Winter Hiking 101: What to Wear and Where to Go

Winter Hiking 101: What to Wear and Where to Go

By Mackenzie Lobby

If you're interested in extending your hiking season into the winter, don't be scared off by colder temperatures and falling snow. Winter hikes have their own charm that can't be matched by the spring, summer and fall seasons. It does come with its own set of challenges, but many hikers find that once they get out and about, it really is the most wonderful time of year.

By choosing the right route, dressing correctly, and taking the proper safety measures, you'll be ready to tackle the trail in a variety of cold-weather conditions. Remember, getting out and active is important all year round. Winter hiking can be the ideal way to keep up your fitness while simultaneously giving you the chance to enjoy the great outdoors.

Choosing a Route

Even experienced hikers should be careful when selecting a winter hiking route. First and foremost, start with a short hike on unobstructed trails to see how your body feels in the colder temperatures. As with any physical activity, don't attempt too much too soon. Start short and increase the distance over time.

Poor footing, ice, and snow can make some well-traveled summer trails impassable in the winter. Ask other hikers and check online forums to find out which trails may be best in these conditions. If you get out on the trail and it looks far more challenging than you expected, turn back and try another path. With the cold temperatures, you don't want to risk getting stuck and not making it back before the sun sets.

How to Dress

In the same way you would suit up for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, be sure to dress in multiple layers. The bottom layer closest to your skin should be made with a moisture wicking material to ensure sweat is carried away from your body and prevent you from getting wet and cold. On top, include several warmer layers. You can always shed one if you heat up; better to be too warm than too cold.

Your footwear is perhaps the most important piece of your winter hiking ensemble. Most hikers prefer something with a little insulation and adequate tread. Most summer hiking boots don't provide enough warmth, so get your hands on footwear that is made for outdoor winter activities. Also, check the outsole to be sure it will provide enough traction on wet and snowy terrain. While aggressive tread is important for hiking year round, tricky winter conditions make it a particularly important feature.

Safety Measures

It's necessary to take certain safety precautions hiking in any season, but it becomes increasingly important in the winter. Choose your route ahead of time and leave an itinerary with someone. This should state where you're going and when you'll return. It's also a good idea to bring your cell phone along, although you may have trouble getting service in many areas.

Bring a buddy. Choose someone who is at a similar experience level, or scale back your hike if they're new to winter hiking. Not only does a hiking partner serve as an important backup in an emergency, the company can make the experience more enjoyable.

Remember, your safety is your responsibility. While winter hiking can offer some of the most breathtaking scenery of the entire year, don't forget to be smart when you're out on the trails. With proper preparation and experience, you're sure to enjoy every moment of it.

Gear Checklist

  • Boots
  • Warm socks
  • Hat/gloves
  • Warm baselayer
  • Waterproof/breathable jacket and pants
  • Gaiters
  • Water and food
  • First aid supplies
  • Compass
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Map
  • Cell phone
  • Camera
  • Sunglasses
  • Pack with extra clothes and snacks

Mackenzie Lobby is a Minneapolis-based endurance sports and fitness journalist and coach with a Master's in Kinesiology. Check out her website at