How to Prepare for a Winter Day Hike

There are many who enjoy a leisurely hike during the warm spring or summer months or during the fall foliage season, but there are far fewer who enjoy a winter hike.  For those who do venture out into the cold, you can bet on smaller crowds, a great workout and some striking scenery.   

Before you hit the trail, there are some important items to consider.  First, remember that these recommendations are for a non-technical, 2-3hr beginner’s hike.    

1.  Clothing:  I once saw a man wearing jeans and sneakers above the tree-line on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in January- not something that I would recommend.  It is probably safe to say that he had never heard the expression “cotton kills,” referring to cotton’s inability to wick moisture away from your skin and keep you warm when it gets wet.   For that reason, when choosing your base layer of clothing, try to stick to a polyester blend that is relatively form fitting.  This will help the fabric wick moisture away from your body and keep you warm, even if you get wet.

Add a second layer of fleece, wool or another polyester blend and top things off with some protection against the wind.  A strong shell jacket and ski pants will work well in most situations.  Again, stay away from cotton.

For socks, you can’t go wrong with a thin polypropylene liner followed by a wool sock.  The combination will keep your feet relatively dry and warm.  There are also those who swear by SmartWool – a synthetic fiber similar to wool but without the itch.   

A good hat and some gloves are also essential.  I’ve found that choices for gloves vary widely from person-to-person, so my best advice is to find what keeps your hands warm and go with it.  I wear a thin polyester liner with an EMS mountaineering glove over the top.  The combination has kept me warm on many winter hikes.  In extremely cold conditions, I will add a chemical hand warmer to heat things up.  Simple wool mittens will do the trick but will not protect against the wind.  For a hat, I’ve always chosen fleece with a windstopper lining.

2.  Footwear:  Footwear is another important consideration.  A leather boot such as LL Bean’s Gore-Tex Cresta Hiker will keep you dry and comfortable in most conditions and can be worn in all seasons.   Merrell and Asolo are two other companies that make several boots suitable for winter hikes.   A good Vibram sole for traction and a stiff toe to protect your feet are two features, in addition to leather, that I look for in a winter hiker. 

3.  Layering:  In winter weather conditions, layering is essential to staying warm, dry and comfortable.   You will always want to have the option to take a layer off or add a layer if you get too cold.  As a general rule, I always try to dress so that I am a little cold at the start of my winter hikes.  From there, I add or subtract layers as necessary, keeping the additional layers in my daypack.

4.  Food & Water:  Trail mix, cliff bars and candy bars have always done well for me.   Think simple and consider that you will be carrying all of your trash out.  Bring a minimum of two full 32oz Nalgene bottles with water and consider insulated sleeves for your bottles if the temperature will be below freezing.  Take a drink each time you stop to rest and bring more food and water if you are going on a longer hike.

5.  Additional Gear & Safety:  For a daypack, something around 1,000 cubic inches will meet the needs of most.  The best approach is to go to an outdoor store and try the packs on.  Purchase a pack that is comfortable and has a rugged construction with a ripstop material and adjustable shoulder and hip straps. 

I would also recommend purchasing or borrowing a pair of telescopic hiking poles with snowbaskets.  If you are not used to hiking in snow or icy conditions, the hiking poles will help you navigate any uncertain terrain and will take a great deal of pressure off of your legs on any downhill stretches.  

If trail conditions call for six or more inches of snow, consider investing in some gaiters.  Gaiters come in pairs and are usually made of gortex or some synthetic material such as nylon.  They fit over the outside of your boots and help keep the snow out of your shoes.

In windy and frigid weather conditions, consider bringing a pair of ski goggles and a balaclava for added protection from the cold.  Wearing sunglasses and sunscreen are wise precautions as the sun reflecting off of any snow can be especially strong. 

For emergency and survival gear, pack the following for your day hike:

 

  • Pocket knife
  • Emergency space blanket
  • Personal first aid kit
  • Waterproof matches and fire starter material
  • Whistle
  • Compass & area map
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Spare pair of socks

 Other important safety considerations:

 

  • Leave your itinerary with friends or family (include when you expect to be back)
  • Check local trail and weather conditions prior to hiking (significant snow may necessitate snowshoes or cross-country skis)
  • Check avalanche conditions with local ranger stations (if applicable)
  • Note time for local sunrise and sunset

Remember - longer, more difficult winter hikes will require more planning and equipment.  Whatever you choose to do, have a safe hike and enjoy the outdoors!

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