Kit List: Winter Hiking Gear

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Winter Hiking Gear: hat, gloves, ice axe

Marmot Hat, Black Diamond Ice Axe, Deerskin Mitts

Winter mountain hiking in the Catskills is spectacular — the snow-blasted woods, the bleached landscape views, the harsh elements that test your mettle — but the days are shorter, the nights are longer, and the temperature is lethal. The stakes are way higher: a lack of preparation or a missing piece of kit could mean death in a very short time. This winter hiking gear list will help keep you warm and safe.

The gear in this list is additional to my basic mountain hiking kit list. It’s also dialed-in for hiking the Catskills, where there are no long exposed hikes above the tree line. It does not cover everything needed to hike, for example, in the Adirondacks, where the winter environment is even harsher. As always, do your research, and experiment with gear combinations to find what works best for you.

“What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day?”
— Thoreau

Temperature Control

Far more than at any other time of year, moisture of any kind on your body is a serious problem in winter. Your number one goal is to regulate your core temperature so that you’re warm without ever being sweaty. Across the US apx 1300 people die every year from hypothermia. One of the first symptoms of hypothermia is fuzzy thinking, a potentially deadly problem for anyone on a mountain in winter.

Start your hike feeling cold, colder than you might like. After 15-20 minutes of hiking, you’ll be warmed up enough to know how many layers you want to engage. If you’re getting too hot, stop and decide which layer to take off and pack.

With experience you’ll learn how to stack your layers against the current conditions. I run pretty hot so my goal for this season is to learn to slow down and cool off, so I never get too hot in the first place.

Winter Hiking Gear: Legs & Feet

The task for your winter clothing is to move moisture away from your skin while trapping lots of warm air next to it. Materials should be light but breathable: wool or synthetics. Zero cotton. Zero denim. On any part of your body. Zero.

  • Under Armor base layer — when it gets below -5°C (23°F) I add this layer.
  • Thicker hiking pants — I have a thinner version of these for the three seasons. I switch to these thicker ones once there’s snow on the hills.
  • Liner socks — I just started testing these. I think they make a big difference.
  • Smart wool socks — I rotate two pairs of wool socks, keeping one set in my backpack as a spare.
  • Gaiters — An absolute must have if you don’t want to be miserable.
  • Waterproof Hiking Boots (Merrell Moab FST 2) — These are not my favorite boots ever, but they’re inexpensive and perform very well. Popular brand names include: Solomons, Vasques, Oboz, Scarpa. Some people like extra warm hiking boots for the snow, but I’ve never had an issue with cold feet in my regular boots.

Winter Hiking Gear: Torso

Last season, for my winter hikes, I wore a thick ski jacket. It kept me warm but it didn’t breathe, so it trapped moisture. As soon as I stopped moving, the cold started creeping in around my torso. This season, I’m experimenting with a 5-layer system that allows me to regulate my temperature to a very fine degree.

  1. Long sleeve base layer — I have a Capilene Lightweight Long Underwear Crew Top from Patagonia which I love (it feels silky and helps keep me dry) but, sadly, it’s no longer available. However, searching Patagonia or REI for base layer tops will yield dozens of similar products for around $50.
  2. Synthetic wicking tee — a thicker wicking layer above my base layer.
  3. Columbia mid-layer jacket — a little thicker and warmer, but still breathable, and zippered; also has pockets. Some prefer a polar fleece layer here.
  4. LL Bean PrimaLoft Packaway Jacket — this thing is ridiculous, crazy light and super warm, I love it. It’s so well made. There are a lot of products to consider in the outer shell category.
  5. Waterproof/rain layer — I have a packable waterproof rain jacket from Uniqlo, very thin and light, and it has a hood (which is handy for hiking under snow-laden overhanging trees, keeps the snow from getting in around my neck).

Winter Hiking Gear: Upper Extremities

  • Buff/Neck-Gaiter — I can’t recommend neck/face gaiters enough. They’re just fantastic.
  • Sunglasses — it’s bright out there, lots of UV bouncing around.
  • Marmot Hat — this hat is light but plenty warm, and it doesn’t make my head feel itchy. It also covers my ears, which is crucial.
  • Mittens — the ADK Winter School folk have a saying: “Gloves are optional. Mittens are mandatory.”
  • Spare Gloves
  • Chapstick

Mandatory Winter Hiking Gear

The two pieces of winter hiking gear you absolutely must have in the Catskills are trail crampons (a.k.a. microspikes) and snow shoes. Your Yaktrax will definitely not do.

Trail Crampons

I tried a pair of cheap, imported microspikes from Amazon. They broke on my first hike up Blackhead in the fall. I learned I didn’t want to cut any corners on traction, switched to Hillsound Trail Crampons, and haven’t looked back since. I chose Hillsounds over Kahtoolas because I liked the base plate and Hillsound’s spikes are a little longer and more aggressive. Lately, I’m seeing complaints about Kahtoola using cheaper materials, resulting in higher failure rates. YMMV.

Snow Shoes

The two hot brands right now are MSRs and Tubbs. Those two companies get, by far, the most recommendations from Catskill hikers online.

I have a pair of MSR Evo Trail Snowshoes. I was able to pick them up for a great price because they’re not the latest and greatest MSRs. But they’re fantastic. I know people love their MSR Lightning Ascents but I’ve had no issues with these Evo’s. They make snow-shoeing a dream.

Hardcore Winter Hiking Gear

Crampons?

I do not yet own full/12-point crampons and I have zero mountaineering skill or knowledge. All I know is that descents are always riskier than ascents, doubly so in winter. There are several places in the Catskills where crampons may be advisable. A partial list would include:

  • The west side of Sugarloaf a.k.a. “Suicide Mountain” in winter;
  • The west side of Twin (one of the toughest trail sections in the park);
  • Both the east and west sides of Plateau;
  • The very steep route up and down Hunter via Becker Hollow;
  • The very sketchy section northeast of Blackhead’s summit;
  • The north side of Wittenberg.

Ice Axe?

There is some snobbery attached to carrying an ice-axe in the Catskills. Many people feel it’s overkill for this part of the world. But if you’ve ever seen someone chip out toe-holds in Cornell Crack, you’ll see the sense in taking one along for the ride. There are several heavily ice-encrusted outcroppings and inclines in The Cats where I can see an axe being a big help. I own this ice axe from Black Diamond, and this is my first season using it.

If you decide to buy one, read up on how to buy the correct size, how to self-arrest, and how to carry it safely — they’re dangerous tools to even carry, never mind use.

Balaclava?

I don’t have one, and I don’t hike on super nasty days, but sure, why not? Feel good!

Goggles?

Generally not required for the Catskills because all the summits are treed-in. But maybe on those super nasty days…

PLB/SPOT?

Totally a personal choice. Currently, I don’t carry either but I’m thinking about a SPOT for some extra security feels on winter solo hikes.

Other Winter Hiking Gear

  • Shortie Pad — the last two sections of a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite are so much better for sitting on than your butt.
  • Hand warmers / toe warmers — I carry hand warmers as part of my basic kit, but have never had to use them.
  • Power Brick & Lightning Cable — because the really cold days can kill your phone battery quickly.
  • Extra batteries — for your headlamp and DSLR camera, carried on body.

Food & Energy in the Winter

In cold weather, you burn a good deal more calories. You’re also carrying a lot more gear over tougher terrain. There will be hunger! Pack some extra high-calorie quick-energy foods.

Top Tip: Snickers will freeze quickly but Reese’s Pieces Cups stay soft forever.

Winter Hiking Water & Hydration

So far, I’ve had good luck with my reservoir/drinking tube. I keep it blown clear and it hasn’t yet frozen up. But it’s right at the edge. I may switch to a pair of wide-mouth Nalgene water bottles, with some insulation.

I also sometimes pack a thermos of hot coffee.

Top Tip: store any water bottles upside down so ice forms away from the mouth.

Extra Safety Precautions for Winter Hikes

  • Carry your phone close to your body. Your smartphone is rated to perform above freezing, and should not exposed to sub-freezing temps for more than short periods of time.
  • Plan to arrive back at the parking area one hour before sunset.
  • Prepare for the worst. Over-prepare. In 2010, experienced hiker Seth Lyons fell victim to worsening weather and died on Blackhead Mountain. The forecast changed after he’d left on his hike. We have better comms now, but always plan bail routes, and stay in touch with your people off the mountain.
  • Set an itinerary and stick to it. Let your contact know all details, timings, and be in touch.
  • Stack the odds in your favor, not against your survival. To more experienced hikers, my tolerance for risk may seem low. To others, the fact I’m hiking a mountain solo in January is proof I’ve lost my mind. I’m noob and I know it. I will stack the odds in my favor until I gain experience.
  • Keep an eye on friends: The folks at REI say, “A good hiking partner keeps an eye on their buddies. Regularly ask your friends how they’re doing and if you see pale spots on your friend’s face or they’re starting to get clumsy on the trail, make them stop and cover up exposed skin or add a warm insulating layer.”

Further Reading on Winter Hiking Gear

For a much deeper dive into winter mountain hiking kits, the ADK Winter Mountaineering School’s Student Handbook on this page. Their equipment list is a deeply informative read.

 

The winter hiking gear in this list is additional to a basic mountain hiking kit which should always include The Ten Essentials and the correct emergency number!

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