camping and hiking in winter has some special considerations and tricks which we’ll share so you can make the most of your time in nature during the colder months.
Good gear lasts, protects you from the elements, and does the job without having to be replaced regularly.
We’ve put together this list of 26 great tips (with gear recommendations) to help you get out there on the trails and enjoy your time outdoors.
1. Be an onion
Just like an onion you need layers. Dressing in layers makes it easy for you to regulate your body temperature during the hike, especially if it is an all-day hike.
There may be a big difference in temperature when you start your hike early in the day down in a valley to when you reach a ridgeline or mountains peak in the middle of the day, so be an onion and just add or remove layers as needed.
Four Recommended Layers for Winter Hiking
- Moisture-wicking / tight layer
- Insulated layer / Down filled
- Waterproof layer
2. Take friends
Hiking is always more fun when done with friends or a hiking group. It is also a safety thing, especially in winter when if something does go wrong the weather can play a big part in rescuers reaching you and getting help in a timely manner.
Most experienced hikers and outdoors people have also completed basic first aid training so can help you if you do get stuck.
We’re not saying winter hiking is more dangerous, just that it has its own unique set of considerations and it is always wise to have a friend when hiking, no matter what season it happens to be.
3. Weather check
Keep an eye on the weather in the area you are going to hike in for a couple of days before you set out.
If there is a blizzard coming you don’t want to get caught out in that! A quick glance at a weather app can be a lifesaver.
Thinking about a hammock? Check out these winter hammock camping tips.
3. Familiarize yourself with the area
Do some research and look online at the area you will be hiking through. Are there any hidden dangers that may be harder to see covered in snow like small ravines etc.?
Of course, staying on the path is always the wisest choice but for some reason, if you need to stray from the path little things like this make all the difference to your confidence and ensuring you have a safe and fun hike.
4. Freshen up on your compass skills
Alongside your GPS or phone tracker, take a map and compass and have some fun. Just like in the olden days, look at your map, plan your route and see which is the best and safest way to get there.
Just like a pirate coming ashore, place an X on where you want to go before you set out on your adventure and have fun exploring as you go. Kids love it too… especially the big kids.
5. Extra socks
Something you don’t usually think of but plays a huge part in the enjoyment of your hike.
If your feet are cold and wet, not only will you have blisters the size of cantaloupes but you are going to be miserable squishing around in your boots.
If in a snowy area, it will also help increase the chances of returning with fewer toes than you started out with – so if your feet get wet, changing your socks makes a huge difference.
6. Lip balm
Yes, it sounds weird but not only will it protect your lips it will also protect your pack.
If your pack is dry or squeaks at some point, then by rubbing a little lip balm on it you could help reduce friction (leading to a possible hole/tear) and you won’t get driven crazier with every step you take by having to listen to squeak, squeak, squeak.
7. Sip water often
Being winter, it’s cold and you may not feel that thirsty, but it is important to stay hydrated. Your body still needs to replace what you are losing even if you don’t realize it.
8. Learn basic first aid
This goes for any time of year. Learning First Aid is an important and necessary life skill for anyone regularly spending time outdoors.
In winter, things can quickly become more serious if something does go wrong. First Aid helps you gain the confidence that if something goes wrong you can handle it.
9. Learn your limits
If you have never hiked before then start small and choose an area or track that fits your experience and fitness level.
A beautiful mostly flat mountain walk that only takes a few hours and is clearly marked is ideal for beginners. You get a great walk and return home safe and sound – eager to do it again.
10. Lists, Lists, Lists
A list for gear, a list for food and beverages, and if you’re a birder don’t forget your lifer list. With all of those bare winter trees, you may just spot that lifer you have been dying to see.
If you have a checklist, then it’s all smooth sailing and you will not be the one looking silly because what you need is actually at home sitting on the table where you left it – so “you wouldn’t forget it”. But don’t be too hard on yourself, we’ve all done that.
11. Good boots are a MUST
Especially for those just starting out, comfortable supportive boots are the difference between swollen blistered feet and being miserable for the next few days, or, returning home happy with a healthy glow in your cheeks, excited, relaxed and ready to plan your next hike.
12. Cuppa Joe, Java, Choco Malto Latte
Taking a small lightweight portable stove like a Jetboil has a multitude of benefits. It not only adds some comfort to your hike but also helps keep you hydrated.
Stopping for a morning tea, coffee or hot chocolate also has the added perk of allowing your body to disperse some of that metabolic waste your legs build up during hiking so you aren’t as sore the next day.
Plus, it’s a good time to record your journey and get some happy snaps or peacefully watch for wildlife.
13. Be flexible
At some point, you may have to turn around.
When fresh snow hits or a storm has bought down trees sometimes it can be hard to find the trail. If this happens, that’s when you are thankful for your trusty map and compass to help you find an alternate route.
But you may need to turn back. If you are unsure, it looks unstable, slippery or has reduced visibility (being covered in snow) then safety comes first.
14. Waterproof shell and wet weather gear
Lightweight and easily stowed in an outer pocket of your pack, having a rain jacket helps keep you dry and warm both as waterproofing and as protection against the icy cold wind shear.
As you climb higher on your hike, cold winter winds can feel like they are slicing through you – you’ll LOVE your jacket.
Handy Hint: If it does start to rain, take a small towel or strip of material and fold it lengthways into a strip. Place this around your neck as you put on your rain hood as added protection. If any water does get in this will help keep you dry and reduce your chill factor. Especially handy if you end up getting stuck overnight.
15. Bring snacks … beware of rogue squirrels
Spicy trail mixes, dried fruit, granola bars or anything else your heart desires.
Whenever setting out on a walk it is a good idea to have some delicious long-lasting snacks that will provide energy on your walk.
That way if you take longer than expected, you always have some emergency rations to keep you going.
16. Hand warming packets
Nifty bits of kit to have with you for winter hiking, heat pads or hand warmers can be an absolute lifesaver especially if you are camping overnight.
The good news is that when placed in your sleeping bag or pocket, they just keep getting warmer ensuring you sleep like a baby with toasty warm toes.
HotHands give up to 10 hours of heat – and come in pairs – one for each hand (or foot).
Plus, they weigh next to nothing so you won’t even realize it’s there, slipping one into your pack can make the difference between you having a great hike or feeling like your fingers might snap off.
17. Sun protection and good sunglasses
Yes, it’s winter, and yes it’s cold, but you can still get quite sunburnt before you realize it.
Dermatone Stick (SPF23) protects against sun damage – and chapping from cold and wind. This is for nose, ears, face, lips, and forehead.
The sun reflects well off of snow so not only does it double your chances of getting sunburned it can also be blinding – making a good set of wraparound sunglasses a must if you want to see where you are going clearly without hours of squinty face.
18. Waterproof everything
Don’t put a dampener on your hike, waterproof your boots, your pack, your jacket and your tent (if going for a long hike and camping).
Keeping you dry, especially during winter when everything takes so long to dry if it does get wet, is the only way you will stay warm and comfortable.
A lot of experienced hikers will double waterproof their boots because things tend to get a little squishier during winter and having cold wet feet is the worst.
19. First aid kit
One of the most vital pieces of gear on a winter hike is a First Aid Kit.
Your chances of slipping, straining, spraining, experiencing hypothermia, frostbite and dehydration are high during the winter months so this should be on the top of your checklist and one of the first things packed.
This compact first aid kit by Swiss Safe weights just 12.4 oz and is made for camping and hiking.
Handy Hint: slip an extra heat pack into your First Aid Kit as a backup just in case emergency services take longer with response times due to weather.
20. Tell someone where you’re going
We’re not suggesting you can’t read a map or look at a GPS, it’s just that letting someone know when you are leaving, how long you’ll be gone and when you are due back is good sense.
Especially if hiking along difficult trails or through rough terrain, having someone to alert authorities if you don’t return when scheduled is a good idea and can help emergency services and rescuers locate you more easily if an emergency does arise.
21. Pack for access
Easy access to things you will need makes your life easier and your hiking experience so much better and stress-free.
If you have to dismantle your pack looking for something, then not only do you get frustrated but so does the rest of your hiking party. Most hiking packs have lots of outside pockets and loops you can hang things off of for easy access.
22. Be courteous to other hikers
Let uphill hikers have right of way. They are working harder than you and it’s also polite. Don’t leave litter anywhere – there’s a saying ‘pack it in, pack it out’ this means you take your rubbish with you, don’t leave it for others to have to clean up after you.
Trash, especially during winter, attracts wild animals when food is scarce. This can endanger the animals if they eat plastic and also other hikers if they round a bend and surprise… a bear twice their size.
23. Don’t forget your camera
Hiking provides a lot of amazing photo opportunities. Sweeping scenery, clear skies, forestry, and lakes. The whole reason we enjoy hiking so much is to experience these glorious panoramas so be sure to capture them with some amazing shots.
An action camera is a great choice for hiking, especially in the winter. It is waterproof and lightweight. Learn more in our GoPro Hiking Photography Guide.
Plus, you could also upload your shots when you get home and sell them as stock! Imagine how much that guy who took the photo of the cliff face that Apple uses as a backdrop on their Macs made from that one shot!
24. Clean Drinking Water
Having an alternative way to create clean, safe drinking water is one thing that every hiker needs in their kit whether they are hiking for a day or a week.
Something lightweight, durable, and reliable like a LifeStraw is an essential item for every outdoor adventure, and removing 99.999% of bacteria and parasites means you never get caught without water.
If you are only going for a few hours, then you needn’t worry about a headlamp but if you are planning on finishing your hike at the end of the day then taking a headlamp is wise.
Check out our full Guide to Winter Camping
During winter dusk tends to be short and darkness falls quickly so if the hike takes a little longer than you expected, or you are held up for some reason then you won’t be stumbling around tripping in the dark. Or worse, get lost.
Nothing too big, just a small sealed container or Ziploc bag will do, to hold a few spares. A spare battery for your headlamp, a backup hot pocket, and a small pocketknife.
You know, some small essentials that really can make a difference. Oh, and a stash of snacks too, just in case.
Now, with all of these handy hints and good gear it is easy to see why avid hikers are out there enjoying the trails and adventuring around during the winter.
Cool fresh air, spectacular scenery, and clear trails really do make hiking in winter great, so get out there and enjoy the most winter has to offer.
What are your hiking plans this winter? Let me know in the comments!
- About the Author
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Bryan Haines is a co-founder and blogger on GudGear – and is working to make it the best resource for outdoor gear and guides.
He loves the outdoors and has hiked the Andes, kayaked the Galapagos, and biked and camped around Nova Scotia, Canada.
He is a travel blogger at Storyteller Travel and blogs about photography at Storyteller Tech. He is also co-founder of Storyteller Media, a company he started with his wife, Dena.