Winter Hiking Guide: How To Safely Hike in Cold Weather

Hiking is an incredibly beneficial and healthy outdoor activity all year round. However, when winter weather starts to creep around the corner, many people feel the need to retreat indoors.

Do I blame them? No! The trails are colder. The days are shorter. The weather can be downright harsh at times. However, I’m here to let you know that the winter can be a great time for camping and hiking.

Once you learn how to properly protect yourself from cold weather, you shouldn’t be afraid to hit the trails. In fact, winter hikes are quite beneficial to your health. They can help with seasonal depression, boost vitamin D levels and improve your stamina. Plus, your body burns far more calories when hiking in the cold.

I’ve come up with a little acronym to help you prepare for your next winter hike. Just remember: COLD HIKER. This stands for:

  • Check The Weather.
  • Own All The Essential Hiking Equipment.
  • Layer Up And Dress Appropriately.
  • Don’t Overestimate Your Abilities.
  • HYDRATE!
  • Inform Someone of Your Plans.
  • Know The Signs of Hypothermia & Frostbite.
  • Eat Enough Calories and Pack The Right Foods.
  • Research The Area.

Let’s discuss each letter in detail so that you can hit the trails like a true pro.

Check The Weather

Knowing what type of weather to expect is a major part of preparing for a winter hike. The only way to do that is by checking the forecast on a trusted platform like AccuWeather or The Weather Channel. 

Analyze the hourly forecast so that you know what to expect before you set foot outdoors.

Will there be snow? What will the temperature be? How about the windchill? Is there going to be rain or hail? What’s the visibility? – These are all factors that can seriously affect your hike.

Even if the ground is clear where you are, there may be a layer of snow at higher elevations. Take that into consideration when stocking your backpack.

No matter what the forecast says, you should always be prepared for the worst weather.

Hiker standing in the wilderness with mountains in the distance.

Own All The Essential Hiking Equipment

Regardless of the temperature or time of the year, you should never embark on a hike without all of the essential equipment.

First and foremost, you need a large, waterproof backpack to keep all of your belongings safe. It should have multiple compartments to store some of the following equipment:

First Aid Kit: Hiking can be dangerous- especially in cold weather. It’s never safe to hit the backcountry without a proper first aid kit. You can either purchase a store bought kit, or make your own. Some of the main items you’ll need are bandaids, bandages, antibiotic ointment, moleskin, antiseptic wipes, gauze, lip balm and hand balm. For a more comprehensive guide on what to bring in your first aid kit, check out this article!

Flashlight/Headlamp: Days are shorter in the winter. It’s important to keep a flashlight with you in case you run out of daylight. Headlamps are great because they allow you to illuminate your path without the need to use your hands.

Hand/Foot Warmers: These are absolute musts when hiking in cold weather. They will help you to maintain circulation in your hands/feet and keep you comfortable.

Multitool: These pocket-sized contraptions combine several useful backpacking tools into one. They usually include knives, screwdrivers, can openers, corkscrews and other instruments. I never hit the trail without a quality multitool in my backpack.

Trail Apps: There are tons of apps to help you navigate and stay safe while hiking. When backpacking in cold weather, platforms like Cairn or AllTrails can save your life! You can find my detailed reviews of the 14 best hiking apps here.

Portable Charger: Your phone battery won’t last forever. Keep a portable charger with you in case your cell starts to run out of juice.

Physical Map: Cell service can’t always be trusted when hiking. I recommend printing out a physical copy of your trail map and using it as a backup.

Trekking Poles: While not everyone likes to use them, trekking poles can be especially helpful in cold weather. They’ll give you better balance and provide a more intense workout (which will increase your heart rate and make you warmer). If you’re hiking on icy terrain, putting steel or carbide tips on your trekking poles will give you extra traction.

Layer Up And Dress Appropriately

Dressing for the cold isn’t as simple as throwing on a heavy coat and calling it a day. In order to hike safely and comfortably, you should dress in 3 layers: a base layer, insulation layer and outer layer.

The base layer is what you put on first. Choose something that isn’t too thick or restrictive. It should be made from a moisture wicking material. You can choose a synthetic fabric or ethically sourced Merino wool. Avoid cotton completely because it absorbs moisture and stays damp- this can lead to hypothermia!

The insulation layer comes next. This is what traps your body heat and allows you to retain it. This layer can be a little bit thicker than your base. Go for some type of synthetic insulated jacket or polyester fleece.

Your outer layer is the shell that will ultimately protect you from the elements like wind, rain and snow. It should be made from a waterproof and lightweight fabric. Look for breathable, fast-drying rain jackets.

It’s best to wear fewer clothes toward the beginning of your hike and add layers when you begin to feel cold. If you wear too much and begin to sweat, you’ll be putting yourself at risk of hypothermia.

Save your warmest layers for when you stop moving. That’s when you’ll start to lose heat.

Always bring extra dry clothes with you in your backpack, especially if you’re expecting wet weather. Wearing wet clothes in freezing weather is another one-way ticket to hypothermia.

Also, avoid tight accessories like bracelets or rings that may cut off circulation.

Two hikers walking through a blizzard with lots of gear.

The Other Essentials

Dressing for a winter hike is more than just layering clothes. There are lots of accessories that are essential. Here are some of them:

Gloves – Choose a pair that’s lightweight with a water resistant shell. Fleece is a good material for hiking gloves. Make sure they’re not too tight, otherwise, you may restrict your circulation.

Socks Your feet contain tons of specialized blood vessels that help regulate your body’s temperature. You’ll need a good pair of moisture wicking hiking socks. They should be well-insulated, but not too thick to where your boots are tight. For extra warmth, you can wear 2 pairs or use electric heated socks.

Hat – There are millions of capillaries in your head that carry oxygen to the brain. Keep your noggin insulated with a hat that’s big enough to cover both ears. If it’s really freezing outside, you can opt for a ski mask instead.

Gaiters – These are water resistant sleeves you put over your ankles to prevent snow from entering your boots. There’s no worse feeling than walking around with slushy grossness in your shoe. A good pair of gaiters will help prevent this.

Neck Gaiters – Instead of protecting your ankles, this type of gaiter will guard your neck.

Choose The Right Footwear

When it comes to winter weather, standard hiking shoes just won’t cut it. You’ll need a pair of hiking boots that are waterproof, supported and well insulated. Choose a pair with good tread to keep you grounded.

If you’re expecting deep snow, you might need snow shoes. These will spread out your body weight to keep you from sinking.

For icy hikes, you’ll need crampons. These are basically a set of giant spikes that attach to the bottom of your shoes. They dig into the ice with every step to give you a better grip on the ground. They’re an absolute necessity for climbers.

If you’re hiking on mostly flat ground, you may want to use microspikes for traction instead. They’re a bit more lightweight and portable than crampons.

Don’t Overestimate Your Abilities

Hiking in the winter can be far more challenging than it is in warmer months. It’s important that you know your own skill level and avoid taking risks. Don’t be a victim of your own pride.

Trust your instinct. If a path seems dangerous, don’t pass it. Don’t be afraid to turn around for the sake of your own safety.

Don’t climb if you’re not prepared with the proper equipment.

If you can- bring an experienced friend with you. It’s always good to have a seasoned hiker by your side as a guide.

HYDRATE!

Hiking is a physical activity, regardless of the temperature. Your body needs to be fully hydrated in order to perform properly. Dehydration can exacerbate hypothermia, so load up on electrolytes.

Drink lots of water in the 12 hours leading up to your hike and bring plenty with you for the trip. 

You can also put hot water into an insulated thermos to keep it from freezing. Keep it close to your body while hiking.

Take sips with every break you take. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty- that means that you’re already dehydrated.

If your bottle is in your backpack, turn it upside down. This will prevent the lid from getting stuck if the water freezes.

You also have the option of using a hydration bladder during your hike. If you do, make sure you blow all excess water out of the tube after each sip. If you don’t, it may freeze, rendering your hydration bladder unusable.

Three hikers walking with trekking poles side by side in the snow.

Inform Someone of Your Plans

Before you hit the trail, it’s vital that someone at home knows of your plans. This way, if you don’t return on time, someone will be able to take immediate action.

Tell a trusted friend or family member about where you’re going, how long you’ll take and what time you plan on getting back. If you have cell service, give them updates during your hike.

You can also use the Cairn App to help you stay safe on the trail. This platform allows you to share your location and hiking stats with your contacts in real time. If you do happen to injure yourself or become stranded, it’ll be easy for others to find you.

Know The Signs of Hypothermia & Frostbite

Hypothermia and frostbite are perhaps the 2 biggest threats to your health when hiking in cold weather. Both of these medical conditions can be extremely serious, so it’s vital that you’re able to recognize all the symptoms.

Hypothermia happens when your body begins losing heat at a higher rate than it is producing heat. It sets in once your body’s temperature dips below 95 F (35 C). This may cause your organs and nervous system to shut down in severe cases.

Look out for these common signs:

  • Excessive shaking/shivering.
  • Confusion.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Clumsiness.
  • Low heart rate.

How To Treat Hypothermia

When someone starts to exhibit signs of hypothermia, you need to do your best to raise their body temperature immediately. Gently move the person to the warmest place you can find (hopefully, inside a building or a car). Cover them with blankets or any type of garment that you have handy.

Any wet clothes need to be removed from the person immediately. Let them drink warm beverages and monitor their heart rate. Don’t use warm compresses or apply high heat directly to their skin as you may burn them.

Most importantly, seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.

For more detailed info on how to treat hypothermia, click here.

Frostbite is another potentially serious condition caused by exposure to the cold. It occurs when the skin and underlying tissues become frozen. It’s most likely to occur when skin is exposed to freezing temperatures or winds.

There are 3 stages of frostbite. These are frostnip, superficial frostbite and deep frostbite (in order from least to most severe).

Keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

  • Numbness.
  • Discolored skin (usually red but can also be shades of blue, gray, yellow purple or brown).
  • Hard and waxy skin.
  • Tingling sensation.
  • Difficulty moving joints or muscles.

How To Treat Frostbite

Once you suspect that you or a friend has frostbite, try your best to quickly protect the affected area from the cold. Remove any wet clothing and give the person a pain reliever if they need it. Keep an eye on the affected area to see if it returns to its normal color.

If the condition doesn’t seem to be improving, you’ll need to seek medical attention. For more information on frostbite, click here.

Eat Enough Calories & Pack The Right Food

Before you hit the trail, make sure you eat a nice hearty meal. Your body needs nutrients and calories to use as fuel. Hiking on an empty stomach is never a good idea, especially in cold weather.

If you want to eat during your hike, bring small, high calorie snacks like granola bars. The longer you stop to eat something, the colder you’ll get.

You can also bring some soup or hot chocolate in an insulated thermos. This will serve as a nice warm treat in the middle of your frigid hike.

Research The Area

Hiking blindly is never a good idea. Do your homework and research the trail before you even leave your house.

Hiking trails usually contain far more obstacles in the winter. These can range from fallen trees to icy paths to untraversable sections of trail. A climb that was easy in the spring may be a treacherous death trap in the winter. Check out online forums for updated information and talk to local park rangers if you can.

Also, snow and ice can make trail markers difficult to find. Study your map before hiking and check it consistently during your trek.

When hiking in the winter, you also need to beware of avalanches. These devastating natural disasters kill about 27 people each year in the U.S. alone. 

Know the risk of an avalanche in your area. You can visit Avalanche.org for more information on the topic.

Hiker moving through the trees in the winter.

Commonly Overlooked Factors When Hiking In The Winter

Now that we’ve covered all the basics, let’s discuss some key pieces of information that many hikers forget about.

Winter Days Are Shorter

In the winter, you have less hours of sunlight. You need to take this into consideration when planning a hike.

Plan to hit the trail early and give yourself lots of time to get back before the sun sets. Even if you expect to return before nightfall, you should always pack a flashlight or headlamp just in case. 

Remember that winter hikes usually take longer than they do in the summer because of limited visibility, covered trails, difficult terrain and other factors.

Sunscreen & Sunglasses Are Still Important

Even if it’s overcast, windy and freezing out, there’s still a sun up in the sky. While it’s less harsh than the summer months, sunburn is still a possibility in the winter.

Also, when the sun reflects off of snow, it can be blindingly bright. Keep a good pair of sport sunglasses with you to protect your eyes.

Electronics Are Sensitive To The Cold

When your electronic gadgets are exposed to the cold for too long, they may stop working. Keep your electronics close to your body or inside a well-insulated bag so that they stay warm.

You may also want to bring some spare batteries as backup.

Tips For Camping in Winter Weather

Camping in cold weather presents a whole new set of challenges. It requires lots of planning and coordination.

Choosing the right tent is the first step. You’ll need to find a well insulated, dome-shaped shelter with strong tent poles. Also, look for a storage vestibule. You can click here to read more on how to choose a tent for cold weather.

Choosing the right location to set up camp is important as well. Try to steer clear of open fields- that’s where you’ll get lots of cold wind. You should also avoid camping near bodies of water.

Plan for minimal entrances/exits from your tent. The more you go in and out of your shelter, the more cold air you’ll let inside. Do everything that you need to do before entering. Secure the tent stakes and guylines. Attach your rainfly. Go to the bathroom if you need to. Take off all of your wet clothes and then you can enter your tent.

Invest in a tent heater or tent stove. When temperatures are low, you’ll need all the help you can get. A quality tent heater can warm up your shelter in minutes. You can also use a wood-burning tent stove to generate heat, but you need to make sure it’s compatible with your tent.

The Bottom Line:

The cold is not for everyone. When temperatures are below freezing, it can be hard to even leave your home. However, if you can handle the freeze, a brisk winter hike can be an awesome experience.

Once you understand the potential dangers of cold weather hiking and know the ways to avoid them, you’re ready for some winter backpacking.

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