I don’t know about you, but I can’t stay inside all winter long without catching a serious case of cabin fever. I have to get out and explore local trails, no matter how cold it is. And with the right winter hiking gear, you may as well be in the Bahamas (That might be a bit of a stretch…But I promise you’ll at least be warm)!
Dressing in layers is key to staying warm and dry while hiking in the winter. You’ll likely heat up while walking uphill in the sunshine, but cool down while stopping to eat your snacks. Layering makes it much easier to adjust to your changing body temperature since you can easily add or remove clothing items. Staying dry is very important, so taking off clothing items and accessories once you start sweating is essential (sweat = wet = cold)!
Here’s how you’ll want to prepare for cold weather hiking:
Winter Hiking Gear: Clothing
Top Base Layer
This is a close-fitting, long-sleeve top that goes under your other layers. Remember to stay away from cotton (when cotton gets wet, it takes a really long time to dry), and that either synthetic or wool fabrics are better due to their moisture wicking abilities (basically, they’ll keep you dry). I wear this Under Armour top, but I know many hikers that love the tops from Smartwool (women’s, men’s) and Patagonia (women’s, men’s).
Lighter Mid Layer
If temperatures are above freezing, a lighter puffy jacket is a great option for your second layer. I have both the Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket and the Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoodie (women’s, men’s), and highly recommend each.
Heavier Mid Layer
If temperatures are cooler and you want something warmer, you can go with this option (men’s, women’s). I also own this Helly Hansen jacket and love it. The hood is detachable, which I find handy since I don’t always want to wear it. In that case, I stick it in my day pack.
Top Outer Layer
It’s important that your outer layer is waterproof with a hood to protect you from snow and rain. It will be thinner than your mid layer, as its purpose is just to keep you from getting wet. I love my REI rain jacket (women’s, men’s).
Bottom Base Layer
These Patagonia leggings are a great choice for your bottom base layer. You can also purchase the matching base layer bottoms to the Patagonia (women’s, men’s) or Smartwool (women’s, men’s) base layer top. I usually just wear my workout leggings as I haven’t wanted to spend extra on a base layer. As long as you don’t wear anything cotton, you’ll be alright.
Bottom Outer Layer
Waterproof bottoms are definitely the way to go. If it’s above freezing with no rain or snow in the forecast I only wear a base layer, but I always bring my waterproof rain pants in my day pack just in case (women’s, men’s).
Wool or synthetic socks are must-have pieces of winter hiking gear. Thick socks are great, but make sure there’s enough room to wiggle your toes around in your boots to increase blood circulation and foot warmth. These REI socks are thicker, while these REI socks are a bit thinner. I have both and use them all the time for winter hikes. You may also want to add sock liners (very thin socks worn under your thicker pair) if you get blisters easily. These REI sock liners aid in “wicking” away perspiration to keep your feet dry, as well as help reduce chafing.
Waterproof hiking boots will keep your feet dry, and added insulation will keep your feet warm. You may even want to consider getting a half-size larger to wear with thicker socks, especially if your feet get cold easily (guilty). I’ve been using my summer hiking boots as I haven’t wanted to invest in another pair, and I’ve noticed that my toes get cold once the temperature dips below 20ºF (-7ºC). I’m definitely planning to purchase an insulated pair for the next winter season. I have my eye on these boots, while these look like a good option for men.
Winter Hiking Gear: Accessories
Keeping your head warm during winter hikes is so important. For shorter and more leisurely walks, I’ll wear a fur lined beanie. For longer and more strenuous hikes, I’d recommend something made of wool, like this Smartwool hat. You may even want to bring both in case one gets wet from your sweat.
Gloves and Mittens
Waterproof gloves or mittens are essential pieces of winter hiking gear. Mittens will keep your hands warmer, but I prefer gloves for their ease of movement. You can also wear liners, but I usually don’t. I love these Outdoor Research gloves, as well as a lighter pair from Costco that I’ll wear on warmer days (these are similar). If you prefer mittens, check out this pair.
These REI gaiters can really help keep the snow out of your socks, especially when walking through deep drifts.
Microspikes and Snowshoes
Hiking trails can be covered with ice and snow in the winter, and these Kahtoola Microspikes keep me from slipping. They’re the best microspikes for hiking, in my opinion. Snowshoes are another great option if you’ll be making your way through deeper snow.
While these aren’t a necessity (especially if you have microspikes), I know many hikers that enjoy using them for extra stability. They’re especially helpful if you’re going downhill on a steep trail. These Black Diamond poles are a great option.
Definitely pack your sunglasses, even if it’s cloudy. The sun can still come out and reflect off of the snow, which can damage your eyes.
I never hike without a day pack. I guarantee that you’ll probably take off and put back on your layers about 10,000 times throughout your hike, and it’s nice to have something to keep them in. Plus, where else would you store all of your snacks?
Winter Hiking Gear for Above the Tree-line Hikes
If you’re doing a hike above the tree-line (high up in the mountains where trees no longer grow), you’ll also want to add these items to your winter hiking gear list: a balaclava (a full-face mask that protects your skin from harsh conditions), goggles, crampons, and avalanche equipment.
10 Winter Hiking Gear Essentials
As on every hike, be sure to bring your 10 essentials.
A compass and/or map is helpful to have. I always take a photo of the trail map.
This is crucial in case your hike ends up being longer than you anticipated, especially since winter days are shorter. Also be aware that your batteries will die faster in the cold (this is true for your phone and camera too!), so you may want to bring extras.
3. Sun Protection
Remember to wear sunscreen! Chapstick with SPF is also a good idea.
4. First Aid Kit
I carry a small one with me in case of any accidents.
5. Knife and Gear Repair Kit
This is helpful to have in case something breaks or rips.
Be aware of fire restrictions, and bring a lighter and/or matches.
This is especially important in the winter, in case you encounter some bad weather, you should always have a plan for shelter.
Always bring extra food. I usually eat more than I anticipate whenever I go hiking. Store food close to your body to keep it from freezing.
An insulated water bottle is probably your best choice, as your water bladder’s hose can freeze in colder temperatures.
10. Extra Clothes
Bring extras of certain items (gloves, hats) that may get sweaty and wet, especially if you’re doing a longer hike. I also love changing my socks and shoes for the ride back home, so you may want to bring doubles of those too.
I hope this helps you feel prepared to go outside and take on the winter weather. Hiking in the cold is one of my favorite pick-me-ups during long winters, and it’s best followed up with a fire in the fireplace and a warm cup of hot cocoa. Bonus points if you add whipped cream and sprinkles.
Kelsey Frey is a freelance writer and full-time traveler usually found exploring the mountains somewhere in Europe or the USA. She’s always looking for a fun hike, backpacking trip, or lake to jump into. If you’re curious about an honest account of life without a permanent address, you can follow her on Instagram @sightsbetterseen or pop over to her travel blog at Sights Better Seen to read more about her (mis)adventures.
Photo credit: Kelsey Frey