I never really gave any thought to winter hiking until we moved to Denver. I’d been snowshoeing twice, but that’s about it. Here in Colorado, though, there are some truly stunning winter hiking opportunities, so we decided to tackle a new challenge.
Before heading out for a hike in winter conditions, there are some additional considerations that aren’t a typical part of summer hiking. With lots of help from other people and some of my own research, I’ve gradually acquired the knowledge and gear necessary to stay warm and safe while winter hiking. That’s what I’d like to pass along to you today. We’ll talk about necessary and optional gear, choosing an appropriate hike, and what to expect when you’re on the trail.
Please note that I don’t do any mountaineering; this post is focused on day hiking and does not provide sufficient information for longer, more challenging, or technical trips.
Let’s start with gear:
You’ll need all the same things you’d usually pack for a summer hike (extra layers, food, water, first aid kit and the rest of the Ten Essentials, etc.), plus some additional stuff.
• Backpack: Depending on the size of your current pack, a second larger one might be necessary to accommodate all this extra gear. If you’ll be needing to strap gear to the outside (snowshoes, for example), a pack with some external pockets, clips, and/or straps will facilitate this.
• More layers: Keep in mind that it won’t just be cold… there will also likely be wind, especially in the mountains. And there may not be any sun, so it will feel colder than the number on the thermometer. At minimum, I always bring/wear a synthetic base layer, an (optional) second base layer, a nordic jacket that provides wind protection, a down vest, and a down jacket (second photo above). For really cold/windy days – or if you’re like my mom and you’re always cold – some additional layers might be necessary.
On the bottom, I wear two base layers (one of which is fleece-lined) and this is usually sufficient, but if I need wind or snow protection I’ll wear waterproof pants over the top. Snow pants would also work on very cold days, but you don’t want to be so warm that you get sweaty.
• Warmth for your extremities: As we’ve all probably experienced, hands, feet, nose, and ears are usually the first things to get cold in the winter. Therefore, a winter gear list should include a hat (ideally at least one of your layers will also have a hood), an ear band, a buff or some other kind of face mask, an extra pair of wool socks, and at least one pair of warm, waterproof gloves or mittens (third photo above). Glove liners or a lighter pair of gloves to wear underneath the heavy ones is a good idea, too.
Pro tip: keep these extra items in a dry bag, just in case. Wet socks won’t do your cold feet any good.
I also always keep a set of hand and foot warmers in my pack as a backup. If you find yourself relying on these frequently and want to reduce waste, there are reusable ones.
• Footwear: While some hiking boots are designed for all seasons, others aren’t, so your summer footwear may not be sufficient for winter hikes. There are a few important considerations here. Winter hiking boots should be (1) waterproof, (2) high enough to keep snow out (or you’ll want to wear gaiters… more on that shortly), and (3) large enough to accommodate thick socks. When boots are too tight they restrict blood flow to the feet, causing them to get colder more quickly.
Speaking of socks, an ideal set up might include a synthetic base layer with a wool sock over the top. My biggest problem in the winter – and I imagine some of you probably have this issue too – is that my feet get sweaty and then they get cold. While I’ve yet to find a perfect solution, coating my feet with baby powder before putting socks on has helped.
• Microspikes: Whoever invented these is a genius! They strap onto your boots and provide traction on slippery trails. There are many purchase options, but I would recommend against YakTraks or Nanospikes for hiking in the mountains. YakTraks work well for shoveling the driveway and Nanospikes are usually sufficient for relatively flat trails with minimal ice, but neither of these works well on slippery inclines. Microspikes are more expensive, but safety is one of those things you never want to skimp on.
• Snowshoes: Depending on where you’re going, these may not be a necessary piece of gear. Snowshoes are winter flotation devices that allow for navigation through powdery snow without sinking in too far. Although, my recent hiking excursion proved that sometimes even snowshoes aren’t enough to keep your feet from disappearing into 3 feet of snow and getting stuck beneath a fallen tree. But I digress.
If you’ll be breaking trail (i.e. you’re hiking after a storm and will be the one blazing a route through fresh snow) or otherwise frolicking through fluffy powder, snowshoes will be necessary. If you plan to do a lot of snowshoeing on steep surfaces, consider purchasing a pair that has a heel lift. This piece of metal is manually flipped up to support the heel while hiking uphill, thus relieving much of the strain on your calves.
On the other hand, if you’ll mostly be hiking on popular routes or in areas that don’t get much snow, the trails will probably be packed down within a day or two after a storm and snowshoes will be overkill.
• Gaiters: These also may not be a required piece of gear; it depends on the trail conditions and your choice of footwear. If you have low-cut boots or will be walking through powdery snow, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing, gaiters are a useful thing to have. They go over the top of the shoe and the lower leg to keep snow out of your shoes and socks. They also provide an extra bit of warmth in the ankle area. I’ve made the mistake of snowshoeing without my gaiters and I ended up with snow down my boots and very wet, cold feet.
There are many purchase options for gaiters; the feature I personally find most important to pay attention to is how they fasten. Snaps are difficult to operate when you have gloves on and zippers don’t work well when they have snow in them. My current gaiters velcro shut with a draw string at the top and I have no problems taking them on and off while wearing gloves.
• Hiking poles: Again, not necessarily a required item. Pat uses them more than I do, but we both carry them just in case. They can be useful for balance and support on narrow, slippery, or steep sections of trail. Collapsible ones are best so they can be strapped onto your pack when not in use.
• Sun protection: It’s easy to forget this one when you look outside and it’s dark or cold or snowy, but the reflection of the sun off snow can be just as damaging as mid-summer sun. Don’t forget to pack sunglasses (or UV-blocking ski goggles for extra face protection on a windy day) and wear sunscreen on any exposed skin. Because the sun will be reflecting off the snow, areas such as the underside of the nose and chin are prone to sunburn as well.
Choosing a suitable hike:
There are many important considerations when selecting a hike. Some of these are the same things you likely take into account in the summer: distance and elevation gain, trail conditions, road conditions, weather, etc. But in the winter, there are some additional factors to consider.
• Distance and elevation gain: One thing I quickly learned about winter hiking is that the route can be very different. It’s not always easy to see or follow the existing trail – nor is it always necessary when there’s snow – so oftentimes the winter route will just travel straight up a hill or a frozen creek bed rather than switchbacking up and around. While the net elevation gain will be the same, if you’re hiking a shorter distance it’s going to be a much steeper trek.
Also, hiking in snow is more difficult. If you’re snowshoeing – especially if you’re the one breaking trail – it’s going to be a substantially more challenging and exhausting hike. Long story short, a “moderate” hike in the summer is likely more of a “difficult” hike in the winter.
• Trail conditions: Will you need snowshoes, microspikes, or both? Is the trail relatively easy to follow, or will some navigating be necessary? These are all important questions and the answers will allow you to choose a trail that matches your skill level and gear availability.
I like to use AllTrails, as previous hikers often leave reviews about trail conditions. You can also search specific hashtags or locations on social media to find recent photos of the area. For less-travelled trails, though, this type of information may be scarce. In that case, a phone call to the local Forest Service office or Visitor Center and/or resources such as snowforecast.com can provide information on current trail conditions.
• Road conditions: Another important factor – especially in the mountains – is the condition of trailhead access roads. They might be unplowed. You might need snow tires and/or high clearance. They might be closed entirely. Many trails in Colorado have winter parking lots, from which you have to walk up a gated road to reach the trailhead. This can significantly increase the distance and elevation gain of your hike. Again, many of the resources listed above can provide road information.
• Weather: While temperature and incoming storms are important factors, one of the key considerations for winter hikes is the wind. Wind chill can be brutal. Wind can also be extremely dangerous; you don’t want to find yourself on an exposed ridge with massive gusts of wind threatening to blow you off the mountain.
I like to use mountain-forecast.com to check the weather at my intended destination. I’ve also heard people recommend OpenSummit, though I’ve never used it. Keep in mind that mountain weather is fickle and forecasts change frequently and dramatically. I went snowshoeing with a friend recently on a day that was forecast to be partly sunny with a 5% chance of snow. This is what our entire hike looked like:
Long story short, always plan for the worst possible weather, just in case, and be prepared to turn around if conditions exceed your skill level.
• Avalanches: I don’t pretend to be an avalanche expert. I’ve never taken a training course and I don’t own avalanche gear. But I know enough of the basics to minimize my risk. The basics are this: if there’s snow and there’s a slope, there can be an avalanche.
That being said, there are certain factors that make avalanches more likely. The first is the condition of the snow. Again, I’m not an expert, but basically snow tends to pack in layers, and if something causes an upper layer to break free from the layer beneath it (for example: wind, warm temperatures, or your footsteps)… well, it all comes tumbling down. An avalanche class will provide much more detail about the layers and the factors that affect the stability of each layer and how to use this information to stay safe in the backcountry.
Since I’m not avalanche trained, I use a different strategy: attempted avalanche avoidance. The best way to do this is to research the terrain in advance (studies show that most of us are notoriously terrible at accurately assessing terrain when we’re standing there looking at it). Generally speaking, slopes at angles between 25-45° are at risk for avalanches, but those between 36-38° are the most avalanche prone. CalTopo is a fantastic resource for this. They have a feature that shades slopes based on their angle, so you can find your trail and examine the topography. Keep in mind that avalanches can be triggered from above or below a slope as well, so take into consideration all the terrain surrounding the trail.
Before you hit the trail:
You’ve packed your gear and selected a trail, and now it’s time to head outdoors! But before getting on the trail, there are a couple final things to consider.
• Navigation: As mentioned above, trails can be very different in the winter than they are in the summer. Try to avoid relying on familiar landmarks, because they may not look very familiar in the winter. Or they might be buried (photo below). Or the winter trail might follow an entirely different route that isn’t marked at all.
Also keep in mind that blowing snow can cover up the trail. It’s best not to rely on retracing your steps on the descent… there might not be any tracks to follow.
So what should you do? Bring some form of navigation and know how to use it. Whether it’s a map and compass or a GPS app, it won’t do any good if you don’t know how it works. REI offers inexpensive navigation courses… I’ll actually be taking one next month to improve my compass and topo map skills!
If you’re relying on a GPS app or device, the battery needs to be protected from the elements. Keep the device in an inside pocket close to your body so it stays warm, and bring a charging pack (keep this close to your body as well) and the necessary charging cords, just in case.
• Food and water: When packing snacks, bear in mind that it may be too cold to take your gloves off. Anything in hard-to-open packages probably isn’t going to be a good choice. Ditto for items that will make a mess of your gloves if you need to eat while wearing them. And anything that can freeze (i.e. those squeezable applesauce packets) might not be an ideal option on really cold days.
Speaking of freezing, don’t forget about water! It’s generally not recommended to use a water bladder in the winter due to the risk of water freezing in the hose and/or mouthpiece. If a bladder is the only option, try to find one with a layer of neoprene insulation around the hose, always blow the water back out of the hose after drinking, and keep the mouthpiece tucked into your jacket.
That being said, the ideal choice is to use water bottles. Things to keep in mind when choosing a bottle are: (1) can it be opened with gloves on, and (2) is it absolutely leak proof? Question #2 is important because water freezes from the top down, preventing you from drinking out of the bottle. It’s therefore recommended to store the bottle upside down so it freezes from the bottom instead.
• Using your gear: While we’re on the topic of eating and drinking with gloves on, I should add one more thing to that list: using your gear. Halfway up a trail in the freezing cold wind is never a good time to realize that your snowshoe straps can’t be maneuvered while wearing gloves. Or that you have to take your boots off to put your snow pants on.
It’s always good to practice with all your gear at home first. Learn how the straps and fasteners work and practice operating them with gloves on. Make sure your snowshoes and microspikes work well with your boots. Verify that 5 layers fit underneath your jacket. Practice strapping extra gear onto your backpack. I made this mistake with my snowshoes and then found myself fumbling with them at the trailhead while my friend stood there waiting.
This is an overwhelming amount of information… where do I start?
Is this a lot to learn? Yes. But keep in mind that you don’t have to buy all of this gear and master all of these skills right away. Take baby steps. Start by buying some warm socks and boots, layering up, and going for a walk on an urban trail or at a local park. This can be a test of your basic gear to see if you stay warm without having to worry about the rest of it.
Then find a popular trail that’s nearby and easy to get to. The road will probably be plowed and there will be plenty of people around. Also, the trail will be packed down so microspikes or even just boots will be sufficient.
Observe people as you hike, ask questions if the opportunity arises, and use this as a learning experience. What gear do they have? How does it seem to be working? How do they have their snowshoes strapped to their pack? What might you do differently?
Do your own research, talk to and/or go hiking with people who have more experience, take some free classes. There are so many resources available.
And keep in mind, winter hiking or snowshoeing isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. If you don’t want to snowshoe way into the backcountry, that’s fine. Figure out what you’re comfortable with and find your niche.
If your niche happens to be winter hiking, I hope this post has been helpful!