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Winter hiking essentials: gear, knowledge, and resources to help you hike the greatest season of them all
From October through April, these winter hiking essentials will keep you hiking safely and comfortably: head, hands, torso, legs, feet and tummy!
Winter Hiking Basics
Winter hiking is potentially deadly. The risks are very real. A mistake may cost you your life.
I don’t recommend anyone take up hiking in the winter. There’s a lot of knowledge and experience needed to hike safely in winter, knowledge that’s best gained in the warmer seasons.
Make sure you’re up to speed…
- A review of this website’s Wilderness Safety posts will get you started
- Always pack The 10 Essentials
- Read Winter Hiking Kit: Survive & Thrive in the Cold
- Make sure you’ve read The 3 Best Ways to Not Die on a Hike
- The DEC have a solid Winter Hiking Safety resource page
- I use a mix of darksky.net and mountain-forecast.com to get my weather intel, a crucial part of winter hike prep
More posts to review before you head out…
- Read Winter Lingo — winter trail terms explained
- Read How Windy is Too Windy to Hike?
- Read How Cold is Too Cold to Hike?
- Read It’s a Great Idea to Turn Around When…
Printable Winter Hiking Essentials Checklist
Finally, grab this Free Winter Gear Checklist. Your winter hiking essentials all in one place. It’s dialed-in for the Catskills but it’s a great jumping-off list for hiking in winter anywhere.
Warning! In winter, on a mountain, the risk of danger is hugely increased and the stakes are way higher. A lack of preparation or knowledge, or a missing piece of gear, could mean death in a very short time.
Winter Hiking Essentials: Clothing
For most people, the first problem to solve is how to stay warm and dry on a mountain when it’s well below freezing. On really cold days, my full clothing list might be:
Head & Hands
- Wool hat
- Buff / “neck gaiter”
- Gloves (when it’s not too cold)
- Mittens (when it’s super cold)
- Ski goggles for exposure above treeline, or on very windy days
- All year long, I pack two headlamps — because “two is one and one is none“
- Torso base layer (thin synthetic or wool layer to wick moisture away from skin)
- Synthetic tee shirt
- Mid-layer (e.g. a light fleece jacket)
- Puffy (technical outdoors soft-shell)
- Rain layer (thin, packable)
It’s very rare that I wear all five layers at once. I run hot, so I sometimes just use three layers: base, tee, and puffy.
But I always carry all five layers and consider them all winter hiking essentials.
- Leg base layer (thin synthetic or wool) — only on very cold days
- Winter hiking pants
- Sock liners (when very cold)
- Wool socks (always)
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Winter gaiters (whenever the snow is deeper than ankle height)
When you need to sit down for a minute, a hiking sit pad is a great addition to your pack.
Some people switch to insulated hiking boots for winter. If your extremities are sensitive to the cold, this might be a good option for you too.
I hike in my regular waterproof boots, and I feel fine.
Everybody hikes their own hike.
Winter Hiking Essentials: Traction
The second problem to solve is traction, how to stay upright in ice and snow.
I recommend three items:
- Microspikes — for when there’s any ice on the trail
- Snowshoes — for snow deeper than 6 inches
- Hiking poles with snow baskets — for added stability, especially on descents
I do not own full mountaineering crampons and, in winter, I do not hike trails that might need them. This is where good trail research — using online apps and sites and your hiking community — can save you considerable pain.
Winter Hiking Essentials: Food & Water
Winter hiking is intrinsically strenuous. You’ll be wearing more clothes and carrying more gear through tougher conditions. You’ll need to consume more calories and make sure your water doesn’t freeze.
- Foods that are calorically dense are always a good bet: nuts and bars, chocolate, jerky, Reeces Pieces (which don’t freeze solid).
- You may enjoy hot soup or tea/coffee in a thermos.
- I’ve always had good luck with my standard water reservoir because I keep the feeder tube blown clear (so it doesn’t freeze up). If the mouthpiece does freeze, I just tuck it inside my jacket, close to my body, and it thaws in a few minutes. But some people prefer to switch to Nalgene water bottles tucked in their backpacks. Experiment and decide what works best for you.
Get ready for the cold / hike safe
Order snowshoes now
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After your hike, try out a few of these 10 Post-Hike Hacks — fantastic ways to treat yourself after a big day. I hope they quickly become part of your winter hiking essentials.
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