The 52 Hike Challenge runs all year long, which means you will likely be hiking in cold, snowy conditions during your hiking challenge.
If winter hiking sounds a little daunting to you, you’re not alone. One of the most common questions we get asked is how to stay committed to 52 hikes during the winter season.
Well, good news: we’re here to tell you winter hiking is actually a lot of fun! By learning and being well-prepared, you will love getting outdoors in the wintertime.
In this winter hiking guide, you will learn:
- How to stay safe, warm and dry during winter hikes
- What to wear while hiking in cold and snowy conditions
- Gear essentials and recommendations for winter hiking
- Wintertime snacks and nutrition while on-trail
- Educational resources for winter hiking
And much more.
First let’s cover some general tips for staying safe during your winter hikes.
GENERAL SAFETY TIPS FOR WINTER HIKING
Before we deep dive into everything you need to know about winter hiking, please note these general safety tips:
- Check the weather before you set out
- Be aware of avalanche areas near you, these can occur on a slope of 30 degrees or more (check out: https://avalanche.org/)
- Always tell someone where you’re going
- Dress and plan appropriately for conditions
- Start hikes early, as traveling in snow takes more time
- Stick to relatively flat trails to avoid avalanches
- Carry the Ten Essentials + winter hiking gear
- Plan your turnaround time
Now that you know some of the basics, let’s talk about how to layer for winter hiking and the best clothing to keep you warm and dry during cold weather hikes.
CLOTHING + LAYERING FOR WINTER HIKES
When it comes to hiking in the cold, layers are the way to go. As you move, you’ll build heat, so you may want to shed layers at any given time. On the other hand, you may want to bundle back up if you experience an unexpected gust of wind, temperature drop, or snowfall.
As you’ll soon find out, certain fabrics work well for winter hiking while others won’t keep you dry. Keep reading to discover what to wear and how to layer for winter hikes.
Clothing Tips for Cold Weather Hiking
- Layer up: Wear a base, middle and outer layer. We’ll talk more about layering in the section below.
- Avoid cotton: Did you know cotton absorbs moisture? If you sweat under your layers, you’ll end up with wet clothes, which puts you at risk of hypothermia. Stay dry by opting for other materials.
- Wear moisture wicking materials: Instead of cotton, wear materials that will help repel your perspiration and keep you dry. We recommend synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon or natural fibers like merino wool.
- Keep your hands and feet warm: Your hands and feet are most susceptible to frostbite. Keep hands warm and dry by wearing gloves or mittens. Wear wool socks with liners, and pack an extra pair of socks in case yours get wet.
- Protect your head and neck: Like your hands and feet, your ears are also more prone to frostbite. Protect them from the elements by wearing hiking headwear such as earmuffs, a headband, hat or beanie. Keep your neck warm by wearing a “buff” or neck gaiter.
- Bring a change of clothes: Keep a change of clothes in the car in case you get wet during your trek. Nothing’s better than getting back to the car and changing into clothes that are clean, warm and dry.
Pro Tip: Mittens will keep your hands warmer than gloves. If you’re hiking in extreme cold, consider wearing mittens so that your fingers can warm each other.
Now let’s cover how to layer for winter hiking.
Layering for Winter Hikes
- Base layer: The primary role of the base layer is to prevent your perspiration from staying on your skin. This layer wicks away moisture so that you stay warm and dry. Like we said, avoid wearing cotton because you’ll end up wet and cold for your whole hike. Not only will you be uncomfortable, but this puts you at risk of hypothermia. Instead of cotton, opt for “moisture wicking” materials such as synthetic fabrics or natural fibers.
- Middle layer: The middle layer is your insulation, primarily responsible for keeping you warm. When shopping for this important layer, look for fleece, down or synthetic materials. These fabrics will help retain your body heat, preventing the cold from getting to you.
- Outer layer: The outer layer, also known as the shell, brings everything together by protecting you from the elements such as wind, rain and snow. Choose waterproof shell pants and jackets that are both breathable and wind-resistant.
Bonus Layer Pro Tip: Pack a puffy jacket to add an extra layer when you take breaks. Click here to shop insulated outerwear from REI.
HIKING GEAR FOR SNOW & COLD WEATHER ADVENTURES
Now that you know what to wear during winter hikes, let’s explore the gear you’ll need for a safe and fun adventure.
Winter Hiking Gear You Need
For any hike in any season, always carry the Ten Essentials. In addition to those essential items, below you’ll find gear you’ll need for winter hikes.
Refer to the checklist below before you set out on your cold weather hikes:
- Backpack: Since winter hiking requires more gear and you’ll likely need room to store layers, we recommend wearing a 30L+ hiking pack for your cold weather adventures.
- GPS equipment: If you’re hiking in snowy conditions, it might be difficult to see the trail. It’s a good idea to download trails before you go, and know how to use a map and compass. We recommend the following apps and tools: AllTrails Pro app, Garmin inReach GPS device and the Garmin fenix watch.
- Footwear: Wear waterproof winter hiking boots and consider using crampons or microspikes depending on the conditions. If you’re snowshoeing, wear a waterproof hiking boot that can strap into the snowshoes.
- Eyewear: Even if it’s cold, the sun is still strong. In fact, snow is the most reflective natural surface on the planet. When the sun reflects off snow, it puts you at risk of snow blindness. Protect your eyes by wearing “glacier glasses” or polarized sunglasses.
- SPF and skin protectant: Cold and wind can be brutal on your skin. Prevent wind burn by moisturizing your skin and lips. Apply chapstick under your nose and over your lips.
- Trekking or snowshoe poles: Traverse the trail with more ease and stability with trekking poles. We recommend using trekking poles that have snow baskets as they will help keep you falling through deep snow.
- Gaiters: If you’re hiking in extreme weather or heavy snow, gaiters will be a friend to you. They attach to your hiking boot and extend up your calf, providing extra protection from moisture, debris and snow entering into your shoes.
- Snowshoes, crampons and microspikes: Each of these has its own purpose. We recommend taking a class to learn more about them.
Bonus Gear: a handkerchief for a runny nose + hand and foot warmers for chilly days on the trail
Winter Hiking Gear Pro Tips
- Keep technological devices inside your chest pocket as they tend to malfunction in cold temperatures. Bring back up power banks and charging cords just in case.
- Waterproof your gear! You can find waterproofing products at Nikwax
- A crampon strapped to a flexible-soled boot will not fit as securely as on a rigid-soled boot. Learn more at REI
Now that you have a solid idea of what gear you’ll need for winter hiking, let’s talk about how to stay hydrated and energized while on-trail.
WINTER HIKING HYDRATION & NUTRITION
As we’ve said, please remember to bring the Ten Essentials, which includes enough food and water for your trek. Below you’ll find some hydration and nutrition tips specific to winter hiking.
- Drink before you’re thirsty: Often you don’t realize you’re dehydrated when you’re cold. But the truth is winter hiking requires a lot of effort, and you’ll need to hydrate just as much - if not more than - you would on any other hike. Take small sips of water throughout your hike.
- Eat often: Did you know you exert more energy when winter hiking? Because you’re burning a lot of calories, you need to stay well-nourished. Choose snacks that are full of protein, carbohydrates and fats as they will help you stay energized. Eat often, and nibble as you go.
- Prevent the freeze: Use insulated drinking vessels. Keep water from freezing by carrying it close to your body. Store your water bottle upside down since ice forms at the top first. Periodically blow warm air into the tube of your water bladder. Before your hike, cut up bite sized pieces of snacks so your energy bars don’t turn into frozen bricks.
- Snack tips from the 52 Hike Challenge community: nuts, chocolate, orange and mandarin slices, granola bars, beef jerky, dried fruits, soup in a thermos.
- Gear recommendations for food and water storage: Nalgene insulated sleeve, Hydro Flask, Stanley thermos
Pro Tip: Hot drinks help you hydrate, too! Place your hot drink of choice (herbal tea, hot chocolate, you name it) in an insulated drinking vessel for a quick warm up while winter hiking.
WINTER HIKING SAFETY: BEWARE OF FROSTBITE & HYPOTHERMIA
Now that you know what to wear, bring, eat and drink while winter hiking, it’s time to cover safety in regards to frostbite and hypothermia.
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite occurs when skin tissues freeze and most commonly affects the nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes.
There are two main types of frostbite:
- Superficial Frostbite: Signs of superficial frostbite include burning, numbness, tingling, itching and cold sensations.
- Deep Frostbite: You might experience a decrease in sensation that is completely lost. Other signs of deep frostbite include swelling and blood-filled blisters that look waxy over white, yellow or purple skin.
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, according to WebMD.
Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slow or shallow breathing, confusion and memory loss, drowsiness or exhaustion, slurred or mumbled speech, loss of coordination, fumbling hands, stumbling steps and a slow pulse. In severe cases, the person may be unconscious without obvious signs of breath or pulse.
Get medical help right away if you feel you or someone in your party has symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia. "If medical care isn’t available, remove wet clothes, find protection against the wind, seek a warm, dry shelter, and rewarm the person with extra clothing and blankets or body heat if nothing else is working." - WebMD
Please note: we are not medical professionals. Seek medical care if you or your hiking partner has been exposed to either of these conditions.
WINTER HIKING SAFETY TIPS RECAP
Now that you’re aware of some of the dangers of hiking in cold weather, let’s return to ways you can stay safe on your winter hikes.
- Carry the Ten Essentials + additional winter hiking gear
- Hydrate even if you don’t think you’re thirsty
- Eat even if you don’t feel hungry
- Avoid avalanche areas and check conditions before you set out
- Check the weather: be aware of freezing temperatures and the wind chill factor
- Learn how to read a map and compass in case your technology malfunctions
Pro Tip: Please keep in mind that mountaineering is a completely different set of skills. We recommend taking a snow travel course if you want to climb snowy peaks.
EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES FOR WINTER HIKING
- For checking weather conditions: weather.gov, mountain-forecast.com
- For checking trail conditions: alltrails.com
- For checking avalanche areas: avalanche.org
- To learn winter hiking and mountaineering skills: REI.com
WINTER HIKING WITH THE 52 HIKE CHALLENGE
If you’re taking the 52 Hike Challenge, then you’ll be hiking in every season. The good news is you don’t have to go at it alone! Find local groups in your area on our website at www.52HikeChallenge.com.
New to the 52 Hike Challenge?
Sign up now and learn more at www.52HikeChallenge.com