Summer months are comfortable, beautiful, and comfortable to strap on the hiking boots, throw the tent in the truck, and get outside from months of cold and snow.
Fall offers people the beautiful colors, active wildlife, and a varied experience of nature.
But winter hiking may be my favorite time to get outside and explore what nature has to offer. I get it, it’s cold, more gear needs to be prepped and thought through. Often, you cannot just drive to your favorite spot, get out, and go.
But the preparation can be half of the fun. This is absolutely the hay-day of cold weather hiking gear.
Never before have you been able to easily and inexpensively purchase the gear you need to enjoy an afternoon, weekend, or extended weekend away hiking and exploring natures beauty.
For this article, I am writing under the pretenses of hiking recreationally – somewhere like a National Park where there are varying levels of difficulty of trails, well marked paths, and facilities that are established for emergencies.
So let’s get into what you need for an enjoyable hiking excursion in the cold weather. Let’s start from the ground up.
For Your Feet
Let’s get this out of the way from the start – just because it is cold does NOT mean you are not going to sweat. And that means you need to not only prepare to be warm, but you need to plan to manage your sweat and losing of water throughout your excursion.
Beginning with your feet – layering your socks is the foundation to an excellent hike (and for recovery after your hike). Sock liners, cotton, or wicking athletic socks will help keep the sweat managed around your feet to help keep them dry. After the initial layer, warm, thermal socks are a must for both warmth and cushioning (depending on the length and difficulty of your hike, additional pairs of socks in your bag could be a great idea).
Now, boots are a very personal thing. Finding a pair that fits well, is comfortable, and supports your foot is essential to having an enjoyable hike. No matter the brand or style, they do need to be insulated and I always recommend purchasing a pair that is waterproofed and then adding a layer of waterproofing to them.
Finally, depending upon the depth of the snow (mud, water, etc.) a pair of high gaiters would be a great idea (at least have them available in the car).
Layering your clothing makes body temperature regulation much easier. Base Thermal Layers have become more affordable along side becoming more effective. We have come a long way from cotton, waffled fabrics (but it is hard to deny how comfortable that long underwear was)
Most Thermal Layers now come with a rating – indicating temperature ranges that it was designed for and optimal use cases.
Keep in mind, just because we often call this layer ‘long underwear’ to keep yourself… comfortable – you are still going to want to wear some breathable, athletic design underwear to prevent any chafing or other undesirable results from extended activity.
Fleece is your best friend! Vests, Jackets, Pullovers – nothing else is going to help you regulate your body temperature than a fleece over layer. I would recommend taking several variations of fleece layers depending upon the temperature and length of the hike. A vest and a jacket. A pullover and a vest. Keep options so you can stay comfortable as the day changes.
Here you are going to want both waterproofing and wind proofing. This is your final barrier from the elements. It needs to be the walls and roof that protect you from the elements. Choose a jacket that has a hood and the ability to close down the wrists and waste to prevent wind from entering and coming into contact with your skin. You will not be happy with those little bursts of cold.
Same with your pants – be sure to select a pair that fits well around the waste – perhaps even with a belt – but that also fits snug around the ankle, so it either fits in your boot, gaiter and keeps your ankle protected by still allowing it to have optimal mobility,
Gloves and hats are a must. Just like your clothing, gloves should be layered with an inner layer of wool, fleece, or any from the list of synthetic fibers on the market today that will help keep you warm. But this layer does little against moisture and wind. An outer layer should protect from these as a mitten or glove (I prefer a mitten as the more of your extremities you can keep together, the more heat they can share).
I would also encourage you to take tinted glasses, goggles, and/or a facemask. Depending upon your location, winds could be piercing, and keeping your face protected is very important.
In my backpack
First and foremost – water – 1-3 liters of water depending on how long in the day I am hiking. Literally 3 Nalgene bottles regularly come with me (and roll around the car the rest of the time).
Here is the rest of the list of what I keep in my backpack when I hike in the winter:
- Map or GPS
- Personal first aid kit
- Fire starting materials
- Small knife
- High energy snacks
- Sun glasses and sun screen
- Lightweight bivy sack or tent body without tent poles (just in case)