Let me introduce you to the wonder of year-round hiking!
Growing up, hiking meant warm summer days, tank tops, and cargo shorts. After moving to a much colder climate for college (and beyond) I was forced to reassess my views on hiking and embrace the snow and ice. I bought a pair of microspikes, added a couple layers to my pack, and took up winter hiking in earnest.
I thought I'd be a natural at it. After all, I’ve been skiing for most of my life. As it turns out, knowing how to slide down on snow isn’t the same as walking up it and I learned some winter hiking lessons the hard way. From improper layering to buying cheap microspikes that broke, to getting into some some tricky situations alone at elevation – I’ve been there. And I don't want you to have to go through those same lessons. So, after 17 years of winter hiking, here are some of my tips on how to pack and prepare for your winter hike!
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Getting Started With Winter Hiking
Winter hiking is so enjoyable, but takes some extra preparation as well. Those peaks that you summited no problem in the summer are a whole different beast when covered in snow and ice. Conditions are unforgivable and there is less room for error. If you've never gone out hiking in the winter, you’ll want to choose some easier and less strenuous hikes to test out your gear and layering system. Ideally, these are hikes that you are familiar with, since navigating the trail can be more difficult in fresh snow. The key is to not be too far from the trailhead if for some reason your snowshoes aren't comfortable or you are way too cold or way too hot. Or if your water freezes.
As you have probably guessed, winter hiking takes a lot more preparation than heading out for a summer hike in the high peaks. Below are some of my best tips for making sure you are prepared for hiking in the snow and will have a good time doing so!
Plan Ahead and Prepare
The first Leave No Trace principle is to plan ahead and be prepare. And it's number one for a reason. By adequately planning your trip, you are more likely to accomplish your goals safely while leaving little impact on the land you travel. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has a full list of how to plan and prepare for your trip and I recommend that you read through the full list.
When trip planning, it is important to identify your goals, know the skill level of you and your partners, gain knowledge from maps and land managers, and choose proper equipment to bring. If I'm hiking some place that I haven't been before, I call the ranger station to check on conditions. The rangers are your friends!
Elements to consider are the weather, terrain, regulations/restrictions, private land boundaries, average hiking speed, and food consumption. Every single one of these can be different depending on the season. For example, during hunting season, you will want to be especially aware of where you are hiking and whether hunting is happening either on the land or nearby. Your average hiking speed will also be much slower in the snow than on dry, even terrain and your pack will potentially be much heavier due to the extra gear required.
Emergency Gear to Bring With You in the Winter
Phone service is often incredibly sparse in the mountains, so the first thing you’ll want is an Emergency Preparedness Kit for your car. I actually keep an emergency kit in my car year round, complete with a sleeping bag, extra food, a headlamp, extra clothing, and hats and mittens.
Hiking in the mountains is no different. I bring a lot of emergency gear so that I am prepared to spend a night or two out in the snow just in case the worst happens and I’m stuck in the cold. In addition to my standard hiking gear and the clothes I'm actually wearing, I always bring a lightweight sleeping bag, emergency bivy, extra layers, extra jacket, an extra hat, extra gloves, a full set of extra clothes in case I become wet, and a high visibility vest.
A satellite phone like a Garmin InReach is also immeasurably helpful for getting out of sticky situations where there is no phone service.
Layering for Winter Hiking
Layers are the key to regulating your body temperature while out in the mountains. You want layers that you can put on and shed quickly, because there is nothing worse than soaking in sweat and having that sweat freeze. Often winter gear will have vents, which can be all you need to cool down. Other times, you will want the ability to remove your jacket, and have it scrunch up small enough to put in your pack.
Layering is all about moisture management. It's less about keeping you warm, and more about keeping you dry. When designing your layering system, it's important to avoid cotton because cotton soaks up sweat and will make you colder. Investing in moisture-wicking fabrics will be more comfortable and keep you properly insulated. When designing your layering system, you will want a base layer, a middle layer, and an outer layer. When considering the terrain you are hiking, you also want to look out for zippers. For example, if you are scrambling, you don't want to be tripping because your jacket is flapping around you. This is where having a jacket with vents can be very useful.
A Peek Into My Winter Pack
Pictured above are some of the extras that I bring on all of my winter hiking adventures. Since taking this photo in 2019, I've upgraded my snowshoes to MSR Lightning's (never going back!). Other than that though, everything else is pretty much still the same. Not pictured are the clothes I wear on my body, which depending on the weather might be two pairs of winter leggings and rain pants, or leggings plus actual snow pants. I also always bring an extra pair of clothes and socks year-round.
1) Emergency Shelter in the Winter
Sleeping bag rated for 0 degrees Fahrenheit. This is always the first thing I pack no matter what. Luckily for you, you can get a decent sleeping bag for pretty cheap these days! A precautionary note, usually the cheaper the sleeping bag is, the heavier it is. And when hiking in the snow, the weight you carry matters.
I would also invest in a bivy for emergencies. Keep in mind that the people who get into emergency situations never planned to get in them. But being prepared for when they MIGHT happen is a key to survival. The bivy that I carry with me year round is this one, which you can get for under $25. I also love the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy because everything weighs less than one pound. And when it comes to emergency gear in the winter, I want to keep everything as light as possible since my pack is already so heavy.
2) Snow shoes. Snowshoes are required in the Adirondack high peaks for any trails with 8 inches or more of snow. If you plan on doing ascents, you will be grateful to get a pair with heel lifts to make climbing more efficient and comfortable. Don't posthole down the trail because it is both dangerous for you and the people following after you on the trail. Postholing is where your leg punches through the snow to create a deep hole in the snow. It's exhausting to hike this way and also carries a big danger of twisted ankles and scraped shins.
You can buy cheap snowshoes or spend some good money on them. Personally, I learned the hard way that I should have spent money up front (let's call it sunk cost...) I bought cheaper snowshoes a while back and quickly learned what a pain it was to hike with heavy metal attached to your feet. I recently upgraded to the MSR Lightning Ascents and am IN LOVE. They are pricey but so worth it if you are planning on hiking summits in the winter.
3) Micro spikes or crampons. For both spikes and snowshoes, I always say buy nice, so you don't buy twice. The quality of your gear matters. I've seen people hike with spikes where the chains came undone, making them useless. I personally hike with Kahtoola spikes because the quality is top notch.
"When do I use crampons and when do I use microspikes?"
It all depends on the terrain that you are traveling. Microspikes are pieces of chain with spikes and are best for flatter or less technical terrain. If you are just starting out with winter hiking, these are best for you because you likely won’t be traveling on extremely technical terrain yet. Crampons are stiff foot frames that have larger spikes. These are best for really steep, icy, technical terrain. Traditionally, crampons are designed for ice climbing.
4) Gaiters (mud-covered optional). Gaiters are a waterproof, breathable fabric that prevent the snow and mud from sneaking into your boots. Meant to keep you dry, these are especially important if you are wearing pants capable of holding moisture (like the winter leggings I usually wear). They also provide an extra layer of insulation for my lower legs.
5) Extras: I always bring my map, compass, headlamp (plus an extra headlamp), handheld flashlight, 50 feet of cord, an ace bandage, basic first aid, and hand warmers. If you don’t know how to use a map and compass for navigation, I recommend taking a class. Electronic navigation equipment can fail, while a map and compass will keep you on track when properly used.
Purchase the Adirondack Mountain Club High Peaks Trail Map HERE.
6) Extra gloves, liners, and hats. I always bring two extra hats and extra gloves. I once tripped while crossing a stream at the beginning of my hike. I was so glad to have a second pair of gloves and liners to change into so that I could stay warm and keep hiking.
7) Hiking poles. I bring these year round but they are especially important in the winter to help me maintain balance and traction. Whether you are going uphill or downhill, planting your poles will help you maintain stability and distribute the weight of your pack to ease stress on your joints. They also help you identify snowbanks and holes in the path that have become hidden. I was out hiking and breaking trail in the Adirondacks recently after a huge snowfall. Quite a few times I thought I was stepping onto something solid, only to sink a bit further than I meant to. Poles help me identify the snow depth on trail.
For more technical terrain, but terrain that doesn't quite need an ice axe, you might consider bringing a whippet. A whippet is a trekking pole with a miniature ice pick attached to the end. My favorite is the Black Diamond Whippet. This is also good for back country skiing.
8) Extra layers. I always bring an extra mid layer and two extra outer layers- one puffy and one waterproof shell. I rarely hike with my waterproof shell on my body, but I know that if I need it in an emergency, I will be grateful to have it packed. I also like my extra puffy because it rolls up into the size of my fist, so it does not take up much room or weight in my pack.
9) High visibility vest. This is another item that I actually bring with me year-round but I find more important to bring in the winter. If it is hiking season, I want to be visible. And if for some terrible reason I run into trouble and need help from rangers, I would want to be visible to them. It's another one of those items that does not weigh a lot but one I would be grateful to have if I were in trouble.
And last, but not least, I bring goggles and sometimes my snowboard helmet depending on the terrain. The goggles are key. Snow is highly reflective and can cause temporary (or permanent even) vision impairment. My helmet is very insulated, so I like to wear it on very cold days or when I am traveling in more technical terrain. That said, a helmet isn't needed if you are traveling in flatter, well-traveled areas.
Staying Hydrated and Fueled While Winter Hiking
It’s important to take frequent water and snack breaks while winter hiking. Anyone who has gone hiking with their camelback in the winter has quickly learned that water freezes in the hose making it unusable. So what to do?
For me, I have insulated water bottles to help me out. Some other tips are to use wide mouth bottles so that you can drink the melted water around the ice, put your water bottles in wool socks, and wrap your bottles in your extra gear. In addition to using insulated water bottles, I also usually wrap my bottles in the extra clothing I've packed and nest them on top of the sleeping bag. If you are overnighting in the winter, putting your water bottles at the foot of your sleeping bag will help prevent them from freezing. Dehydration expedites the onset of hypothermia, making it all the more important to stay hydrated in the winter.
As for food, I love packing an insulated thermos full of soup. It's like a hug for my insides when I get to the summit. Other treats I bring are individual chocolates (or a bar broken up into pieces), pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and loose granola with dried fruit. Winter hiking burns more calories than summer hiking, so be sure to pack lots of treats to keep you going! Granola bars, cliff bars, and other fitness bars can freeze and be quite tough to bite into, so it's best to leave those at home.
Random Tips and Things I've Learned While Winter Hiking
Your phone battery will die quickly in the cold. Either turn off your phone or put it on airplane mode and keep it close to your body for body heat. Another tip is to keep it close to an extra hand warmer.
Bring extra batteries for your headlamp, or extra headlamps. True story: I was prepping for a hike in the White Mountains and found six headlamps that I had packed away in various bags over the years. You don't need six headlamps, but I always bring an extra or two, just in case I need it or I encounter someone without a headlamp.
Snowpack can hide the trail and trail markers- especially in the high peaks where you can get 10 feet of accumulation. This makes it all the more important to be able to read a map and not rely on markers or your phone.
Daylight is shorter in the winter and it gets really cold in the dark. Plan to start early and leave plenty of time just in case towards the end of your day.
Tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back. Also make sure to give them all the local rescue numbers they may need in case something goes terribly wrong. In the Adirondacks, the emergency forest ranger dispatch number is 518-891-0235. Make sure to save the number for the forest ranger dispatch in your phone too.
Know when to quit. I've been in the mountains my whole life. But sometimes it's best to turn around. Whether it's due to a change in the weather or you just aren't feeling it, there is nothing wrong with turning around and coming back another day. The mountains will always be there, and you want to enjoy every moment.
Have a question about winter hiking or advice that I may have missed? Reach out by commenting on this post.
Now get out there and enjoy the cold!
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