Winter Hiking is Coming
The chill is in the air and the days are getting shorter. Apparently pumpkin’s are now spicing up coffee’s and soaps and all sorts of foods. The fall is amazing but it is only a prelude to its cold and dark cousin. Winter is coming but that doesn’t need to mean the end to the hiking season! Winter hiking can be an amazing experience!
Hiking in Winter
I have found that hiking in the winter is a wonderful experience. First, there are far less people around. The cold and snow, as well as other hobbies like skiing and snowbaording, keep some people away from the trails. With less people comes a bit more solitude in the outdoors. A thick blanket of snow also helps dampen the noise of the woods and creates a quiet wonderland that is unmatched.
With the benefits of hiking in winter also comes dangers. The cold weather in itself can be dangerous. Sudden storms are possible. Wind and snow can cover your tracks and the trail making navigation a challenge. The possibility of an avalanche is very real and very dangerous.
If you take the proper steps to ensure a safe trip, hiking in the winter can be a very rewarding experience. Each trip outdoors in the winter needs to be thoroughly prepped for but I wanted to share some of what I do so it might give you a starting point for your hikes.
These are my opinions and my experiences. I will mention some of the gear that I use when I do my winter hiking. I will also offer links to that gear that are affiliate links which means if you make a purchase after using one of the below links I may get a small commission with no extra cost to you.
As the Fatman, I have a bit of extra insulation that keeps me warm but I still need to dress in layers. The main layers that you want to dress in are a synthetic or wool base layer to wick sweat away from your body, an insulating layer for warmth, and a top layer to protect from the elements. Depending on the weather this could be focused on wind or rain or both. here is a look at what I usually wear on a winter hike.
On the coldest of days where it isn’t going to get above freezing I will wear a synthetic long underwear on top and bottom. Long underwear gets hard to take off it warms off so I don’t always wear it. On days that I don’t I usually start with a Kuhl Alloy 1/4 zip. The Alloy is 100% polyester and does a good job with moisture wicking. I like that the neckline is higher and it keeps the wind off of my neck.
For the insulating layer I like to wear my Kuhl Akkomplice (which can also be used a base layer), the Ryzer, or the Engineered Hoodie. Each of these products are a little heavier weight, are 100% poly and help keep me warm while maintaining a light weight and flexibility. The insulating layer is the perfect spot for that favorite fleece.
For me hiking mostly in Colorado the biggest issue I have is wind. So I prefer to focus on windbreakers for my top layer. I go with the Kuhl “The One Hoody”. The One Hoody is a windbreaker with a liner that doubles as a extra bit of insulation. The outer shell of the Hoody is 100% Nylon to block the wind while the lining is polyester. This makes it nice and warm but also protects from the aggressive winds in the mountains. It is also very lightweight. The one drawback is that it is not totally waterproof so in a warmer area you may need to focus on water proofing.
Pants are similar to the upper body clothing in that you will want to have some layers. The tricky part is that it is easier to shed a jacket or fleece than it is to take off a pair of pants. On the coldest days I start with a pair of wool or poly long underwear. Then for the top layer I usually try to find something that will protect from the wind and keep me dry. My favorite winter pants are the Kuhl Klash.
The Klash have zippered pockets so if I fall I know nothing will fall out of my pockets. They are water resistant and protect against building snow. Basically they are a mix of Nylon, poly, and Spandex so they are flexible and keep the wind off of the skin. The Klash even has a hook at the bottom to hook into the shoelaces and keep the pant tight and help keep snow out. The Klash is also a heavier weight that helps to keep me nice and warm on those cold winter days.
It is important to keep your feet warm and dry or your winter hike will become miserable real quick. Socks made with merino wool do a good job of regulating temperature and keeping your feet nice and warm. There are different thicknesses of the socks that effect the cushion and the warmth so make sure you look for the heavy or winter styles. There are a lot great sock brands out there but I mostly wear FoxRiver.
I like to layer my gloves as well as my clothes. My super secret trick on the coldest days is to wear a pair of latex medical style gloves as my base layer. The latex gloves keep the wind and cold off of your hands which is important if you take your gloves on and off for any reasons. One catch to the latex is that it will make your hands sweat a lot. You need to make sure to drink plenty of water. Also, if you do take the latex gloves off your hands will get pretty cold from any wind because they will be damp.
The next layer I like to wear is a thin pair of wool gloves. The wool helps to keep the temperature regulated and the light weight gives flexibility if you are hanging onto poles. On lighter temp days I will just go with the wool base layer gloves. Wool doesn’t protect as much from wind though so on extra windy days you will need a top layer.
On the windy or extra cold days I will also use a top layer glove that is made of leather, nylon, or another synthetic. Mittens will keep your hands warmer than gloves but gloves work if you need to use your fingers a bit more. I like to use a thick leather glove that blocks the wind and keep my hands warm on the days below freezing and lighter nylon glove that blocks the wind on the warmer days. Again, mittens can really help if your hands tend to get colder. There is also no shame in using hand warmers in your gloves and socks!
Head and Face
One of the best investments I ever bought was my Kuhl Neck Gaiter. It is basically a tube that goes over your face and is versatile enough to cover the neck, be worn as a face mask, or even on the top of your head like a head band. I use it to keep the wind off of my face. Also, because I have a beard, my breath will freeze on the whiskers so the gaiter helps protect from that. A freezing wind can chap the face and ruin a day in a hurry.
A stocking cap is also important. I prefer a tight fitting hat so that it can’t get caught up on tree limbs or branches and also steer away from having the little balls on top for the same reason. I basically make sure that the hat fits tight and covers my ears!
One thing to keep in mind is that even when it is freezing cold the sun can still be burning bright. The sun can actually hit you a couple of times. Once from the sky and once reflecting off the snow! It is so important to still wear sunscreen and stay protected even on those chilly mornings.
Sunglasses are also extremely important. I like to wear a pair that is polarized to help reduce any glare that may come from the reflection off the snow, ice, or crystals in the air. My current pair is Lido from Costa but I will also wear wrap-around glasses or goggles from Spy Optic to keep the blowing snow out of my face.
If you are going to trapsing through the snow your feet are going to get wet. Waterproof boots are the an essential! I prefer a mid to high cut boot which will help to keep to snow from sliding down the inside of your boot. I also prefer to stick with hiking boots instead of a snow boot. The snow hides a lot of rocks and tree stumps that a hiking boot can protect you from.
The boots I wear the most often in the snow are either the Kodiak Stave or Kodiak Selkirk. They do a good job of keeping the snow out and protecting my feet from stubbing my toes on any of those hidden rocks. They are also waterproof and when combined with a good pair of wool socks keep my feet nice and warm.
As the snow gets deeper, another great addition to your kit are gaiters. Gaiters cover the top of the shoes or boots and can be low around the ankles or go all the way up to the knee. The gaiters keep the snow from getting into your shoes and protect your pants from the snow. Most pairs will hook into the shoelaces to make a tight fit to seal out all of the snow and sleet.
Outdoor Research makes my favorite gaiters and they have a new version that has me really excited. I have very big calves and most of the gaiters don’t close tightly around my lower leg but OR has come up with their Crocodile Gaiters that come in a wide fit. These gaiters are made with Gore-Tex, one of the toughest waterproof fabrics around so they do a great job ant keeping the feet and legs dry and fit tightly even over freaky big calf muscles like mine.
No matter how good your boots are, there is no boot that will help you much when you start walking on ice. Or more importantly, the hidden ice that is under the snow! Micro-spikes, YakTraks, Ice cleats are some of the names and styles that are out there. I use Kahtoola Micro-spikes for my winter hiking and won’t do a trail without them.
With the spikes walking on ice can be as easy walking on dry dirt. It is really important to have good traction on winter hikes because the falls can be bad. With just boots it is easy to start to slide especially on inclines. As I mentioned before, there can be a lot of hidden rocks under the soft snow so falling is something you will want to avoid. Spikes will help on well packed trails and when the snow is light, typically only a couple of inches deep at most.
When the snow gets deep or is fresh you may have to move from spikes to snowshoes. Snowshoes will help you “float” over the softer deep snow and prevent post-holing. Post-Holing is when you fall through the snow like your leg is digging a post hole.
Snow shoes come in several styles and shapes. For those who like to break trail and get into the backcountry you may need a larger pair that gives you a little bit more surface to stay above the snow. For snow that isn’t as deep or maybe just a fresh bit of snow on a packed trail you may do better with a smaller pair.
Currently I use a pair of 22 inch MSR Lightning for my snow shoe adventures. They are small enough to be easily transported but big enough to give me some good coverage in the snow. I will say that I don’t do much trail breaking. I am more comfortable with more popular areas that usually have a trail that is at least started than going out into the back country.
Hiking through snow takes a lot of effort. It can be harder than a normal hike in the spring or fall. Because it is so cold it may not feel that you are sweating as much as you are during those hot summer days. Staying hydrated is still extremely important as you are are sweating below all of those layers!
One of my biggest surprises was that the water in my hydration tube actually froze solid on my first hike. I didn’t think about the fact that hiking below freezing would effect the water but there I was with a frozen tube that wouldn’t let any water out. One trick I have found is to put the they hydration tube inside your jacket to try to unfreeze it.
Another trick I learned from my friend Alex is to wrap regular nalgene water bottles in thick wool socks to keep the water from freezing even longer. I started doing this and keeping the bottles in my pack and helps to keep the water ready when I need it.
One of the best parts of hiking outdoors in the winter is that there are less people around. That also means that there are less people around to help. The trails that you are hoping to hike also may not be what shows up on the map. The snow can hide the trail before you get to it, and even after you have passed a spot the wind can blow snow and cover your tracks.
It is imperative to have a compass, map, and a communication device. Things can dangerous quickly in when winter hiking and having a two way satellite communicator can be very important. I use a Garmin In-Reach Mini 2 but there are other options such as a Zoleo and the Spot. Each of these divides have different features such as SOS communications, breadcrumb or GPS mapping and weather reports. Make sure to do research to find the features that are most important to keeping you safe. Hopefully you will never need to use one of these products but you don’t want to get stuck in position and not have one!
Finally, the risk of avalanche is a possibility in mountainous areas or any inclines over 30 degrees. The website Avalanche.org has a lot of good information to help you learn more about avalanche dangers. There are maps, videos, and educational sections to help keep you safe.
There are also local resources if you live in an area prone to avalanche. For me in Colorado, I use the Colorado Avalanche Information Center which has more education and information and provides local forecasts. Safety is the most important thing and information can lead to the safest decisions.
Wrapping up Winter Hiking
Hopefully these little tips that I have found over my time on the snowy trails will help you on your way to some enjoyable winter hiking. I really do love spending time on the trails in the winter and on the snow. It is a peaceful and enjoyable experience if you are prepared.
More from The Fatman
If you enjoyed this post you may enjoy more of the posts on my Fatman’s Rambling page. Blogs such as “Hiking Alone not Lonely Hiking“, “Winslow, Arizona” and “Screw it, I’m Trying” as well as many others may interest you there. If you have any comments or topics you would like me to cover, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can keep the conversation going by following me on any of the below social media platforms.